La Brega

2. “El Gran Varón” — Who Was Simón?

Gabby Rivera was 7 or 8 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: the lyrics describe how a character referred to as Simón, depicted as a queer person who appears dressed as a woman, 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 — it’s considered by many to be one of the most well-known salsas 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 doblao’, 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 Today, that phrasing is heard as outdated and even hateful — and indeed, the song has been rejected by some LGBTQ+ listeners. Still, the song resonated with Gabby — she remembers taking solace in the lyrics and in her father’s tender explanation of their meaning. 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.”

Learn more about the voices in this episode:• Omar Alfanno, songwriter and musician• Ophelia Pastrana, Youtuber based in Mexico City• José Massó, host of WBUR’s Con Salsa• Read Gabby Rivera’s essay about what “El Gran Varón” means to her

Our cover of “El Gran Varón” is by the artist Ana Macho (out this March).

Listen to our Spotify playlist, featuring music from this episode – and this season. We’ll keep adding to it each week as new episodes come out.

Special thanks this week to Khalila Chaar-Perez, Ophelia Pastrana, Carmen Alfanno, and Natalia Algarin. Fact checking this season is by Istra Pacheco and Maria Soledad.