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The classroom lark has become a consuming passion for Monreal. Even though, he estimates, his songs so far have brought him only a few thousand dollars of profit (after his expenses, including travel and demo-recording costs), he writes an average of eight songs a week, often staying up until three or four in the morning to finish up a song idea. He's had to balance the erratic demands of his own creativity with an equally demanding day job. A year ago, he moved from Paradise Valley Community College to South Mountain Community College, where he was named director of the school's Guadalupe Center, coordinating the college's curriculum for the residents of Guadalupe.
Monreal prefers to view his education work as a creative asset, because it gives him the financial latitude to resist writing narcocorridos, highly popular songs that glamorize drug dealing and violence. He says he's repeatedly turned down offers to steer his music in what he considers an objectionable direction. Unlike other songwriters, he's not completely dependent on royalty money to make ends meet.
"What I like is that I choose what I want to write," he says. "I don't have to write about drugs, I don't have to say things that are nasty. I'm not tied to someone who will force me to write things that I don't want to write. Money to me is the least important thing. I care about the content of the song, the message, and the legacy I leave behind."
The songwriting room of Monreal's stucco Ahwatukee home doesn't exactly exude creative energy. It's a small, generic office, with no musical instruments handy, and no overt signs of the mark Monreal's made on the Latin music industry.
Its walls are lined with about 20 framed certificates of excellence, awarded to Monreal for his education work by various community organizations. His bookshelves are crammed with everything from L. Ron Hubbard's Dianeticsto fitness bibles like Eat to Winto a biography of farmworker activist Cesar Chávez. His desk has a prominently displayed copper horse sculpture, flanked by a computer monitor and keyboard, on which Monreal enters his lyrics and stores the demo recordings of his compositions, done on a dusty Roland 64-track work station he hides in the closet.
In a drawer under his desk, Monreal keeps stacks of CDs -- most of them still in shrink-wrap -- that record labels have sent him, trying to lure him into writing for aspiring stars like Jordi, Agustin Pantoja and Pablo Montero.
Dressed in a coffee-colored button-up shirt, black dress slacks and black loafers, Monreal looks formal but relaxed, equally prepared to attend an education conference or write a hit song.
He says his mind has a strange mechanism that constantly turns mundane conversation into poetry and lyrics. He's constantly rolling phrases and titles around in his head, a potentially maddening habit, but one that he's reluctant to stop, because it might kill his songwriting flow.
Attempting to prove his point, he takes the concept of just having met his interviewer, and hits on the phrase "Apenas Te Conozco (I Just Met You)." Deciding that this is a great song title, he begins to spontaneously compose lyrics about meeting a girl to whom he's attracted. Off the top of his head, he softly sings the essence of a song he decides to call "Apenas Te Conozco y Ya Te Amo (I Just Met You and Already I Love You)."
A week later, he has a printout of the completed song, with four verses that look carefully crafted, even if many of the lines were off the cuff. It's an exercise that he's had many years to practice. His mother tells him he's been writing poetry since he was in the second grade.
In the Mexican elementary schools of his youth, every Monday there would be a recital, where students had the opportunity to recite a poem -- either the work of a famous poet, or one of their own -- in front of the entire school.
"Some of those teachers tell me now that I was always volunteering to do it, that I wanted to recite all the time," Monreal says.
Although he never received any musical instruction, Monreal was an avid listener. He remembers tuning in to Oklahoma City radio as a child, picking up everything from American big bands and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole to the eclectic pop hits of the '60s, and mixing them with his appreciation of Mexican composers like Agustin Lara.
His father, Raul Monreal Sr., was a Nogales native from an affluent ranching family. He owned a string of retail stores, including one that sold home-improvement supplies and another that sold auto parts. His mother, Vicki Barron, a native of Fresno, California, was abandoned by her husband when Raul Jr. was a year old. Raul and his sister Hortenzia were raised by his mother and grandmother. When Monreal was 12, his mother remarried, settling down with a man named Ernie Lowe, who was sheriff of Santa Cruz County in Arizona.
After the wedding, the family relocated across the border. Although the move was only a few miles, for Monreal it meant a radical adjustment. He'd been an excellent student in Mexico, but in Arizona his inability to speak English led administrators to place him in a fourth-grade class at Nogales' Lincoln Elementary. A gangly adolescent amongst pintsized grade schoolers, Monreal felt humiliated by the experience. It created a stubborn bitterness which he struggled to bury.