by Josephine S. Talamantez
December 16, 2016

Editor’s note: The ACTA board and staff was saddened to learn of Sánchez’ passing last month. ACTA invited longtime collaborator and public historian, Josephine S. Talamantez, to write her personal remembrance of Mr. Chunky Sánchez for this issue of The New Moon. Talamantez was a co-founder of Chicano Park in San Diego with Sánchez, and with Manny Galaviz, recently organized the nomination of Chicano Park as a National Historic Landmark, which is currently awaiting Secretary of the Interior’s signature for approval

Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez was my friend. I’m not unique because if you asked anyone who knew him, they would say the same thing. He was a very charismatic individual with a full-of-life ability to educate and entertain you and at the same time keep you laughing and/or crying, depending on the situation.

“Mr. Chunky” Sánchez—as he was lovingly referred to by the public, and “Chunky” by his family and friends—was an elder in the community, a community organizer, and a gang prevention expert, as well as a musician, songwriter/composer, storyteller, comedian, actor, activist, educator and cultural worker. More than anything else, to me, he was a social butterfly playing his music for the masses and for the lone individual, however the situation commanded. In the forthcoming documentary, Rising Souls: Singing Scorpions by filmmaker Paul Espinosa and producer Mark Day, he is quoted saying, “My mission was not to work in Hollywood. My mission was to work in the barrios, in the fields, in the prisons, in the schools. Wherever people needed to hear something inspirational, that’s where my mission was, and still is.”

Mr. Chunky Sánchez’ musical compositions, educational curriculum, and activism were rooted in the commitment to reflect commentary of social injustices—from the picket lines with the United Farm Workers, singing solidarity songs at the Vietnam War Protests, documenting a community’s struggle for self-determination, composing music that encouraged the education of our youth, and demonstrating against the on-going anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.

While attending the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 50th annual conference in Houston, TX last month, I was reminded of Chunky’s wide reach. I had the privilege of meeting an elderly gentleman that was the subject of a documentary film in progress. Upon introducing myself as a co-founder of Chicano Park in San Diego, the elderly man’s face suddenly displayed deep sorrow as he held my hand saying, “I’m so sorry that we lost Chunky. The world lost a great one.” The man’s sincere concern and statement reminded me of the overarching impact that my friend had.

Mr. Chunky Sánchez learned his art form at the knees of his mother and uncles. She and her brothers provided the music and entertainment for their village in Río Yaqui in Sonora, Mexico. Upon arrival to the United States, she transferred her traditions and skills to her children. At eight years of age, Mr. Chunky Sánchez began playing a musical instrument. He and his brother Ricardo learned to play many of the older Mexican songs by listening to his mother and her brothers as they sang and played their instruments. As he listened, played and sang, he began to write his own songs with a bilingual and bicultural flavor—songs that so many of us have engraved in our own lives and our children’s lives.

As the son of farmworkers, he grew up working in the fields of the Palo Verde Valley, located in Riverside County on the border between California and Arizona. As a teenager, Mr. Chunky Sánchez joined the farmworker struggle and walked picket lines while playing his guitar for César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union. This experience sparked his lifelong commitment of using the arts as an organizing tool for impacting social change in society.

In 1969 he was recruited, along with other farmworker youth, to attend San Diego State University. There he would further develop his talents as a musician, playing ten different instruments—guitar, requinto, jarana, vihuela, cuatro, 12- string guitar, marimba, upright bass, harmonicas and percussions while composing most of his own music. At San Diego State University he became part of La Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlán, a student musical group under the direction of Professor José “Pepe” Villarino, and later the lead vocalist of Los Alacranes Mojados (the wet scorpions, later shortened to Los Alacranes) that he co-founded with his partner and brother Ricardo Sánchez.

Mr. Chunky Sánchez and Los Alacranes helped create a musical force of multiple styles and genres during the height of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement documenting Chicano history. Chicano music serves as a repository for collective memory and illuminates events and processes that reflect a community’s response to a call to action. He is known for traditional Chicano music that incorporates various categories including corridos, boleros, huapangos, rancheras, blues, rock and roll, and country folk styles incorporating Spanglish—a blend of both Spanish and English.

His form of Chicano music gave light to the historical and cultural struggles of the Chicano people of the United States. One such composition worthy of mention is his original composition “Chicano Park Samba,” documenting a historical impasse that became a defining moment between the City of San Diego’s relationship with the Chicano/Mexicano residents that had grown intolerant of the City’s neglect and disrespect. For the next 40+ years as an artist and an activist, he not only documented history, due to his involvement as an ongoing member and past Chair of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, stewards of the park placed him on the front line of also creating history.

Mr. Chunky Sánchez was the recipient of many awards in his lifetime. His exemplary music and his community work earned him numerous awards and acknowledgements from the California Arts Council, the City of San Diego Commission on Arts and Culture, the now defunct San Diego Public Arts Advisory Board, and in 2013 he became a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest level of acknowledgment for his traditional Chicano musical artistry. And, in 2013, Chicano Park and the Chicano Park Monumental Murals were listed on the National Register and are currently awaiting recognition as a National Landmarks.

Throughout all the years of my involvement in organizing and fighting against social and political injustices there was not one time that I can remember him not being present animating the crowd with his talent, urging them to keep marching or to get out the vote to make change. Mr. Chunky Sánchez utilized all of his talents to get the messages across. A couple of years back, as I was walking across the grounds of the California State Capitol, I heard his distinct voice coming from the North entrance. Doubting myself, I kept walking and there he was singing “Educate not Incarcerate” at a massive educational rally.

As an educator/storyteller, he wove historical fact, content and humor into the music as he sang and told the stories of the Chicano people and our struggles for survival. In his classes, with a guitar in hand, he would begin with music from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and up through the present to shed light on the conditions that Chicanos faced while contributing to the labor force that made this country great. He wanted the next generation to know the facts and at the same time he wanted them to feel good about themselves and their community.

He loved the youth and always referred to them, in our conversations, as “our community’s most important asset.” He used all of his talents and interests to inspire and support them in their development. In addition to the arts he was an avid appreciator of sports. He played and coached the youth in his neighborhood and in his healthier days it was not unusual to see him playing, encouraging and challenging the kids to a ballgame.

Throughout his career he performed with many great artists such as Pete Seeger, Lalo Guerrero, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez, the Texas Tornados, Los Lobos and many more. Many influenced him and in turn, he reciprocated by mentoring and transferring his skills and talents to the next generation. He also worked with other musicians who admired him and his community involvement. One such artist is quoted as saying, “I want to be a Chunkista giving it all back to the community.”

Mr. Chunky Sánchez, preceded in death by his son Fernando, leaves behind his wife Isabel Enrique Sánchez and children Ixcatli, Ramón, Esmeralda, Mauricio, Tonantzin, and thirteen grandchildren.

A deed of gratitude is owed to his wife Isabel and the entire Sánchez family for sharing her beloved husband and their father with all of us. For without their support Mr. Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez might not have been able to provide all the services that he performed for everyone’s causes—public performances, personal weddings, births, quinceañeras, deaths, wakes, funerals, etc. and still be a friend to all of us.

On to your next adventure, my friend, and may your SPIRIT soar con las águilas in peace and freedom.

¡Que Viva El Chunky!

Visit the NEA’s website to learn more about Chunky Sánchez and hear audio samples of his work.

Watch Chunky Sánchez perform “Chicano Park” at ACTA’s Roundtable Series convened in San Diego on September 4, 2014: