On November 20, 2016, Telemundo broadcast the finale of Hasta Que Te Conocí (Until I Met You), a 13-episode Sunday night series about Mexican singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel, who died two weeks before the first episode aired. Developed for Disney Media Distribution Latin America by US-based Venezuelan producers, the highly-rated series premiered on TNT Latin America and finished airing on Mexico’s TV Azteca the day the singer died. Juan Gabriel (1950 -2016) was a symbol of Mexican identity, a border figure and gay icon with pan-Latino appeal. His biographical series, filmed in Mexico by different Mexican directors with an Argentine showrunner, exemplifies efforts to attract audiences with series instead of telenovelas (close-end soap operas with daily episodes playing over months), the flagships of prime-time programming at Latino networks.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I became familiar with Juan Gabriel’s image from his appearances in television shows. The colorful outfits and high-energy mannerisms in his performances symbolized a long-lasting gay stereotype: the flaming queen. Yet, the closest Juan Gabriel came to “coming out” was answering “Lo que se ve no se pregunta” (You don’t ask what you see) during a 2002 Univision interview. Given the changes in LGBTQ rights and visibility, I was curious about how the series depicted one of the most famous (see-through) closet cases in Latin pop.
Despite the newer format, Juan Gabriel’s depiction in the series remains stuck in the past, suggesting to me different modes of queer nostalgia. Textually, there is the (purportedly) queer protagonist’s longing for his mother. Born Alberto Aguilera Valadez, Juan Gabriel was supposedly named after Alberto Limonta, the orphan protagonist of El derecho de nacer (The Right to Be Born), a Cuban radio series often remade as telenovela. Like that story, Hasta Que Te Conocí privileges the separation and reunion of mother and son over the customary heterosexual coupling. The series opens and ends by connecting Juan Gabriel’s queer performance style (recreating a famous 1990 concert at Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts) with the longing for his mother, whose life is suited to telenovela-style visual representation, including her loss of virginity (featuring her son’s singing as soundtrack). Following his death, there was also the nostalgia for the performer, whose sexuality the series depicted through allusions: feminine gestures, flirtatious looks, gay acquaintances. However, Telemundo’s gossip shows concurrently offered a counter-narrative to the series, with posthumous revelations adding complexity to the Juan Gabriel story.