Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez

Chicano Musician and Culture Bearer
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Vito Di Stefano


A musician, songwriter, educator, and activist, Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez has become a cultural icon and leader of the Chicano community. Born to Mexican immigrant parents in the California desert town of Blythe, Sánchez was taught traditional Mexican music by his mother and uncles who sang and played guitar. Both of his parents were farm laborers, and he himself worked in the fields, so Sánchez learned early on in life about the struggles in the farm labor movement. As he listened and learned, he began to compose his own music -- with a bicultural influence and often socio-political messages -- and he was frequently asked to play by César Chávez at rallies and marches for the United Farm Workers Union.

A multi-talented musician, Sánchez not only composes, but also sings and plays ten different instruments. Recruited along with other young farm laborers in 1969 to attend San Diego State University, Sanchez began performing with La Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlán, a noted musical group comprising both students and professors. He later became the lead vocalist for the Mexican-Chicano folklore group Los Alacranes (The Scorpions), which he co-founded along with his brother Ricardo, recording their first album in 1977. Using it as a platform to further the Chicano civil rights and farm laborers movements, his music has helped to define an era. He expressed the concerns and causes of the community with the rich Chicano musical traditions. One of his best-known pieces,"Chicano Park Samba," narrated the struggle for and successful creation of Chicano Park in San Diego and became an anthem for that community and Chicano communities throughout Aztlan.

As important as his role as a musician, Sánchez is equally notable for his role as a community elder and mentor. Having worked with local youth in myriad capacities -- including as an Encanto Little League coach, educator, youth center director, and gang intervention counselor -- Sánchez has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including several from the California Arts Council and the City of San Diego Commission on Arts and Culture. At the first César E. Chávez Music Festival in 2004, Sánchez received the César Chávez Humanitarian Award. Of the honor, Chávez's granddaughter Barbara Ybarra said, "Chunky and other musicians often were called upon to keep spirits high and empower people. Now is our turn to give back to the musicians of the movement and honor their legacy."

The subject of a forthcoming documentary by Paul Espinosa entitled Rising Souls, Singing Scorpions, Sánchez is a proud father and grandfather, and wishes to dedicate this award to his deceased son Fernando, and children Ixcatli, Ramon, Esmeralda, Mauricio, Tonantzin, and 13 grandchildren.

[Excerpts of "El Quinto Sol" and "Chicano Park Samba" by Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez with his band Los Alacranes Mojados, from the album, Rolas de Aztlan, used courtesy of Chunky Sánchez.]


Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez

(Music up) Jo Reed: That's musician, songwriter, educator, activist, and 2013 National Heritage Fellow, Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Chunky Sanchez is a cultural icon and a leader of the Chicano community in San Diego. Born in the California town of Blythe, to parents who were farm workers, Chunky was taught traditional Mexican music by his mother and uncles who sang and played the guitar. Growing into a multi-talented musician, Chunky composes, sings, and plays 10 different instruments. Bi-cultural and often political, his music frequently expresses the cares and concerns of the Chicano community. In fact, Cesar Chavez often asked him to play at marches and rallies for the United Farm Workers Union. And now, Chunky continues to use his music in his role as community elder and mentor to local youth. Chunky Sanchez has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including a 2013 National Heritage Fellowship Award. I spoke with him at his hotel the day after he received the Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Here's our conversation. Jo Reed: First of all, Chunky, congratulations. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Thank you very much, Jo. Jo Reed: It's wonderful to see you in Washington, DC. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Well, thank you very much. It is my first time here on the East Coast and it happened to be the capital of the country. Jo Reed: Now, you grew up in southern California along the border, and your mother was very musical? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yes, she was. Jo Reed: In fact, she and her brothers, used to entertain in their village in Mexico. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, they entertained in the little small towns. She would tell me about, you know, they would play, like, for some dances, all acoustic guitars. They would play for some dances and the first thing they'd do is sweep the dirt real smooth and water it down to get the dance floor ready, and then by the time the dance started, it was dust in the air. You know, kicking up dust. I don't know if that's where the term came from... Jo Reed: I was just thinking that, I bet that's where the term comes from. When you were growing up was your mother still playing, was she still singing? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: She was still singing more. She wasn't playing because she had a family and she was sick, and the times that she would sing was at home when she was washing the dishes, for instance, and I would always follow her, and I knew she was going to wash dishes. I'd follow her and I'd stay in the kitchen because I knew she was going to sing. She had such a beautiful voice, I enjoyed listening to it. I began to develop an appreciation, not just for her voice, but for the songs that she sang. She sang a lot of what's called boleros, which are love ballads of the 1930s, the 1940s, old love ballads from Mexico and the southwest. That's where I developed my appreciation for the whole tradition and the art. Jo Reed: Now when did you first begin to start to play an instrument? And I know you play a gazillion instruments. Was the guitar the first? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: No, it wasn't. I started by playing the trumpet. Jo Reed: You're kidding? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: No. That's why I got lungs. When I sing, I can belt it out. Blowing the trumpet really develops your lungs and your breathing a lot, so that helped me later when I began to sing. I had an overpowering voice at the time. Right now it's getting a little, a little raspy. Jo Reed: So your mother had you begin on the trumpet. How did you move to guitar? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Listening to my uncle. We had an uncle that ended up staying and living with us in the back in a little house, and my Uncle Chemma, Jose Mario was his name, but they called him Chemma, and he played and he also drank a lot of wine. But he played a lot. He played every day. He'd grab the guitar. That was his love. He began to play and sing, and I'd go back there and sit with him and just listen to him, and he showed me chords, and little by little I picked that up and I got some development there. So when I went to San Diego State and joined what's called La Rondalla, a guitar ensemble, I already had a little prep in it, for the songs that they were doing. They were doing love songs, the ballads, like the ones that my mother would sing, and since we were involved in traveling with Cesar Chavez throughout the strikes in the fields and the boycotts in the cities, we learned a lot of strike songs. Songs that some of us wrote, songs that were written by other colleagues in California, regarding the strike, the Great Strike and all the strikes that took place in the Imperial Valley, the Coachella Valley where the first contract was signed, the Central Valley is a pretty big valley right there under San Joaquin Valley, and we traveled all those place playing and singing. Jo Reed: How important was Cesar Chavez to the Chicano movement? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: He was very important because, number one, he organized the people. He set forth a movement that was desperately needed at the time. Besides the politics of negotiating a contract, he taught us about values. He taught us about environment. He was an environmentalist, as well, because he was very concerned about the pesticides on the crops, and the pesticides that were sprayed by the planes on the crops when a lot of the field hands were in the field actually working. So they got a lot of this on their skin. They breathed, they inhaled it, and later on, in many cases, it led to cancer. Jo Reed: And when you first heard Cesar Chavez, were you immediately drawn to him? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, because we had heard a lot about him. I grew up as a kid, I grew up during the bracero era, so the bracero program was bringing in a lot of farm laborers from Mexico at the time, and that's where Cesar Chavez began to organize the farm laborers. And then the first time he came to my hometown, Blythe, to organize the lettuce workers and the farm workers there, it was like a celebrity coming to town; right? So we got our guitars and we went out there with him to help him out on the strikes out in the fields, and that's where we got to know him and where he began to invite us places, and there we go. Jo Reed: You know, Chunky, your music was so important to the movement in the same way that spirituals were so important to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yes, uh-huh. Jo Reed: Can you explain how music really becomes central to a social justice movement? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Like I said, when we took the guitars to the picket line, things were kind of down, spiritually, emotionally. If you've ever gone on strike, you know it's very hard and sometimes the family doesn't eat everything that they like to eat, and it's very important because the music began to lift the spirits of the people in wanting and remembering that tomorrow's a new day, tomorrow's a new vision, and there's hope for us. We're going to see the light tomorrow, and you can get that from listening to a song. We believed it was very powerful. It was like therapy. It was like medicine for the soul. Jo Reed: When did you start writing your own songs? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Right around that time. "La Guitarra Campesina" is one of them, the Campesinos guitar, the "Trilingual Corrido," with English and Spanish and Barrio dialect. So, like, three different styles of languages. We broke all barriers there were, as being a Chicano musician. We had no walls. We had no barriers. We broke them all down and said, "Well, we're going to do-- try a little English with this song. Yeah, and add a little Spanish here. Yeah, and how about a little Barrio slang?" and these things became a reality in our music. Jo Reed: And you were one of the first to do it. Now it's considered normal, everyday. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, exactly. But at the time that we were doing all this, we weren't thinking of trying to make history. We weren't thinking of getting such a prestigious award like we did yesterday by the NEA. We did it because there was a need for it. We had to do it. We felt we had to do it at the time, and the Farm Worker Labor Movement inspired us to want to continue doing it to lift up the spirits of the farm workers, and my mother and father were farm workers, so we had a lot of things in common there. Jo Reed: Can we have an example of one of the songs? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, I'll do "El Picket Sign." You know what a picket sign is; right? Yeah? So this song's called "El Picket Sign," which was used while we were walking around singing and holding up the picket signs. <sings in Spanish> Jo Reed: Oh, that's great. That's great. I bet that kept people... Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Oh, yeah, and usually after the song was over like that you'd hear the Campesinas themselves yell and scream, <speaks Spanish> "Cesar Chavez," and then they would say, "<speaks Spanish> Jo Reed: Tell me about Chicano Park. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Chicano Park, in 1970 I was 18 years old, I believe, and I went to San Diego and what happened was the people had been asking for a park for a long time and the park kept promising a park, and then, when the bulldozers began grading, a young man by the name of Mario Solis walked by and stopped one of them and asked them, "Are you guys grading for the park?" And they said, "No. We're grading for a highway patrol substation." And we all united, and when I say all, I mean members of the community from young to old, the schools that walked out, and just any realms of life, you could think of people around there, you know cannery workers, shipbuilders, ex-Vietnam veterans, locked arms and walked across the street and stopped the bulldozers. And we stopped the bulldozers that day. And the police came, some people were arrested. But some of the elderly people brought symbolic plants to plant there, to demonstrate that what we want in that area was a park, not a substation full of blacktop and concrete. There was enough of that already in the area. You know, we needed a park for the kids, for the families. Parks are very important to a community because that's where people conglomerate. The families come together on holidays or just on a Sunday to celebrate the spirit of life itself, and Chicano Park was an example of that. It was taken over on April 22, 1970. We had to go fight it before the California State Supreme Court, and they finally voted, in the end, that the land be designated for a park. It was a big victory, but we didn't realize until later that was only the beginning, developing a park. Jo Reed: Chicano Park was very important for the movement, wasn't it? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, Chicano Park was very important because it taught us that if you want something in life you have to work for it. You have to struggle for it. Nothing's going to be handed to you on a silver platter, and that's what it taught us and that's what we're trying to teach and pass on to the kids. Especially, in the realms of education, and that's what Chicano Park has taught us, those type of values, and it was done through culture. Because the mural projects came in a year later. There was a beautiful, beautiful exhibition of murals on the pillars of the Coronado Bridge. (Music up) One of the artists stated he looked down there under the bridge and said, "You know, these gray pillars look very cold and very ugly. It looks like an urban forest. We have to walk under here every day to go to church, to go to the store, to go to school. Why not beautify them?" So thus began the mural projects. The artists began to come together, and began painting murals, and we just renovated about 10 murals last year. Jo Reed: And it also gave birth to more than one song, including "Chicano Park Samba..." Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, there you go. Once again, we wrote music about the things that we were involved with, the experiences, because we feel that that was also a way to teach the kids through music. A lot of times, you notice, people can remember things a lot better if they're in a poetic sense. I guess, just like your rappers today, things that rhyme and we felt that a long time ago. We saw it happen through the music that we were writing about the Chicano Movement, Cesar Chavez, and many, many other people. Jo Reed: You started working with gangs. Tell me how and when that happened? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Well, it was through the City of San Diego. It was early '80s. I managed to get selected to direct that program, working four different parts of the City of San Diego where gangs were very prevalent and we began to work those areas, trying to slow down the gang killings. "Killing Each Other Over a Neighborhood," that's one of the songs I wrote. I led the program for a little over five years, and in that time, we reduced gang violence by more than 50 percent. Jo Reed: How? What did you do, what was your strategy? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: By working with these kids. We found out-- we would tell the neighborhoods, "You know what? When you mention the word gangs, some people feel like we're talking about aliens from another planet." But a lot of these kids were kids that we saw grow up in the neighborhood. We knew their fathers and mothers and uncles and families, so we were with them along those lines, they're family, they're part of a tribe. So we added a little more love to the work that we did with them. It wasn't easy. Sometimes you had to use tough love, but whatever it took to make it work. We did a lot of speaking and singing in the juvenile detention facilities, in the juvenile hall, encampo detention facility, and different prisons. I got invited in 1976 to perform in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. It's one of the oldest prisons in this country. Jo Reed: That must've been an experience. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: We walked in and the hallways were like rock, stone. That's how old it is. They were like walking in a cave, and that's where I had my first contact with the Native Americans that were involved in the incident at Wounded Knee, They were there playing the drum and chanting, and they were all looking up at the sky, and I was watching them, and it seemed like their spirits were leaving their bodies and just breaking out of the prison, and it made me feel like you can incarcerate a person, their body, but you can't incarcerate their soul or their spirit, and culture and music has a lot to do with that. The drumming that they did and the chanting that they did had a lot to do with freeing them from that environment, for something they believed in, which was their land and their people. Jo Reed: You started a band that your brother then joined. Tell me about it. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Los Alacranes, the Scorpions, we did a lot of the same things. We followed a lot of the political movements, played I couldn't even tell you where; everything from for politicians to prisons to schools, a lot of schools, a lot of colleges. Everywhere there was somebody that wanted to open up their mind and their hearts and their spirits. We were there, and that's what we try to do with our music. Jo Reed: And it was the same music that was a combination of English and Spanish? And it was music that was also political? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yes. Jo Reed: And the music you played was traditional but not, at the same time? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Exactly. Yeah, because people were very anxious to hear something different than a lot of your popular radio tunes, you know. So when they began to hear what we called Chicano music, it became very popular with a lot of our people in the neighborhoods, and even to this day-- I wrote the song "Chicano Park" many years ago, and to this day I have people tell me, “Play the- play me that song.” It amazes me. That song’s still around. It’s still alive. It’s still affecting people. That’s the power of art and culture. It stays with you for a long time. It develops you as a human being. It gives you character, and that’s what it seemed to do to all of us and to the people that we touched. That was our reward. It wasn’t trying to get to Hollywood, get a Grammy or whatever, which is nice, everybody would like a Grammy once in a while, but that wasn’t our mission. The most important thing is realize what your mission is and then fulfill it. And ours was to play and to march for those people that were facing injustices in the courts and the schools, in the hospitals, everywhere you could think of. That’s where our mission was. Jo Reed: And your mission was to tell their story? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Exactly, through a song, and they liked that. I think that’s what really hit them at home. It’s very emotional. It’s very emotional. Jo Reed: Chunky, I know you’ve spent a lot of your life working in education and now you’re a staff member at the King-Chavez school. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yes, I am. I’m a community liaison person at King-Chavez Elementary, and they renamed the auditorium after me. They have been wonderful. They’ve been great supporters. It’s a good school because we have a big, beautiful mural there that was done by Sal Barajas, which depicts the farm worker’s strike, the Chicano Movement, the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King and all these things. And so you’re not just teaching the kids academics but you’re also teaching them U.S. history through a different avenue, so we have to examine all those things. And our youth need to get involved in that, and we need to write songs about them. We need to talk about them. We need to sing because we have to bring those things back up in the forefront, the music, the art, the culture. There are many traditions being passed on that remind us of who we are, remind us of our parents, our grandparents, and you gain strength by remembering little things like that. Jo Reed: So you go out and you’re passing the traditions along, and you’re teaching Chicano history through your music. How do young people respond to it? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: For one thing we feel like they’re getting inspired. If it takes a song to stir up the juice, then let it be a song. If it takes a mural, let it be a mural. If it takes ceramics, let it be ceramics. See, it’s all related; it’s all interrelated, and that’s why I think it’s important to teach this in the colleges and the high schools and colleges, to give our young people some direction and the true meaning of what has happened in America and what can happen if we all begin to realize that we have more things in common than we do differences. No matter where you come from, no matter what style of music you play, we all have things more in common than we do differences. Jo Reed: Chunky, can I have another song? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah. Jo Reed: How about “Rising Souls?” Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: “Rising Souls.” <sings and plays guitar> Jo Reed: How did you find out you got a National Heritage Fellowship? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Barry called me. Jo Reed: Barry Bergey called. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah, and told me, and it didn’t hit me right away. I said, “Okay, you want me to go to Washington, DC? All right,” and I hung up, and then I thought "Wow." Then I told some people and they say, “Do you realize what that is?” And I began to open my eyes and say, “Yeah. That’s the highest award you can get to.” It was a surprise, I was not expecting it. And then the fact that I was going to come to Washington, DC, I’ve never been here in my life. All the buildings and everything, I haven’t seen them except on TV. Jo Reed: I know. It looks like a movie set, doesn’t it? Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Yeah. We got here and, wow, look at the capital, man. The Washington Monument being renovated and the Lincoln Memorial where I’m taking my grandson. I took him this morning. He said, “I want to go stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King gave his speech, 'I Have a Dream.'” And here I am. And I think the most fulfilling thing that I’m finding here is all the different people I meet from different parts of the country that are so warm, so friendly, so open to want to know about you and about what you do, and also them. They have stories, too. They’re very interesting and very intriguing, and also rather humorous, too. A lot of them are humorous. And I believe you have to have some humor in your teachings because making people laugh is also like medicine, like therapy. Laughing, you release negative energies. Jo Reed: It’s another way of touching your heart. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Exactly. You could swallow things a lot better when you’re laughing. <laughter> Jo Reed: Chunky, thank you again for giving me your time. (Music up) And congratulations again. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez: Thank you, Jo. Thank you so much. Thank you, Washington, DC. Thank you NEA. Jo Reed: That's musician, songwriter, educator, activist, and 2013 National Heritage Fellow, Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. #### End of Chunky_with_jo_boost.mp3 ####