Swaying to soundtrack of life

SONOMA COUNTY FAIR: Trio Zaragoza takes audience down memory lane with greatest hits of 1940s Mexico

This story ran on Sunday’s A1 and with an audio slideshow online.

The editors were desperate for a piece about the growing popularity of the county fair among Latino families. I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say about the fake charreada or the Batalla de las Bandas. Then I found the trio, working musicians playing their hearts out on a small stage in between taco trucks and churro stands. They made me think of the boleros my grandfather loved and I knew how the music evokes nostalgia across generations of immigrants. Molina was also a great talker — bonus! I wanted to put him on the radio. Instead, I pitched a slideshow, only the second that the paper had ever done.

By Raquel Maria Dillon | THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

CHAD SURMICK | The Press Democrat

Of all the musical acts at the Sonoma County Fair, Trio Zaragoza plays the smallest stage. It’s barely a stage at all, just a corner near the picnic tables in the Mexican Village area.

With sweet romantic lyrics and delicate guitars, traditional trios take audience members on a trip down memory lane with the greatest hits of 1940s Mexico.

“We’re not ranch hands, we’re caballeros – the last gentlemen of the great Golden Age of Mexico,” said Carlos Molina, who manages the group and plays bass.

As the group’s frontman, Molina tells jokes in between songs, switching back and forth between fluent Spanish and English. Jose Zaragoza plays guitar and is the lead singer. Isidro Madrigal plays the requinto, a type of small six-stringed guitar.

In the audience, older couples sigh and sway to the gentle beat as they rediscover the soundtrack of their youth, when Mexican music and film prospered during the Epoca de Oro – The Golden Era – and during the World War II years.

In their 19th year at the fair, Molina and his trios bring personal and family history alive for generations of Mexican Americans who grew up listening to their parents and grandparents sing love songs in Spanish.

“It reminds me of my grandfather a lot because he was a farmworker and after working in the fields he’d listen to that music,” said Antonia Nuñez, 29, of Santa Rosa, who stopped to listen with her husband and family.

Trio Zaragoza is performing on seven afternoons at the fair. At the Mexican Village last week, fairgoers chowed down on tacos and nachos, while others sang along.

Mary Escobar of Chino, 91, requested a waltz that her father used to play for her when she was growing up in El Paso.

“He told me to remember him every time I heard that song,” she said.

Her daughter, Pauline Zapata of Elk Grove, requested “Gema,” or “The Jewel.”

“My husband sings it for me,” she said. “It’s our song.”

To accommodate such requests, Molina knows 3,572 songs – waltzes, boleros, ballads and more. He said he takes them very seriously.

“When I get a request, I already know where you’re at,” Molina said. “You’ve got to be a sensitive creature to play this music.”

“In our times, the young men would serenade you,” said Ana Moises of Santa Rosa, 60, who grew up in El Salvador when teenage courtship rituals were more formal.

“We went out in groups with our girlfriends and a chaperone, and never walked alone,” she said in Spanish. “So the trios were a way for a suitor or an admirer to court a girl.”

Moises fondly remembered outings at the beach, where young men would hire the strolling trios to play for their sweethearts.

To her, trios are more classy, intimate and personally meaningful than other music from south of the border.

Lorenzo Botello, a stablehand who works at Golden Gate Fields and travels with the racehorses, said all kinds of Mexican music reminds him of home, but the delicate tunes of the trios are especially touching.

“You’re alone here so this kind of music is so lovely because it brings memories of the family we left behind – my wife, my kids, my parents, and all my friends,” back home in Zacatecas, Mexico, he said.

Ramon Lopez of Petaluma, 64, asked for “Jalisco,” a mariachi song about the beautiful women of his hometown of Guadalajara. He sang along in a booming voice as if he were auditioning for lead singer, even when some of the verses escaped him.

Molina studied music in college in Mexico City, but became an engineer and worked for Hewlett-Packard most of his career. He lives in Healdsburg, but his line-up of more than a dozen musicians live and play gigs all over Northern California.

“All my teams are flexible. I plug and play them like a stereo.”

Molina said many English-speakers have come to appreciate trios, because the music transcends language, and has crossover potential.

“The tourism trade, primarily the vineyards and wineries, likes our music because it’s just the right size, just the right ambiance to add to flavor to a private party or wedding.”

He said he enjoys playing the fair because “this is how we all started anyway – on the edge of our barbeque benches while our families were eating.”