Chapter 1 - The Roots & the Routes to Becoming a “Rockero”

Lesson: Remember what you liked as a kid. It will be revealing to your future self.

My Familia, My Historia, My Cultura

I wasn’t born a “headbanger” or the son of a “headbanger.” What led this small-town Texas Chicano to develop a love of rock-n-roll ? Many people with whom I have crossed paths have posed this question to me. Is there a clear path that could be drawn from my childhood interests to this loyalty in early adulthood to this raucous musical genre? This is one of the fundamental issues I try to tackle in this book about my life.

I was born in Roma, Texas and spent most of my childhood down the road from there in Rio Grande City, Texas, a small South Texas border town of about 15,000 people located in Starr County. Roma is even smaller than Rio Grande City. The movie, Viva Zapata, with Marlon Brando, was filmed in Roma. Some of the scenes were actually shot in and around the building that housed the hospital where I was born.

We grew up in the house that was my mom and her sisters’ childhood home. When my parents married (my dad at age 21 and my mom at age 16), my mom’s parents gave them the house as a wedding gift. When I was born, my mom was 18 years old. There was my big sister, Celi (short for Araceli), and my baby sister, Mari (short for Marissa). There is a four year gap between me and Mari because my mom and dad lost a baby in between our births. In a similar way, there is a four and a half year gap between my two kids because my wife, Theresa, and I lost a baby during that time. It’s terrible to lose a child, but it also makes you appreciate the fact that you’ve been blessed with two great kids.

I‘m named for my father’s brother, Raul, though we called him Tio Rule. There are two versions of the story about how I was named, a funny tale and the truth. My dad is named for his dad, so he is Sabino Alvarez, Jr. It is typical in my dad’s family and also to some degree in our Mexican-American culture that the first born boy be named after their father. My dad claimed that since he was already a “junior,” he couldn’t have a son who was also “junior.” I would have been Sabino Alvarez “the third.” He claims he named me after my uncle so that my Tio Rule would not decide to name his son “junior.” Of course, my uncle didn’t let this stop him. He had a son, and named him Raul Alvarez, Jr. We call him Rulito (little Rule). Rulito named his son Raul Alvarez also, so there is even a Raul Alvarez III (with neither I, II or III being me). The truth about my name is that my Tio Rule saved my dad from drowning when they were kids. My dad’s family grew up in a ranchito (small ranch/farm) called Los Barreras almost exactly half way between Roma and Rio Grande City. Part of the land that my dad’s family owned fronted the Rio Grande River. They loved playing in the river, and before my dad was a strong swimmer, he got caught by the currents. My Tio Rule fished him out. My dad chose to honor my uncle by giving me his name, but he prefers to tell the other story.

To my dad’s family, I was “yuneh” (which was how people who have a strong Mexican accent pronounce “junior”). So, even though I did not have my dad’s name, his family still called me “yuneh.” For the longest time, my mom’s family called me “gordo,” which means fat kid or fat person. I was a chubby baby, so they started calling me that out of affection. Some of my cousins still call me “gordo” because that’s all they’ve ever known to call me. By the age of two, I had outgrown being “cute and chubby,” but the name stuck. When I was a skinny teen and my family would call me “gordo” in public it would draw snickers or confused looks. My grandfather, Abuelo Tomas (may he rest in peace), cut through the BS and just started calling me “el gordo flaco” (the skinny fat kid).

The nickname that I’ve actually had the longest is “Rule” like my Tio Rule (pronounced “roo-leh”). In English, my name is spelled like the word "rule," as in “you must follow the rules.” And, follow the rules I did. I was and have always been one to observe rules, whether written or unwritten. In essence, this book is a set of rules that I’ve learned through the process of living life. By writing them down, I hope to save you some of the heartache that may come from learning them the hard way.

A funny thing about the nickname “Rule” is that I had a college buddy from El Paso who liked telling me at the most random times, ‘My mommy said that “Rules” were made to be broken.’ I thought it was pretty clever. Of course, my drinking buddies had some fun with this adage when we were observing “happy hours.” The dorm mate who coined this phrase we nicknamed “Fidelt the Tri-Delt,” so I figure that, as far as nicknames go, things could have been a lot worse for me. My other college buddies were: Big-O, Gome and Gome (brothers with the same nickname), Mikey, Quique, Milo, Yeye, Ronbo, Genghis, Hubes and Stevie D. Actually, Stevie D is a made up nick name. Somehow, he got spared a nickname. My theory is that he was the cool dude who was in the Stanford band, played the drums, and was a rock fan. He didn’t need a nickname.

