Most kids grow up playing on swing sets and see-saws, but not the González children. Back in the 1970s, Gabriel, Martha and Claudia González spent their childhood singing at the historic Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Fast forward to 2016: all three have become accomplished musicians — each fronting their own band. They all live in Los Angeles, but their commitments have kept them from performing together as a trio for nearly 20 years. But they will on May 28.
During a recent rehearsal at Martha's home, there's a fourth voice in the mix. Sandino González-Flores is 11-years-old and already learning the family trade. And he makes it sound easy. Then again, his mom is Martha González and his dad is Quetzal Flores. You might know them better as leaders of the band Quetzal — the powerhouse East L.A. group that won a Grammy a few years ago for rocking the Latino music world. The gold statue sits on the piano behind Sandino.
“I’m very proud of him," Martha says. "But I’m also very critical. So I encourage him at that moment and later on I give him his notes!”
Sandino also gets notes from his Aunt Claudia and Uncle Gabriel. But that’s how it’s always been in the González family.
“I don’t want him to be mediocre just because he’s a kid," Martha says. "That’s not the world we came from. My dad would never encourage us [by saying], ‘Good job! For a kid.’ As a matter of fact, he was more critical and he was very hard on us.”
The González siblings remember their parents playing classics such as "La misma canción" by Mexican legend Vicente Fernández. Their dad expected them to learn the lyrics perfectly.
"It was intense," recalls Claudia, who is known as Cava — also the name of her band. "We were obligated to sing for the family reunions. He made me and Martha sing certain songs. And he would choreograph or Martha would choreograph, and we would have to sing and perform for the family.”
The kids quickly got used to their dad’s high standards. Soon, they were getting paid to work as musicians, even though they were still in elementary school in Boyle Heights. The gigs helped their humble immigrant family make ends meet. Claudia says it all seemed pretty normal.
“I thought that everyone could sing!," she says. "I didn’t know that some people don’t hear notes. I never knew that. I was like, Wow! It still baffles me. I’m like, ‘Really, you don’t hear yourself singing in a different key?’” [laughs]
The siblings have no formal music training. but Gabriel — the eldest — recalls constantly being surrounded by gifted musicians who taught him how to perform.
"I remember being on stage with Los Broncos de Reynosa when they started," he says. "Some of [the others] were Los Bukis, Los Yonics, Los Indios, Los Humildes, La Sonora Santanera. They would use bands like that at the Million Dollar Theater.”
And Gabriel would pass those skills on to his little sisters.
“My dad would put us in check," Martha says. "But Gabriel did the opposite. He’d be like, ‘Come on! You can do it! And I’d be like, 'Yeah! I can do it!' [laughs) So that was great. Sometimes it was like he believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
Come May 28, the siblings are determined to tell their side of the story. While their dad controlled their career as kids, now they’re choosing what to sing for this special reunion, including, of course, the first song they all learned together: “La misma canción.”
As Gabriel rehearsed, Martha was in the kitchen making lunch. But the draw of their childhood favorite was too strong, so out she came to join her brother.
Their reunion concert is called “Caminos y Canciones” — "roads and songs." They hope to turn the evening into a musical theater touring show one day. But for now, it’s simply a love-letter to family and — as Martha says — perhaps even a late Mother’s Day present.
“Oh my god, my mom is so excited," she says. "We don’t talk much about him, but my dad passed and I feel it’s like a festive funeral in a lot of ways. His spirit will be there and maybe it will be laid to rest finally.”
"Caminos y Canciones of the González Family" will be performed May 28 at 7 pm at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center.