Born in the summer of 1937 to a family of migrant Mexican laborers
in the Texas town of San Benito (“birthplace of Conjunto”),
at 10 he is earning $3 a day picking cotton in Arkansas
where he discovers rhythm and blues.
At 13, he is picking onions in New Mexico
a job he hates as much as he hated picking cotton
when an old man takes him into a bar.
He’s too young to drink but someone hands him a guitar
and he starts to sing an old Mexican song.
While he sings, the old man passes a hat.
They make $20, which beats picking onions.
At 16, lying about his age, he enlists in the Marine Corps.
At 19, he is court-martialed and discharged (dishonorably) from the Marines.
At 20, he starts playing bars and honkytonks around the South.
He records Spanish versions Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” (“No Seas Cruel”)
and Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (“Tu Frío Corazón”)
which become minor hits in Mexico and South America.
At 21, he changes his name to something more Anglo-sounding.
At 23, driving away from a gig in Baton Rouge
he and another band member are arrested for marijuana possession (two joints).
and he is sentenced to five years in Angola State Prison.
At 26, the Governor of Louisiana, a music fan, authorizes his early release
on the condition he stay away from anyplace that serves alcohol,
a stipulation that kills his musical career.
At 30, he is working as a mechanic in Corpus Christi, attending community college,
and sometimes playing music on weekends.
At 37, he meets a record producer known as “The Crazy Cajun”
who makes him an unlikely country music star, with a string of number one hit records.
His biggest seller is a rerecording of a song he wrote just before going to prison.
At 40, even though his manager has siphoned off most of his earnings,
he can afford an oceanfront villa and a collection of hot rods
and have enough money left over to become addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol.
At 43, some $10 million in debt, he declares bankruptcy.
At 48, he goes into rehab.
At 51, he is cast as a smalltown Texas mayor in a Hollywood movie.
At 53, he begins to enjoy new success in a band of Tex-Mex superstars.
Meanwhile, his cheating producer has been sent to prison
for child pornography, sex with a minor and drug trafficking.
At 63, he is diagnosed with Hepatitis C and undergoes kidney and liver transplants.
At 65, he wins a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album of the year,
the first record to be released under his original name in 43 years.
At 69, he dies from lung cancer.
He is buried in his hometown with military honors (taps, 21-gun salute)
since after a long dispute the Marine Corps has reclassified his discharge as “honorable.”
The Governor of Texas is among the hundreds of mourners attending his funeral mass.
The image of a guitar is engraved on the lid of his coffin,
which his widow decides to leave open during the service
so that he can be seen and touched one last time by his fans.
(Baldemar Garza Huerta, a.k.a. Freddy Fender; Jimmie Davis; Huey P. Meaux; Rick Perry)