MEET THE MUSICIAN WHO TAUGHT LATIN RYTHMS TO ANCHORAGE´S RESIDENTS BY gabriela olmos
It was the Christmas Eve of 1998; Héctor Ortiz, driving a FedEx truck dressed as Santa Claus, delivered gifts to Anchorage’s disadvantaged children. Héctor has dark skin, so often children were baffled by the contrast between his dark face and the white beard of the Santa Claus costume. But their confusion dissipated as soon as the presents began to flow in Mountain View or Fairview, thanks to Héctor’s creativity, the generosity of a group of volunteers, and the altruism of the shipping company. Héctor suggested it to his boss at FedEx, played Santa for two years, and then retired.
But Héctor Ortiz is remembered among the Latino community for his music, not for being Santa Claus. Born in Puerto Rico, Héctor left the island at age ten to live in New York, and later, Cleveland. There he joined the Air Force, and it was through the military that Héctor arrived in Alaska in 1979.
Héctor learned from his parents to enjoy music. He remembers that at an early age his mother took him to places where he could sing. While still very young, he learned to play drums. His first public performances were with bands playing soul, jazz, blues, and rock. Héctor joined these groups whenever they needed percussionists.
While in the Air Force he continued to play American music. “On base, there was not a Hispanic community interested in music large enough to make a band,” he says; nevertheless, in his heart Latino rythms sounded strongly: salsa, merengue, cumbia, and bachata.
When Héctor finally joined a Hispanic band he called it La Conexión Latina. Previously, there was a band called La Conexión which had just broken up. Héctor says, “When I got here I bought all the gear and began doing business to start a new band.” At first the new group had thirteen members. They performed with trumpets, trombone, saxophone, and three singers in front. “Most of us played salsa and merengue; we were all islanders.”
In the early 1990s, Héctor and his new band hosted dances in Anchorage dance halls. “There are not many salons where we have not performed,” he says. They advertised through flyers and the events were usually packed.
At first, Héctor and his band played only Caribbean music. They felt the need to diversify their repertoire when Chepos Mexican Restaurant featured a group playing Mexican music. Very soon Héctor understood that if he wanted to keep a wide audience, besides salsa and merengue the band had to play rancheras, cumbias, bachatas, and all other Latin genres. When La Conexión Latina opened up to other rhythms, three members left. But Héctor’s gamble paid off when they were quickly replaced.
Having settled on their new sound, the members of the band felt the need to play permanently in one place. So they chose what was then called Club Soraya, the only club in the city that permitted minors to attend dances when accompanied by their parents. Héctor’s aim was to replicate the family spirit of the Latino fiestas.
Héctor is proud that his band introduced many Americans to Latin rhythms. When non-Hispanics showed up at dances, La Conexión Latina gave them free dance lessons. Héctor speaks Spanish and English fluently. So it was very easy for him to sing in Spanish and translate right away to sing the same song in a perfect English. Héctor did these translations for fun, but they were instrumental in bringing non-Hispanics closer to Latin music.
In addition to performing with his band at Club Soraya, between 2004 and 2011 Héctor organized the annual Summer Festival sponsored by the Latino Community. The purpose of these festivals, he explains, was to share Hispanic culture and to learn about the musical expressions of Anchorage’s different cultures. So in addition to Latin bands, Filipino, Samoan, Hmong, and other cultures’ musicians performed at the festivals. The gastronomic offerings were equally varied, an invitation to experience the flavors of diversity. But organizing each of these festivals was an immense job that always fell to only two or three people. So eventually he refrained from doing the festivals.
Time went by and the community changed. More and more young people learned English and no longer needed to go to a Hispanic club to meet other young people. The Hispanics who danced to the rhythm of La Conexión Latina grew older. The music also changed: the new generations put aside salsa and cumbia to dance hip hop and other rhythms with a different spirit. With the decline of an era, Héctor had to close his club. “The time for what I was doing has gone. Now it is time to relax,” says Héctor remembering that generation of Anchorage residents whom he taught to dance to Latin rythms. Perhaps he was also thinking of those underserved children who once saw a dark Santa Claus arrive and who now know that generosity may have a Hispanic name.
Photo: Courtesy of Héctor Ortiz
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