The Naranjero Blues

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

But Dad's political activism always bubbled beneath his grandfatherly visage. One time, Emilio showed his son a government document that listed him as a Communist, an attempt by orange growers to blacklist him from the county's groves after the Citrus War. "I told him, 'You're one of them?!'" Emilio Jr. recalls with a hearty laugh. "'Get away from me! I just came back from 'Nam killing a whole bunch of them!'

"He was always a fighter, a very stubborn man," Emilio Jr. continues. "In the 1930s, Mexicans would try to go into bars and get kicked out for being Mexican. Dad would go in again and again until they served him his drink."

"He wanted his rights," his niece Maria Daniel interjects.

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

"No, he didn't," Emilio Jr. deadpans. "He wanted his beer!"

Martinez's musical mementos are spread across different branches of the family tree. Emilio Jr. has an article about him that appeared in The Register during the 1970s; Elisa keeps some of the lyrics and a one-hour VHS tape of the two discussing his life. Many grandkids have various tapes of an elderly Martinez singing songs and telling tales; a stepdaughter has the 78s he recorded during the 1940s and refuses to let Martinez's biological children have them or even hear them (Carr and Emilio Jr. declined to name her).

Carr keeps her father's artifacts in a mailer scribbled with "Libros de canciones" (Songbooks). The large envelope is bent, wrinkled and faded, the color more Post-It canary gold than its original light yellow-brown tint. Its contents are in even worse condition-some papers are tissue-thin and greasy, while journals are faded, ripped and stained. In it is a wallet containing different cards-a Social Security number, a visa, a union card. "Look at this!" she exclaims. "I didn't even know this existed!" It's a gold card given to Martinez by the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 1978 as an "Honored Citizen" of Orange County for his contributions to the Mexican-American community.

The notebooks contain dozens of yellowing corridos-some are dated but most aren't, some typed, others in cursive. Halfway through the journal are drawings and kids' writing and the spines of ripped-out pages. Some songs are missing half of their lyrics; others are unfinished. The vast majority of the corridos are love songs, but there are hints of Martinez's troubadour potential: the 1938 Flood; "Corrido del Relief"; one about a Latino soldier enlisting in World War II to "save my rights, my country, my faith"; another written in memory of Esteban Muñiz, an Orange County union organizer who died young in 1940.

The artistry in Martinez's ballads is evident, but they represent just a small portion of his career, one in which Martinez had no peers following his lead-at least none known publicly.

"A lot of what Dad had we can't find," Carr says. "Just a couple of years ago, I had a lot of pamphlets that my father put together for the Fiestas Patrias [Mexican Independence Day] celebration. Now, I can't find them anymore."

*     *     *

One of the largest collections of Martinez interviews and recordings sat for more than a decade in the fourth-story office of Gilbert Gonzalez, professor of social sciences at UC Irvine. Gonzalez interviewed Martinez in 1989 for his Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950, a masterful examination of Orange County's orange-grove days told through the eyes of the Latinos who worked them. The professor talked with Martinez for more than seven hours over the course of a week and recorded the conversations on reel-to-reel tapes.

It wasn't the first time Martinez sat down with an interviewer. In 1976, Cal State Los Angeles Chicano Studies professor Francisco Balderrama talked to him for In Defense of La Raza: The Los Angeles Mexican Consulate and the Mexican Community, 1929 to 1936, a 1982 book chronicling how the Mexican government assisted Mexicans in Los Angeles and Orange County during the Great Depression. Martinez only has one line in the book-he told Balderrama that Mexicans "would always be Mexicans" in the eyes of whites. Balderrama didn't respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

Labor and Community, on the other hand, made Martinez a key person in its narrative, excerpting many corridos and publishing his memories of the 1936 Citrus War. "[Martinez] remained an Orange County favorite, singing the villagers' favorite romantic, nostalgic and humorous tunes," Gonzalez wrote. "His compositions covered a range of themes, including unrequited love, religious paeans, political change and tragedies affecting the local population."

Gonzalez tells the Weekly he found out about Martinez by accident. "In doing interviews for [Labor and Community], the old labor organizers would tell me, 'So-and-so was part of the strike-you should interview him'," he says. The professor found Martinez "very gracious, very open. From the beginning, he said, 'I'm going to help you with your book,' when he could've just retold what he did and leave it at that."

The two always spoke at Martinez's kitchen table; throughout the various conversations, you can hear dishes rattle and Martinez's wife offer Gonzalez some food. It was in the course of these pláticas that Gonzalez discovered Martinez was a musician.

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