By Ernie McCray
Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez is a hero of mine and the why to that is because I love people who work to make the world a better place and that’s all I’ve ever seen him do, all over the place, ever since the late 60’s – right beside all us other “radicals,” carrying a guitar in his hands and songs in his imaginative mind filled with humor and bite and a Vato smile on his big round face – and we all went about the business of dealing with the problems in our communities, rising enrollments in gangs, cops cruising our streets with looks on their faces that didn’t do justice to any notions of “protecting and serving” that was detectible to the naked eye, schools waving white flags, lack of adequate social services and safe places for our children to play. The usual societal sins.
And it brought a tear or two rolling down my cheeks when I read the other day that in September this noble man with a heart of gold, this gifted musician who plays too many instruments to mention, will be honored with a National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship. To borrow words from a classic Johnny Mercer tune, this is “just too marvelous, too marvelous for words.”
I mean, wow, Chunky is joining the ranks of others who have embraced this award: blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee and a King they call B.B. and bluegrass and country greats, Bill Monroe and Wanda Walker, and Charles “Merry Christmas, Baby” Brown and Pops and Mavis Staples. This calls for a hearty “Orale, ese!”
What an honor for both him and those of us who love him. His music is our music, songs that kept our spirits up, songs that made us keep our eyes on the prize as we struggled to live with dignity, seeking our fair share of civil and human rights.
When the powers-that-be tried to erect a highway patrol headquarters in Barrio Logan where the people wanted a park to be, Chunky rallied us with, “Chicano Park Samba” and, alas, Chicano Park, with its magnificent display of mural art, was born and is now in the National Register of Historic Places. Que bueno, eh?
When Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers needed their spirits massaged as they, endlessly, fought unrelenting hatefulness and bigotry, he’d call on Chunky (his favorite musician) and he and the other members of Los Alacranes Mojados, would soothe the souls of some of the hardest working people on the planet and their supporters, people who marched and picketed with them or people who, like me, stood in front of major food chains in cities throughout California boycotting produce from farms that ignored the plight of the workers. His music enthused listeners with hope for the future.
What chance there is for a hopeful world in the future lies with our children and Chunky has always been sensitive to that truth, weaving his creative magic with young people through his music, lately as a resident artist at the King-Chavez Academy, a charter school in Barrio Logan. And, in his honor, the school auditorium recently was renovated and renamed Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez Auditorium.
Chunky is in one of Chicano artist Salvador Barajas’ murals that adorn the auditorium walls and he says: “When they (the children) see this, they don’t just see a wall with some painting, but hopefully they see me, Chunky Sanchez, somebody who cares about them.”
Well, there’s not a more caring human being in existence than this son of Mexican immigrant farm workers. He heard a call and left the burning fields of Southern California’s Imperial Valley for San Diego State University and composed music for the Chicano Movement, giving a sound to a people’s struggle, helping them feel pride in who they are, bridging their past with their present lives so they can embrace the future sure of themselves and what they have to offer the world.
And now the world will come to know and love Chunky like we San Diegans do. That in and of itself is hopeful to me. I can sure pick a hero.