One of the youngest in a musical family, she was a star of the unique Nuevo Mexico sound that started in the 1950’s. At age 12, her recording of “Una Pobre Tambien” became a hit and she toured extensively. When she lost her hearing in her 20s, she returned to school and became a lawyer for immigrants.
In the mid-1970s, when many young Chicano teenagers were protesting, attending college, or working for family businesses, a flowering music scene was blossoming in the central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Starting in the 1950s, a blend of music from Mexico in the form of ranchera and mariachi sounds, along with the rock and country sounds from Tennessee and west Texas, came together in New Mexico to blend with the already ancient Indo-Hispano music forms of the region to create a unique Nuevo Mexico sound that would resonate for decades to come. Indicative of this movement were the Sánchez brothers, Al Hurricane, Baby Gaby, and Tiny Morrie, who fused Mexican and Rock and Roll sounds to become trailblazers of New Mexican’s Spanish language music scene.
Another family dynasty of musicians was established in Albuquerque in 1961 by Roberto Martínez, a native of the Mora Valley in northern New Mexico. His early years of hearing Penitente alabados and obsession with Pedro Infante culminated with the founding of his New Mexican mariachi group, Los Reyes de Albuquerque. Roberto finished what could be considered an eight year apprenticeship in Denver, playing guitar and singing in a Mexican duo called Los Trobadores, with his wife Ramona’s uncle Jesse Ulibarri. With guitar in hand and a drive to express himself through his Hispano Mexican musical forms, Roberto and Los Reyes started to build a following and make a name for themselves in Albuquerque, playing bars like Molly’s in Tijeras for tips, but also performing for dignitaries such as John F. Kennedy.
Around 1966, Roberto and Ramona, who had five children by this time, encouraged the three eldest siblings, Roberta, Doris, and Lorenzo, to form a trio called Los Chamacos. Originally a Spanish language group that performed traditional Mexican songs, they started to branch out, singing the popular pop and rock songs of the day by groups artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among others. In a stroke of creativity ahead of his time, Roberto would translate the lyrics to Spanish and Los Chamacos would sing songs bilingually. They even recorded a few singles on the Hurricane label established by the Sánchez family. The group performed as a trio, but also with local mariachis, including Los Reyes de Albuquerque. By the late 1960s, the older girls were ready to graduate from high school and pursue relationships, marry, and have children. In a last attempt to keep Los Chamacos together, Roberto had their fourth child, Debbie, sing with the group to see if she could add a jolt of energy.
Deborah Susan Martínez was born to Roberto Martínez and Ramona Elena Salazar in Denver, Colorado on 1 January 1959. At an early age, Debbie, as the family came to call her, was a very inquisitive and motivated little girl. When just a young girl, she taught her little brother, Robert Jr., to read before he entered the first grade. She also taught him second grade Catechism when Robbie was not registered for classes in the second grade. She grew up surrounded by music and at a very early age took an interest. Her father recalls, “When she was about three, maybe three and a half, we were at a family gathering and we kept playing. And she kept telling me, ‘Daddy, I want to sing. I want to sing.’” The elder Martínez admits he put her off at first. However, when she sang “Los Laureles” those who heard the rendition took note. “In her little baby voice,” he said, “she belted out the whole song.”
In interviews, Debbie described her early love of music: “When I was still very young, my older sisters and my brother formed a group, a trio called Los Chamacos. They used to practice at home. I was about eight or nine at the time, and I always wanted to go in there and practice with them. Their style was very mellow, and I had a really strong voice. I’d just go in there and drown them all out… When I was about ten or eleven I started learning things by myself. First, I taught myself to play the guitar. I listened to the records we had around the house and learned a few songs.”
At age 12, newly dubbed “La Chicanita” by her father, she recorded “Una Pobre Tambien,” which became the hit that placed her on the musical map. People wanted to hear La Chicanita. It got airplay everywhere through the Southwest region and opened the doors for her. She performed in Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico, and also traveled nationally. She performed at the Image convention in Washington, D.C., and when it was held in Los Angeles on the Queen Mary. She performed with her father and brothers at the Folklife Festival for the Smithsonian Institution in 1985.
Locally, apart from public appearances, she could be seen on such television programs as the “Val de la O Show.” Including “Una Pobre Tambien,” she recorded five LPs. As she gained prominence as a singer in New Mexico, her father asked her if she wanted to keep the moniker La Chicanita, or change it. He emphasized it might make her less marketable with a broader audience. She responded, “No, no! I am La Chicanita. I want it on the [record] label.” Her father honored her wishes and her records sold, regardless. At a time when artists were changing their names from Hispano or Mexican sounding names, Debbie and her family bucked that trend.
La Chicanita was destined to be a solo artist. She had a voice too big for any group act, a voice that would make her a regional star in the Southwest. In a 1974 national news article, Wesley Pippert wrote, “Debbie Martinez is a lithe 15-year-old in jeans with dark hair tumbling down her back. She worries about getting to driver education on time and fusses occasionally with her brothers and her sisters. Except when she sings. Then she becomes a polished performer with dancing eyes, body movements that seem to caress the audience and a deep voice that belts out mariachi tunes con gusto. “The little girl with a woman’s voice” they say in Albuquerque. Debbie – La Chicanita – is perhaps the brightest star on Albuquerque’s horizon of Chicano music and she may give a major push toward making Albuquerque the “Chicano Nashville.”
When Debbie was a senior in high school in Albuquerque, she was singled out as a trail-blazing young female artist as part of La Onda Chicana, a music movement of the mid-seventies that went beyond the scope of traditional mariachi music. In an article in the Albuquerque Journal dated 5 April 1976, Debbie said she was planning a tour of the southwest as soon as she graduated. “My whole family is involved in music. It’s kind of a family trade…” Debbie said, following up with “My brother Lorenzo was in Spanish music before I was, but now he does the musical arrangements for my songs.” She also said of that early period that, while she had gained a good amount of recognition and success with her first local hit “Una Pobre Tambien,” she was ready to make a change in her musical style, adding, “We’ll be doing bilingual lyrics with a combination of rock and Spanish music to appeal to the young people.”
In 1983, at just 24 years old, Debbie began losing, and eventually lost, her hearing. With her musical career over, she returned to school. Debbie earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Denver and a law degree from the University of New Mexico. She had her own law practice, helping immigrants in need of legal representation, before working for the state of New Mexico. “She never stopped loving mariachi music,” according to her brother, Rob. “She would support the local mariachis. She helped her daughter, Sheila, learn to play the violin and sing. To this day, Sheila plays and sings with local mariachis.” Debbie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003. The following year, she received a cochlear implant that helped her hear again, and she was finally able to live the dream of hearing her daughter sing and play violin.
On 25 April 2007, Debbie “La Chicanita” Martínez passed away from complications attributed to the spread of cancer. She left a legacy of music, pride in culture, self-determination and courageous behavior for her daughter, her family, friends and loved ones everywhere. To this day, thanks to Debbie, it is a New Mexico tradition among Hispano families for young female members to put on a traje, grab a microphone and belt out a ranchera tune con gusto.
NOTE: The information for this entry was prepared by Rob Martinez, Debbie Martinez’s brother and currently the State Historian for New Mexico, at the request of the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative.