Neto's Tucson: Music from south of the border created bond between father, son

2013-06-16T00:00:00Z Neto's Tucson: Music from south of the border created bond between father, sonErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

I think it was Antonio Aguilar who first helped connect me with my father. I did not know him when he began weaving a connection between the two Portillos, Sr. and Jr. But I knew him through his music: Mexican ranchera.

Specifically it was the song, "Alma Llanera," a lilting, poetic song that comes not from Mexico but from Venezuela. The South American country considers the song its second national anthem.

With its angelic harp introduction, Aguilar's version mesmerized me. Years later I would learn the song was about the spirit of the llaneros who live on the Venezuelan plains, people in love with their magical land, much like the bewitched desert dwellers of Baja Arizona.

It was the first of many songs that would link me to my father, a Mexican immigrant from Chihuahua, who came to Tucson to work at a Spanish-language radio station that kept alive the music of Mexico's diaspora community and their children.

Growing up in the '60s in the Portillo household, it was música mexicana that poured out of the radio and later from the avocado green console with its built-in radio and phonograph.

American pop and rock music? Not so much.

In our home the "rock stars" were Aguilar and other ranchero singers such as Javier Solís and Pedro Infante; the divas las Hermanas Huerta and Lola Beltrán; the romantic trios; and the classical Mexican music of Agustín Lara, Toña la Negra and Pedro Vargas.

Of course, there were also the mariachis. The first mariachi tune to burn in my memory was the frolicking "La Bikina," made famous by the grand Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

While my father was a homer for Mexican music, he also loved the big band sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and, my favorite, Benny Goodman. He would often tell me that, as a teenager living in Ciudad Juárez, south of the Río Bravo from El Paso, he grew to appreciate swing music, America's one-time popular sound.

Yet when I became a teen, English-language pop was a distant tune for me. The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? The Beach Boys?

¿Quién?

My unfamiliarity with popular music left me as the odd kid out with some of my middle-school classmates at Cathedral-All Saints Catholic School. They were incredulous I didn't know "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly or songs by the Byrds and Janis Joplin.

Even my Mexican cousin Maria Elena Zayas Dyer in Guadalajara, Mexico, could not understand my lack of knowledge of proper music.

"What do you mean you don't listen to the Beatles?" she asked in an exasperated voice.

When I explained to her that I listened to Aguilar, José Alfredo Jiménez, Flor Silvestre and Marco Antonio Muñiz, she would look at her crazy gringo cousin wondering where he went wrong north of the border.

Nothing had gone wrong. My father simply had guided me to look south to create the soundtrack of my youth. Moreover, he actually knew some of my singing idols.

Once, when we were in Mexico City, we went to a popular vaudeville theater and he took me backstage to meet one of Mexico's most popular singers and actresses. She was the stunning, statuesque Lucha Villa.

Oh, yeah. Unfortunately, I couldn't brag to the guys at school about meeting this gorgeous siren.

What did they know?

Didn't matter. My father led me to a beautiful and meaningful sonic world which, at times, I felt was mine alone.

He never forced his musical palette on me. He never insisted that I listen to rancheras, tríos, mariachi, danzones, norteño, huapangos, sones and corridos.

He simply turned on the radio or put on a record and let the music work its wonder. It did.

Gracias, papá.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com. On Twitter: @netopjr

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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