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.
"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.
His shot at a music career seemingly over, Martinez joined a just-forming citrus workers' union and quickly become the representative for Anaheim pickers in a countywide comité central (central organizing committee). The comité included members of Orange County's incipient barrios: Santa Ana's Delhi, Logan and Santa Nita; Anaheim's La Fabrica, Colonia Independencia and La Conga; Placentia's Atwood, Yorba and La Jolla; and many more. More than just preparing for what they knew would be a hard fight against the county's powerful citrus industry, the comité also helped workers struggling with hunger, joblessness and the mass deportations of Mexicans that the Hoover administration instituted in the 1930s.
The repatriations shook Martinez. "On Santa Ana Street [in Anaheim], the train would fill with crying kids," Martinez remembered in his 1989 interview. "Men and women who didn't want to leave, I'd tell them, 'Stay—they're not running us out with stonings.'" In 1935, he penned a song titled "Corrido del Relief" to describe the Mexican community's hatred of Hoover and gratitude for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ended federal funding for repatriations upon becoming president in 1933:
Repatrió a los mexicanos
Cerca de trescientos mil
No sabiendo que algún día
De algo habían de servir
Cuando se separó Hoover
quedamos muy convencidos
¿Qué se hizo por la gente
de los Estados Unidos?
Como el sol con resplandores
Tomó su administración
Y contó sus senadores.
Al mes de ser Presidente
El soñó un sueño profundo:
Todos tenemos derecho
de vivir en éste mundo.
(Hoover repatriated the Mexicans
Close to 300,000
Not knowing that one day
They would be good for something
When Hoover left office
We were convinced:
What did he do for the people
Of the United States?
Like a resplendent sun
He assumed his administration
And relied on his senators
After a month as president
He dreamed a profound dream
We all have the right
To live in this world.)
It wasn't his first corrido—he had already written odes to his hometown of Jalpa and Tijuana, as well as love songs. But a public performer was born, and Martinez the Musician prepared for what Martinez the Activist might do next.
* * *
For years, Mexican citrus workers had bitterly complained about the harsh working conditions ?in Orange County's groves. Growers paid pickers 2 cents per box and charged them for the gloves, bags, hats and scissors needed to properly pick oranges, plus the transportation on trucks that took workers from their homes to the trees. In early 1936, the comitÃ© central drafted petitions seeking help from community organizations for a strike they wanted to avert but were planning if negotiations with growers for higher wages stopped. They approached the Catholic Church, schools, government agencies; none responded. With little other recourse, almost 3,000 citrus workers walked off the job on June 11 and began the Citrus War.
The subsequent battle between the huelguistas and the county's growers, sheriff's department, district attorney's office, and hundreds of freshly deputized guards remains one of the most brutal and least-documented episodes in Orange County history (see "Gunkist Oranges," June 8, 2006). In the strike's first weeks, Martinez serenaded the picket lines with protest songs-some Wobbly standards in Spanish, but most his. The sheriff's department arrested Martinez along with hundreds of his fellow Mexicans on trumped-up rioting charges. About a month and a half later, a judge released Martinez and almost all of the other imprisoned strikers against the wishes of the district attorney, arguing that if the men stood trial, "We might as well dispense with our Bill of Rights."
While in custody, Martinez wrote "Corrido de la Huelga" (Corrido of the Strike). Only the following verses exist:
AdiÃ³s, California, adios
El estado de las flores
Que vivan los unionistas
Y que mueran los esquiroles
Mucho, mucho se ha dicho estos dÃas
Que estos muchachos son comunistas
No se crean de lo que dicen
Son frases de los capitalistas
Si acaso le da vergÃ¼enza
Retirense del empaque
Vayan a hacer su mochila para
Que toma el traque
(Goodbye, California, goodbye
The state of flowers
Long live the unionists
And death to the scabs
Much has been said these days
That the strikers are communists
Don't believe what they say
These are the phrases of capitalists.
If by chance you get embarrassed
Move away from the packinghouse
Get your backpack ready so
You can take the train out)
After the strike, the union remained intact and returned to its secondary purpose as a mutual-aid association. Two years later, members met their toughest test with the Great Flood of 1938.
On March 3 of that year, the Santa Ana River jumped its banks and flooded almost a third of Orange County, mostly north of its course. Thirty-eight people died in the county's worst natural disaster (see "The Tragedy of It All," Sept. 15, 2005); of that figure, three-quarters were Latino children living the Placentia and Anaheim area. The comitÃ© quickly put together dances and fund-raisers to assist families in need. Martinez, for his part, began writing. A couple of days after the flood, he wrote a 20-stanza dirge titled "Corrido de las Indunaciones del 3 de Marzo de 1938" (Corrido of the March 3, 1938, Flood). Its lyrics exemplified the best aspects of the corrido tradition: expert storytelling, vivid details, a natural flow and gut-wrenching emotion. Consider verses 9 through 11:
Algunas gentes corrÃan
Con sus hijos abrasados
Sin saber que al poco rato
HabÃan de morir ahogados
Muchos padres de familia
Sus criaturas perdieron
DespuÃ©s de tantos esfuerzos
Que por sus hijos hicieron
Las pobrecitas criaturas
Gritaban todas llorando
Los hablaban a sus padres
"Papacito, me ando ahogando."
(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."
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.
"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 MuÃ±iz, 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 plÃ¡ticas that Gonzalez discovered Martinez was a musician.
"That generation [of activists] were knowledgeable about the music, but Martinez didn't view it as a career," the professor says. "He was close to the people. He sang about the problems, the happy events. In a sense, he was voicing the people. I don't think he took his music as a way of making a living. He was a picker, a part of the community, and he saw himself that way."
Neither Gonzalez nor Martinez kept in touch after the interviews; indeed, Carr and Emilio Jr. didn't even know about their dad's prominent role in Labor and Community. The professor hadn't played his Martinez reel-to-reel tapes for years, until the Weekly contacted him about them.
Those interviews (which include a recording of a Los Hermanos Martinez and Trio Tapatio disc that you can hear at ocweekly.com) aren't perfect: The sound fades out, is scratchy and gets lost for minutes at a time. But they're priceless: A still-lucid Martinez recites dates, names and anecdotes as if reading from a script. He laughs, snaps at Gonzalez and never tires of questions. Martinez only gets subdued when the topic of his lost corridos comes up. Early in the first interview, Gonzalez asked him in Spanish, "Do you have some of your songs written?"
"No, well, I lost them," Martinez replied.
"Do you remember some of the words?"
At that point, the elderly composer named a couple of corrido titles, then belted out three stanzas from "Corrido de la Huelga" in a strong, joyful, confident voice.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
A couple of days later, Gonzalez asked again if Martinez had any more corridos about the Citrus War. "No, I lost them all," he replied. "Look: You move here and there, and they got lost. You have kids, and they rip them up." He also shares that one of his concerts at the Yost was recorded, but that the disc broke just after he finished singing. "We wanted to do another show to record, but everyone always said, 'Mañana, we'll do it again,'" Martinez recalled. They never did.
In one of their last interviews, an excited Martinez told Gonzalez that after looking around, he found some songbooks. "That's a treasure of information," the professor replied with awe.
A bit of silence. "I know," the old man said. And the conversation moved on.