Feature: Wednesday February 13, 2003
Saenz of the Times Part 2

While performing, Carlos always wears his trademark sunglasses, which he says help him to step in and out of his onstage persona. “The shades are a mask,” he explained. “When I’m wearing them, I can be buying gas and people will still recognize me as ‘the guy from Latin Express.’ When I’m not wearing them, I can walk around at a show and people won’t recognize me as the guy they just saw onstage.”

A powerfully built, imposing figure, he claims that he also wears shades to avoid intimidating other bandmembers. “I have very docile eyes,” he said, “but sometimes if I give the other musicians a certain look onstage, they’ll think I’m being critical or that they’ve made a mistake.” Besides being the band’s founder, he writes their arrangements and produces their recordings.

Carlos has been wearing his shades onstage since 1974, when he was the lead tenor in the O.D. Wyatt High School choir. “I’d broken my glasses,” he said, “and I was real self-conscious then, so I showed up for the concert with my shades on. The choir director, Miss Kelly, was real strict, and she told me, ‘Take those glasses off or go home!’ I told her, ‘I don’t care, I’ll go home right now!’ She changed her mind. When my buddies saw me onstage wearing my shades, I was The Man.

“I’m basically a shy person by nature,” he continued. “Playing music taught me that you can’t be afraid of the unknown. Now I have no fear of crowds, or even of speaking in public. It’s the greatest high. But you need to keep it in perspective. Otherwise you wind up like some musicians, who get into drugs because they want to keep the party going offstage. When I’m onstage, I can be a showman, be very flamboyant. But when I’m through playing, I turn it off and go back to being a dad, a husband, a businessman.” When not performing with the band, Carlos works as a salesman for his father’s awning company.

Carlos cut his musical teeth as a teen-ager, playing in his father’s band five nights a week from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. with a 10-minute break every hour. “I used reverse psychology to get him to play,” Nicho recalled. “I’d tell him ‘You’re not good enough to play!’ ” In spite of the grueling performance schedule, the young musician was a straight-A student.

“My dad got us in the band because it was hard to keep musicians,” Carlos said. “I really couldn’t play very well. One night, one of the musicians brought his brother, who’d just come up from the Valley, to the show and asked if he could sit in on drums. The brother wound up playing the whole night. At the end of the night, my dad came and gave me my money. He said, ‘Don’t worry — he was just sitting in.’ But it hurt my pride. I was crushed because I got benched. I started practicing four hours a day. I was determined to get better. Within a month, I could play all the percussion parts from my Santana album. Between ages 13 and 15, I mastered the drums to the point where I could play anything I needed to.”

When a bass player gave two weeks’ notice, Nicho hired Carlos, giving his son a week to figure out the instrument. Carlos even played one gig on both bass and drums, fretting the bass with his left hand while holding a drumstick in his right. Soon after that, he started playing guitar. A musician friend told Nicho that he would “ruin Carlos” by having him play so many instruments. He claimed that a musician could only be really good on one instrument. The older musician’s challenge inspired Carlos to work hard to excel on all the instruments in the band — drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards, as well as vocals. While he generally sticks to the guitar onstage, on a recent night at Pedro’s Trailer Park, he picked up the bass while his nephew Leo took over the six-string axe for a soaring version of Santana’s “Europa.” In the studio, he’ll jump behind the drums to demonstrate a part.

While working to master this array of instruments, Carlos began teaching himself music theory from an encyclopedia. “I learned note values, scales, harmony, ear training,” he said. “When I got to TCJC Northeast, they didn’t know how to categorize me. But I was able to bypass the first year of music theory and go straight into part writing.” One instructor, Dr. Matthews, made a strong impression on Carlos. When the instructor reviewed Carlos’ part writing, he told his student, “Listen to what you’re writing. You’re just following the formula.”

“I started throwing in a lot of 13ths, flat fifths,” laughed Carlos. “He liked what I was doing better, but I went from making A’s to making C’s.” Carlos’ hectic performance schedule caused him to miss 13 days of school, so he needed to ace Dr. Matthews’ final to get a C in the class. He wound up scoring 107 on the test, when most of the class scored in the 70s or below.

Carlos founded Latin Express in 1975, and the band gradually built a strong following around Fort Worth playing private parties, weddings, and quinceañeras. Over the years, the band went through numerous personnel changes. Often, after hearing applause and praise from audiences, musicians would become complacent and lazy — a habit Carlos wouldn’t tolerate. At one point, he hired a UTA music student to write arrangements for the band and told the bandmembers, “I’m not firing you, but if you can’t play these charts, you’ll be firing yourselves.”

In the early ’90s, Carlos began a musical relationship with East Austin-based singer Ruben “El Gato Negro” Ramos that continues to this day. The singer and his band, the Texas Revolution, were playing a gig in Fort Worth and had lost their guitar player. Carlos showed up at the gig with his guitar and amp and asked to sit in. Soon, Ramos was calling him to play any Metroplex gigs that didn’t conflict with Latin Express’ schedule.

“I wound up going on the road with Ruben off and on between ’90 and ’95,” said Carlos. “I did it with a business mind — to open doors for Latin Express. Traveling around with Ruben, I’d meet people and make lots of contacts that I later used to get Latin Express gigs in Amarillo, San Antonio, Houston, Austin. I played on Ruben’s Nueve Vidas album that was a big success. I think Ruben liked the new energy that I brought to his band. We’d do choreography and little comedy bits onstage. I’d give him a drink of water that he’d pretend was poison, stuff like that. We slammed ’em like a screen door.” Carlos quit the Texas Revolution when his father suffered a stroke and needed help running the awning business. Ramos went on to win a Grammy for his 1998 album with the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super 7, which also included Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, Joe Ely, and members of the L.A. group Los Lobos.

Carlos recalled, “When I came back to Latin Express after touring with Ruben for two or three years, the kids were all playing and they were doing stuff like Selena, David Lee Garza. It wasn’t going over very well. First we doubled everybody’s practice time. Then we threw out all the newer material and started concentrating on the old school stuff.” The change was a successful one — the band now has engagements booked through Fourth of July 2004.

For years, the Saenz brothers have provided free private music lessons in their homes to community youth, as their father did before them. “God gives us talent,” said Carlos. “When you play, you can feel the energy coming from someplace outside you. But people who are given this gift shouldn’t hoard it. You have the responsibility to give the knowledge you have to someone else.”

One former student, Carlos’ stepson J.C. Rios, now plays in the Fort Worth cumbia-rock band Amistad. A number of other Saenz protégés and former students work as music educators in the city’s school system, but Carlos decries the loss of funding for music programs in predominantly Hispanic public schools in Fort Worth. “You learn to play your instrument in elementary school, you learn to read music in middle school, you learn to play in high school,” said Carlos. “But inner city schools don’t have music programs at the primary level; students have to play catch-up in high school.” For many Northside students, the only music programs available teach mariachi music — a sop to the Hispanic activist community (“the LULAC people”), according to Carlos, but not adequate preparation for a young person who wants to pursue a career as a professional musician.

“Talk to professional people — doctors, lawyers — and you’ll discover that many of them had training as musicians. The discipline and focus of music will help you in any career,” Carlos said. “Even one semester, six weeks, can make a difference to a kid — but you’re only as good as your teacher.”

To fill this void, the family opened the Saenz Center for the Performing Arts at 700 N.W. 30th St., diagonally across from Lincoln Park, in the summer of 2000. “I was giving lessons to kids out of my house,” said Leo, “and I was running out of room, so my father donated the building.” The center closed the following summer, and the family spent the next year and a half dealing with delays, lost paperwork, and frequently contradictory instructions from building inspectors. The walls in the building — previously a grocery store — were covered with sound-suppressing carpet. The inspectors said the carpet had to come down, even though it was flame-retardant. The family had built a steel-reinforced bandstand; the inspectors ordered them to tear it down. “They said we needed a $55,000 sprinkler system for a cinderblock building with a metal roof and three big exit doors,” said Leo. Now all the issues are resolved, the permits are signed, and the family hopes to have the center open in March.

“We’ll miss out on the school year,” said Leo, “but we want to be able to have a summer activity. Maybe do a concert series, so the kids can have the experience of performing. And we want to bring in performers in all different styles of music.” Besides Leo, both of his sons and their cousin Mauricio Jaurigui will teach individual and small group lessons after school. Twelve students are currently enrolled, and Leo will be recruiting from Kirkpatrick, Meacham, and Elder middle schools. “We’ve been in touch with Art Valdez, the director of band programs at Fort Worth ISD,” said Leo, “and we’ll also be recruiting from the stage at some of the benefit shows we’re playing.”

Said Valdez, “I think [the Saenz Center] is a fantastic thing for kids. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the Saenz family. Not only are they great performers, but they’ve contributed to the community consistently.”

So far, the family has resisted the temptation to apply for outside funding. “My dad just loves kids,” said Carlos, “and he wants us to be able to teach anyone who wants to learn. With grants, there tend to be quotas, or requirements that we could only teach minorities.”

