Against the Odds

“Don’t cry, big guy!” “¡NO LLORE, CHINGÓN! An American Story: The Life of Little Joe” is not only the title of his biography, but also the famous Chicano singer’s life motto.

“I didn’t think twice about it, for me it was just an automatic title,” Jose Maria DeLeon Hernandez, a.k.a. “Little Joe,” said. “Growing up, we’d fall or get hurt and my dad would say, ‘get up, no llore chingon.’ And that really describes my life, and my family’s life — against the odds, no llore chingon, get up, bear the pain and keep going. That’s what life’s about.”

Hernandez has been an international performer for more than 60 years, bringing his special blend of Mexican and American music to fans all over. However, as the son of immigrants, he had a very humble beginning, which he outlines in his award-winning 2020 book, written by Emma Gonzalez.

“I’m not one to look back and reminisce, I’m always excited about the next project, but finally I realized that this was now the time to tell my story,” Hernandez said. “It’s not just about Little Joe, it’s about my family. That’s what I wanted the book to be about because it relates to millions of people whose families came from Mexico or other countries during the revolution and they can relate to my story.”

Several authors had asked Hernandez to pen his biography, but in Gonzalez he found his voice.

“I found the perfect writer,” he said. “I needed someone to understand my background and Emma comes from the same kind of environment — a migrant kid. I wanted the story told in a certain way and she was able to do it and understand exactly what I was talking about.”

Gonzalez was surprised to be approached with the job, but she soon found that they had similarities in their stories.

“It was a complete shock to me,” she said. “He had several other authors approach him and he just didn’t click with them and he just felt that I was the one to do it because we both came from very similar backgrounds, family wise and growing up and working the fields and getting ourselves out of the fields. We also shared in ‘la familia’ aspect of it, which is very strong in the Hispanic culture — everybody is very attached to each other and they don’t leave anyone behind. La familia always comes first and that was a common area in my life as well as his.”

The timing really was perfect, as Hernandez found an old ledger with his father’s writing to include in the biography just before the book was finished.

“My dad had written these ledgers and I didn’t have any idea where they were, but lucky me, when we changed locations of our offices I found the first ledger and that’s where my dad’s story starts in 1912 when he arrived here in the states,” Hernandez said. “So for me, I couldn’t have dreamt of a better way to begin my life story. I believe there’s a reason for everything that happens and we were about 90% done with the book when I found the ledger. So it just worked out really well, being able to start the book with my dad’s story, which I think really makes the book what it is.”

The book has won several awards, including Most Inspirational Nonfiction and Best Cover at the 2020 International Latino Book Awards in Los Angeles.

“From those 2020 awards, the books that win go into a category called ‘Books to Movie’ and there are judges from the film industry that volunteer their time to score the books to see if they are worth making into a movie,” Gonzalez said. “Little Joe’s book won first place documentary worldwide and it came in as a finalist in the biography category, so we’re pending to hear from L.A. to see who may pick it up.”

Gonzalez translated the book into Spanish and entered that version in the 2021 International Latino Book Awards for the Most Inspirational Nonfiction Spanish book. A new category was added this year, Best Family History Book, so she also entered the English version in that category for 2021.

Around the same time last year as his book release, Little Joe also dropped a new live album, titled “Better Than Ever.”

“That was recorded live at a baseball stadium in Corpus Christi,” Hernandez said. “Forty years before that, I recorded my first live album at the Corpus Christi Coliseum. I like recording live — it’s do or die, on the spot. You catch the spontaneity and the live feel of the public and the band. So I enjoy doing live albums, but little did I think that after my first live recording in Corpus, exactly 40 years later I’d be back in Corpus recording my eighth live album.”

Altogether, Little Joe has recorded more than 70 albums, won five Grammys and was the second recipient of the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) Texas branch “Governors Award” in 1997 for his contributions to the legacy of Texas Music. The award is the highest honor that can be given by a NARAS branch. He also was appointed “Texas State Musician” by the Texas Legislature on March 25, 2019.

At 80 years old, Little Joe is not slowing down. He’s currently touring with La Familia, including a stop at the Fiesta Showroom at Harrah’s Laughlin for two nights of musical delight, Friday-Saturday, July 30-31. His show is a sellout every time he comes to Laughlin, including this year.

“I look forward to going back to Laughlin,” he said. “I feel so much at home there. It’s just one of those places I feel comfortable. I don’t feel like that at all places, some places feel cold. But Harrah’s in Laughlin, I just feel comfortable and I can get out there with the public.”

With an enormous repertoire, it can be a difficult decision creating the setlist for each show, but he’s bringing the classics to Laughlin with his eight-piece band.

“You’ll hear more of the classics. One of my favorite songs is ‘I Wish You Love.’ That song captures everybody’s attention and appreciation. It’s just a beautiful mellow song, so I perform it just about everywhere,” Hernandez said. “I’m lucky to have a real good mix and I just read the audience. I would bore myself to death if I had to play just one style, one genre, one language.”

A couple of special guests will be in the audience at the Laughlin shows. Dolores Huerta, a civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, will be in attendance. Jacob “Stitch” Duran, a professional boxing and MMA cutman and friend of Little Joe, will be filming segments of his upcoming Showtime documentary at the show.

Along with touring, Little Joe is also working on a new studio album with his brothers Rocky and Gilbert. His brothers will be joining him in concert on Sept. 25 at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino in Maricopa, Arizona. Tickets are likely to sell out soon, so grab yours now for this upcoming performance of Little Joe y La Familia with The Hernandez Brothers.