El Rey: Five Decades of Cultura From Roberto Martínez Sr.

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When Roberto Martínez Sr. was five years old, around 1934, he would sit on his grandparents’ porch–five miles from his parents’ house and birthplace in Chacón, New Mexico–banging away at an imaginary guitar. He was imitating his uncle Flavio, an accomplished guitarist and singer and a regular performer at family functions. Another uncle, Ray, noticed him at it and constructed a faux guitar for him out of a rectangular, one-gallon gas can, a piece of board for the neck and few thin wires. It was his first “guitar,” but not his last. Not by a long shot.

Despite performing his farewell concert with Los Reyes de Albuquerque last December, Roberto Martínez Sr. will be making his fourth journey to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to perform with his Nuevo Mexicano mariachi group. They take the stage on Sunday. (In 2003, Martínez donated his entire collection of master recordings to Smithsonian Folkways.)

Roberto is 81 years old now, but he can’t get away from music. When I called his home in Albuquerque this week, he had just returned from playing for a senior center in the Sandia Mountains.

“You can’t keep him down,” his youngest son, 46-year-old Roberto Jr., said in an interview.

As a teenager, Roberto Sr. received his first actual guitar and idolized the mariachis and ranchero singers and stars of the Southwest. But he never played seriously until he was an adult, after his service in the Air Force, marrying Ramona Salazar and having his first child. But his first true guitar, a gift from Uncle Flavio, was with him wherever he went.

Roberto Sr.’s first foray into professional music came when the family moved to Denver and met Ramona’s uncle, Jesús Ulibarrí. The two men formed their own mariachi, Los Trobadores, in 1952 after discovering a mutual affinity for the guitar. It helped that they both knew how to play the same songs.

But Roberto Sr. began to notice the divisions between the Latino musicians and white musicians in Denver and how it mirrored those divisions in the community itself. Roberto Sr. recalls opening his copy of the Rocky Mountain News one day in 1957 to find a picture of a little Latino boy with a headline describing how the Denver chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let this boy carry the American flag in a school patriotism event, even though he was a citizen of the United States.

Along with other Denver-area musicians, Roberto and Jesús joined Denver radio pioneer Francisco “Paco” Sanchez in protesting the event and campaigning for civil rights.

In 1960, Roberto Sr. moved the family back to New Mexico for health reasons, settling in Albuquerque. Two years later, along with his friends Ray Flores, Miguel Archibeque, George Benavides and Isidro Chavez, Roberto Sr. formed Los Reyes de Albuquerque (The Kings of Albuquerque). Roberto Sr. and Ray Flores are the only members of the original group still living.

The two touchstones of Los Reyes in their nearly 50 years performing, have been civil rights and cultural history.

Soon after moving to Albuquerque, Roberto Sr. realized that most Latino musicians weren’t paid. They were working entirely for gratuity.

“When I formed Los Reyes, one thing that we did was we made a promise not to degrade ourselves by working for tips,” he says. “We didn’t get many jobs for a long time. But … we didn’t charge much but we always got paid.”

The Reyes also decided that they would not be cheap entertainment. They play to educate.

“I don’t mean that our audiences are dumb or anything,” Roberto Sr. says. “But I mean to inform them so that when they left, they didn’t just listen to a lot of songs … we impart on them a little bit of our culture. That’s been one of our biggest goals to promote, perpetuate and preserve the music of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.”

Two of Los Reyes' most successful corridos (ballads) were El Corrido de Río Arriba–a tribute to land-grant activistm protesting the seizure of lands held by communities and private individuals in New Mexico and a plea for justice–and El Corrido de Daniel Fernández–honoring a Latino soldier from New Mexico who sacrificed himself for his fellow soldiers by throwing himself on an enemy grenade in Vietnam.

Their music is a reflection of the rich cultural history of Nuevo Mexicanos.

“We’re one of the United States, but we were part of Mexico and before that we were part of Spain for a couple centuries. Add to that the first people that were out here, the Pueblo Indians,” said Roberto Jr., who joined Los Reyes in 1992, at which point included his brother, Lorenzo. “We have all of that in us. In our bloodlines. In our culture. In our language. We speak English, but we speak Spanish too and we’re not going to stop.