But those are stories years away from my childhood. We grew up in a very old house, the very house in which my mom and her three sisters grew up. As far as I can recall, it was always a bit dilapidated: cracked lead-based paint; holes in the ceiling that leaked when it rained; cracks in the shower floor that gave bugs a clear path into the house. It also had a few very unique features: no light switches in some rooms, just strings attached to the light fixtures that you tugged on and off; and no doors to the bedrooms, just curtains. There was no air conditioning. Every room had its own fan. In the early years, we didn’t have oscillating fans nor ceiling fans.

Our home was a two bedroom house, so my parents had one bedroom and the three kids had the other bedroom. In a house where the bedrooms had no doors, this presented a problem when I was a high school student and had to study late. Turning the lights on in any room would shine light into every room (except the bathroom). So, after a late return from a baseball or basketball away game, I would do my homework in the bathroom with the door closed so that the lights wouldn’t wake-up everybody. There was no clock in the bathroom, so I remember finishing my trigonometry or calculus homework and then realizing it was one or two in the morning.

I have fond feelings towards that old house. Because I was embarrassed to invite friends over, I always thought that I was ashamed of it. Maybe I did feel this way during my elementary, middle and high school days. But, one year, when I was a Junior or Senior at Stanford, I came home for the summer only to find that my dad was rebuilding the house. The exterior had already been re-done and there were no interior walls yet, just the studs. When I saw it, it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I thought to myself, “What have you done,” and “Why was I not consulted about this?” My dad’s explanation for this is that he had planned to rebuild the house all along. My mom says that what actually happened is that my dad was trying to fix the roof, and that when they removed the roof panels, part of the house caved-in. Apparently, the roof was holding the house together. At some point, I had to admit that it was my dad and little sister living in the house and that the makeover was probably warranted. I do miss that house.

I have two sisters, one older and one younger. I am a middle child so I always maintain that I had the identity crisis. Of course, my sisters say that I got special treatment because I was a boy, and there’s probably some truth in that. I remember playing the typical boy games like trompos (tops), canicas (marbles), video games, and all kinds of sports. But I was good at jacks and hop scotch too. We played badminton and baseball a lot in the backyard and would often throw the Frisbee in the street in front of our house. Monopoly and Scrabble were the board games of choice. Of course, when video games hit the scene (Atari & Colecovision), then those took over as the primary source of entertainment.

At North Grammar Elementary, we had fun times. Tether ball was one of my favorite games. I remember that one of the most fun things we would do is to take off our belts and chase after a type of black wasp with orange wings that we used to call “chupa huesos” (bone suckers). None of us wanted to find out what it felt like to have our bones sucked. Fortuitously, no one ever got stung by the “chupa huesos.” We would also make the occasional sacrifice of a horned toad to the gods for rain. Poor creatures. Apparently, we didn’t even do the sacrifice properly, because the rains never came. In Intermediate School, we learned how to flesh out tarantulas from their “holes in the ground” and to have tarantula battles.

I don’t have much in the way of memories that pertain to our home life. I attribute it to the fact that when you are poor, every day seems like every other day. I remember general activities but not how old I might have been when I was doing them. There aren’t a lot of photographs to jog the memory. I think photographs help to cement memories since they serve as visual reminders of the past. Emotion is another good “recorder” of memories, but since I don’t have a typical kind of emotional access then that was no help in terms of my ability to develop memories.

There are a few memorable experiences. There’s that time that I almost burned down the house and my sister, Celi, along with it. I was fascinated with fire. I hid behind the curtains in the living room to play with matches. It wasn’t long before the curtains caught fire. My dad was at work and my mom was over at Abuela’s house about four blocks away. I froze and didn’t know what to do. My sister actually put out the fire, but in so doing her dress caught fire. I think she told me “hablale a mama” (go get mom), and that’s when I finally did something. I started running to our grandma’s house. She ran after me, her dress still on fire. I was running and crying. My sister fell while she was running and her fall extinguished the flames. I considered it a miracle, the first time I brushed up against the divine. I can’t imagine life had the house burned down and my sister been seriously injured or worse.

