Gabby Rivera was 7 years old when Willie Colón released “El Gran Varón” in 1989. She remembers her father playing it while she sat in the backseat of their white minivan in the Bronx. The cinematic arc of the song would stick with her: Simón, depicted as a trans queer person, is shunned by their father, Don Andres, and dies alone of a disease assumed to be AIDS.
“El Gran Varón” was initially banned by some radio stations but became a hit anyway, topping charts in ten countries — it’s considered by many to be one of the most well-known Latin songs of all time. Songwriter Omar Alfanno explains that the song was actually inspired by a rumor about a real-life friend. Only years later did he realize that his lyrics contained an eerie prophecy.
The song’s chorus also includes an old saying: “Palo que nace doblado, jamás su tronco endereza” / “Nature cannot be corrected, a tree that grows up crooked cannot ever be straightened.” Today, that phrasing is heard as outdated – and indeed, the song has been rejected by some LGBTQ+ listeners. Still, the song and Simón’s story resonated with Gabby — she remembers taking solace in the lyrics even as she hid her queer identity from her parents. When Gabby came out as a teenager, her father Charlie embraced her, and she credits that song: “Simón died alone so I didn’t have to.”
For this week’s Latino USA we’re bringing you an episode from the newly released podcast series from WNYC Studios and our very own Futuro Studios: “La Brega, The Puerto Rican Experience in 8 Songs.”
Puedes escuchar la versión en español de El gran varón — ¿quién era Simón? aquí:
Illustration by Mya Pagán.
The second season of the critically-acclaimed podcast “La Brega” explores the culture, history, and spirit of the archipelago and its people through music. The eight-episode series is reported and recorded in dual language English and Spanish format. This season of “La Brega” was made possible by the Mellon Foundation. Read and listen more about it at futurostudios.org.