As a board member of the Community Development Corporation, Carlos works to help provide funding to nonprofit organizations for programs that will benefit the community. He views his CDC involvement as a way for him to learn his way around the corridors of power in Fort Worth in the same way that he learned his way around the bandstand playing with his father, or the way he learned his way around the music business touring with Ruben Ramos. “Before, if I went to a city council meeting, I was on the outside looking in,” he said. “Now, on the CDC board, I’m on the inside looking out. You can talk all you want, but until you have an actual vote, your opinion doesn’t mean much. Now I’ve got a vote.”

Originally, Carlos had considered running for the District 2 city council seat, but demurred when he learned that incumbent Jim Lane would run for re-election. “I wouldn’t run against Jim,” said Carlos. “He lives and works in the area, and he’s passionate about the North Side. Besides, I felt I needed to get some experience before running for office.” Lane said that when Carlos called his office looking for an opportunity to get his feet wet in city politics, the musician’s ability to ask questions made him a natural for the CDC board. “His questions aren’t malicious,” said Lane. “He has no agenda. He just really wants to know, and you’d better be ready to answer. I know, having been on the receiving end. He also follows up.”

Carlos opposed CDC funding for a program that would have provided Northside teens with experience working in the construction industry, but no training. The woman who presented the program to the board said the participants would be pouring concrete and doing other unskilled work, supervised by a licensed tradesperson. It would have made them little more than a pool of cheap labor, without providing them with any skills they could use once they completed the program. As a result of Carlos’ pointed questions, the CDC turned down the program’s request for funding.

“To really help the community,” said Carlos, “you have to sacrifice yourself. But you should also make sure that the results of the sacrifices you make will be meaningful.” Part of the CDC board’s task is to ensure that the programs it funds are effective in meeting community needs. “As a board member,” he continued, “I can have access to facilities at any time to see if they’re doing their job.”

He was particularly affected by a recent visit to the Presbyterian Night Shelter. “It broke my heart to see hundreds of people sleeping on the floor,” he said. While some would say that many of the people in shelters choose to live in such circumstances by abusing alcohol or drugs, Carlos was especially moved by the plight of the shelter’s youngest residents. “Children don’t ask to be born in poverty,” he said. “It’s ironic that we’re talking about going to war and building more bombs when we can’t take care of all of our own. Whatever we can give these people is not enough.”

Carlos believes that Northside and Diamond Hill high schools should be designated as trade schools. “Out of 700 to 800 freshmen, only 175 are going all the way to graduation,” he said. “And only 10 percent of the graduates are going to college. The other 90 percent are going out into the workforce without any skills or training. They need some incentive to finish school — the knowledge that it will provide them with something they can use to make a living.”

Carlos is a strong advocate for development in his neighborhood. “The North Side is really a diamond in the rough,” he said. “We’re three minutes from downtown, and we’ve got the Stockyards, Mercado de Fort Worth, the new Town Lake [still on the drawing boards], Rockwood Golf Course. People are buying and refurbishing a lot of the distressed homes in the area.” His political ambitions don’t extend beyond the local area. “I want to make a direct impact on the people I care about, and not just the Hispanic community. I want to be an American, representing other Americans regardless of their color or ethnicity.”

His CDC activities, Latin Express’ busy schedule, his duties as a salesman for S&W Canvas Products, and his responsibilities as a husband and father keep Carlos Saenz busy. He also takes time to play golf, enjoy movies, and socialize with friends. “When you die, you’ll have plenty of time to rest,” he said. “God will retire you when it’s time.”

At the end of the recent benefit show at St. Mary’s Hall, after most of the band’s equipment was torn down, 11-year-old Steven Saenz returned to the stage where he’d recently been wowing the crowd with his blistering conga work. With him was the 6-year-old son of a Saenz family friend. While volunteers stacked chairs and mopped floors and a few audience members lingered to socialize, Steven pulled his drums down off their stand and gave the younger boy a lesson on the congas.

Patiently, he explained and showed the younger boy how to hold his hand to hit the drums and how to change their sound by holding one hand down on the head and hitting the drum with the other. The budding congero made a few desultory attempts, then Steven corrected him and he tried again. When both were satisfied for the time being, they left the stage and walked off to where the younger boy’s parents were conversing with Steven’s father.

Steven Saenz held the younger boy’s hand as he guided him across the now-empty dance floor — only the newest link in a chain that stretches back to the Rio Grande Valley and forward into the future.

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