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  • Cover Story
    El Rey de Alburquerque¹
    Roberto Martínez and His New Mexican Mariachi: A Transnational Legacy
    by Enrique Lamadrid
    University of New Mexico

In New Mexico, the name Roberto Martínez is synonymous with royalty. Los Reyes de Alburquerque (The Kings of Albuquerque) is a Nuevo Mexicano–styled mariachi group he founded with Ray Flores, Miguel Archibeque, and other friends in 1962. For nearly a half-century, Los Reyes has performed all over the region and the nation in a wide variety of venues both humble and grand—from schools, nursing homes, and the live local talent shows of the 1960s to community dances, concerts, feast days, state fairs, and festivals, including several appearances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. These public performances as well as the group's exposure on Spanish-language radio stations generated a demand for recordings, and dozens of them, from 45s to cassettes to CDs, have been issued on the homegrown M.O.R.E. (Minority Owned Record Enterprises) label founded by Roberto Martínez. The collection is now part of the Smithsonian Folkways with many albums available. Their music features mariachi favorites in familiar arrangements of guitarra, requinto, vihuela, guitarrón, violín, and trompeta (guitar; soprano, rhythm, and bass guitars; violin; and trumpet), but what distinguishes Los Reyes is the lyrical New Mexican violin as well as Martínez's original compositions.

Don Roberto is also the patriarch of one of New Mexico's most prominent musical families. His five children (Roberta, Doris, Lorenzo, Debra, Roberto Jr.) and several grandchildren (Sheila and Larry) have all played with the group, and many young musicians got their start with Los Reyes as well. Two stars emerged from this family constellation: the late Debbie "La Chicanita" Martínez, whose meteoric singing career was tragically ended by deafness and illness, and Lorenzo, whose violin has introduced a new generation to the resonant instrumental music of the past.

Born in 1929 in the farming and ranching village of Chacón in the upper Mora valley, Roberto Martínez grew up deep in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He was surrounded by Nuevo Mexicano musical traditions, the very breath and spirit of his family and culture. He heard the venerable violin and guitar repertory of nineteenth-century Mexicanized waltzes, polkas, schottisches, cunas, redondos, and cutilios that were associated with a lively social dance tradition. Religious and ceremonial music accompanied rituals and rites of passage. Roberto's parents sang a wide variety of songs and narrative ballads including romances, inditas, and corridos. He was amazed by the occasional visits of the "Carpas" or traveling tent shows that brought musicians and singers like the great Lydia Mendoza from such places as Texas and Mexico. These shows also featured movies illuminated by gasoline generators and projected onto bed sheets. Martínez remembers seeing charro musicals with stars like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante singing the emerging rancheras (Mexican country music) and the newly popularized mariachi traditions. The impressionable teenager from northern New Mexico idolized Mexican music and dreamt of becoming a mariachi.

As a small child, Don Roberto became a virtuoso of the "imaginary guitar," as he recalls, until an uncle fashioned an actual instrument for him out of a gallon gasoline can nailed to a board and strung with wire. From the time he received his first real guitar at age thirteen, it has never left his hands. It accompanied him through service in the Air Force and helped him win over his wife Ramona Salazar, herself from a family of guitarists and fiddlers. When the young couple moved to Denver for a while, Roberto began playing music in cantinas, in the company of Ramona's uncle, Jesús Ulibarrí. With the growing demand for mariachi, Roberto donned his first charro suit with silver buttons and broad-brimmed sombrero. His favorite instrument became the vihuela (rhythm guitar) of the mariachi ensemble, as he focused on singing and eventually composing.

Down in Albuquerque, where Roberto had a civilian day job at the Air Force base to feed the family, the dream unfolded. Los Reyes struggled quite a bit in the early years because they refused to play unless they were paid, and would not play for tips. The future seemed less than bright for just another neighborhood mariachi band, but this group had roots as well as talent. Their first hits, rather than the standard canciones from Mexico, were newly composed corrido ballads that struck a deep chord with the community.

By the mid-1960s the death toll from the Vietnam War was soaring ever higher, and the war deeply divided the country. In the spring of 1966 a young soldier from the town of Las Lunas, inspired and united New Mexicans with a story of selfless sacrifice. On February 18th of that year, Daniel Fernández saw an enemy grenade fall into the midst of his platoon; he instantly threw himself on it to save his comrades, an act later recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Within hours of the news, the verses of Roberto Martínez's first corrido began to gather in his imagination. The switchboard of station KABQ was flooded with calls after Los Reyes performed it live on the air. With permission of the family, "El Corrido de Daniel Fernández" was released as a hit 45 rpm record. It can still be heard on Memorial Day and Veterans Day broadcasts.

