Chicago’s Latino community mourns the death of Mexican cultural icon Vicente Fernández

Vicente Fernandez throws his head back as he sings
Vicente Fernandez performs at a free concert during Valentine's Day in Mexico City's on Feb. 14, 2009. Claudio Cruz / Associated Press
Vicente Fernandez throws his head back as he sings
Vicente Fernandez performs at a free concert during Valentine's Day in Mexico City's on Feb. 14, 2009. Claudio Cruz / Associated Press

Chicago’s Latino community mourns the death of Mexican cultural icon Vicente Fernández

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On Sunday night, a group of strangers drinking in the back of a liquor store inside one of Pilsen’s oldest bars, El Trébol, burst into a song when the jukebox started playing Vicente Fernández’s classic, “Aca entre nos.”

“Allá en mi triste soledad,” they sang on Chicago’s South Side and continued to raise their voices. This dramatic song about heartbreak can bring stoic men to tears. “Me han dado ganas de gritar. Salir corriendo y preguntar. Qué es lo que ha sido de tu vida.”

Chente, as he was known by his fans, died on Sunday morning. He was 81.

Fernández had a special connection to Chicago, because the Windy City was the first U.S. city he toured nearly four decades ago. He performed here nearly every year until he retired in 2012. That same year, he received the keys to the city, and a section of West 26th Street in Little Village was renamed Vicente Fernandez Avenue.

Back in Pilsen, Marcelino Delgado sat at the bar drinking beer with his friend, Cesar, who didn’t want to give his last name. They reminisced over how his concerts lasted for hours, as Chente drank tequila and vowed not to stop singing as long as fans kept applauding.

They sang passionately: “Aca entre nos. Quiero que sepas la verdad. No te he dejado de adorar. Alla en mi triste soledad. Me han dado ganas de gritar. Salir corriendo y preguntar. Que es lo que ha sido de tu vida.”

Delgado was born and raised in Chicago. But his parents are from Guerrero, Mexico. That meant Fernández’s music became the soundtrack of his life.

“It just reminds you of the happy, the bad, the sad,” he said. “His music was always there.”

Chente’s music helped many connect to their Mexican identity beyond the country’s borders. On one hand, he embodied the patriarchal view of manhood sometimes expressed in Mexican culture. He wore an impeccable charro suit, hat and boots. A thick black mustache adorned his face.

But Chente also pushed subtle boundaries by allowing men to be vulnerable and talk about their feelings — especially after drinking Tequila.

“He taught men how to be OK with loving, period,” Cesar said. “I mean, the songs he sang, “El hombre que más te ama,” was an oath to his son; “Mi viejo,” an oath to his father.”

Fernández was criticized multiple times for homophobic and sexist remarks. In 2019, the singer said in a TV interview that he refused a liver transplant and implied it was out of concern the doner might be “homosexual or an addict.” And, earlier this year, a photo of him groping a fan went viral.

But many of his fans overlooked those incidents, in part, because he connected with his audience in a deep way.

In 2012, during the unveiling of the street named after him, hundreds of Chicagoans waited in the rain, hoping to see the man who went from singing for tips in Mexico to selling out the biggest venues in Chicago.

Gisela Orozco was the entertainment editor for Hoy, the Spanish language newspaper, before it closed. She covered his last concert and the street naming ceremony.

“We have to do it big. This is Chente,” she said about planning coverage. “This is not just any singer, this is el Rey. This is going to be the last concert.”

Orozco remembers the coverage fondly, even joking about how the elected officials wanted to rename a part of 26th Street to Vicente Fernández Way.

“When they sent the press release and I saw that it was going to be “way” I was like no way,” she laughs, noting the word “way” sounds similar to a Spanish word that’s also an insult.

The day the street was unveiled she remembers how Fernández connected to his audience.

“The majority of the Mexican immigrants come from the ranchos, the little pueblos,” Orozco said of the Mexican immigrants currently living in Chicago.

And that’s why when Fernández started singing “El hijo del pueblo,” the audience erupted singing and cheering.

“I may not have money,” he sang to immigrants in Chicago’s Little Village community. “But I have a lot of heart.”

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.