Roberto Martinez was known by several titles over his long and celebrated career as a mariachi musician, the first being “Don Roberto,” recognizing his contribution to helping to shape and preserve the distinctive regional flavor of “La musica de la gente,” or the music of the people.
Martinez, 83, who died Thursday, formed the legendary Los Reyes de Albuquerque in 1961. Martinez helped shape what came to be known as New Mexico mariachi, elevating the sweetly lyrical blending sounds of violins and guitars that he had learned growing up in northern New Mexico over the blaring trumpets of traditional Mexican mariachi.
Born in the picturesque mountain village of Chacon in the Mora Valley of northern New Mexico, Martinez grew up listening to the music he learned from his family and neighbors, a soundtrack made up of Mexican folk dances, wedding marchas, and sacred alabados, or religious hymns of the Penitente Brotherhood.
After meeting the love of his life, Ramona Elena Salazar, in Las Vegas, N.M., where they both worked, the couple married and moved to Denver, where he formed a small mariachi group and began performing as a musician and composer. The lyrics in his songs often reflected the hopes, joys, and sorrows of New Mexicans.
The couple moved back to Albuquerque in the early 1960s, and Martinez soon formed Los Reyes de Albuquerque, beginning a more than 50-year reign as one of the city and state’s foremost mariachi groups.
To his family, he was known as “Papo,” as a devoted father and grandfather. He passed on his musical talents to his family, which included his daughter, the late Debbie “La Chicanita” Martinez, and son, Lorenzo Martinez, who also became a renowned musician, introducing the New Mexico regional style to national audiences.
Other survivors include his wife, daughter Doris Martinez, sons Lorenzo and Robert Jr., and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His daughter, Doris Martinez, said family was the most important thing to her father. She described him as a kind and generous man who never missed a chance to use a teaching moment, like during one Christmas when a young homeless family came to his door asking for work, and he invited them in to share a Christmas dinner, and he also gave them a generous gift.
“Anyone who ever met my dad would immediately fall in love with him,” she said.
Martinez was fiercely patriotic, as a young man getting a U.S. Air Force recruiter to check a box saying he met minimum size requirements so he could join the service. Later, he worked for many years as a civil servant and was also a dedicated civil rights advocate.
Martinez received many awards and honors, including the National Heritage Fellowship, awarded with his son Lorenzo, from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was also recognized by the Smithsonian Institute as a composer of corridos or Mexican ballads.
In recent years, Martinez devoted his energies to establishing Los Reyes de Albuquerque Foundation, for the promotion of New Mexico Hispanic music and culture. Contributions are preferred to Los Reyes de Albuquerque Foundation, care of Kirtland Federal Credit Union.
A rosary for Martinez will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday and funeral Mass at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, both at Our Lady of Assumption church.