When I first met José “Pepe” Martínez in 1977, he was the newest member of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. He soon became a good friend and mentor. One thing I’ve always admired about Pepe is the exceeding generosity with which he freely shares his knowledge with anyone who asks. Another is the legendary ease and authority with which he performs even the most daunting musical task. Mariachi educator Mark Fogelquist aptly dubbed him “the Mozart of mariachi music.”
Once, when I asked Pepe for help with a mariachi arrangement that had taken me several days to write, he rewrote the entire score right in front of me — in less than ten minutes.
Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar tells a similar story about a live television broadcast where Mariachi Vargas and Mariachi de América accompanied a ranchera song festival. When the groups arrived, the producer was frantic. “This festival is supposed to have an original theme, and I forgot to commission it!” “Don’t worry,” Pepe reassured him. “I’ll write you one right now.” “How?” the producer replied incredulously. We go on the air in a little over an hour!”
This didn’t faze Pepe a bit. Each mariachi had been scheduled to rehearse with the singers for a half hour before the show, so he calmly told Jesús, “You go first; we’ll follow.” As don Jesús tells the story, when Mariachi de América came out of the rehearsal studio a half hour later, Pepe had already composed the theme, written the arrangement, and copied out the parts for each instrument.
In 2010, I had the privilege of presenting a biographical synopsis of Pepe’s musical career as part of his induction into Albuquerque’s Mariachi Spectacular Hall of Fame. At that time, I asked him when he planned to retire from Mariachi Vargas. “Ya no tardo,” he replied. Unfortunately, his departure came much sooner than he had planned, after a series of minor strokes forced him to retire from performing with the group in 2013.
Last December, San Antonio’s Mariachi Vargas Extravaganza presented Pepe with a lifetime achievement award during that festival’s main concert. He and his wife Angelina were sitting up front. At one point in Mariachi Vargas’ performance, Pepe Jr. descended into the audience and pulled his father out of his seat to join Arturo Vargas and him in the chorus of “¿A Dónde Vamos a Parar?” (see photo above), eliciting a roar of applause from the audience.
I leapt from my seat and, camera in hand, zigzagged down the aisle, eluding the ushers who tried to intercept me, finally kneeling down a few feet in front the vocal trio and snapping pictures as fast as I could. Always the prankster, Pepe advanced toward me, colleagues in tow, causing me to fall backwards onto the floor, as can be seen at the end of this video. Flat on my back — the mischievous trio hovering over and making faces at me — I snapped the comical shot below.