I also remember when Hurricane Allen hit the gulf coast area. Our house was near the arroyo (creek). In fact, our street served as drainage for a quite a few neighborhoods. It wouldn’t take much for our street to become a raging river. A lot of the neighbors’ kids were allowed to go out and play in the raging water, but we weren’t allowed even though it was the thing we most wanted to do. When Hurricane Allen hit, we had to lift all of our furniture and belongings about five feet off the floor on saw horses. We abandoned our house for a couple of days and stayed at my Tio Popo’s house because he lived up on a hill. Tio Popo is my great uncle. His name was Adolfo but we called him, “Popo.” There was a bunch of people at Tio Popo’s house when Allen made landfall, including all of my cousins. I remember it being fun and not scary. Previous hurricanes were scarier because we stayed at home and the house would shake something fierce.

Probably the strangest memory I have is one time when I was sick with a fever as a child. My parents gave me Tylenol and whatever was in Tylenol back in the 1970’s made me have hallucinations. I was in my bed and could see giant spiders below my sister’s bed. My mom had me go to her bedroom because I was so freaked out. I spent a good amount of time watching what appeared to me to be a national geographic special on the African Sahara on the wall of their bedroom. After a while, I was staring out the window and could see dark figures walking outside the window. One of the figures stopped to peek through the window. That was it for me and the hallucinations. I shut my eyes as tight as I could and probably kept them shut until I finally fell asleep. The images of the spiders, African lions, and of the dark figure that I saw are forever etched in my brain.

I recall attending a wake for my great grandmother, mama grande, that was held in the living room of the home where she lived. I wasn’t much taller than the coffin, so I must have been three or four. I didn’t have an emotional reaction, but I recall that the room was dark as was the mood. I remember thinking, “How can someone lay still for so long?” About five years later, my grandmother, Olivia, died. Although my emotional reaction was initially about the same as it was for my great grandmother, during the burial I recall being overcome with grief and running to our car to cry. In retrospect, I must have learned that once the casket goes into the ground, you never see that person again. “Forever” is a scary concept at any age, but especially for a child.

My most intense childhood memory is the time in our lives when my parents separated and later divorced. I was in middle school at the time. My family attended church less frequently during this difficult period. After this, I didn’t regularly attend church (with a few minor exceptions) until 2000. Having lived a life with what I would call an extraordinary number of blessings, I felt for most of my life that I was not worthy of such blessings because of my lack of religious devotion. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t led a life based on principles such as love, respect, honor, and justice. My parents taught me well and served as a good example for how to be a good person.

We weren’t alone in having “just a little” when it came to money and possessions. When I was in high school, Starr County had the dubious distinction of being the second poorest county in the nation. I remember that my friends and I would joke that maybe the following year we would be number one instead of number two. We didn’t have much, but it wasn’t something I worried about as a kid. We didn’t have much, but neither did the vast majority of the people around us. Our normal, everyday life was just that to us—normal. It was only when I went off to college that I discovered that being poor wasn’t normal for most families, especially not families sending their kids to Stanford University.

I was always a good student. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, I only received two B’s in all of my report cards. If you check the records, I officially only had one B, because in 6th grade, I received a B in art. When my mom asked about it, I said that I didn’t think it was fair because I did all of the artwork required. Of course, being the good advocate that she was, she complained to someone at school about the grade and it was changed to an A. My other B came in 3rd grade. Part of my success in schools is that I was never absent. Having worked for the Austin school district for a little over nine years, I know now the importance of attendance. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, I only missed 2 days (if you don’t count extracurricular trips). The first day that I missed was in 3rd grade, and as luck would have it, I missed the day I was supposed to receive my perfect attendance certificate. The 2nd day that I missed was during my senior year. I actually skipped school with my girlfriend just to see what it felt like to skip school. Even though my mom worked at the high school athletics office, she never found out that I skipped. (Until now. Sorry, mom!)

I graduated salutatorian of my class. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to highlight a lesson I learned from being number two and not number one. For my entire high school tenure, I was the top ranked student in my graduating class. There was no doubt that I would be valedictorian, until the topped ranked student in the Junior class decided to graduate early. Her GPA was less than 2 tenths of a point higher than mine (on a 100 point scale), but I maintained it for 4 years and she only maintained it for 3 years. I was a rule-follower, so I didn’t challenge it. By the time that the rankings were announced, I had already been accepted to Stanford, so I didn’t really give a flip. But, I do wish I would have challenged the ranking, just out of principle.

