Juan Gabriel's 'Amor Eterno' Takes On New Meaning After El Paso Shooting

In 1984, renowned Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel wrote a ballad that would become the most-played song at memorials and funerals in his home country. It's called "Amor Eterno" or "Love Eternal." But in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Tex. this past weekend that resulted in the death of 22 people, Gabriel's ballad has taken on new poignancy.

"I think that you know when a community takes it up it's because it just resonates with them," professor, artist and activist Martha Gonzalez says. "As soon as you hear that first line ... everybody knows what you're talking about. Everybody knows what this song is and people will start crying before they even hear the lyrics."

Gonzalez, who teaches Chicano Studios at Scripps College and performs in the band Quetzal, describes Gabriel as "the most prominent singer, songwriter, composer that the 20th century has ever seen" and explains that the heartbreaking lyrics of "Amor Eterno" were inspired by the loss of his mother.

"How I wish that you still lived that your precious eyes had never closed so that I could see them eternal love unforgettable." Gabriel sings.

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The song really describes the way in which the person living sees himself or herself in the mirror and the kind of aging process that has happened as a result of the loss," Gonzalez explains. "He's really describing depression."

"Amor Eterno" has been played and sung many times at vigils and memorials in El Paso since last week's attack — in some cases spontaneously. Gonzalez cites that la canción ranchera as a genre has always been used to express "our grief and our joys and our triumphs."

"To me it's a way in which the community is not only sonically taking up space as the Mexicanos that we are and making ourselves present in our grief and singing collectively the song that resonates with so many people," she says. "And, in my opinion, it's not just an act of grief but also an act of protest and saying that, 'We're here and we're not going anywhere.'"

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In 1984, renowned Mexican singer and songwriter Juan Gabriel wrote a ballad, a ballad that would become the most played song at memorials and funerals in his home country. It's called "Amor Eterno" or "Love Eternal."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

JUAN GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: During this past week, this song has taken on new poignancy in El Paso. Joining us to talk about "Amor Eterno" is artist and activist Martha Gonzalez. She is an associate professor of Chicano studies at Scripps College. She's also the lead singer of the alternative rock band Quetzal. Welcome.

MARTHA GONZALEZ: Hi. How you doing, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm OK. Juan Gabriel is a legend in Mexico. His funeral just a few years ago was attended by millions. Can you tell us a little bit about who he was?

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Juan Gabriel is really the most prominent singer, songwriter, composer that the 20th century has ever seen, and Mexico gave him to us. And he's lived at the intersection. You know, he was an effeminate man born very poor in Paracuaro, Michoacan, but his mother moved to Ciudad Juarez later in life. And he was even homeless and orphaned for a while. And then he was the youngest of 10 kids. I mean, there were so many things that he endured, and I think that we hear that in his music. And the loss of his mother, actually, is what drove him to write "Amor Eterno."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did it become a song used at funerals?

GONZALEZ: Well, I think that, you know, when a community takes it up, it's because it just resonates with them, you know? As soon as you hear that first line, you know, (vocalizing) everybody knows what you're talking about. Everybody knows what this song is, and people will start crying before they even hear the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

GABRIEL: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about these lyrics - how I wish that you still lived, that your precious eyes had never closed, so that I could see them, eternal love unforgettable.

GONZALEZ: The song really describes the way in which the person living sees himself or herself in the mirror and the kind of aging process that has happened as a result of the loss and how it takes a toll on the body and the spirit. He's really describing depression because there's a moment in the song where he says I'd rather be asleep than awake because it just hurts so badly to know that you're not here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then the words at the end, (speaking Spanish), sooner or later, I will be with you. It's that idea of being reunited with a loved one after death. You know, it's a comforting thought for so many people.

GONZALEZ: It really is, you know, and I think that is why he's so adored is that he always, although he takes you to the very mournful process and the feelings of lost love or actual death, he always leaves you with a sense of hope in the end.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This song has been played and sung many times at vigils and memorials in El Paso since last week's attack, in some cases, spontaneously. Let's listen to one version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been your reaction to hearing that song played in what is now the deadliest attack targeting Latinos in modern American history?

GONZALEZ: Well, to me, it's another example of how communities come together via song, right? And la cancion ranchera as a genre has been something that has always expressed our grief and our joys and our triumphs. To me, it's a way in which the community is not only sonically taking up space as the Mexicanos that we are and making ourselves present in our grief and singing collectively this song that resonates with so many people and it's an act of - in my opinion, it's not just an act of grief but also an act of protest and saying that we're here and we're not going anywhere.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Martha Gonzalez is an associate professor of Chicano studies at Scripps College. She's also the lead singer of the alternative rock band Quetzal. Thank you very much.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMOR ETERNO")

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