Mexican malehood has been in crisis mode for decades now. Time was when the country urged its young hombres to live by the moral code of the charro, the virile archetype of honor, courage, a sombrero and a fabulous mustache. Like Zapata, he's the brown knight on horseback, defender of Mexicans from invaders and all evil while doing so with dignity: machismo at its most chivalric.
The charro is the manifestation of mexicanidad that the country broadcast to the world for decades via song and film, but it now has as much relevancy to modern-day Mexicans as Tom Mix has to gabachos. Because over the past two decades, a far more sinister national avatar has emerged: The narco, the person for whom honor is only found at the tip of a cuerno de chivo, who pledges loyalty not to the Virgin of Guadalupe and country, but to cartels and ultraviolence. Whereas the narco's ancestor, the bandito, was ostracized in popular culture, the narco is now hero, a reflection of Mexico's chaos and an aspirational figure now that the charros have gone the way of El Tri's chances of winning the World Cup.
But keeping the charro flame alive is Pepe Aguilar. For here is a man who is of Mexican royalty: Son of ranchera superstars Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre, the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans of Mexico known as much for their wholesome image as for their music, films and road shows. "My father and I shared respect for tradition, but not just the musical ones," he's quoted as saying in the program notes for his residency at the Segerstrom this weekend. "Also the traditions of family, of history, of certain forms and ways of being that we find indispensable."
Who speaks like that anymore? But that's exactly what Mexican men need right now: a reset of their testosterone by looking back to the ideals of the charro and subsequently marching toward the future to make Mexico great again. And Aguilar is the perfect chingón to lead the charge.
Pepe was born in San Antonio in 1968, while his parents were on tour. He joined the Aguilar family business—a fabulous espectáculo of mariachi and banda sinaloense, singing, dancing horses, rope tricks, and more—almost as soon as he could mount a pony. The familia traveled the world, from Madison Square Garden to Mexico and beyond, and my family would see the Aguilars perform almost annually at the Anaheim Convention Center during the 1980s—during one show, my mom once told me, Pepe's brother, Antonio Jr., was so overcome with nerves that he began to cry.
But like all American-born children of Mexican immigrants, Pepe wanted to do more than just follow in his father's boot steps. He started a New Wave band called Equs during the 1980s that sounded as if they were auditioning to sneak onto a John Hughes soundtrack. Even then, the teen's strong, vulnerable croon cut through the synths and drum machines—a promise of his talent.
A trio of tamborazo albums in the early 1990s that called back to his papi's legendary recordings during the 1970s signaled Pepe's return to regional Mexican music. But he cemented his status as a ranchera icon in his own right in 1992 at just 24 with the song "Recuérdame Bonito" ("Remember Me Nicely"), a farewell lament written by Joan Sebastian. The weeper showcased his spectacular voice, a mestizaje of ranchera's Mount Rushmore: strong like Javier Solís, silky like Pedro Infante, wrapping around heartbreak like José Alfredo Jiménez, and as humble as his Pop's. Six years later, Pepe followed up with the even-bigger track "Por Mujeres Como Tu" ("For Women Like You"), a saddle confessional of hurt and pain that, if any guy sings to his girl, results in an instantaneous choni melting.
The two songs are now staples of all mariachis, and Pepe's legacy is set with them. But if the eternal struggle of a Mexican man is that of borders—modernity and the past, the U.S. and Mexico, the rural and urban, violence and peace—Pepe's career has always sought to blast them and urge others to do the same. His most recent album, the just-released No Lo Había Dicho (I Hadn't Said It), is an audacious mix of vallenato, pop, banda, and ranchera that lands more often than not. Pepe has made forays into everything from shoes to songwriting for rock en español chanteuse Julieta Venegas to even sponsoring a food truck. In his 2014 MTV Unplugged effort, he teamed with Saúl Hernández of Caifanes for a moody, yet puro pinche pari version of the latter's "Viento." And not taking his celebrity status lightly, Pepe has spoken out against Donald Trump and boycotted the Latin Grammys for years for the sham ceremony's continued ignorance of Mexican regional music—among Mexican celebrities, only Los Tigres del Norte does politics better.
Yet perhaps the greatest performance Pepe ever gave, and telling of his salvational potential, happened with that institution of moneyed, gabacho Orange County: the USC Marching Band. In 2014, the USC Latino Alumni Association hosted Aguilar—dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a black 'SC letterman's jacket—for an evening of music and conversation that concluded with the Spirit of Troy marching on stage with him, sunglasses and smirks and all. "I was a little skeptic[al] when we did the rehearsal," he cracked in front of the crowd, "but you guys sound like the real thing, man! I'm going to take you guys to Sinaloa!"
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The band then launched into "Un Puño de Tierra" ("A Fistful of Dirt"), a rip-roaring existential boast immortalized by Antonio Aguilar. Pepe somehow got a bunch of millennials to nail every trombone jaunt, every tuba boast, every thundering drumbeat. "Let's give joy to joy," Pepe sang to the screams of Trojan Nation, summing up his career. "Life ends quickly."
Scholarly, Mexican, American, happy, proud: Someone make Pepe president of Mexico—hell, make him the next president of here. If all Mexican men emulated Pepe, we'd Reconquista the U.S. once and for all.
Pepe Aguilar performs at Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.scfta.org. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $69. All ages.