By Sarah Bennett
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Stereotype Mexican men for a minute. Go ahead—I won't be offended. Here, I'll even help: a charro on horseback serenading a señorita. Or a valiente blazing away with a gun in each hand, oozing machismo like blood from a wounded fighting cock. And the mustache—can't forget the mustache!
This is how Mexican men have been stereotyped in the United States for more than a century. But it's not necessarily a hated caricature. Latino activists stateside despise these representations more than the Taco Bell Chihuahua, but in Mexico, these clichéd traits are not only accepted but also revered as being the trademarks of a macho—a real man. In fact, if a Mexican man doesn't have or at least want even one of these attributes, other men automatically suspect that he might be a little swishy. And the Mexican men—like me—who don't fit this narrow conception of masculinity can thank Vicente Fernández for a lifetime of penis envy.
Chente (as he's universally known to his fans) has made hypermachismo an ideal that all hombres must vainly strive for, and it has made him one of the most influential people in Mexican sexual history. He has spent a career crafting himself into el más macho macho—the manliest man on Earth. In such films as Jalisco Nunca Pierde (Jalisco Never Loses) and El Tahur (The Gambler), he played men so testosto-rific that women got pregnant just by looking at his bushy eyebrows. His acting talents never amounted to much, though, so Fernández shifted his gender-defining energies toward a recording career—and a dazzling stage show that starts with a bottle of tequila and takes off from there.
He began his career in the early 1960s, a time when Mexico was desperate for its next ranchera superstar. Fernández—dubbed the heir to the legacy of martyred icons Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Javier Solís as soon as he touched that microphone—tried to match these unfair comparisons with disastrous results. Sadly, his talents were vastly inferior, and it wasn't until Fernández found his macho niche that he went from middling singer to sexual idol.
Chente's catalog covers every facet of the Mexican male psyche: the existential loner ("El Rey," the king), the jingoistic blowhard ("Como México No Hay Dos," there's no other like Mexico), the fiercely proud ranchero ("El Tapatío," the man from Jalisco) and the inebriated gambler ("Hoy Platiqué Con Mi Gallo," today I talked with my rooster), just for starters. And though these kinds of categories are standards in Mexican music, Fernández infused his tunes with such a sense of drunken obstinacy that he made the genre his own, all the way from Santa Ana, California, to Santa Ana, El Salvador. (Fernández is very popular in Central America.) And the man even carved out one other aspect of musical manhood that's uniquely his, one that's saved him from true feminist wrath: the blubbering wuss.
Psychologists have observed that overcompensation on one part of the psyche leads to unconscious manifestations of the other in a concept known as reaction formation. In songs such as "¿De Qué Manera Te Olvido?" ("What Way Can I Forget You?") and "Volver, Volver" ("Return, Return," the torch song for all wusses), Fernández consciously obliterates his macho persona, revealing the hypocrisy of machismo. These songs graphically detail how an ingrata destroyed Chente, but he'd still take her back in an instant—he needs a woman to live. It's not your everyday sad; it's bawling-on-your-knees, take-me-back-please sad. Fernández made this once-scorned sentiment into the ultimate proof of balls—you're not a real man if you can't cry.
Somehow, Fernández's almost-operatic larynx has withstood old age, even if the rest of him has not. (My father told me cameras were forbidden at his last concert at the Pond, lest they capture a seriously overweight and graying Chente.) But the man could be 500 pounds of pure lard and still be considered the greatest macho Mexico ever produced. His songs will forever permeate the Mexican subconscious, defining what a real man should be. And he'll make my life a living hell.