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Mexicans Mourn Death Of Pop Icon Juan Gabriel

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mexico is in mourning. Juan Gabriel, the country's most prolific popular singer, songwriter of the past four decades, died yesterday. He was 66. Last night television broadcasts abandoned regular programming for tributes and specials, and radio stations are still playing continuously from the hundreds of heartbreaking ballads and love songs that he penned. From Mexico City, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on the outpouring from Juan Gabriel's fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI MUSIC)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On word of Juan Gabriel's death, crowds gathered for hours in Mexico City's famed Garibaldi Plaza where mariachi bands line up to play for pesos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Applauding and singing in unison as a light rain fell, the crowd huddled around the huge statue of Juan Gabriel in full mariachi gear. Several elderly women cried, and tears were shed by a group of young men and 55-year-old Pablo Prado.

PABLO PRADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It was his way, his style of composing a song that inspires us all," says Prado.

JAVIER ARACEN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There isn't a person who says they're Mexican that doesn't know at least five Juan Gabriel songs by heart," says 23-year-old Javier Aracen, standing with his arms around two young male friends. Juan Gabriel's songs united everyone, they said - rich or poor, old or young, straight or gay.

Aracen says while Juan Gabriel never openly declared his homosexuality, it was an open secret and accepted by all Mexicans. He says there was no better example of this than in his own family, with his grandfather who never hid his anti-gay hostilities.

ARACEN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Juan Gabriel was his idol," says Aracen. "He would use all sorts of terrible words for gays, but Juan Gabriel was different to him. He went to his concerts and knew all his songs," he says.

Juan Gabriel grew up in the border city of Juarez where his mother worked as a servant. Unable to care for him, she placed him in an orphanage where he lived for most of his childhood until escaping to Mexico City and his ultimate discovery and rapid stardom. Hundreds of fans gathered at Juan Gabriel's home in Juarez throughout the night.

RUBEN MARTINEZ: I think Juan Gabriel was the bard of the border.

KAHN: Ruben Martinez is a social commentator and literature professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

MARTINEZ: He stood literally on the divide between so many different communities.

KAHN: Generational and gender lines as well as straddling music genres, too, says Martinez. While best known for his heart-wrenching love ballads, Juan Gabriel switched it up lately. He covered a Creedence Clearwater Revival favorite and collaborated with the Kumbia Kings on a modern twist of his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," "I Have No Money."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO TENGO DINERO")

JUAN GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Politicians, including President Obama, dignitaries and artists filled social media with condolences and remembrances today. And Mexico's secretary of culture offered up the country's grand Palace of Fine Art for a public viewing of Juan Gabriel, pending approval of his family.

Despite all the accolades, riches and fame, Juan Gabriel liked to say his biggest reward was to hear his fans sing his songs. He would have loved the group farewell at Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.