Roberto Martinez was born in the farming village of Chacon, New Mexico, a mountain village that has historically been a stronghold of Hispanic (sometimes called "Spanish Colonial") culture. When Roberto was six, his uncle constructed a guitar for him using a gallon gasoline container, a board, and some thin wire, initiating his life-long musical pursuits.
During his career, first in the Air Force and then as a civilian working for the Air Force, he with his wife Ramona, herself from a family of guitarists and fiddlers, raised five children, musicians all. In particular, his son Lorenzo showed an interest in the old melodies of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. A master violinist, Lorenzo recorded two seminal albums, the first when he was 15, of this rapidly fading repertoire. Lorenzo also joined his father in the mariachi ensemble Los Reyes de Albuquerque.
In the 1960s, Roberto began composing corridos on contemporary topics, including a regional hit memorializing Daniel Fernandez, a local hero and casualty during the Vietnam War, and "El Corrido de los Astronautas" about the NASA Challenger tragedy. Roberto founded two record labels dedicated to the distribution and perpetuation of Hispanic music, and in his retirement he continues to take his group to senior citizen centers and social service agencies throughout northern New Mexico. In recent years while Lorenzo works as a police officer, he has also become known as a composer of songs and instrumentals.
NEA: First of all, I want to congratulate both of you. Could you talk about how it felt when you heard the news?
R. MARTINEZ: It was really amazing and kind of shocking. We're not used to getting this kind of news every day so I was flabbergasted. It is a real honor.
The icing on the cake is the fact that both Lorenzo and I are receiving the honor at the same time. It's been a long trip. Lorenzo started getting interested in the violin and the music when he was younger, and when he was around 15 we recorded an album of old violin music of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. And he did an exceptional job for a young man at that age.
L. MARTINEZ: I feel really honored and lucky that I get to do this with my dad because while I recorded a lot of this stuff, he came up with the songs, the ideas.
At our age, I can't think of anything else that could be such an honor. And to share in this as father and son is just wonderful.
R. MARTINEZ: I'm very thankful to all the people at the NEA and the NCTA [National Council on Traditional Arts]. The NEA supported us financially for many, many years. We went with NCTA on national tours three times. But also I'm very thankful to god because he is the one that gave us this gift. It's a gift I feel that I must share with each and every person that I can.
But again the thing that I'm the most happy about is that my son and I are receiving this honor together. We have been a team since day one - first as father and son you know - but also as fellow musicians. I could not have done it alone. He and I did it together.
NEA: Lorenzo, can you tell me what it was like growing up in a family of musicians? Your siblings also play music, right?
L. MARTINEZ: It was a unique experience and was nice. There were lots of opportunities. There was a lot of discipline too - we gave up a lot to do this music. Of course we had some sibling rivalry, but I started playing with my sisters when I was 11 years old, playing the guitar and singing, and we recorded some rock stuff back then.
I started learning the violin when I was nine years old and then I played with Mariachi Gala in some of the supper bars in Albuquerque. We played at some very rough bars until the'70s, when we started getting recognized more as a Mariachi group and playing in hotels and at banquets and that kind of thing .There again is a lot of discipline. When we played the bars, it was a lot of hours. I mean, you're talking 10-12 hours for tips.
L. MARTINEZ: And the experience itself is like anything. It has its ups and downs. But we've been able to give some of our tradition, our roots, to the people and then part of our hearts with that, too. So it has been very rewarding. A lot of work and discipline but very rewarding.
NEA: Roberto, you've composed a lot of corridos. I was wondering if you could talk about where the stories or the narratives come from.
R. MARTINEZ: I was a late bloomer as far as music goes, including composing. While Lorenzo learned to play his instruments when he was a child. I didn't start learning the guitar until I was 23, 24. And I used to sing but not professionally, just as a past-time. When I was in Denver, my wife's uncle and I played together at home. We'd get a gathering together and play and we developed our own style, harmonizing and two guitars. It was around that time when I was 23 that I started to do it seriously and began to play for the public.