Two years later Los Reyes made history with another famous ballad, "El Corrido de Río Arriba." Land-grant activism had become the focus of the Civil Rights Movement in New Mexico. Protests, land occupations, and legal challenges cast an international spotlight on a historical injustice—the seizure of millions of acres of privately and communally held land supposedly protected by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. A shootout on June 5th, 1967, at the Río Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, provoked the largest manhunt in the history of New Mexico, and National Guard tanks rolled north from Santa Fe. Roberto heard sensationalized news reports on the radio driving down from Denver, and finished composing his corrido by the time he got to Alburquerque. The events and yellow-tinged news reports were controversial and ephemeral. Roberto's corrido was dispassionate and objective, a masterpiece of understatement and irony meant to unify rather than divide. The last verse cleverly implies that this ballad may go on for some time—at least until justice comes to New Mexico:

Este corrido termina
cuando se haga la justicia,
para que no se repita
lo de allá en Tierra Amarilla.

This corrido ballad ends
when justice is done,
so the events of Tierra Amarilla
may never be repeated.

The corrido was featured in the Smithsonian touring exhibition Corridos sin Fronteras / Ballads Without Borders. In 2002 Roberto Martínez was inducted into the "Corridista Hall of Fame," a section of the exhibition. In subsequent decades, whenever current events sparked the popular imagination, everyone knew that a definitive corrido would be forthcoming from Martínez and Los Reyes. These ballads give listeners a heightened sense of participation in history.

Another gift to listeners from Los Reyes and the Martínez family is a broader awareness of culture and cultural history. By embracing mariachi music and celebrating its energy, the group reconnects Nuevo Mexicanos to a deeper sense of mexicanidad, the feeling of identity and belonging to a greater bi-national Mexico, despite the barriers that crisscross it. During New Mexico's Territorial period from 1848 to 1912, part of the Americanization strategy in preparation for U.S. citizenship and statehood was a political and cultural distancing from Mexico. In support of this campaign, politicians, folklorists, and teachers emphasized the Spanish traditions and cultural survivals in New Mexico. In truth, similar archaic elements may be found anywhere in Latin America; it is all a matter of emphasis. Now that Mexican immigration has increased in recent years, a sense of cultural equilibrium is returning, along with a revitalization of the Spanish language. mariachi music transports listeners to transnational spaces, and allows the lyric power of Spanish poetry to do its transformative work.

But closer to home, Los Reyes de Alburquerque also creates a new and deeper sense of nuevomexicanidad by celebrating and exploring the original Nuevo Mexicano sound of the violin and guitar duo. For many generations, this ensemble was both a staple and emblem of the music of the valleys and mountains of the upper Río Grande. In a concerted effort to perpetuate and renovate the New Mexican violin, Roberto's oldest son Lorenzo took up the instrument at age nine, studying both classical technique and regional folk technique, which includes a fascinating range of tuning and bowing. His personal style is a resonant blend of both. He recorded three landmark CDs of violín Nuevo Mexicano, which feature a sampling of all of the old dance tunes and an anthology of wedding music, including marchas and the "Entrega de los novios," a ritual song that ceremonially joined the couple and their families. After his apprenticeship with master fiddlers in the north, Lorenzo spent a year playing with mariachis in Mexico and learning to incorporate the best of both worlds. When he plays mariachi, his full-throated tonality is what transforms it into Nuevo Mexicano mariachi.

The contributions of Roberto Martínez, his family, and Los Reyes de Alburquerque have been recognized, celebrated, and honored. In 1999 Don Roberto received the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. In 2003 Roberto and Lorenzo Martínez jointly received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award—the highest honor in the land for folk artists and performers—for their work in preserving and promoting their musical heritage. In December of 2009, Don Roberto gave his farewell concert with Los Reyes de Alburquerque. He is the last surviving member of the original group, and his legacy endures as a living feature of the musical landscape of Nuevo México.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine. On January 3rd, 2013, at the age of 83, Roberto Martínez passed away in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To read the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's tribute to his life and legacy, click here.

¹Founded in 1706 and named in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain, Alburquerque (original spelling) is New Mexico's largest city. After the American Invasion of 1846, its first "r" disappeared from maps and signs. In 1992 Rudolfo Anaya's famous novel, Alburquerque recovered the missing letter. After 1992, Los Reyes proudly added the "r" as a demonstration of cultural pride and recovery. New Mexican is an adjective that translated into the Spanish Nuevo Mexicano, refers more specifically to the state's Hispano/Latino/Mexicano/Chicano people and their culture.