“Artists and musicians tend not to care about borders or political disputes. If we like something, we put it in our music. ‘Oh that Irish song? We’re gonna take some of that. That Spanish tune? We’re gonna have some of that. That Pueblo rhythm? We’re gonna put that in there.’ And it shows in the music.”

In the 50s and 60s, Latino musical acts didn’t have a chance with the white-owned record companies. Lots of groups from Albuquerque would change their names from Spanish to gain the attention of the major record labels, to survive. “I wasn’t about to do that,” Roberto Sr. recalls.

Roberto Sr. remembers a conversation with his daughter Debbie “La Chicanita” Martínez when she was gaining her fame as a singer. “I threw it at her, ‘well mijita, you might have a hard time getting a place with La Chicanita.’ And she stood her ground and she said ‘no, no. I am La Chicanita and I want to have that on the label.’ It didn’t make any difference. It sold.”

Not every Hispanic group could pull off such a feat. But Debbie, who died of cancer in 2007, had a voice too big for any group act, a voice that would make her a regional star.

Always an advocate for the underdog and for civil rights, Roberto Sr. opened Minority Owned Record Enterprises, operating out of his home. He wanted to have a free hand in the music he was creating and to help other groups have the same creative freedom.

“He wanted to have an outlet for local Hispanic people to put their music out,” Roberto Jr. said. “Mostly it was a conduit for Los Reyes, but it was also for my sisters, for Debbie, and for the music of my brother.”

Much of Roberto Sr.’s original masters were lost in 1987. The MORE archives, which included many unreleased original recordings, had been located in a closet down the hall from the Martínez family den. One morning, Roberto Sr., in a rush to make it to a children’s day-care facility for a performance, forgot to take out the ashes from the fireplace in the den. Ramona smelled smoke. Thinking it was smoke backed up from the fireplace she turned on a fan. Before she knew it, the entire den was in flames. She rushed out of the house and called 9-1-1. By the time the fire department arrived, the house was nearly completely ruined and much of Roberto Sr.’s collection of original MORE recordings was lost.

Though much of the original material was lost forever, Roberto Sr. managed to rebuild his collection through friends and family. The fire was one impetus for Roberto Sr.’s decision to donate the reconstructed collection to the Smithsonian in 2003. The decision was also spurred by his uncertainty of how he might divide up the collection among his children and his confidence in the Smithsonian.

“I know that my records will be well taken care of there,” he said.

Roberto Sr. was recently diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer. But he says he’s not “battling” it yet and that he feels “perfectly fine.” Nevertheless, he has decided that soon he will finally put Los Reyes to rest. But, he’s not worried about Los Reyes fading away. It will live on, he says, through all the material that has been left behind.

Los Reyes will also live on through Roberto Sr.’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all the musicians that made their start with the band. Roberto Sr.’s mission with Los Reyes has always been to support and showcase the younger generation of musicians, so much so that, now, Roberto Sr. describes Los Reyes as a volunteer organization.

At one point or another, Roberto Sr.’s children were all either a part of Los Reyes or performed with the group. On Sunday, Sheila Martínez, Debbie’s daughter and Roberto Sr.’s granddaughter, will be performing with Los Reyes. Lorenzo Martínez’s son, Larry, plays with Los Reyes as well, but will not be performing on Sunday. Roberto Sr.’s great-grandchildren are also musicians. Tino, 14, and Ramon, 9, are already quite proficient in the saxophone and guitar, respectively.

“It's always great to still be able to play with my dad when we can because we want to keep him around as long as we can and keep making music,” Roberto Jr. said. “But, regardless, we’ll always do that. We’ll play music. We have to do it.”

Los Reyes de Albuquerque is performing at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 27, at El Salon de Mexico on the Folklife Festival grounds on the Mall. Members of Los Reyes performing include: Tamarah Lucero and Sheila Martínez on violín, Jose “Chino” Carrillo on guitarron, Antonio “Tony” Orduno on guitar and Roberto Martínez Sr. on vihuela. They will be performing traditional music from Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

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