Francisco González always said ‘We are gardeners of the seeds of our culture. We plant our seeds patiently, and we nurture the plants of our culture’
Photo: In Mexico, musicians said Francisco González’s handiwork with strings made instruments resonate with a sound they hadn’t heard in decades (Scott MacDonald)
In 1975, KCET aired a half-hour concert featuring a hot new local band. As an opening shot of the downtown skyline segued into a slice-of-life montage of East Los Angeles, a twinkling harp played over a lilting voice as the group performed a song in the son jarocho tradition of the Mexican state of Veracruz.
“We feel it’s our obligation to spread our culture to the other people who don’t know about it,” said the musician, 22-year-old Francisco González, in a voice-over. The camera rested on him and his pals jamming on a hill that overlooked the Eastside. “We want to make a true Chicano music that draws from our past, that is in line with the past, the present and hopefully the future.”
That band was Los Lobos.
The concert, filmed at East Los Angeles College, is available in its entirety on YouTube and remains a joyous tour de force. The imposing, long-haired, Fu Manchu-sporting González sparkles as the group’s lead singer, emcee and jokester. He alternates between harp and mandolin, and ends the show with a quip that became the slogan of Los Lobos: “Just another band from East L.A. Rifa, total.”
González would leave the group within a year, just before they went on to become the most famous Chicano rock group of them all. But the East L.A. native nevertheless became a musical icon of his own. He became an apostle for son jarocho, fostering relations between jaraneros in the United States and Mexico.
He released solo albums and performed in venues as varied as colleges and prisons. His handmade strings for Mexico’s family of guitars — the sonorous requinto, the high-toned jarana, the deep-bottomed guitarrón, the warm bajo sexto, and others — were lifelines for musicians with no other options in the United States for their instruments.
In Mexico, old-timers said that González’s handiwork made instruments resonate with a sound they hadn’t heard in decades.
“He would always say, ‘We are gardeners of the seeds of our culture. We plant our seeds patiently, and we nurture the plants of our culture,’” said Yolanda Broyles-González, his wife of 38 years and chair of the Department of Social Transformation Studies at Kansas State University.
The two met after González performed in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1980 while he served as musical director for Teatro Campesino and she was in the audience. “For him, the culture of the people needed to circulate freely and not with dollar signs attached to it.”
“He was our own Chicano conservatory,” said his son, also named Francisco. “He gave us tools to resist discrimination and injustice and to stand and fight for ourselves, but also to love.”
Suffering from cancer, González died March 30 . He was 68.
The youngest of seven children born to Mexican immigrants, González grew up in a musically inclined family where everyone played an instrument, and his father was a trained singer. Known in his childhood as Frank, he met future Lobos members Conrad Lozano and David Hidalgo through the rock band circuit that circled around their alma mater, Garfield High.
But when González first began to play son jarocho, which he learned about through listening to his sister’s records, “it was like in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when it goes from black-and-white to color. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore,” he told the biographer of Los Lobos in 2015.
González soon connected with his neighbor Cesar Rosas, and the two co-founded Los Lobos in 1973, bringing in Lozano, Hidalgo and Louie Perez. “We got together to learn some songs to play for our mothers, to show them we appreciated the music of our culture,” González said in his opening monologue for the 1975 KCET special.
The performance concluded with a version of the song that would become a smash hit for the group more than a decade later: the son jarocho standard “La Bamba.”
By then, González was long gone from the band, more interested in sticking with Mexican regional music instead of the fusion between those genres and American sounds that his former band mates wanted to explore.
“We loved him, man,” Rosas said. “We were blessed that we had him when we did.”
After his stint with Teatro Campesino, which lasted from 1980 to 1984, González settled in Santa Barbara, where Yolanda was a professor.
“He was the most marvelous father on Earth, and the dearest husband imaginable,” said Broyles-González, author of a noted biography of Tejano music legend Lydia Mendoza. “He was always there for us. He never broke our hearts. He was as strong as Gibraltar.”
González taught Chicano theater at Santa Barbara College and used that position to stage plays in the city’s historic presidio centered on the Virgin of Guadalupe and pastorelas, the Nativity pantomimes staged in Mexico and the American Southwest for centuries.
“Our other Christmas traditions aren’t local,” he told The Times in 1989, when he directed a pastorela at Mission San Fernando. “‘The Nutcracker’ is Russian. Christmas carols are from Europe. We have a tendency to be colonized up to this day.”
Soon after, González — frustrated that he couldn’t find good enough strings for his Mexican instruments — opened Guadalupe Custom Strings in Goleta in 1990, which continues to operate under different ownership in East Los Angeles.
“It was the first time anyone pretty much in this country set to create high-quality strings based on intimate knowledge of Mexican music,” said Gabriel Tenorio, a guitarist who went on to become a partner in Guadalupe Strings Co. and now operates his own workshop. “It wasn’t some Italian company doing it in the world they knew. He was doing it in our world.”
He and other Chicano musicians from across the Southwest who performed son jarocho and mariachi would make pilgrimages to González during the 1990s. Tenorio remembered being astounded at how González’s strings would last for an entire tour, as opposed to just a night like his competitors.
“He’d ask us to play, and would watch your fingers and listen,” Tenorio said. “Then he’d ask us, ‘What are you looking for? What do you want? What do you feel?’ and start making strings in front of us. He educated me without dissing me. He taught us all that this music isn’t a museum piece.”
In addition to his wife and son, who is a writer based in Menlo Park, Calif., González is survived by a daughter, Esmeralda Broyles-González, a civil engineer in Phoenix. His last project, a book about the history of son jarocho co-written with his wife and another professor, will publish in June.
“The heart of the book, Francisco worked on it for 10 years,” Yolanda Broyles-González said. “And yet he said, ‘I’m going to put my name last on the cover.’ It was never about him.”
Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering Southern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond. He previously worked at OC Weekly, where he was an investigative reporter for 15 years and editor for six, wrote a column called ¡Ask a Mexican! and is the author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” He’s the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came to this country in the trunk of a Chevy.