Mexican town honors musical legend

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No major celebration in Mexico, whether a wedding or anniversary, birthday or graduation, is complete without a boisterous eight to 10-member mariachi band belting out a few traditional ranchero songs as guests sing along.

While it's an unlikely place for a celebration, the municipal graveyard in Dolores Hidalgo, a small town in central Mexico's Guanajuato state, is the very place people see a group of mariachis making music.

The "undisputed king" of ranchero music, singer-songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez, is buried here, and on any given day, a local or visiting mariachi band serenades his gravesite to the delight of the Mexican and international fans who have come to pay their respects.

Born in 1926 into a relatively well to do family in Dolores Hidalgo that fell on hard times following the death of his father, Jimenez struggled as a young boy. He barely completed elementary school and didn't study music or learn to play an instrument, but went on to become a musical legend, beloved in Mexico and abroad for his melodic tunes and moving lyrics of love and rejection.

Visiting the Jimenez museum and mausoleum are among the top 10 things to do in Dolores, at No. 3 and No. 8, respectively, according to travel planning website TripAdvisor.

"You have to go!" a user identified as Leslie G wrote of visiting the tomb in September. "I loved it. It gave me goosebumps... it's one of those moments that reminds you of the pride in being Mexican."

That pride is keenly felt in his hometown: his music wafts out of restaurants and shops decorated with paintings of the singer -- who was twice declared to be Dolores' official favorite son -- his childhood home has been preserved and turned into a museum, and his mausoleum is a monument to both the man and the musical genre he helped to popularize.

Dwarfing all the other graves, the outsize tomb is built of thousands of colorful mosaic tiles to resemble the striped Mexican sarape, or wrap, Jimenez typically wore over his shoulder during his performances. Etched into the tiles are the names of some of his biggest hits. A giant sombrero, or wide-brimmed Mexican hat, rises over one end, above this immortal lyric from one of his many songs, "Life isn't worth a thing."

That line is typical of the kind of rousing lyrics Jimenez masterfully composed, mainly about falling in love and being spurned, in songs such as "Ella" ("Her"), "Extraname" ("Miss Me"), "Cuando lloran los hombre" ("When Men Cry"), "Yo debi enamorarme de tu madre" ("I Should Have Fallen in Love With Your Mother") and the mariachi anthem "El rey" ("The King") about a man being king of his castle, no matter what his socioeconomic status.

Here's a sample lyric: "With or without money/I always do what I want/And my word is the law/I have no throne or queen/Nor anyone to understand me/But I am still the king."

The Jose Alfredo Jimenez Museum in downtown Dolores Hidalgo is a great place to soak up local atmosphere and learn about the alcohol-fueled life of the singer, whose knack for expressing the deepest sentiments of the Mexican male psyche earned him the nickname the "People's Poet."

"He renewed the ranchero genre with songs...that exalt the archetype of the womanizing, hard-drinking, handsome charro (Mexican cowboy), always in love and always unrequited," the museum says in a brief biography.

Jimenez died of cirrhosis on Nov. 23, 1973 at the age of 47, and each year the town marks the anniversary of his death with a festival that sees throngs gather at his mausoleum to sing well into the night. This year's festival runs from Nov. 22 to 27 and is expected to draw some 10,000 people.

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