The Naranjero Blues

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

Algunas gentes corrían
Con sus hijos abrasados
Sin saber que al poco rato
Habían de morir ahogados

Muchos padres de familia
Sus criaturas perdieron
Después de tantos esfuerzos
Que por sus hijos hicieron

Las pobrecitas criaturas
Gritaban todas llorando
Los hablaban a sus padres
"Papacito, me ando ahogando."

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

(Some people ran
Hugging their children
Without knowing that in a short time
They would die from drowning

Many fathers of families
Lost their kids
After so much effort
That they made for their children

The poor kids
Yelled, all of them crying
They called to their parents
"Daddy, I'm drowning")

After the Great Flood, Martinez spent most of the 1940s raising a family and picking oranges, taking time to record at least two records featuring his songs, neither of which ever really went anywhere. But around 1947, Martinez became angry that Anaheim officials erected a fence to bar Mexicans from enjoying most of Anaheim City (now Pearson) Park and allowed Mexicans to swim in the park's elegant pool only on Monday, the day before the week-old water got dumped out. "They were putting us in a corner of [Pearson] Park, in a wire-enclosed corral," Martinez remembered in the same 1989 interview. "Like animals, like beasts . . . like cows to the corral." Police officers patrolled the park to ensure Mexicans stayed in their area and didn't disturb the whites. As for the pool, Martinez said, "The only people who went into that dirty water were people without shame."

Martinez and others organized a protest in which they stood outside the park's gates to ensure Mexicans were allowed entry. One day, Rudolph Boysen-Anaheim's park superintendent at the time and the originator of the boysenberry-approached him and asked what was his business there. "I'm taking care of the Mexicans because you're running them out with sticks in your hand like animals," he replied. Boysen had him arrested on the spot.

In jail, a Latino police officer who used to pick oranges alongside Martinez asked him what happened. "You already know what's going on!" he snapped.

"So what do you think about the discrimination?" the officer replied.

"Look, officer, let me tell you a story," Martinez began. "When I came to Anaheim in 1933, the city asked us for a donation to pretty the park. I paid it-and now, I can't use it?"

Martinez and other parents filed a lawsuit against the city. On their court date, a Superior Court judge asked if they had proof the city discriminated against Mexicans. Yes. "Do you mind if we screen a movie?" Martinez asked the judge. The perplexed magistrate agreed.

The courtroom's lights dimmed, and onscreen flickered the image of a sign hanging just outside the park swimming pool: WHITE PEOPLE ONLY NO MEXICANS.

"Very good. Now, I believe you," the shocked judge told Martinez and his friends. "Now, I'm going to issue an order: Everyone swims together, or we'll close the pool forever." The pool and park were desegregated shortly after.

Throughout these battles, Martinez continued to pick oranges and his guitar. For years, he appeared every Sunday morning on KWIZ-AM 1480, Orange County's oldest radio station. Los Hermanos Martinez and another Martinez-led group, Trio Tapatio, occasionally performed before packed houses at the Yost, Santa Ana's legendary Latino theater. Martinez finally retired from public life in 1969 and spent the rest of his years taking care of grandchildren. But he never stopped composing corridos, even into his eighties.

"I always remember Dad in the garage, writing songs, then figuring out the music," says Carr.

"Toward the end of his life, I tuned the guitar for him," Emilio Jr. adds.

Emilio Martinez passed away in 1991. St. Polycarp Catholic Church in Stanton was filled, as was the funeral at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, despite a pounding rain. Near the graveside, some men played one of his songs. Someone recorded the performance, but that recording has been lost.

*     *     *

Elisa Carr lives across the street from where her father bought a house in 1959. It's one of Stanton's older neighborhoods, and all the houses have a distinct Mexican appearance: wrought-iron fences, immaculate lawns and gardens, deep lots. On Carr's living-room mantle is a picture of her parents as newlyweds and a portrait of an elderly Emilio playing a guitar, his eyes locked on his left hand gripping the fret as his right hand strums.

She has fond memories of a stern-but-loving father whose true love was assisting the burgeoning Mexican community in Orange County.

"He knew that there was so many Mexicans who needed help in those days," Carr said. "People would come to our house and ask for money, and he gave it away without question. Whenever somebody wanted to hold a fund-raiser, there he was."

For years, Martinez was the master of ceremonies for an annual Mexican Independence Day celebration held at Pearson Park, the same place he helped desegregate. The highlight of the show for his children, though, was hearing their father play before an audience of hundreds at the park's historic Greek amphitheater. "Oh, everyone just loved it, and he had such a great time," Emilio Jr. says. "Writing and singing was a way of making him relaxed and enjoy life more."

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