Maybe this doesn’t fit in with stories about how true rockers start. I followed the rules, didn’t miss school, and got good grades. But I always just wanted to be left alone. Getting good grades kept my mom and my teachers off my back, so I got what I wanted. I wasn’t a childhood genius by any means. In 3rd grade, I got my first B, and 4th grade did not get off to a good start. I was having serious problems with reading comprehension, but I was able to get one-on-one tutoring through the school district’s migrant program, a program that provided academic support to students of migrant farm workers. My family would migrate to New Mexico during the summers because my dad would go to work in the produce packing/shipping plants. My father’s migrant work allowed me to qualify for tutoring, and this is what helped me to develop a love for learning. Although reading doesn’t come easy to me to this day, I love learning, and I am happy in life as long as I can continue to learn and use the knowledge gained for the greater good.

I mention this particular academic intervention because it points to the fact that I have a different way of learning and thinking. Although I had great difficulty with comprehension, through the individualized support I received, I was able to learn how to increase my reading comprehension and get my homework done more efficiently. Without this help, I am not sure I would have remained a straight A student, enjoyed the same kind of academic success in middle school and high school, or ended up at Stanford.

I believe that in dealing with my differences in learning abilities, I developed stronger abilities in the areas of analysis and perception as a result. My limitation became an advantage. Because I had to pay a greater amount of attention in order to comprehend what was being taught, I noticed more than other students might have. Because I had to read things two or three times over, I began noticing patterns that other people might not typically notice. Out of necessity, I became an effective problem solver. I believe that my problem solving skills have allowed me to be effective in my political and professional careers as well as with my community advocacy efforts.

Music & My Childhood

My earliest memories of music are from the television programs I watched. In creating this list, I was surprised not because of a lack of ability to recall but due to the overwhelming length of the list.

  • Kid Shows: Cepellin; Pipo; Sesame Street; Electric Company; Carrascolendas; School House Rock; Bugs Bunny; Scooby Doo; superhero shows.
  • Funny TV Shows: Three Stooges; Laurel & Hardy; Little Rascals; The Andy Griffith Show; The Beverly Hillbillies; Gilligan’s Island; Happy Days; Laverne & Shirley; The Jeffersons; Good Times; What’s Happening; The Munsters; The Adams Family; Three’s Company; Bossom Buddies; WKRP in Cincinnati; Mork & Mindy; The Dukes of Hazzard; El Chavo del Ocho; El Chapulin Colorado.
  • Musical Variety Shows: Tony Orlando & Dawn; Captain & Tennile; The Osmonds; Sonny & Cher; Lawrence Welk; Hee Haw; Carol Burnet.
  • TV Show Themes: Hawaii Five-O; Andy Griffith; The Lone Ranger; Dukes of Hazzard; Baretta; The Rockford Files; Mission Impossible.

Carrascolendas theme song

I appreciate the fact that our parents either made us or let us watch the Spanish and bilingual children’s television programs, Cepellin, Pipo and Carrascolendas. I still remember the theme song for the show featuring the iconic Mexican clown, Pipo. Although my sisters and I were just as enamored with Sesame Street and Electric Company, the fact that we watched these Spanish programs made us develop a deep emotional connection with the Spanish language. I feel that this connection led to our embracing the language regardless of how much discouragement to speak the language we received in school (and there was plenty of discouragement, believe it or not). At school, we were not allowed to speak Spanish in the classroom, or even in the hallway at times. Of course, the fact that speaking Spanish gave us the ability to communicate with grandparents, great aunts/uncles, cousins, etc., played into this appreciation of language as well.

Many a song from television programs remain stuck in my head. The earliest shows whose theme songs I remember are The Andy Griffith Show and the Lone Ranger. I can pretty much whistle or hum either, no assistance required. My classical music education was via Bugs Bunny. For the longest time those classical music tunes were associated with “el conejo Bugs” and not anything else. After I graduated from college, I decided to do an independent study on classical music composers and that’s when I realized that there was something more to the cartoon soundtrack of my life.

