Raider of the lost archives

Ailing in a hospital bed in 1999 after his second heart attack and the quadruple bypass that followed, Tejano singer Sunny Ozuna was certain his time in this world was up.

Best known for his 1963 hit “Talk to Me,” which he recorded with his band the Sunglows (later the Sunliners), and for being the first Tejano musician to perform on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand that same year, Ozuna had led a fulfilling life and hoped he would be remembered when he was gone.

Frail from the surgery, Ozuna didn’t call on family members to be by his bedside. He didn’t ask for a chaplain to read him his last rites. Instead, Ozuna turned to his wife and asked for one final visitor, someone he knew could get his story right. Ozuna asked for Ramon Hernandez.

“I wanted my thoughts at that time to be written down,” Ozuna said. “I thought the only one that could document that would be Ramon.”

Over the last 30 years, Hernandez has transformed himself into a human encyclopedia of Latino music knowledge. In the early 1960s, he began collecting literature, periodicals, recordings, photographs, and other memorabilia on Latinos in the music industry, from the crooners of the ’40s to the rock ’n’ rollers of the ’50s to anyone who has ever been associated with Tejano, conjunto, and música ranchera.

“Ramon has one of the most extensive music history collections in the world,” says Steve Williams, founder of the Museum of American Music History. “There are very few collections that are as detailed as his that will take you from the origins of an artist throughout his entire career in pictures, documents, and mementos.”

Housed in his two-bedroom apartment on the city’s southwest side, Hernandez’s Hispanic Entertainment Archives, an affiliate of the Texas Music Office and the MAMH, contains thousands of pieces of music history. Lined against the walls of his living room, a dozen large file cabinets contain the lives of Latino musicians from Ritchie Valens to Randy Garibay to Flaco Jimenez, all uniformly stored in their own manila folders.

Some folders spill over with clippings, personal notes, and never-before-seen photos, including a Sammy Davis Jr. file, which barely has enough room to fit the medallion he gave Hernandez after a concert. The archives also hold other irreplaceable, offbeat collectibles: accordionist Steve
Jordan’s famous eye patches, a Selena comic book from Mexico, and a discontinued jar of Freddy Fender’s King of Tex-Mex Picante Sauce.

The archives extend into Hernandez’s bedrooms, where boxes of original album collections, posters, and video files make it hard to maneuver around the cramped space. Hernandez doesn’t even have a bed. He lays out mats next to his layers of albums and sleeps next to vintage vinyl.

“It’s not a matter of not having the money to buy a bed,” Hernandez explains. “The truth is that there is no room for any furniture. As a result, I’ve had no choice but to sleep on the floor for the last 10 years.”

His closets, like another secret vault inside his extensive archive, are overflowing with performers’ costumes, including a polyester shirt and tie given to him by the “Father of Tejano Music,” Isidro Lopez; a folklorico dress from the “Queen of Tejano,” Lydia Mendoza; and a Zarape-patterned cummerbund and jacket worn by “Little Joe” Hernandez.

“A lot of the history of Mexican-American music is really hard to find,” says documentary-film producer John Valadez, who is using Hernandez’s archive as a reference for a 2009 TV special called Latin Music U.S.A. “A lot of big, mainstream institutions didn’t document this stuff very well. They didn’t care about it and didn’t value it. I have to say I was shocked and dumbfounded when I walked into `Ramon’s` apartment and saw everything he had.”

Born and raised in San Antonio, Hernandez, 68, began compiling music history when he joined the Navy in 1960 and attended concerts wherever he was stationed. Although he tried his hand as a musician when he formed Whitie and the Escorts in 1959, Hernandez soon recognized he didn’t have the natural talent (“or the good looks”) to compete with the Frankie Avalons and Pat Boones of the time.

“It was the pretty-boy era and I was skinny, narizon (big-nosed), and full of pimples,” Hernandez said. “One day, one of the guys in the band brought a small reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded a session. When I heard myself, it sounded terrible. So I gave up singing.”

Hernandez decided that he was more of a behind-the-curtains guy rather than a leading man. While stationed in San Diego in 1968, he landed a gig as a volunteer photographer for The Lawrence Welk Show and The Andy Williams Show, where he would snap photos of stars such as Jose Feliciano and Trini Lopez.

It was during this time that Hernandez realized how many Latinos were in the mainstream American music industry. He was proud to know that Sam the Sham was Latino, but was disappointed that the majority of people did not.

“Whenever a group like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers would come out and sing ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,’ they would never say there was a Puerto Rican in the group,” Hernandez says. “They never said Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers featuring Herman Santiago. I wanted to educate the people and make it known. So, I became a crusader for Latino musicians.”

After working as a part-time writer, photographer, and DJ in various parts of the world during his 23-year military career, Hernandez returned to San Antonio in 1983 and began freelancing for local publications and working as a publicist for artists such as Patsy Torres and Selena.

As he continued working, Hernandez’s archive kept growing. Today, like a Latino-music version of the Library of Congress, he allows others with a similar interest to visit the archive for research. He hopes one day his priceless collection can be exhibited in a museum “where one can learn about their musical heritage and the influence of Latinos in the entertainment industry.” Until then, he is comfortable being a friend to the musicians he has met and covered over the years and the outlet everyone turns to when memories start fading away.

“When someone asks me a question about my career, I say, ‘Ask Ramon,’” Ozuna says. “He knows more about me than I do.”

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