Gilberto Vázquez Valle, a longtime Twin Cities radio host on KFAI, guided listeners on Thursday nights through folk songs of Latin America. He saw folk music as a way to connect to the roots of a culture or a country and became adept at finding traditional and ancient songs from around the hemisphere.
"He became some kind of anthropologist of hidden music," said his brother, Rodrigo Vázquez. "He would go to what was real, finding the real Mexico, Peru, Cuba, all the way from the Rio Grande to the Patagonia. He was an encyclopedia."
Vázquez, a chemical engineer by trade, died May 23 at age 63 of an aneurysm.
He was born in small town in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, the third of six children. His father was never formally educated, but made sure his children would be, Rodrigo Vázquez said.
The family moved to Guadalajara when Vázquez was 14. It was there he heard two radio stations: one from the University of Guadalajara that played folk music and another that played classical music. He was transfixed by both.
He described attending his first concert to American Public Media and hearing songs from Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. "It was exactly at that moment," he said, "I discovered the full meaning of the phrase from the Mexican poet Luis Rius … 'One cannot live as if beauty didn't exist.' "
Vázquez went to college at the University of Guadalajara, which had connections with the University of Minnesota. He came to the U for graduate school in the early 1980s, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He lived in Minneapolis for the rest of his life, working primarily for the U and, later, UnitedHealthcare, as a researcher and chemical engineer.
He never married or had children, but was surrounded by friends. He is survived by siblings Mayela of Germany, and Arturo, Carmen, Hilda and Rodrigo Vázquez of Mexico.
He had an unassuming, gentle soul that attracted people wherever he went, Rodrigo Vázquez said.
"He could talk to the pope and to someone begging in the street with equal aplomb," Rodrigo Vázquez said. "He was a wonderful storyteller, who had the gift of embellishing stories and leaving people in stitches."
He not only loved opera and high art, but comic books and El Santo, the masked wrestler who became something of a folk hero and starred in dozens of low-budget movies.
In 2013, Vázquez and a friend held an event at the Northern Spark art festival in the Twin Cities, putting up a green screen and handing out Mexican wrestling masks, encouraging people to create an alter ego and pose. He called himself El Santo de los Pobres, the saint of the poor.
He never drove a car, and was often found walking through his Seward neighborhood or getting his daily espresso, said Todd Melby, a friend who met Vázquez while volunteering at KFAI, community radio for the Twin Cities.
"He was really easy to talk to," Melby said. "Sometimes people don't seem to care what you're saying or are waiting to talk. He would really listen."
Váquez started volunteering for the station in 1999. In 2007, he pitched his own show, "Encuentro." It has run every Thursday night since.
He told the Minneapolis Interview Project that KFAI was one of the first radio stations he heard in the U.S. He said he was moved to tears when he heard the station play traditional Mexican songs for birthdays. Folk music, he said, "was like hearing an ancient tune, apparently long forgotten, but in actuality always present within me."
The station will honor him in his normal time slot at 8 p.m. June 3. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. June 5 at the Highland Park Pavilion, 1200 Montreal Av. in St. Paul.
Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882