The Musica Man

Raul Monreal was only trying to inspire his students when they turned the tables on him. In the spring of 1994, the soft-spoken Monreal was instructing a teacher-certification course at Paradise Valley Community College. For Monreal, a 53-year-old native of Nogales, Mexico, who grew up dirt poor and fatherless along the border and hustled his way to a master's degree, the class was a chance to preach the power of an educated mind.

Pacing the classroom with an evangelist's zeal, he urged his 32 would-be educators to think seriously about their chosen vocation. He told them not to be handicapped by their fears, and not to use fear to crush the self-esteem of their students. And he reminded them that teachers also need to be learners.

At the end of his lecture, he assigned them a class project. Their task was simple, but infinitely broad: Put together a project that would help them fulfill one of their lifelong dreams, and complete it by the end of the semester.

As soon as Monreal finished his spiel, hands started popping up in the classroom. One by one, Monreal's students challenged him to prove that he was still a learner. They suggested that he should prove it by attempting a semester project of his own. And they had already decided exactly what the project should be.

These students knew Monreal had been writing poetry since his days in grade school. Over the years, his poems had become so popular among friends that they would frequently ask him to do recitations at parties. And strangers would solicit him to compose wedding toasts or Mother's Day poems.

Monreal had never given serious thought to adapting his poems into song form, but one student suggested that he should try. Not enough of a challenge, another student argued. Monreal should also get someone to release one of his songs on a CD. Another student upped the ante even higher. Monreal needed to get his song played on the radio. And he needed to accomplish all these things by the end of the semester.

They might as well have asked him to pilot a glider over the Atlantic Ocean. Monreal not only had no connections in the music industry, but he had no musical training of any kind. He didn't sing, he didn't play an instrument, and he had no idea how to put together a piece of music.

He also seemed as far removed from the glamour of show business as anyone in this pop-culture-saturated society can be. Pudgy and bronze-complected, with a combed-back mound of raven hair, Monreal has the conservative appearance of a lifelong school administrator, which is exactly what he's been for three decades. A dedicated husband and father to three adult children, his musical tastes veer more toward sentimental crooners like Dean Martin and Bing Crosby than MTV icons like Fred Durst or Jay-Z.

But Monreal has a quiet, steely defiance about him. He speaks in a bassy mumble, and seems reserved on first impression. But it doesn't take long to realize that he consumes challenges like they were airline peanuts.

This kind of determination enabled him to overcome a tough childhood, which saw his father abandon the family when Monreal was only a year old, forcing the boy to work the cotton fields and sell chicle and wash windshields along the border for meager pocket change. And it enabled him to overcome the prejudices of a 1960s Arizona school system which determined that a teenage Monreal must be learning-disabled simply because he couldn't speak English.

Monreal could see that his students were testing him, trying to find out if his classroom exhortations were genuine, or merely a string of hollow words. "They were waiting to get a 'no' from me, but it never happened," he says. "When I told my wife about it, she said I was crazy."

But Monreal persistently refused to take no for an answer. He approached legendary artists like Freddy Fender and Ramon Ayala for feedback. He barged into the offices of record-company execs in Los Angeles and took his songs directly to bands, popping in on their groupie-surrounded hotel rooms in Mexico, Florida or California, in the early morning hours after their concerts.

Seven years later, Monreal is one of the most prolific and frequently recorded songwriters in the exploding Latin music market. He says he's produced about 400 demo tapes for various groups over that time, and nearly 100 of those songs have actually been released on CDs. One of his songs, "Quebradita en el Mar," was an international hit for two different groups, and was included on a Bands of the Century CD compilation of Latino artists.

He's schmoozed with the likes of Carlos Santana and Gloria Estefan, and increasingly finds himself courted by Latin-based record labels like Fonovisa and Sony Discos.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia