Part of a family-based vaudeville-style show known as La Compania Hermanos Ortiz, she toured the southwest performing with her husband and five children. Singing rhythm and blues and acting in comedy skits, she was also a healer and sold herbs on her travels. Many of her children became musicians and singers.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, traveling circus acts and vaudeville-style road shows called revistas brought fun and entertainment to families throughout New Mexico, especially rural areas. Many were owned and operated by families with roots in Mexico, who toured on a circuit through New Mexico and the southwest. Florinda Naranjo Ortiz performed with her husband and five children in one of these groups, establishing a legacy for her descendants, many of whom have become musicians and singers.
Featuring trapeze and juggling acts, singing, dancing, comedy, and dramatic performances, revistas included acrobatics, or maromas, and performed under a small tent, or carpa—the name by which they were sometimes known. Originating in Mexico with roots in Aztec culture, they often presented humor reflecting the culture shock between the Mexican-American and Anglo cultures. Most ended with the onset of WWII.
Born in Dawson, New Mexico, Florinda Ortiz was part of a family-based carpa known as La Compania Hermanos Ortiz that toured the southwest in the early twentieth century. With her husband, José Ortiz, and five children as performers, Florinda sang rhythm and blues songs such as “St. Louis Woman,” and acted in comedy skits, while her husband performed magic acts dressed as El Gran Payaso Tamborin (Tamborine, The Great Clown). She was also a healer and sold herbs on her travels. Generations of her children became musicians and singers.
Upon arriving in a new town, the family rode around in a car announcing the evening’s performance, Florinda playing drums while José played the trumpet to draw attention, then they sold tickets to the onlookers. They became an important part of the tradition of Mexican-American circuses in New Mexico and the southwest in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Life on the road was undoubtedly hard. Florinda gave birth to her third child, daughter Gloria, while traveling with the circus to Wagon Mound. Steve Ortiz, Florinda’s son, recalls the incident in his song Poor Boy, recorded by Eddy Arnold:
Born in an old shack on a very cold day
My mother had to work on the following day
Destination poverty very little school
She taught me to respect the golden rule.
A fourth child, daughter Anita, was born later at the old opera house, now demolished, in Wagon Mound. Often, the Ortiz family was the target of attacks by desperate locals. Their cars were damaged often—once they awakened to find it had been pushed into a ditch. Often they had to sleep behind the curtains of the stage, as there were no hotels in many of the smaller communities where they played.
One evening in 1939 in Conchos, Arizona, a band of roughnecks charged the stage. Florinda grabbed a gun that was used in Jose’s magic act, and—believing it to have only blanks in preparation for a specific trick—fired on one of the attackers, the nephew of the local sheriff. The gun was loaded with real bullets, and the attacker fell dead. Apparently, another performer had anticipated trouble and replaced the blanks with real bullets without telling anyone. If the show had gone on as scheduled, José would have killed his wife. Instead, she was arrested and remained in jail for a year. Court papers show that she was tried twice—the first time found guilty, and the second time not guilty.
Florinda Ortiz died in 1939 at only 39. Three of her children, Reuben, Anita, and Steve, later found recording and performance success as a musical group known as the Ortiz Trio in 1952, and later as the Coronados, named for their great-great grandfather. They performed in stage acts around the country and on TV, and released albums on the RCA label. Later, their younger brother Frankie Ray recorded with ABC Paramount Records.
Many of the circuses that originated in Mexico began touring the southwestern United States when economic and political hardships brought on by the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 forced the acts northward. Carpas had a distinctive character. Because of their small size, bare-bones style, and organization around a family unit, the carpas could manage themselves better than the larger circuses. Furthermore, they were able to cultivate smaller audiences in the most remote areas. The carpas became an important Mexican-American popular cultural institution in the Southwest. Their comic routines became a sounding board for the culture conflict many Mexican Americans felt in language usage, assimilation to American tastes and lifestyles, and discrimination in the United States.
Interview with Steve Ortiz and other family memorabilia and documentation provided by Mr. Ortiz, July 2016.
Belli, Elaine. “Ortiz Trio Climbs Ladder of Success in Show Business.” Albuquerque
Journal, June 25, 1957, p. 17.
Kanellos, Nicolás. Mexican American Theater: Legacy and Reality. Pittsburgh:
Latin American Literary Review Press, 1987.
Montaño, Mary. Tradiciones Nuevomexicanas: Hispano Arts and Culture of New
Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
“Albuquerque Singer Makes State Legend Song.” Las Vegas Daily Optic, Monday,
January 10, 1977, p. 6.
“Circus Clown Dies; Villa’s Bugle Boy.” Albuquerque Tribune, November 22, 1982.
“Parade Route Announced.” Las Vegas Daily Optic, Thursday, July 3, 1969, p. 2.
Learn more about Florinda Naranjo Ortiz and our resources for educators on the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Program curriculum page.