I only just got around to this last night, but the cover story of last week’s OC Weekly was another unsurprisingly amazing piece from Gustavo Arellano. After my exhaustive post just previous to this one I feel a bit zoned — though lunch has helped — so all I’ll say is: read it. But here’s the opening section:
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.
To say that the story of Orange County is more than watching The OC and Arrested Development is patently obvious. This is the kind of writing that reminds how deep — and how moving — it really is.