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Agustin Gurza, former Times columnist and influential critic of Latin American music, has died at the age of 73

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Former Los Angeles Times columnist Agustin Gurza, a former record store owner who became a seminal chronicler of Latino life in Southern California and one of the country’s leading critics and historians of Spanish-language music, has died.

According to his 19-year-old wife, Rosie Caballero Gurza, Gurza died Saturday morning after suffering a heart attack. He was 73.

Gurza was a UC Berkeley graduate in his 20s when he joined the office of then LA Times music editor Robert Hilburn in 1976 looking for a job as a news reporter. Hilburn didn’t need a reporter, but he was desperate for someone to write reviews. He told him to pick a record and write 100 words.

“But I’ve never written a review,” Gurza said.

“But you care about music. That’s all that matters,” Hilburn recalls.

Gurza provided reviews for a band called the Salsoul Orchestra and dozens of others over the next few years, launching a far-reaching career of columns, books, and reviews. They showcased his deeply captivating writing style, which left readers floating along with his beauty, humor, and sometimes bitingly critical prose. The writing style was elegant but direct, resolutely unpretentious and always imbued with Gurza’s encyclopedic knowledge of music and his passion for social justice, community and family.

In the decades that followed, Gurza became an Orange County columnist, first for the Orange County Register, then for the Orange County edition of the Times. He was one of Orange County’s first Latino columnists and inspired a generation of young Latino journalists.

“For me, Agustin was someone who embodied the joy of life itself,” said Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, who was in college when he began reading Gurza’s column. Arellano recalls thinking, “This is a guy who knows his music, loves his music, but also loves it ambience To be Latino, of pride.” Gurza, he said, knew that “what he reported was a proud thing and that the whole world should know.”

In 2001, Gurza was back with The Times writing about the explosion of Latin music. He portrayed music stars like Shakira, Ricky Martin and Daddy Yankee and quickly became one of the most influential critics in the country. He was an ardent traditionalist whose tastes were shaped by the boleros and corridos of his youth, but he also embraced the more modern, rock and rap-infused Latin music genres. Although he championed many artists, many were not spared the wrath of his critics, including the music stars who became his friends.

Ruben Blades, the salsa music legend and Hollywood actor, was one of them. Gurza considered him one of the most important songwriters in the history of Latin American popular music, but did not hesitate to criticize some of his works. The two men, both known for their roaring expressions of impassioned opinions, often clashed over dinner and a glass of whiskey, so much so that Blades mentioned “Gurza” in his 1984 song.Desapariciones.”

Es un buen muchacho (He’s a good guy)

A veces es terco cuando opina (He’s kind of stubborn about his opinions)

Years later, Gurza flew to Panama to interview Blades, who had been appointed the country’s tourism minister. Gurza couldn’t help but deliver what appeared to be a good-natured punch back at his old friend.

Blades can be funny, generous and charming, an engaging storyteller who enlivens anecdotes with hilarious imitations. But he can also be stubborn…

Gurza was born in the Mexican state of Coahuilla but moved to San Jose as a toddler. His father was a music-loving doctor, his mother a piano-playing housewife. Gurza’s almost obsessive passion for music was evident from an early age when he would accompany his father to music stores to comb through stacks of records, said Gurza’s brother, Dr. Edward “Lalo” Gurza, a retired internist from Chicago.

“My dad would spend hours in record stores going through every single closet, which drove my mom crazy. Agustin had exactly the same habits,” Ed Gurza said in an interview.

After graduating from UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 1974, Gurza moved to Los Angeles and opened a record store in East Los Angeles. He felt right at home in the cluttered room, wall to wall filled with recordings. He eventually closed the shop, but his record store decor aesthetic lived on. Wherever he went, he filled his living rooms, offices and garages with thousands of vinyl records, from his rock favorites like Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Latin music legends like Puerto Rican band El Gran Combo and Celia Cruz.

Although his primary passion was music, Gurza worked as a columnist in Orange County in the mid-1990s, at a time when the experiences of Latinos in the area were underreported. He fought to save murals, gave a voice to immigrant mothers, took on politicians, and in a 1999 column that appears prescient today, he expressed weariness at Orange County’s heated political battles over immigration. “We reach temporary standoffs, but minds don’t change, hearts don’t open,” he wrote.

“He was a lone voice in the wilderness for years,” Arellano said. “He defended us in a place where we needed a lot of defense.”

Arellano himself was criticized by Gurza, who believed Arellano’s popular Ask a Mexican column perpetuated stereotypes, with Gurza calling him the “Paris Hilton of Latino journalism.” But Arellano said Gurza’s overarching commitment to the Latino experience goes beyond any personal rivalry.

Though his lyrics were often overloaded with harsh commentary, Gurza was a charming and fun-loving storyteller who could disarm his harshest critics with his constant smile, hair-raising laugh, and deep repertoire of salsa dance moves, which he was fond of demonstrating in nightclubs across Los Angeles .

Gurza’s return to music composition in 2001 coincided with a resurgence in Latin music across the country. He covered the Flash and the controversies, but also wrote about little-known regional styles, such as Son Jarocho from the Mexican state of Veracruz, to make them relatable and understandable for readers.

“I sort of admired that [Gurza]. He was one of the few Latino writers in the entire United States who was considered a major influencer,” Blades said in an interview. “I could always count on him to provide a perspective that would always help us understand the issue better.”

After taking over from The Times in 2008, another musical adventure awaited him. UCLA had taken possession of the world’s largest archive of recorded Spanish-language music and needed someone to write about it. The archive, called the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of the Arhoolie Foundation, had 90,000 recordings at the time, many of them by Mexican artists.

“I swear he listened to every song,” said Chon Noriega, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. Noriega asked Gurza to write a 100-page book; Gurza delivered award-winning 234-page book and continued to write about the collection in a to blog. The lyrics are a storytelling marvel as Gurza’s extensive research illuminates the stories of the places, personalities and stories behind the songs. Gurza has imbued many of the writings with memories of his childhood and loving portraits of family members.

His recent posts have focused on recordings of boleros, Latin American aching love songs that have been among his favorites. Always a purist, he lamented how some had had their souls drained from the clutter of overproduction, likening it to how he felt famed rock producer Phil Spector smothered some of the Beatles’ songs with his wall of sound.

When he was a kid, Gurza recalls, his brothers and sisters made fun of him for liking traditional music, which they thought was corny. But Gurza’s love of the ballads only deepened with time. His 2002 wedding, he said, included a bolero, “Somos Novios‘, Gurza notes, was one of the most covered Spanish-language songs of all time after it was translated into English and retitled ‘It’s Impossible’.

“The bolero, like love itself, is eternal,” wrote Gurza.

Gurza is survived by his wife Rosie; sons Miguel, 40, and Andres Agustin Gurza, 19; brothers dr Eduardo Gurza, Guillermo Gurza, Roberto Gurza and Alejandro Gurza; and sisters Mary Esther Gurza Fowler, Guadalupe Gurza Witherow and Patricia Gurza Dully.

https://www.latimes.com/obituaries/story/2022-01-14/agustin-gurza-a-former-times-columnist-and-influential-latin-music-critic-dies-at-73 Agustin Gurza, former Times columnist and influential critic of Latin American music, has died at the age of 73

Caroline Bleakley

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