Friday, August 29, 2014

Roberto Pulido


 Roberto Pulido has been up and down the road for the past seven decades. First as part of a migrant-working family. Then as an educator. Ultimately, he ended up traveling throughout America and Mexico doing something that he never dreamed of doing.   

"The road is an adventure," Roberto Pulido, 64, said. "Nunca sabes, (You never know,) anything can happen."

I met up with Roberto Pulido at his shop, located behind his house in Edinburg. He greeted me with Chumina, his dog, by his side. He tells me that Chumina had gone missing for several hours the day before our meeting. He found her right as his son Bobby was leaving his house later that day. She was tangled up near a jet ski, so he had to use a knife to cut the cord to set her free.

He welcomes me to his office inside and lowers the volume on a television set that hangs from his wall.

"First of all, let me tell you something about me," Pulido begins after taking a seat.

Jose Roberto Pulido was born to Jose and Adelina Pulido on March 1, 1950 in Edinburg, TX.

"Como dicen, Febrero loco y Marzo otro poco, I'm number one, okay?" said Pulido, jokingly referring to an old saying that would be lost in translation in literal English.

At the age of three, Pulido was run over by a pickup truck. This horrifying event caused Pulido to lose 55 percent of his hearing in both ears.

He pulls out a hearing aid out of his right ear to demonstrate how he inserts and removes them every morning and night.

"I wear two (hearing aids) pero sometimes it's too much," Pulido reveals.

Not being able to hear as good as his fellow students affected his work at school, as it took him longer to learn English. At times, he felt like he had really fallen behind.

"I used to get paddled (at school) because I didn't know how to speak English," Pulido said. "I missed out on a lot because of my hearing."

Like most Tejano, conjunto, and norteño musicians of this area, he comes from a migrant-working family. He found himself working in Texas, Florida, Washington, and California growing up.

"Aqui en el Valle, I picked cotton, I did la fruta, melons, sandia, tomate," Pulido said. "In California, we used to do the grapes, peaches, plums, y toda la cosa."

He would often listen to norteño music as a youth. His father was a fan of many local major acts, like norteño pioneers Los Donneños.

"When I was 11 years old, my dad was a very big fan de ellos," Pulido said.

In 1972, Pulido's life took a surprising turn when he married Diana Montes, daughter of Los Donneños' accordionist Mario Montes.

"I never realized that one day I was going to get to marry his daughter," Pulido said laughing.

They had three children — Bobby, Alma, and Marco Antonio.

As part of the school band, Pulido started experimenting with the saxophone as he entered his early teens. His first professional gig began as a member of Los Layton's of Edcouch-Elsa in 1965.

Norfy Layton Gonzalez, 61, remembers those early days very well.

"We met him through our first, original saxophone player Oscar Diaz Jr.," Norfy said. "My brothers incorporated the saxophone [to their conjunto], and we were looking for another saxophone player. So then Oscar Diaz mentioned Roberto Pulido."

The Layton brothers brought him in, and Pulido was able to see the difference between playing at school, and playing out con la gente.

"That's how he first joined the music industry," Norfy said. "He played with us two, or three years, something like that, then he left."

While he enjoyed regional success, Pulido still had to go to work in California during his high school summer vacations. When he was over there, he performed with his late uncle Leonel Pulido.

"As a matter of fact, that's him right there," Pulido says, pointing to a varnished tree slice that holds a photo of his tio.

"He was one of a kind," Pulido continues. "When he passed away (in 2012), I had a lot of phone calls from different accordionists. Flaco Jimenez, among so many of them, called to give their condolences. They had the ultimate respect for him."

Leonel was one of the rare Tejano, conjunto musicians that played both the chromatic and button diatonic accordions.

"He played a reversible chromatic," Pulido said. "He learned how to play on his own. He bought an old accordion, de cinco lineas, he learned to play it and then he wanted to buy a new one. We had to order it in Italy, that's when we found that it was a reversible chromatic."

Roberto and Leonel Pulido. 

After graduating from Edinburg High School in 1969, Pulido told his old man that he was tired of traveling and working in the fields.

"He said, 'That's why you need an education, son,'" Pulido said. "So I got a four year scholarship to study music here at Pan American."

So without a shortcut in sight, Pulido attended Pan American University, as it was known then, to study music. In the middle of his college experience, Pulido joined Cecilio Garza y Los Kasinos.

The time would finally arrive for him to sing.

"I got dared into singing," Pulido said. "Some of the musicians that played with our band, they told me it was not the easiest thing. I said, 'Well I'm not a singer, but I'll guarantee you one thing, I think I can sing better than some of the knuckleheads that are out there.'"

Pulido stepped up to the spotlight, surprising his bandmates with his vocals.

"I went in there (to sing and they said), 'Wow vato, you can sing!'"

When conversing casually, Pulido has a distinct accent that is difficult to describe. It's very animated, and he code switches effortlessly between English, Spanish and regional slang. When he sings, his voice transforms into something that is just as unique.

"I have a different voice," Pulido said. "I'm a high tenor, I sing a little bit higher than the normal musicos. Not that I'm the only one, there are some other ones tambien que sing high."

