North Long Beach mariachi musician Rodrigo Rodriguez was performing at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Corona for a Virgin of Guadalupe gathering when he received the shocking news that legendary mariachi singer Vicente Fernández died early Sunday morning.
The news spread quickly across the world and now, Fernández and his memory will live on as musicians like Rodrigo, of Mariachi Romanza, perform his songs. Multi-Grammy-winning Fernández was known globally for performing mariachi songs, a traditional genre of Mexican music. He was 81.
Rodrigo, originally from Mexico City, said he actually didn’t grow up listening to “Chente” as Fernández was called by fans. His musical career began with ballads, and when he switched to mariachi, Chente’s songs would become some of the most requested from his clients.
Even non-Spanish speakers, he said, asked for his songs, even if they didn’t know the names of them.
From private birthday performances to funerals to anniversaries, even divorces, song requests for Chente “never fail.”
“Practically 99% of what we play at gigs, someone will say, ‘Play one of Vicente,’” Rodrigo said in Spanish.
In Mexican culture, similar to the United States, a composer of a song doesn’t become popular, the singer does. Often, even cover songs, if done well and uniquely, can make a singer famous.
Nowadays, many of the versions of songs that mariachi groups play are those of Chente, said Elias Rodriguez (no relation to Rodrigo), who’s part of an informal mariachi group at Cal State Long Beach and a musician for Los Angeles-based Mariachi Quinto Sol.
“From his earlier stuff to his latest stuff, it’s very musical, it’s very catchy, very energetic,” Elias said. His family from Guadalajara, the capital city of the Mexican state of Jalisico, play in a mariachi group and have performed for Chente, he added.
Robert Diaz, owner and director of Mariachi Quinto Sol, was also born in Jalisco and he said he’s listened to Chente’s songs since he was a baby. Diaz was shocked upon hearing of Fernández’s death and didn’t believe it at first, referencing past fake news of the singer’s supposed death.
But when the news of his death finally sunk in, “I just couldn’t believe it,” Diaz said.
“Every party, every gathering… he’s a big, big part of Hispanic and Mexican culture,” Diaz said. “But as a musician, of course, he’s even greater because a lot of the music that we play, a lot of that is based on what he created … He’s probably every mariachi’s biggest influence out there for sure.”
While he’s unsure of the dates, Diaz said that local communities are planning events to honor the life of Fernández.
On Sunday, Rodrigo and his mariachi group left the church in Corona to another gig at Zamora Bros., a meat market in Los Angeles. There, they played a popular birthday song, “Las Mañanitas,” for the Virgin of Guadalupe. “And later, they already started asking for (other) Vicente songs,” Rodrigo said.
“Nobody’s gonna be able to fill up this hole, but I don’t feel like anybody really needs to because he did what he did and he’s gonna be continued to be listened to,” Elias said. “His music is gonna be played for the next 200-300 years.”