By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
Zubia was only 17 himself, and for several years, his favorite times had been his escapes with his felonious uncle, a Robert Blake look-alike who hustled drugs and guns and let his young nephew drink beer and smoke Salems. To the nephew, who hated school but loved to read, Kiko Maldonado was a Mexican Jack Kerouac who would pluck Zubia out of his Scottsdale neighborhood for trips to Nogales, Tijuana and San Diego. The highway was the thing, Zubia says, and Kiko always treated him like a king, spending his ever-present wad of bills so the kid had his own hotel room. Sometimes a trip had no purpose other than to visit a friend in Blythe and let Zubia help pull a tranny.
"That was living," Zubia says.
After Kiko's death of a heart attack at the age of 53, Zubia would embark on his own reckless binge, which included severe substance abuse and alcoholism, depression and brushes with suicide. But looking back, Lawrence and the rest of the Zubia family consider the hustler-uncle who let him smoke and drink and break laws a good influence on him.
"Kiko was a role model for Larry in the tender, hurting part of a man," says Zubia's mother--and Kiko's sister--Amalia. "He [Kiko] had a terrible life, and he was a hurting person. But he was a survivor. So was Larry. Larry grew to be who he is today because he learned from Kiko's misfortune."
That may be easier for her to say now that 34-year-old Lawrence has cleaned himself up and become a responsible husband and father. By contrast, six years ago Lawrence was so addicted to drugs and alcohol and out of his mind most of the time that she and her husband Raul banished him from their home.
Then, in February 1995, after Lawrence had slipped the police dragnet, his family convinced him to turn himself in. He spent a night in jail, entered a detox clinic, and four weeks later walked out a sober man. He's kept sober ever since, to the great relief of his bandmates and kin.
But Amalia admits that there's another, darker reason why in hindsight she considers her brother Kiko to be such a good influence on her son. And that's because Kiko turned out to be so much better for him than the other uncle to whom Lawrence grew attached as a child.
Unlike Kiko the convicted drug smuggler, Lawrence's uncle Laurence Florez was a Catholic priest, which to Mexican-Americans is like having a U.S. senator in the family. At about the same time his trips with Kiko began, Lawrence was also spending a lot of time with his priest-uncle.
Years later, in 1993, a Phoenix man, Ramon Gomez, claimed that as a boy he had been molested by Florez, who by then had retired. The Zubias were stunned when Lawrence came forward to claim that he, too, had been victimized as an 11-year-old by his uncle, and joined Gomez in a lawsuit against the church.
Amalia says the irony isn't lost on them that the uncle who victimized her son was the priest, and not the felon.
It's tempting to conclude that Lawrence's trajectory was a result of his victimization, that it caused him to choose the world of his nomadic, alcoholic uncle over a narrower path encouraged by an authoritarian church. But Zubia refuses to blame his bad behavior on Florez. In fact, he refuses to talk about Florez at all, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed when the lawsuit was settled out of court. He says only that he regrets ever suing the church, if only because journalists always bring it up.
If Lawrence Zubia learned stamina from his uncle Kiko, he and his brother Mark learned music from their father, Raul.
Raul says that in his 20s he was a plumber who often went to Mexican movies and noticed that in the films, the men who played music were always the ones who took home the pretty women.
"That was what I wanted to do," he says.
"That's why he can't blame us for what we're doing," Mark Zubia, currently unattached, cracks in response.
Raul and his wife, Amalia, sit in the living room of the south Scottsdale home where they've lived for 32 years. They are surrounded by three of their children and five of their grandchildren. They remember how Raul put together a group to play Mexican music at fiestas and weddings, and how at only 12, Lawrence learned enough guitar to become a regular member. Mark, meanwhile, was playing in the band by the time he was 10.
It was simple music, and Mark, hearing a typical ranchera song on the radio, points out the repetitive guitar line that northern Mexican music inherited when German immigrants brought their polka with them. But simple or not, Raul says it was the soul in Mexican music, its inherent sadness, that made both of his sons sensitive musicians and prolific songwriters.
The three still play together. When local street celebrity Elvis "The Cat" Del Monte died in October, the Zubias put together their old mariachi combo to play religious songs at Del Monte's funeral. Mark and Lawrence strummed guitars as their father sang the devotional lyrics from the Catholic mass.