Roberto Martinez grew up surrounded by the traditional Hispanic music of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. When he was 6 years old, an uncle gave him a guitar fashioned from a gasoline can with a board and wires for strings. This was the beginning of his musical career, though he said he didn’t get serious about playing until his early twenties. He went on to play the guitar and a related instrument, the vihuela.
Martinez and his wife, Ramona, who came from a family of guitarists and violinists, raised five children, all of whom became musicians. Their son Lorenzo showed an interest in the old melodies of the region. He recorded his first album at 15 and joined his father in the mariachi ensemble Los Reyes de Albuquerque, founded in 1961. In 1978, Lorenzo moved to Mexico City to immerse himself in mariachi music. Returning home, he rejoined Los Reyes de Albuquerque and continued to play, even while working as a police officer.
“I started learning the violin when I was 9 years old, and then I played with Mariachi Gala in some of the supper bars in Albuquerque,” Lorenzo Martinez told NEA interviewer Mary K. Lee. “We played at some very rough bars until the ’70s, when we started getting recognized more as a mariachi group and playing in hotels and at banquets and that kind of thing. There again is a lot of discipline. When we played the bars, it was a lot of hours. I mean, you're talking ten to twelve hours for tips.”
In the 1960s, Roberto Martinez began composing the topical ballads known as corridos. His song about Daniel Fernandez, a young man killed in Vietnam, became a regional hit. Years later, he composed “El Corrido de los Astronautas” about the Challenger tragedy. He also founded two record labels dedicated to the distribution and perpetuation of Hispanic music.
For much of his career, Martinez juggled a federal government job with his music. His wife recalled that he often came in from performing, slept a few hours and went to his day job. After retiring in 1982, he continued to take his group to senior citizen centers and social service agencies throughout northern New Mexico. “We've been to a lot of the senior centers, many nursing centers, child care centers and adult day care centers for the elderly in the area,” Roberto Martinez told Lee. “We also do this around the state in the smaller towns and cities in New Mexico. We give a narrative musical presentation — talk about our music, the different styles of music, the different instruments. We let the kids hold the instruments and encourage them to dance. We'll participate — I'll put down my instrument and dance with the kids and show them traditional dances. We do the same thing with elders. People tell us, ‘You give me pride in what I am, and you're what keeps us going, you know. Your music is like a glass of fresh spring water.’”
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Armas, Jose. “Social Activist Brings Music to the Cause.” Albuquerque Journal (November 1994).
Garcia, Sara T. “Roberto Martinez y los Reyes de Albuquerque.” (partial citation)
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Lopez, Larry. “Fiesta Day All Tradition.” The Pueblo Chieftain (August 1993).
“Los Reyes Treats Everyone to Lively Show.” The Wickenburg Sun (October 1988).
Montano, Mary. Tradiciones Nuevomexicanas: Hispano Arts and Culture of New Mexico. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press , 2001.) Porter, Mary Jean. “Martinez and Music Are Old Friends.” The Pueblo Chieftain (November 1986).
“Shuttle Loss Touches Heartstrings of Albuquerque Singer.” The Albuquerque Tribune (February 1986).
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Steinberg, David. “Folk Festival To Honor N.M. Music Culture.” Albuquerque Journal (June 1985).
“Corrido 720 Reflects a Brave and United People.” The Santa Fe New Mexican (February 1991).
Martinez, Lorenzo. Lo Mejor de Lorenzo Martinez y Sus Violines. Los Reves de Albuquerque Foundation CD-MO 0823.
_____. Tocando y Cantando. Los Reyes de Albuquerque Foundation MA-0828.
Martinez, Roberto. Mis Composiciones y Otras Canciones. DeSoto Productions MAS-604.
From left: Lorenzo, Roberto and Roberto Martinez Jr., 2003 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Arlington, Virginia, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Lorenzo and Roberto Martinez in “Musica De Los Viejitos”, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Roberto Martinez answers the question 'What is the goal of your music?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Roberto and Lorenzo Martinez perform a traditional song, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Roberto Martinez answers the question 'What keeps you going?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Roberto Martinez answers the question 'How do you compose songs?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Roberto Martinez answers the question 'How do you feel about violent songs?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Lorenzo Martinez, 'Porque Te Quiero,' Lo Mejor De Lorenzo Martinez Y Sus Violines, 1993, Los Reyes De Albuquerque CD-MO 0823
Lorenzo Martinez, 'Las Perlitas Polka,' Lo Mejor De Lorenzo Martinez Y Sus Violines, 1993, Los Reyes De Albuquerque CD-MO 0823
Lorenzo Martinez, 'Hoe-Down Polka,' Lo Mejor De Lorenzo Martinez Y Sus Violines, 1993, Los Reyes De Albuquerque CD-MO 0823
Roberto Martinez, 'La Indita De Vietnam/Juan De Dios Maes,' Para Mis Amigos, 2003, Roberto Martinez MA 604