Looking back, growing up Mexican American on the east side was pretty cool. My family was more American than Mexican. My parents were born in the United States as were my dad’s parents and grandparents. We spoke English at home with a sprinkling of Spanglish to add flavor, just like the tablespoons of my mom’s homemade salsa we would sprinkle on every meal whether it was tacos or fried chicken.
Like language and food, music in our house crossed borders. My dad’s collection included the standards (Sinatra, Martin, Nat King Cole), rock and roll 45’s, and a wide variety of Mexican music. His component stereo system which sat on the “black dresser” in our little dining room was sacred. He meticulously catalogued his collection: Mexican albums stood side by side in the cupboards of the dresser, 45’s sat on the speakers, and cassettes he recorded filled the top dresser drawer.
I loved it all, especially Mexican music. I can still smell the cardboard of album covers that wafted out of the cupboards as soon as the door was opened. Mariachi, tejano, cumbia, banda, a sampling of every type of Mexican music could be found in that cupboard. My favorite genre was, and is, the norteño style from northern Mexico that features a twelve string guitar, bass, drums, and accordion. Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte, the “King of the Accordion,” is the soundtrack for this east side boy’s life.
Ramon Ayala, a Grammy Award winning artist, was 18 years old when he formed Los Relampagos del Norte in 1963. He formed the legendary Bravos de Norte eight years later. His songs are about romantic love, heartbreak, and the struggles of everyday life. The lyrics strike a chord across generational lines and international borders. He’s hugely popular with third and fourth generation Mexican Americans, and it’s fascinating to see the adoration he attracts from non-Spanish speakers.
I think this popularity comes from a half-century of being ever-present in many Mexican American households. In my family, Ramon’s music was standard fare at backyard barbecues, weddings, and family celebrations. Hanging out with my friends as a teenager, a few Ramon Ayala tunes would always find their way onto a song list of mostly popular disco and funk music.
When Sandra and I were married, we selected Ramon’s iconic Rinconcito en el Cielo (A Little Corner of Heaven) as our first dance rather than a standard American ballad. The upbeat ranchera style song, played by a classic four-piece band, had us whirling around the dance floor. On my 47th birthday, just months out of the hospital after my health crisis of 2010, Sandra and my family surprised me with a norteño band playing in our backyard. We capped the night gingerly dancing to Rinconcito.
This weekend, I crossed off an item from my bucket-list by going on a pilgrimage to Reno with about 25 friends and family to see “The King of the Accordion” in concert. As people were filing into the grand ballroom of the Silver Legacy Hotel, it seemed like I knew everyone that walked by. Even though I didn’t know them, the faces in the crowd brought back childhood memories as generations of families came together for the show.
When Ramon Ayala casually walked onto the stage, the sold-out crowd erupted in a roaring cheer that didn’t stop until the concert was over. From the first note of the first song, the audience danced in the aisles and swayed arm-in-arm as they sang every word of every song releasing passionate gritos during the musical interludes. Before long, I was no longer in a Reno ballroom; I was transported into a backyard, a wedding, and a family party. The highlight of the night was jumping into the aisles to dance with Sandra as Ramon Ayala himself played Rinconcito en el Cielo.
On the 5-hour drive home, I thought about growing up as a Mexican American on the east side and my career as a high school basketball coach, corporate executive, political chief of staff, and school board member. I’ve had some amazing experiences in my professional life that I never dreamed could be possible. But when it comes right down to it, the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy had it right, “there’s no place like home.”
The Mexican American community, and the Latino community in general, is highly misunderstood in mainstream American life. Our zest for life and our passion for culture are often mistaken for a lack of desire to achieve academically or professionally. That’s not true. We work hard to make a better life for our children. By the same token, from the vibe of near nirvana at the concert, it seems to me that Latinos can teach a lesson or two about living a balanced life.
Mexican Americans place a high priority on family, relationships, love, heartbreak, and surviving life’s day-to-day challenges. We also place a high priority on working hard to earn our keep. It’s these seemingly contradictory notions that make us a special, yet misunderstood, people. For a half century, Ramon Ayala, a Mexican-born musical artist, has brought the shared experiences of Mexican Americans to life. On Saturday night, he took me on a wonderful two-hour journey back home.