Father-and-son mariachi musicians Roberto and Lorenzo Martinez. Arlington, Virginia, 2003. photograph by Alan Govenar
Nuevo Mexicano, Music, Activism
Roberto Martínez, Sr.
Roberto Martínez influenced generations of musicians through his songwriting, performances, and recordings, offering constant support and encouragement to younger musicians. Surrounded by traditional northern Nuevo Mexicano music, Martínez went on to form the renowned Mariachi Los Reyes de Albuquerque, and compose and record influential corridos (narrative folk ballads). As a community historian, his corridos documented celebrated Nuevo Mexicano heroes, battles for land rights and struggles for social justice.
Roberto Martínez was born in the rural village of Chacón, New Mexico in 1929, to a family that had been in northern New Mexico for many generations. Don Roberto enjoyed recounting that his first instrument was a homemade guitar crafted by his musician uncle from a gallon gas can, spare lumber, and metal strings. He received a real guitar at the age of 13 and thereafter was never far from it or his vihuela (small 5-string guitar).
In the 1950s, after he served in the U.S. Air Force, Don Roberto and his wife Ramona Salazar moved to Denver, where he first performed Mariachi music. It was also in Denver where Don Roberto began using his music to bring attention to civil rights issues, joining with other Denver area musicians to protest racial and ethnic disparities.
After moving back to Albuquerque in 1960, Don Roberto founded Los Reyes de Albuquerque in 1962 with other local mariachi musicians. Los Reyes continued to perform well into the 21st century, with generations of musicians flowing through its ranks. While with the group, Don Roberto wrote several original songs, including corridos focusing on Chicano and civil rights issues. Among the most famous are El Corrido de Daniel Fernández, commemorating the first Nuevo Mexicano soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam, and El Corrido de Rio Arriba, about land grant struggles that led to the 1967 courthouse raid in Tierra Amarilla by followers of Reyes López Tijerina. These and other compositions led to Don Roberto’s induction into the Corridista Hall of Fame.
Perhaps, Don Roberto’s most lasting legacy lives in the generations of musicians with whom he performed, not the least of whom are members of his musical family. Don Roberto and Ramona had five children, all of whom played music, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren continue the musical tradition. Many of their musical performances were captured on the MORE (Minority Owned Record Enterprises) label, now part of Smithsonian Folkways.
Affectionately known as “Papo” by younger generations of family and friends, Don Roberto is remembered for his love for his family, community, and music.
Exemplary recordings include:
De Nosotros – Para Ustedes, https://folkways.si.edu/los-reyes-de-albuquerque/de-nosotros-para-ustedes/latin/music/album/smithsonian (1970)
Con Antiguas y Alegres, https://folkways.si.edu/los-reyes-de-albuquerque/con-antiguas-y-alegres/latin/music/album/smithsonian (1986)
Los Reyes de Albuquerque en Washington, DC, https://folkways.si.edu/los-reyes-de-albuquerque/en-washington-dc-1992/latin-world/music/album/smithsonian (1992)