It’s mid-April but Patsy Torres’ house is still decorated for Christmas. Too many things have been happening since the holidays, she explains, including family illnesses, to worry about taking down all that stuff. Located on a quiet street in a northwestern suburb, the house itself is an oasis of peace overlooking the green landscape of the Hill Country. Torres and her husband, David Lucero, relocated to this hideaway in 2001 to escape from overzealous fans of the Tejano star who used to drive by her previous residences, stop to look and even leave messages in the mailbox.
“Here, our only uninvited visitors are deer, coyotes, foxes and owls,” says Torres, who hasn’t changed much since we last interviewed her in the late 1990s. As energetic as ever, she is still a performing dynamo who is as willing to donate her time to Tejanos for Christ as to travel to China as a Texas Ambassador under the auspices of the Texas Commission on the Arts. A woman of faith and a lifelong Catholic, Torres was approached about 18 months ago by Grammy winner Sunny Ozuna and colleagues René René and Rudy-Tee, who had formed a small group of Tejano artists “dedicated to using their vocal talents to evangelize and raise money for churches and religious organizations.” They wondered if she would join them for a concert. “I thought I was filling in for someone,” explains Torres lightheartedly as we are getting settled in the living room for our conversation.
“They said, ‘Do you have any Christian songs you could do, and could you give your testimony at the concert?’ I went: ‘What?’ They said it was to be a fundraiser for St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church. I didn’t have any Christian songs, so I decided to sing secular ones and change the words. I loved being part of it, though.” Afterwards, people came to her wanting to buy a CD of the songs she had sung, but there wasn’t one. So Torres went to work, eventually releasing Saved at Last, her first 10-track Christian album, which reveals another face of the artist — a soulful, expressively nuanced deep voice that, unlike so much of contemporary Christian music, actually sounds reverent. “It’s something I have always wanted to do,” she admits. “I give my testimony every time we do a concert. I am honored to be a part of Tejanos for Christ.”
But she has not forgotten her Tejano fans. Not long ago she recorded a collection of her original songs from past and present under the title Canciones de Patsy Torres, including her greatest hits Te Juro and Ya Me Voy de Esta Tierra from her first album issued in 1985. This month, her latest, Mi Inspiración. is expected to come out. She writes most of her material herself. Torres continues to perform live both at home in San Antonio and all over the country and abroad. There are Tejano fans in China, she discovered, as well as in Germany, where she entertained 45,000 screaming, dancing Germans, and even in Turkey, where she has visited twice, most recently in 2010. Over her long career, Torres has often been a trailblazer. She was the first Tejana singer to turn her performances into minishows by combining singing with dancing and using the entire stage. She was also the first one to film a music video and to give exposure to Tejano music on national television when she sang Abrázame on the CBS special Sea World’s Lone Star Celebration. Between 1985 and 2010, Torres released 13 albums, won the Tejano Music Award for Best Female Entertainer in 1987, performed for the first time with the San Antonio Symphony in 1992 (and again in 2012), and was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000 and into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in 2009. For 10 years, the engaging vocalist also entertained visitors at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, sharing with them aspects of the Chicano culture. And these are just some of her many accomplishments.
Justifiably, Torres is proud of her record. “I have promoted Tejano music very much,” she notes. “I said to myself early on, ‘I am going to perform music from San Antonio on national TV.’ After that I did it in Nashville. At the time nobody there knew what Tejano was. And then for all those years, I introduced it to visitors from around the world at Fiesta Texas. I would do show after show after show.” Performing with the symphony last year was also a major accomplishment. She sang Te Juro, which she wrote for her husband in 1994 “to assure him that he was my one and only. The symphony did an incredible arrangement of my song; that was such a thrill, awesome!” she says with a broad smile.
A trumpeter who was going to be a doctor
Hers may be one of the best-known voices in South Texas, but Torres never had a singing lesson while growing up. Her role model was her beloved grandfather, Dr. William Torres, whom she hoped to emulate by becoming a physician. How she got into music is one of those serendipitous stories that only look logical in retrospect. Seeing her little sister — who played the saxophone — get out of class on various occasions because she was in the school band, young Patsy took up the trumpet so that she, too, could share in the fun. A couple of years later, while at Thomas Jefferson High, she put together a band of her own that ended up winning the school’s talent show. She played the trumpet while someone else sang. Though the members changed after graduation, the Blue Harmony band survived and started playing for money. But the trumpeter was told that the new keyboard the group had acquired made the horns obsolete and that she could stay only if she could sing. So she did. “And six months later I was discovered,” she says. “ We were performing at a wedding, and I sang just one song, the only one I knew, but this record producer who heard me didn’t know that. He took us into the studio, and we won a recording contract.”
By that time she was attending San Antonio College and still telling everyone that she was a trumpet player who was going to be a doctor. As her new career progressed, however, her grandfather spoke to her one day, giving her the psychological permission to abandon her medical dream. You have been given a gift, he told her, you are healing souls with music; you need to sing. These were also her rebellious years, she says. Angry at her father, Torres left home and supported herself through her music. Though devout as a child, she found herself unable to pray during this period “because (she) felt (she) had sinned.” That’s the story she shares with audiences when she gives her testimony of salvation — that, and how she found her way back to repenting and asking for forgiveness. Nowadays, she is happy when her ailing dad manages to see her perform, as it happened recently in Camargo Park.
In keeping with her faith, Torres has always been generous with her time and talent. It started with invitations to address school children about staying in school and eventually escalated to what became known as the Positive Force Tour, a program of songs, skits, positive messages and audience participation that she and her team performed in high schools all over the United States. As the demand increased, sponsors such as H-E-B stepped in to support them. Torres estimates that they have reached at least 1 million kids across the country. “I am really proud of our PFT,” she says. “Now, because of the economy, we have more affordable minishows for different age levels.” Beyond PFT, she is also a motivational speaker for adults and always spices up her talks with a few songs.
While she will never be a physician, the singer has recently realized her early ambition to become a doctor by getting a Ph.D. in education and organizational leadership, which has opened new doors for her. She’s joined forces with ASI Professionals, a new group of organizational and leadership development strategists that help companies improve employee communications. And, yes, singing is part of it, too.
“I have advocated for education for so long that I decided to practice what I preach,” she says about her decision to return to the University of the Incarnate Word. “My Ph.D. gives me more credibility, and I see the world differently now. I want to go beyond performance and apply my leadership skills, like in the work I will be doing with ASI. Someday, I may want to get involved in education reform.“ In April, the singer/songwriter has also reached a milestone in her personal life. She and Lucero, who has been her manager for years, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and plan to formally renew their vows in the near future. He even presented her with a new ring. For the time being, there are no plans to leave the stage. As an entertainer, Torres has diversified into other musical genres, such as pop, rock, mariachi, even jazz. In fact, this month she will be performing at the SAS Jazz Fest in Crockett Park, and she often performs alone or with her band for a variety of private functions.
“If I ever felt that I was not effective, I wouldn’t see a point of being on stage. If I am not moving people’s souls, I don’t need to be on stage. But right now I know this is what I am supposed to be doing,” says Dr. Torres.