He graduated in 1973, then decided to branch out on his own with a new band called Los Clasicos.

Pulido began teaching in the PSJA school district after graduation. Eventually, he would take a detour, and start traveling to give lectures on bilingual education programs.

"I remember I used to go to Montana, California, here in Texas," Pulido said. "After a year in a half, I got sick cause it was too much."

By the mid-1970's, he chose to leave his career in education. While things were rough at first, he kept focusing on his music, hoping to catch a break.

"The first three years not even my mom bought a record," Pulido said. "Then everything just started falling in place."

He fused his vocals, the accordion and brass instruments to create a style that he likes to describe as guacamole.

This idiosyncratic form first caught on in Corpus Christi, a Tejano hot spot in the those days. Soon it spread to the rest of the Tejano-listening universe, including the Rio Grande Valley. With the decade coming to a close, they were now seen as one of the hottest Tejano acts around.

This poster hangs in Pulido's shop in Edinburg.
Flaco Pulido, 54, has been playing with his older brother for about 39 years. He plays two different saxophones, and sings back-up. He's the only brother that still performs with Los Clasicos.

"At the time, my father was with us," Flaco said of those days in the mid-to-late 1970's. "We were five brothers, on the road. I went from a little boy playing at the park, to the big time scenery at clubs. The good memories that I have was with my dad, because my dad entered the band to take care of me."

Pulido estimates that Los Clasicos have recorded 45 releases, through five decades of 45's, LP's, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, and CD's. The different labels that have released his work include Falcón Records, Freddie Records, EMI Latin, and Sniper Records. "Copa Tras Copa", "Te Vi Partir", "Obsesión", "Flecha Envenenada", and "La Tumba Sera El Final" rank among his most popular hits. Other songs that classify as collaborative efforts, for example, "Los Tres Amigos" (with Little Joe Hernandez and Ruben Ramos), "Contigo" (with his son Bobby Pulido) and "Ya Ahora Es Tarde" (with Emilio Navaira) are also high points for Pulido.



Now known as a successful artist, he decided to launch his own scholarship for music students — the Roberto Pulido Music Scholarship Endowment.

"It helped out a lot," Pulido said of the scholarship he received after graduating from high school. "I'm just giving back to the community, what they did for me back then. The cost of living has gone up, it's harder and harder, and if you can help out a student that really is looking at it seriously, por qué no?"

While sitting in his office, he starts pointing to stuff he's made over the past few years. It's a form of therapy for him.

"Hago un poquito de todo," ("I do a little bit of everything,") Pulido said. After struggling to get the words out of why he loves making stuff, he blurts out, "I guess to keep me sane."

Some of his craft work includes meat turners, rings, rosaries, back scratchers, knives, and fishing lures.

He hands me two knives; both include engraved "Roberto Pulido" signatures on the blades. The handles are made out of elk and white-tailed deer horns.

"They are all hand made," Pulido assures me after I inspect the knives.

I ask him about the lures, and he pulls some out of a drawer.

"Ay cabron," Pulido shrieked, after accidentally poking himself with the hooks that are attached. After a few seconds, he hands them over to me and says, "They glow in the dark!"

It seems that to a totally different demographic, Pulido might be known more for his outdoorsman's prowess, than for his music.

He notes that he doesn't get to hunt or fish as often as he would like, due to his profession. He busts out another old Mexican saying, "Si tienes tienda atiendela, si no vendela." He uses it as a metaphor, to illustrate how he has to concentrate on his own career, the same way a store owner would do for his own business. If a store owner doesn't care, what's the point, he asks.

One recent project involved him recording a ranchera with Adelina, his 82 year old mother. Pulido picked Jesús Favella's "Me Voy Lejos" because it was the first song she played for him.

"She was terrified," Pulido said of his mom at the recording studio. "Le dije, 'Mama, no te mortifiques!'" ("I told her, 'Mom, don't be scared!'")

Pulido, while sipping on a Budlight and chewing on some Skoal-brand dipping tobacco, puts on an early cut of the song on a nearby CD player. We sit quietly listening to the heartfelt song between mother and son. After the track concludes, he explains to me why he did it.

"Yo quiero dejarle algo a mis hijos, mis nietos, pa' que sepan de donde vinieron," ("I want to leave something for my children, grandchildren, so they can know where they came from,") Pulido said.

Pulido's next stop is in Mexico, where he will be celebrating his legendary journey in La Onda Tejana in Monterrey on August 28. Pulido feels that his music is still thriving across the border.

The adventure won't stop there. Pulido plans to be staring down endless roads for many years to come. From our brief conversation together, he doesn't seem like the type of man that's content with what's passed him by. He's still driving forward, towards that final stretch at the top of the mountain, with no exit in sight.  

"In the music business, you have peaks and valleys, vato," Pulido said. "I had a peak, then it came down. I peaked again, then I came down. I'm a firm believer that the lord is going to give me another peak. I just have to work at it."

'Flaco' and Roberto Pulido at their game room in Edinburg.

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