The two cop show tunes that stuck in my head from that time period were “Good Ol’ Boys,” the theme song to Dukes of Hazzard by Waylon Jennings, and “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” the theme to Baretta by Sammy Davis Jr. Ironically, one expressed a disdain for the law and the other a warning from taking such an attitude towards the law. While Bo and Luke Duke had “been in trouble with the law since the day they were born,” in the theme to Baretta, we are admonished “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

The most fascinating insights into my likes/dislikes come from the musical variety programs that I listed above. Those programs were family shows, so I love the fact that the whole family would watch. I think having watched these shows certainly enhanced my appreciation of rhythm and blues, jazz, country and other folk genres. When I was involved as a board member and disc jockey for KOOP Radio (91.7 FM), a community radio station in Austin, I remember loving the fact that there were so many volunteers that were willing to share their personal collections and knowledge/expertise of these and other roots/alternative genres on the Austin radio airwaves in support of our vision of community radio.

For my early teen years, my family was a “Top 40 - Kasey Kasem Countdown” kind of family so I was a little frightened to look at these years. I decided to dig a little past those years to see what music I recalled of my very earliest years as a radio listener. I looked up the Top 100 songs of each year starting in 1975 and then going back year by year until I couldn’t recognize any songs in the Top 100 chart. It turns out that 1972 (age 6) was the first year that I started remembering songs from the radio, as opposed to just songs that I heard as part of the TV shows that I watched. Only one of the songs that I recalled was a kid oriented song ( “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr.), while the other three were more somber in tone: “Son Sung Blue” (Neil Diamond), “Morning Has Broken” (Cat Stevens) and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (Roberta Flack). Those three songs are great songs, but they seem a little bit of an odd choice for a six year old. These songs struck a chord with me, so much so that I remember them to this very day.

The list of familiar tunes from 1973 was most definitely more up-beat: four songs by Tony Orlando & Dawn (“Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” “Candida,” “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose,” “Knock Three Times”) plus “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” (Jim Croce), “Drift Away” (Dobie Gray), “Superstition” (Stevie Wonder), “Reelin’ in the Years” (Steely Dan) and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (Stevie Wonder). As a kid, I wanted to be Tony Orlando. He was just the coolest cat with a great voice and a million dollar smile. Around the same time, I also wanted to be Elvis, especially after his 1973 televised concert from Honolulu. When Elvis threw that rhinestone jacket into the audience, I remember telling my mom that I really, really wished I could have caught that jacket. Even though my mom could probably have made a jacket that looked just like it, I’m glad she didn’t.

Just'a good ol' boys
Never meanin' no harm
Beats all you never saw
Been in trouble with the law
Since the day they was born

Good Ol' Boys (Waylon Jennings)

Don't go to bed with no price on your head
You know, You know, Don't do it
Don't do the crime if you can't do the time
You know, You know, Don’t do it

Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow (Sammy Davis Jr.)

The next two years, 1974 and 1975, a couple of the songs I remember were already moving more towards disco, like “Love’s Theme” (Love Unlimited Orchestra) and “Rock the Boat” (The Hues Corporation). This is contrasted with two country songs that I remember really liking: “Rhinestone Cowboy” (Glen Campbell) and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (John Denver). Songs with a Latino twist also stuck in my head (literally): “Touch the Wind – Eres Tu” (Mocedades), “Why Can’t We Be Friends” (War), and a couple of tunes by Freddy Fender (“Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days & Wasted Nights”). Elton John had two songs on my list of early favorites (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Philadelphia Freedom”). Stevie Wonder’s, “Don’t You Worry About a Thing,” rounds out my 1974-75 list. I’ve actually seen both Elton John and Stevie Wonder perform live in concert. I hadn’t realized just how far back my experiences went with these artists.

So this is how my journey started. Having had such a modest upbringing most certainly affects how I view the world around me and why I work to expand equity and opportunity for others. It was the response to this simple life that led me to want to explore things that were different, including rock music and the complexity of life outside of a small town environment.

Because I felt that life was happier when life was simple, it always amazes me that life becomes exceedingly and unnecessarily more complicated the further one advances socio-economically. This feeling of there having to be a better way of approaching life is what has driven me to uncover the simple rules to living that will help cut through the cr@p that pervades our lives and that keeps us from feeling true happiness. For me, hard rock and heavy metal played a pivotal role in developing a sense of understanding about the world in which we live. I believe the secret to happiness is not hidden and that almost any vehicle for understanding that we choose to use (if representative enough of the human condition) will lead us to the simple truths that I lay out in this book.

Knock Three Times - Tony Orlando & Dawn

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights - Freddy Fender

Don't Worry about a Thing- Stevie Wonder

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *