The Naranjero Blues

Emilio Martinez could have been Orange County's Woody Guthrie (and he still might be)

If the coffee that Maria Daniel spilled had landed directly on the tape player, this story might not exist.

Daniel was relaxing one recent Tuesday with her aunt Elisa Carr and uncle Emilio Martinez Jr. at Carr's Stanton home. Rain clouds were sweeping overhead, so Carr offered her niece and brother some coffee to fend off the cold. Before she rose to make another pot, Carr turned on a tape player, the rectangular kind with piano-key buttons and a sturdy grip handle that went out of popularity around the Carter administration.

Out of a tinny speaker rumbled a deep, gravelly voice singing about a beautiful woman. A guitar strummed in the background. It was Carr's father, Emilio Martinez, playing just one of the hundreds of corridos he penned during his 85 years.

Elisa Carr, Maria Daniel and Emilio Martinez Jr. have kept the elder Emilio’s memory and music alive
Keith May
Elisa Carr, Maria Daniel and Emilio Martinez Jr. have kept the elder Emilio’s memory and music alive

"It's so nice to hear his voice," Carr remarked, as Daniel and Emilio Jr. nodded silently. She poured her niece another cup. But as Daniel raised her mug for a sip, the coffee splashed across the table.

Carr quickly snatched the tape player from the scalding liquid. The coffee only touched the machine's side. Her father continued to sing.

"That was really close!" she exclaimed, laughing. Carr turned off the tape. The coffee glimmered on the table. "Too close," she sighed, putting the tape recorder away and getting up to find some towels.

History is a fragile, incomplete thing, especially when documenting minorities in the United States, and few local cases are more telling than the story of Emilio Martinez. Many of his compositions offer a vital glimpse into the county's Latino past, one ignored by Orange County's major historians for more than a century. The man wrote about some of the most crucial events in the county's formation: the 1936 Citrus War, the Great Flood of 1938, discrimination battles, the reign of King Citrus. He even made a couple of records.

Yet only Martinez's family and friends are aware of his place in the Orange County saga. Historical ignorance is one factor, but part of the problem is Martinez's incomplete legacy. Notebooks containing his tunes are missing; recordings are rare. His only full-length interviews with non-family members were with professors researching other topics. More important, Martinez's Orange County no longer exists: the tight-knit communities that flocked to his performances, tuned in to his many appearances on radio and sang Martinez's corridos over bonfires and picket lines are gone, and the new immigrants he so loved to document and fight for don't concern themselves with the past of their predecessors.

In another place, another time, Martinez would've been a folk treasure, the subject of dissertations, Smithsonian restoration projects and tribute CDs. Another scrap in the proverbial dustbin.

*   *   *

Emilio Martinez was born on July 24, 1905, in Jalpa, Zacatecas, a small town near the state's border with Jalisco. His family's hardscrabble existence worsened with the onset of the Mexican Revolution: Emilio's dad was a supporter of Victoriano Huerta, the unpopular Mexican president whose ascent to power after the assassination of Francisco Madera set off a decade of bloodshed in the country. As opposition forces led by Pancho Villa hacked their way through the state, Emilio's father forced his 10-year-old son to run guns for Huerta's troops in the losing effort. Both Martinez males survived, but the devastation wrought by the warring factions forced the family north to the United States in search of jobs in 1923. After trying Houston and Los Angeles, Emilio moved to Santa Ana's historic Logan barrio around 1924.

Shortly after settling in, Martinez's brother Luis returned from prison with a surprise—he now knew how to play the guitar. "I asked Luis to teach me—it was hard, but I finally was able to do it," Martinez told an interviewer in 1989, just two years before his death. "We used to play for the drunks in the [Logan] neighborhood." The two also occasionally drove down to Tijuana and played in the bars that sprang up in the city after Prohibition.

Emilio stayed in Logan for a couple of years before bouncing around California's Citrus Belt—Santa Monica, Riverside, Redlands, Whittier and other parts of Orange County. He finally settled in Anaheim around 1930. It was the first year of the Great Depression, and California was about to undergo a decade of agricultural strikes that brought virtual race wars to the state's bountiful fields. Locally, activists were already planning to organize thousands of poorly paid, almost-exclusively Mexican naranjeros who toiled anonymously in the county's orange groves and packing houses.

Around this time, the Martinez brothers and another friend formed a musical group named Los Hermanos Martinez. The trio toured Orange County's citrus camps, singing Emilio's tunes and earning something of a following, but not enough to quit their jobs. Los Hermanos Martinez thought they nabbed their big break after attracting the attention of Los Madrugadores (The Early Risers), a legendary morning show on KMPC-AM 710 (now KSPN-AM) hosted by Pedro J. Gonzalez. Los Madrugadores was one of the first regular Spanish-language radio broadcasts in Southern California, and Gonzalez earned huge ratings by inviting local and famous artists to play live on the air. But Los Hermanos Martinez performed only a couple of shows before Gonzalez was arrested in 1934 on rape charges (the woman later admitted that American government authorities—who despised Gonzalez because his show openly criticized the racism and discrimination faced by Mexican immigrants—coaxed her into lying). Gonzalez wouldn't return to radio until 1940 in Tijuana.

Next Page »