'Los Primos' Celebrates Latino Music and Family Ties

To Tito Portillo, the hit movie "La Bamba" was significant not just because of its widespread critical acclaim or resounding box office success.

It was because the film, about the life and music of the late Richie Valens, was what he considers a long-overdue tribute to the many valuable contributions to rock 'n' roll his fellow Latino musicians have made over the years.

"I think if you look at the history of popular music over the past three decades, Latinos have never gotten the recognition they deserve," Portillo said.

"Bands like Azteca and Malo, for example, have been forgotten, perhaps because of subtle discrimination, even though their music has influenced hundreds of later bands, many of them Anglo.

"And there's a good chance Vikki Carr and Freddie Fender would never have made it if they hadn't changed their Latino last names."

In August, when a group of longtime Latino families in National City held a festive outdoor reunion to kick off the South Bay city's centennial, Portillo decided it was time he concocted a tribute of his own.

So with three cousins, an uncle and two family friends, Portillo put together Los Primos, or "the cousins."

The band's repertoire consists mostly of popular 1950s, '60s and '70s pop hits by Latino superstars like Valens ("Donna," 'Come On, Let's Go") and Santana ("Oye Como Va," 'Guajira"), as well as more obscure tunes by the less-familiar Azteca, Malo and The Midnighters, part of the mid-1960s East Los Angeles garage-band scene.

Los Primos also plays a batch of originals "styled after the good old music of those bands," Portillo said, along with a selection of more traditional cha-chas and cumbias .

"We take a lot of pride in celebrating our Latino musical roots," Portillo said, "while at the same time, affirming that we are Americans.

"As a result, we're not just out to entertain, but to be a positive influence on other young Latin-American musicians living in San Diego who grew up on both rock 'n' roll and the music of their parents.

"We want to show them it is, in fact, possible to bridge the two, and that this cross-cultural combination has had a dramatic impact on a lot of the music they hear on the radio today."

With one exception, every member of Los Primos was born and raised in National City: Portillo on bass; uncle Gilbert Portillo on lead guitar; cousins Manual Alvarez on guitar and vocals, Sammy Alvarez on percussion and background vocals, and Delfino Martinez on drums, and Joe Bernal on guitar and vocals.

Percussionist Patrick Cruz, the only non-family member of Los Primos aside from Bernal, is from Chula Vista.

"We're all pretty much natural musicians, and we've been jamming together for years," said Portillo, 30. "But then this reunion thing thing came about and they needed some entertainment, and that just kind of brought us out into the open.

"Our first public performance went over so well that we started getting calls for more work a day later. And the phone hasn't stopped ringing ever since."

It sure hasn't. In the four months that they've been together, Portillo said, Los Primos has gotten so much work that he's already contemplating giving up his day job as a substitute schoolteacher with the Sweetwater Unified School District and making music his full-time career.

The band has been playing regularly at nightclubs--they'll be at Presto on Sunday--and frequently performs at weddings, parties and other social gatherings within the local Latino community.

"Right now we're trying to get more original songs together so that eventually we can play nothing but our own music," Portillo said.

"Our objective has always been to keep alive Latino musical traditions by playing songs from the past, and then to build on those traditions by doing more and more of our own material.

"That way, we can show people, especially the kids, that Latin-American rock 'n' roll is not just a thing of the past, but a thing of the present--and of the future."

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