Fiery guitarist and songwriter Jorge Santana pioneered what became known as the Latin Rock Sound. But his music and his life were also inspired by his unselfish embrace over five decades of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers’ cause. The farm worker movement now grieves his passing on May 14 from natural causes at age 68.
Born 1951, in the city of Autlan in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Jorge was the youngest of three brothers and four sisters to immigrate as a boy to the United States, joining his father, Jose Santana, a mariachi musician, in San Francisco.
Upon graduating from Mission High School, Jorge was set on being a machinist before his career was interrupted by music. He began playing the guitar at nightclubs in San Francisco’s Mission District during the late 1960s. Meantime, the musical career of his brother, Carlos Santana, took off after he performed at the Woodstock music festival in 1969.
Jorge joined a San Francisco band initially called the Malibus. The name changed to Malo and he signed with Warner Brother Records in 1970. Jorge’s debut album won worldwide acclaim with classic hits such as “Suavecito,” “Nena” and “Café.”
His blazing guitar style became a signature sound not only for Latin Rock, but also other musical genres. That style propelled Jorge’s solo career and subsequent recordings following his Malo days. He continued performing and releasing solo albums over the years that included hit songs such as “Love the Way” and “Sandy” that are still popular. Jorge’s Latin Rock Sound, born in the Mission District of San Francisco where he was raised, helped spark a fire that spread across the globe.
With Malo’s beginning in the early 1970s, promotor Jim Cassell produced a series of concerts spotlighting Malo and Jorge as benefits for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Initial concerts were staged at San Jose State, Sacramento State and San Diego State universities. Jorge spent several more years on numerous other UFW benefit tours raising much needed funds during the struggling union’s most difficult times.
In the mid-1990s, Jorge reconnected with Abel Sanchez, a longtime friend and fellow musician from San Francisco, through a band they assembled to promote a U.S. postage stamp honoring Cesar that was officially unveiled in 2003. In the early 2000s, Abel and Jorge wrote music and lyrics for a new song entitled, “Song for Cesar,” and Jorge recorded a solo performance. Jorge added to the track what he felt was one of his best ever blistering solos packed with emotion. Those endeavors led to a 15-year effort to create a 90-minute full length feature documentary by the same name as the song.
Jorge was a prime supporter of Song for Cesar, the film built around the music, musicians, artists and other key backers who were instrumental in helping Cesar grow his movement. Jorge appeared in fundraising concerts and all-star revues of artists and musicians featured in the documentary to underwrite the project. The premiere of Song for Cesar, planned for September, is on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jorge modestly observed how he just wanted to help his brother “Carlos and so many artists give [la] causa more acknowledgement because Cesar Chavez and his movement are still here planning a better way for los campesinos and Latinos…Being human to me is at the heart of what Cesar was about because a real human person feels and is aware of all those emotions [such as] integrity, being considerate, being responsible and being accountable.”
His friend Abel Sanchez observes that “as Jorge grew older and realized the importance of what Cesar Chavez was doing for the farm workers and our people, I saw the deepening of his wanting to help educate younger generations to get more involved and use their lives to do good for our people in the tradition of Cesar that Jorge embodied.”
Jorge Santana is survived by his wife, Donna Santana; his son Anthony Santana, Anthony’s wife Shannon and their son (Jorge’s grandson) Franklin; his daughter, Michelle (“Misha”) Santana and her husband Brandon Marsh; brothers Tony and Carlos Santana; and sisters Irma and Lety Santana, Laura Porras and Maria Santana Vrionis.
Video of Jorge Santana performing “Song for Cesar” with Abel Sanchez at Fantasy Recording Studios, Berkeley, Calif;: https://youtu.be/vS7GXJMZvgI
Video of Jorge Santana speaking in Spanish at the Chavez gravesite in the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument/National Chavez Center at Keene, Calif.: https://youtu.be/xw61ZJtaD7c