Around that time I composed a corrido to a fellow from New Mexico who was killed in World War II. But I never did anything with it. I wasn't able to record it or anything. My composing went on hold until the '60s when Daniel Fernandez, a young man from Los Lunas, New Mexico, was killed in Vietnam. It was in the news and I got a strong feeling about the situation and wanted to do something about it. So I composed a song, which came very easily.
I was on my way to play downtown and the words kept popping into my mind so I started putting it down while I was at stop signs. I'd write a verse, then part of another and ended up with a rough draft after coming and going from the job. Then I refined it. Los Reyes had a radio program back then on Saturdays and we just sang it over the phone with no practice or anything. People liked it so we recorded it and it just took off. It became a regional hit and it opened many doors for us.
After that I didn't do anything until the court house raid by Reyes Lopez. We were in Denver and it was in the news so we traveled back to Albuquerque and on the way that tune and the words came into my mind. My wife Ramone wrote them down as I told them to her. We recorded it and it was very popular.
I don't know if I consider myself a diehard composer though I have composed many corridos. They all carry a message. I've composed some civil rights corrido or ballads and some love songs to my wife, stuff like that. But I can't sit down and compose a song or a corrido. It has got to come from the heart, and it has got to be able to carry a message.
NEA: You've also been a strong advocate for Hispanic rights. I was wondering if you could talk about that and also your record label, MORE.
R. MARTINEZ: I established the label - Minority Owned Record Enterprises - in the late '60s during the civil rights movement. It was done for a purpose, you know. Many Hispanic musicians at that time were recording with different Anglo names. Al Hurricane, Tiny Maury - I could go on. Hispanic artists in the '60s tended to shy away from using their Hispanic names. They made up name I guess they thought would be more appealing and less negative. So I decided to start the label. Lorenzo always used his name as Lorenzo, although people call him Larry, but he used the Hispanic version. Debbie Martinez - his sister, my daughter - used La Chiquinita as her stage name. I didn't do this just to be a rebel or anything. I just felt that we were Hispanic and should be proud of our parents' names.
NEA: How much workshop conducting or teaching do you do and how do you try to continue the Mariachi tradition?
R. Martinez: We've been to a lot of the senior centers, many nursing centers, child care centers, and adult day care centers for the elderly in the area. We also do this around the state in the smaller towns and cities in New Mexico. We give a narrative musical presentation - talk about our music, the different styles of music, the different instruments. We let the kids hold the instruments and encourage them to dance. We'll participate - I'll put down my instrument and dance with the kids and show them traditional dances. We do the same thing with elders. People tell us, "You give me pride in what I am and you're what keeps us going, you know. Your music is like a glass of fresh spring water."
Right now we're not doing that so much because of the economy. Our grants have been drastically reduced. But during the 22 years that we've been working at full speed, we've managed to bring in quite a few young people. We were mentors for young musicians. We brought them in and Lorenzo actually taught some of them his violin style, old-fashioned music. We have a core of younger musicians that we hope will carry on later on.
Speaking of senior centers, maybe Lorenzo could tell you a little human interest about his first violin.
L. MARTINEZ: I was probably about five or six in Denver. We had some Oriental neighbors in the back and one day my dad saw this old broken violin in their trash can and he went and pulled it out.
R. MARTINEZ: No, I saw the lady and I asked her what she was going to do with it and she said, "I'm throwing it away." So I asked her if I could have it.
L. MARTINEZ: He restored it and that was the first violin that I learned to play on.
NEA: Do you still have it?
L. MARTINEZ: No. My dad will tell you about that. He loves to tell people about that.
R. MARTINEZ: Many years later, probably 25 years or so, we were working under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts giving mini concerts to senior citizens, nursing centers, day care centers, Indian Pueblos, everywhere. We went to this nursing home to play and after we finished, this little old man came and told Lorenzo, "You know, I want to show you something." So we went into his room and he pulled a violin case from underneath his bed and opened it up and there was Lorenzo's first violin.
Lorenzo had scratched his name in it. So I asked the old man if he'd be interested in selling it but he wasn't interested. "No, no, no," He was so proud of having it, we didn't have the heart to press further. So we just let him keep it, like it was his.