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Words from the Wise: A Life of Music from Zacatecas to the Mission

New America Media, News feature, Carlos Cota Estvez Posted: Jun 10, 2009

Editors note: Lorenzo Armendariz, 62, came to California 33 years ago from Zacatecas, Mexico. He is a street musician of Northern Mexican music known as taka-takas or chirrines. He makes a living playing his accordion on Valencia Street between 17th and 18th streets in San Franciscos Mission District. He told his story to NAM contributor Carlos Cota Estvez.

I started playing the accordion because my father used to be a musician, and so did one of my uncles. I learned to play when I was a teenager. When I was in my early 20s, I was already playing for money in the streets.

I got out of Mexico because of the 1970s crisis. It was so hard to live in those years. It cant be worse than that. Even now, its a lot easier if you compare the situation with Mexico in the 70s.

I got to the States in the late 70s. First we lived in Los Angeles. Thats where three of my children were born. My younger daughter was born here in San Francisco. We live with her now.

We decorated my daughters garage, and it doesnt look like a garage, I promise. My wife and I live there and we dont have any complaints. The other rooms are rented to other people. Thats how shes dealing with the crisis.

I got my Social Security number from a friend in Los Angeles. It was really easy to get one in those days. I worked a few normal day jobs but it didn't work out. I preferred working in music. For more than 20 years, I paid my taxes. I only stopped in 2001. I think my retirement account should be around $250,000, which Ill collect when I turn 65, God willing.

I missed the 1980s amnesty for undocumented immigrants. I had already been living in the States for 10 years, but those were my drinking days. I was always wasted, and I missed that amnesty.

Well, I dont think my Social Security number is that fake. I think in those days, you would get a Social Security number illegally but the number was legally under your name. Im not sure about that but I have to pay a lawyer to help me out, and I really don't want to do that. They are too expensive.

I think el negrito [Pres. Barack Obama] is going to help us. Hes going to give us amnesty before 2010 because la raza supported him and, if other black candidates want to run again, and he doesnt fulfill his promises, well, we wont vote for them again. In 2010, I will be turning 64, almost 65. And if I get my citizenship, well, the problem is solved.

I make more money on the weekend here than in any other job. Oh, and I dont have a boss. Im really not afraid of the crisis or ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Im not afraid of that. The crisis really hit me after Sept. 11. Since then, people started to give me less and less money for playing. Either way, Id rather keep doing this than have a normal job.

Last week, I went to Oakland to play at a family reunion and we got paid very well. Sometimes you can make a lot of money when they invite you somewhere and you play for a set amount of time. Then people request songs, so you make more money.

I think the best accordion player of all time is Rosendo Cantu from Los Cadetes de Linares. Ive never seen anyone play the accordion so clean and fast. He was just amazing.

Another good one is Ramon Ayala. He is also very clean. He has a lot of feeling, but hes not that fast. It was in Mexico, in Zacatecas, a long time ago. It was a big party of a big chaca [drug dealer]. Everyone was expecting to hear Flaco Jimnez because his band was really famous in those days in Mexico and the States. Well, they played very badly--they had the worst hangover ever. For five songs they sucked. But then, they had a drink, and, oh, my God, they rocked for a few hours.

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