Writer: Chad Taylor
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
After Warren Morrow died suddenly in 2012 at the age of 34, Amner Martinez decided he wanted to stage a concert to honor the well-known and respected advocate for the city’s Latino community.
“Like a month after he died, I said to my wife, ‘I think I’m going to approach his widow [Christina Fernandez-Morrow].’ I met with her in March and said, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it this year,’ ” Martinez recalls. “So we hit the floor running and put on the first concert that July.”
That first concert eventually blossomed into the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival, an annual all-day event that showcases a variety of Latin styles, such as rock en Español, salsa, cumbia, regional Mexican, samba, Afro-Cuban and Caribbean. This year’s fest is July 21 at Brenton Plaza downtown.
“I’m always looking to make [the festival] better than the last year,” says Martinez.
As the scope of the project and the number of bands have grown, so has the list of behind-the-scenes organizers making it happen. Along with Martinez and Fernandez-Morrow, Goizane Mullin, Laura Rodriguez and Mayra de Catalan have brought their own talents to the project.
“It’s a small team,” Martinez says. “But once we have the right funding, we can make stuff happen. We have the experience.
“I don’t know what my position is,” he adds, joking. “I’m the idealist; the others do a good job of bringing me back down to earth.”
“Amner is an unstoppable force,” says Martinez’s friend Nicole Lorenson, owner of Preservation in the East Village. “Once he sets his mind to something, he is going to make it happen, and he has a way of inspiring and supporting others to do the same.”
Born in Guatemala, Martinez was 5 when his family was forced to flee the country to escape political persecution. Settling in California in 1990, the family moved to Perry in 1995 when Martinez’s parents found jobs at a meatpacking facility that paid nearly double what they were making in California.
Now 37, Martinez lives in Des Moines with his wife, Laura Rodriguez, and three children. By day, he works as an operations manager for a local recruitment company, but he’s always been interested in music and entertainment.
He started out working at local clubs as a VIP concierge and an event planner. “A friend of mine and I started our own company called Viva DJs,” he says. “We were the ones that started Salsa Thursday at Dos Rios.”
Martinez met Warren Morrow in 2008 when Morrow sponsored a Viva DJs event. “Warren was involved in everything,” Martinez says. “La Placita, the way it looks right now was because he was involved in the design. He was also involved in the investment aspect.”
Morrow was deeply committed to issues that concerned the city’s Latino population. He founded the Latino Leadership Project in 1999, assisting high school students with college plans, and devoted countless hours to volunteer and nonprofit projects throughout the city.
“Back when [Morrow] sponsored my event in 2008, I was just all about the money, you know?” Martinez recalls. “Looking back, I wondered how it was that I never sat down and talked to him about the community.”
With the music festival, “we want to honor Warren’s legacy,” Martinez adds. “We want to keep his name moving forward, and give young Latinos here some local heroes.”
Des Moines has had no shortage of shows and events for fans of a more traditional, Mexican-rooted sound, but for the festival, Martinez has always wanted to cater to Latinos who are interested in a less traditional sound—namely, younger people who have spent most of their lives in America but who have grown up with the music of their parents’ homelands. To that end, the festival has booked acts like Grammy winners La Santa Cecilia and Kansas City-based Latin rock outfit Making Movies.
“We want to be a platform for the newer Latin sounds that are coming up from the Dreamers, and from kids who have grown up here,” Martinez says. “We want to grow as much as we can but not
lose that essence. We want people to know that they don’t have to travel to Chicago to hear good Latin music.”
Martinez says he and his compatriots know that each step forward must be done as a team. Time and again, Martinez refers to the people who have helped him make the festival a reality and says team unity will help the festival continue to expand its influence.
“We want to bring in acts that will draw more people than just Latinos,” he says. “And we want to let the Latinos here know that there are more kinds of music to listen to than just the traditional Mexican bands.”