How Vicente Fernández Earned Appreciation for Rancheros Like My Dad

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Vicente Fernández performs onstage during the 20th annual Latin GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for LARAS)

I first remember seeing Vicente Fernández perform on the Mexican television show Siempre en Domingo, when I was a kid growing up in Eastern Washington. Fernández, who died on Dec. 12 at 81 years old, would amble across the stage in his charro outfit, backed by an expansive ensemble of mariachi musicians also decked out in charro gear. 

Like many Mexican Americans, I often heard Fernández’s music on the radio, in the car and at seemingly every party. He provided a soundtrack for our lives. But seeing him on screen was different. He wasn’t just a singer—he was the consummate Mexican ranchero. He was proud. He was dashingly galante in his traje de charro. In movies, he depicted valiant outlaws and cowboys. His dense mustache and stern facial expressions spoke volumes. And he seemed just as comfortable crooning to sold out-arenas as he was tending to stables on his ranch. 

What I loved about Fernández was his true-life “rancho to riches” story, in which he never left el rancho even as he rose to become one of the world’s most famous and successful musicians. He embraced his upbringing on a farm and even glamorized it when he turned his rancho near Guadalajara into a tourist attraction complete with a performance venue and restaurant. He was beloved across the globe in not just Spanish-speaking countries, but also places like Romania, where mariachi music has a cult following.

That’s pretty remarkable for a ranchero, a class label similar to “hillbilly” that was widely seen as backward, low class and pitiable. Looking down on rancheros wasn’t just tolerated, it was expected. When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, asking someone if they were born on a ranch was a common way to denigrate someone for being shy, rude or socially awkward. Even in my household, my parents remarked about how their love transcended social barriers. My father came from el Rancho Colorado, a small settlement outside of Huejuquilla el Alto, Jalisco, the town where my mother grew up. People still ask my mom how she, an educated teacher, ended up marrying a ranchero like my dad and moving to the United States for him. Crossing class lines, especially during my parents’ generation, was considered taboo.  

The author (front left) and her family pose for a portrait circa 1986. (Blanca Torres)

My parents were of similar age to Fernández—my father a decade older, and my mom born the same year as him, 1940. Like my dad, Fernández grew up poor on a ranch and eventually left to find better economic opportunities. My parents eloped in 1974 while my mother was on vacation in California visiting one of my aunts. I knew from an early age that my parents were not like other kids’. First of all, my parents married later in life. My father was 50 and my mom was 40 when I was born. My dad had gray hair for the whole time I knew him—he died when I was 15.

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My father ended up living most of his life in the United States, but his style remained very much rooted in the ranchero aesthetic: polyester slacks, shiny belt buckle, Western-style button-down shirts with embroidery and snap buttons, leather cowboy boots and, of course, a cowboy hat. He sported casual ones for doing yard work; a Stetson with its own special box in the closet was reserved for special occasions. As far as footwear, my father basically wore either huaraches, work boots or cowboy boots. He wasn’t the type to wear a sneaker. I never saw my dad wear a sports coat or a tie. That just wasn’t his look. 

A typical outfit for the author's father, Jesús Torres, in the 1970s. (Blanca Torres)

There were times in my childhood when I longed for my parents to be, you know, more cool—which I realize is a common sentiment. But looking back, I also realize that I understood my dad’s style as his way of maintaining some sense of authenticity. He, like millions of other Mexicans, moved to the United States where they encountered a mainstream that wanted their labor, but not their culture or style. For him to continue wearing ranchero clothes was a way to say, “I’m in a new country, but I won’t lose who I am.” For me, seeing superstars like Vicente Fernández, norteño singer Ramón Ayala and ranchero royalty Antonio Aguilar don similar styles helped me understand my father’s influences—the rancho and love for one’s homeland even if you feel compelled to leave it. 

The coverage of Fernández’s death last Sunday has zoomed in on his ranchero persona. The Washington Post hailed him as the “cowboy king” of Mexico, which some people of Mexican descent found demeaning, offensive and callous. (The Post later changed the headline.) When I brought this up to my husband, he replied, “Why is that offensive? He was a cowboy.” He did represent more than a just a cowboy to millions of people, but I do find it remarkable that someone who identified so deeply as a cowboy ended up becoming a global superstar with more than 70 million records sold.

Classism is still alive and well in Mexico, but Fernández’s success validated rancheros’ importance in Mexican culture. Younger generations have taken his aesthetics and musical influence and used it to challenge the machismo associated with Fernández by rejecting elements such as sexism and toxic masculinity. Fernández paved the way for the generations of artists that followed, including Christian Nodal, Nora González (the self-proclaimed Charra Millennial), female mariachi group Flor de Toloache and La Doña, who are now redefining traditions. 

Band Flor de Toloache arrives for the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Valerie Macon/ AFP via Getty Images)

My father’s go-to dress up outfit was a tan-colored charro suit similar to the suits Vicente Fernández always wore, minus all the shiny buttons on the sides of the legs and arms. My father’s version, tailor made for him during one of our vacations to Mexico, had the same slim pants and waist length jacket with western style toggle buttons on the chest pockets and sharp angled collar. 

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When it came time to pick out my father’s burial clothes, the choice was simple: the tan charro suit. I remember how difficult it was to bring the suit to the funeral home on a hanger and hand it over to the mortician as if I was letting go of an important piece of my father. But it was also perfect to know he would forever don clothes that were regal, classy and unapologetically ranchero—just like Vicente.