For Mexican American families like mine, the music of Vicente Fernández was the soundtrack of our lives. At gatherings from birthdays to funerals, and every casual get together and backyard barbecue in between, Fernández’s voice was just as essential to as the food on the table. In that way, he was part of our families. 

Fernández, known to his fans as “Chente,” died on December 12 at the age of 81, months after he sustained a spinal injury in a fall on his ranch in Jalisco, Mexico. News of his death soon sparked millions of loving tributes from fans of all generations worldwide, and Netflix has picked up a series about his life.

The filmmakers will have a lot to work with. Fernández was a self-taught musician hell-bent on becoming a star. Born to a rancher and a homemaker just outside of Guadalajara, he left school in the fifth grade to help his family raise cattle. He got his start performing around town and eventually on the local radio before getting his big break following the death of ranchera superstar Javier Solís in 1966. 

After the massive success of his seventies hit, “Volver, Volver,” Fernández spent much of the next five decades growing his legacy. He performed all over the world, starred in nearly thirty films, and constantly churned out music, for which he would earn three Grammy awards, eight Latin Grammys, and a host of other accolades that earned him a reputation as the king of ranchera music. And while Fernández didn’t write his songs, he delivered them with such emotion that they became his. 

Always dressed in the traditional traje de charro (“charro suit”) of mariachis, Chente put on legendary marathon performances that would sometimes last three or four hours. Through it all, his signature tenor voice never faltered, as he sang about heartbreak, longing, betrayal, and his love for Mexico. For many, Chente embodied what it meant to be Mexican. He gave Mexican Americans a sense of macho pride, but through his music, he also gave us permission to be vulnerable, to cry over lost love or a longing for home. 

To celebrate his legacy and the impact of his music, Texas Monthly spoke with musicians, educators, and fans across the state about what Chente meant to them and our culture. 

These interviews were lightly edited for length and clarity.

George Strait
Country music legend
Chente, in my opinion, was one of the greatest singers of all time. Sadly, I never got to go to one of his shows but had friends that did and they all raved about how great they were. I’ve watched the live video he made years ago—I think in ’08—many, many times and am totally captivated each time by his stage presence, band, and amazing vocals. I always thought I had a pretty strong voice, but his was so strong he could take the mic away and still be heard by everyone there. Having grown up in South Texas, I was exposed to mariachi music my whole life and nobody could come close to Vicente. I learned the song “El Rey” (which he is) from his recording. I wish I could’ve met him and sung it with him one time. I will miss the thought of that happening. Maybe, I pray, another time and another place. His music and his memory will be held in the highest regard forever and ever. What a man!

Veronique Medrano
Tejano and conjunto artist
If you think of the staples in a Mexican home, it’s the San Marcos cobija [blanket] and Vicente. His music has always been a big part of my life. I remember not only listening to CDs of his with my grandma, but also on the weekends watching his films. For me as a Tejano artist, I have so many of his songs in my sets. It was something that inspired me—seeing a Mexicano who very clearly knows who he is embracing his culture in such a way that he became an international star. He was truly the inspiration for many of us who want to cross borders with our talent and with our music. And for somebody who is predominantly a Spanish-language artist to affect people like George Strait, as well as people within his genre—it says a lot about the man himself. We all aspire to have a career like his because he affected cinema, he affected music, but he was still of the people. 

Little Joe Hernández 
Tejano legend, leader of Little Joe y la Familia 
I first met Vicente in Mexico City at the Teatro Blanquita where José Alfredo Jiménez was performing. Later on, when he started touring the States, I worked with him a couple of times in California, Houston, and Dallas. He went on to become such a superstar, but when I won my first Grammy, he reached out and congratulated me. It’s really sad to lose a friend, but he was also such an important entertainer and movie star for Mexican culture. I respected his talent—his ability to make the songs come alive. It brings pride and recognition to our culture.  He represented what la cultura Mexicana is all about, what mariachi music is all about. He’ll be missed, but his legacy will live on. Heaven gained another star. 

Patricia Vonne
He was the music and voice of Mexico. Like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett all rolled up into one. His command of the stage—the way he performed was just off the Richter scale, and that’s not easy to do. I mean, to really carry your performance on your voice. He spoke to the people in joy and sorrow and really connected with them. What a profound loss. 

Juan Ortiz
Mariachi educator 
Vicente Fernández was able to evolve. That’s why he lasted as long as he did. He started implementing a small orchestra and keyboards in his concerts. He had a full drum kit. He realized that mariachi and ranchera music had to evolve. Because of his willingness and his bravado, he impacted everyone. He made it possible for mariachi music to be in the church, in backyards, even in the White House. He was at the right place at the right time and he maximized it. We as musicians and mariachis are very indebted to him. 

Anthony Medrano
Mariachi USA director 
In the mid-nineties, everybody knew who Vicente was. He was the king. My mom adored him. My father thought of him as “Macho Vicente.” [Mariachi Campanas de America] was invited to perform at a ranch outside of San Antonio and the word was that Chente might be there. We got there early and weren’t sure we were at the right place. No one was there and nothing was set up. There was a ranch hand toward the back of the property, so we drove in and walked toward them to see if they knew anything. As we approached, we realized it was Vicente Fernández. We were face to face with Chente and he told us to make ourselves at home. For three years straight, every time he had a celebration, he would invite us over. We were even allowed to bring our families, so I took my mom to meet her boyfriend. I’ll never forget that I got to know Chente. He defined us as Mexicans. His voice gave us strength. He’s just iconic.

Rachel Yvonne Cruz
Assistant professor of Mexican American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio
I don’t ever remember not knowing Vicente Fernández. He was like a member of the family. He provided Mexican Americans with a connection to home. When you heard his voice, it took you back to the homeland. It’s interesting because a lot of the songs he sang were written by other people. He was an interpreter of those songs, but he was an incredible interpreter of ranchera. He brought life to the lyrics. My mom asked me the other day, “Knowing that he had been with his wife since he was penniless, I wonder who broke his heart?” Because every time you hear him sing, you relive your memories, your hurt, your love. I think that’s why he was Mexico’s idol. He was a strong enough artist that he could take our deepest desires, our passions, and our pain, and he could get up on stage for the world to see and release them. 

Cynthia Muñoz 
Producer of Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza, the longest-running mariachi music festival in Texas 
Vicente had a tremendous impact on mariachi music. His songs are essential to every major mariachi concert I’ve been to. His recordings set the standard. They were what every mariachi group wanted to play and they’ve influenced probably every mariachi performance for the past few decades, whether it was a formal concert or even a casual party, for the past few decades. He was also always helping other artists. He presented them as opening acts. I’ve produced one of the largest mariachi music festivals in the world for twenty-seven years. A couple of the acts that Vicente Fernández presented in his concerts were acts that I ended up including in my concert simply because he gave them his stamp of approval. He didn’t have to do that, but he wanted to bring other artists up with him.