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Hidden in Plain Sight: Media Workers for Social Change, Chapter 12
by Peter M ( streetdemos [at] comcast.net )
Saturday Dec 17th, 2011 8:39 PM
This is the twelfth and final chapter in the series of profiles of media workers written and photographed by Peter M. Jose Manuel Martinez is a recording artist. He is also an educator and a singer-songwriter, professions that hearken back to the earliest days of transmitting messages, well before mass media. Perhaps communications issues have not changed as much as we tend to think, and art and education might be hot topics when it comes to understanding media. Martinez is seen below fronting the Salsa band Mazacote at El Río in San Francisco.

Jose Manuel Martinez’ creative life has been story telling. As a recording artist—a singer-song-writer who has participated on 15 CDs—he made his mark in Rock, Latin Rock and Salsa. He also wrote and starred in a lively play, Wake Me for the Revolution, which I saw performed in San Francisco over a decade ago. Now having just completed a Master’s degree in Education at Stanford University, he is an English teacher, relating to young people how stories can empower, and the ways they can bring people together.

Martinez was born in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City in 1965, one of the three sons and three daughters of a couple who were born in Puerto Rico, but met in New York during the migration that took place during the 1950s.

“I started writing at a very, very young age,” he told me in his small San Jose apartment. “As a matter of fact, I was writing short stories for third and fourth graders when I was in the sixth grade. My principal at P.S. 115 in New York City had me on contract—my mom always brings this up—to produce a few stories a month, and he was really proud, you know. I’ve always had that type of imagination. It started with my brothers Ray and Tony, who had this collection of albums, and I would look at the albums and listen to the songs, and I would create these stories! [They were] based on the songs, based on the lyrics of the songs, and based on the album artwork.”

I asked him about his parents. “My dad dabbed in many things,” he said, and kind of laughed. “I never had any of those stories like ‘Yeah, we waited for my dad to come home every day with his lunch pail and his uniform.’ My dad was not that type of dad.” What did he actually do? “I don’t know exactly. I know when running numbers was huge in Spanish Harlem he was part of that. He had a rather alternative lifestyle, and because of it, he was in and out of prison for most of my upbringing.” His mother, on the other hand, was steady. “My mom was mom,” he said, “that was pretty much what she did, raise us, and put up with my dad.”

When he was twenty, Martinez went from New York to California for a visit to Marin County, where his brother Ray was a working musician. Martinez had been to broadcasting school to become a disc jockey, and was hoping something would come from that. But he started hanging around Ray’s band. “He would take me to rehearsals, and they had really catchy songs, so I learned all of the lyrics and all the choruses. Their lead singer kind of heard me under my breath, and he was like, ‘Dude! You should just come up and sing back-up!’ I was like, ‘Sure, I don’t care, I don’t know anybody here, whatever.’ But that opened the door.”

When Martinez relocated to Marin a short while later, those musicians sought him out, and told him they wanted him to join their band. The band they formed, Psychefunkapus, was soon very popular and acquired a contract with Atlantic Records, a major label. “Everything else took a back seat,” he said, “because what was going on with that band happened so quick … my writing shifted from little stories and writing in my journal to writing lyrics, doing little stories within songs.”

Martinez enjoyed his time with Psychefunkapus, who recorded two albums, one self-titled and one called Skin. But when it came to an end, and he moved to San Francisco, he realized he had left a part of himself behind. “Marin is a very sheltered, predominantly white environment,” he said. He called it a “domed” environment. “I was in a Rock band, and our fans were predominantly white. When I went to San Francisco I realized how much I missed the connection to my culture—the music, the food, all of that! I felt that something was dormant in me while I was living in Marin, and it had awakened when I went back to San Francisco.

Newly situated in the Mission District, Martinez read up on Puerto Rico’s greatest revolutionary figure, the nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, known as “El Maestro” (the teacher) who was little known in the United States, but died for his cause, before Martinez was born. Inspired, Martinez wrote Wake Me for the Revolution, centered on a completely assimilated Black Latino—working for the law firm of White, Morewhite and Densome—who goes to an opposite extreme—rebellion against the white establishment—after meeting Ché Guevara in his dreams. He pays the price, winding up incarcerated in an insane asylum. The play was a game changer for Martinez; its being produced was the first solid affirmation of his writing. He would still like to publish a book of short stories, some of which have been written, and said “I have a novel in me.”

Once in San Francisco, Martinez also started singing Salsa professionally with a group called Mazacote, led by Louie Romero, who was one of the original musicians of the Salsa scene from New York in the 1970s, having played with Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. Mazacote played the club scene with regularity, and Martinez became a favorite. He swings and improvises, and his stage presence is unusually magnetic. “It’s not because I have the best voice or anything like that,” he said, “it’s because they [the audience] feel me.”

There were annoyances for Martinez with the kind of work Mazacote does, which is not unlike that done by other local Salsa bands. For one thing the pay for a club date is very low, which is bad enough in and of itself, but also means everyone has to work other jobs, and for that reason personnel changes tend to take place from gig to gig. Martinez complains that bands who are always changing horn players, percussionists, pianists and so on lack a solid identity for the audience to relate to, as compared with, say, rock bands, who are usually made up of specific personalities. Also, Salsa dancers have a way of not paying attention to what goes on with the musicians on the bandstand, often caring only for a beat. Sometimes it seems they would just as soon dance to records. When Psychefunkapus played, people watched and listened. These were some of the reasons Martinez jumped after a few years with Mazacote to work with Los Mocosos, a well-known Rock en Español, or Alternative Latin, band from the Mission (although he would return to Mazacote later and record with them on their 2006 CD).

Los Mocosos wrote original music about the issues that affected people in the Mission District, and Latinos in many other places: gentrification, immigration laws, police brutality and Latino pride. “That obviously drew me to the band so much more,” Martinez said. “When your audience can relate to what you’re saying in your music, it’s a stronger connection. It’s not the usual ‘Baby I love you.’”

Martinez did two albums with Los Mocosos: American Us and Shades of Brown. On each there is a Mocoso-fied version of a classic oldie. On Shades of Brown it is “Spill the Wine,” originally recorded by Eric Burdon and War around 1970. It was one of the handful of top 40 hits of the time to feature clearly Latin musical elements, and it is kind of a fairy tale, with a spoken word narrative that is part fantasy and part psychedelia. His band-mates felt it was the perfect vehicle for Martinez, with his story-telling skills, and in fact he pulls it off flawlessly. The only major difference between the old and new stories is that Burdon calls himself “An overfed long-haired leaping gnome,” while Martinez refers to himself as “A dark-skinned bald-headed Puerto Rican from New York.” Los Mocosos actually met Burdon, who went to see them in a hole-in-the-wall club outside of Palm Springs, and then came up afterwards, to their surprise, to say he liked the band and their rendition of his song. “It was awesome,” Martinez said.

Los Mocosos entered the mainstream, got radio play, and sold around 10-12,000 copies of each of their CD’s. They toured The U.S., Canada and Europe, a couple of times opening for Santana, but each gig raised just enough money to more or less make it to the next one. They played for the sake of playing, and they played to get their message out.

When he left Los Mocosos in 2004, Martinez looked to his education, enrolling in Evergreen Community College in San Jose. He did well there in English, becoming Valedictorian of his class and moving on to San Jose State University. As he was graduating from SJSU, and was thinking about graduate school, he got some advice from Greg Landau, who had produced some of Los Mocosos’ material. Landau told him to apply to a top university. He tried Stanford, although he did so “never really thinking I was smart enough.” When he got the acceptance letter, he said, “I actually called to see if they had the right Jose Martinez!” Stanford’s education program for the Master’s degree is 12 months of intensive study and in-classroom experience. Martinez did well, and is now teaching at a charter high school in the East Bay.

Martinez has a philosophy of education that is at once radical and practical. As our interview came to a close he talked for a while about the meaning of education and the media to him. “It is so extremely important to be knowledgeable of how the world works,” he said. “I never tell my kids, ‘Oh, you gotta know how to play the game!’ No. Fuck that! You need to change the game, and the only way you’re going to do that is to know yourself. The only way you’re going to know yourself is to know just how human beings work: through Math, through Science, through Literature, and through the Arts. Then you can see how much we’re all alike. The more knowledge you acquire the more adept you are at filtering through the bullshit. This is the kind of message I try to convey to my students, so that they can become the masters of their own destinies despite all the media messages they’re getting. The messages are: the more you own, the more money you make, the more influence you have over people, the more power you acquire, the happier you will be. Which is bullshit! Media is not teaching us how to be better human beings. Helping people and listening to people and making an effort to get to know other people despite your fears, that is what makes us rich, you know?”

“The biggest media lie comes from the top. That this is a country where everyone is considered equal. If you just work hard, you can accomplish your goals. Yes, we all have very similar opportunities, and with hard work, most of us can accomplish some incredible things. But to generalize it and say that we all can is a lie. The truth is that some of us have to work harder than others. To pretend that there isn’t a race issue in this country, that we live in a classless system, is a lie—media perpetrate that lie, schools perpetrate that lie. It’s not talked about, because it would be like pulling the curtain from Oz.”

“I feel I’m on the front lines,” he concluded. “I’m hoping that the youth of today will grow up with a little bit more truth and reality around the real injustices that are going on, and they’ll be hoping to change that.”