25 years of El Vez, the Chicano Elvis

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

August 16, 1977 was the day the world lost its hip shaking, soulful singer with slicked black hair, sideburns and a quivering lip — Elvis Presley. But for the past 25 years, Robert Lopez — otherwise known as “El Vez” — has been resurrecting the rock and roll icon with a Mexican-American flair and sharing his songs worldwide with a political twist.

Since 1988, Lopez has been touring the U.S. and Europe singing Elvis songs, except he changed the lyrics to tell a different story and titles to “Viva la Raza,” instead of “Viva Las Vegas,” and “En el Barrio,” replacing “In the Ghetto.”

At 52, he is still touring and making new fans. He also added yoga to his schedule — as he says that’s the secret to maintaining himself “Elvis size.”

“I’ve been on the road every week since April — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, the East Coast, Chicago, Italy, Spain, Virginia, Australia, and San Diego this weekend,” says Lopez.

In 2011, he was made part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” exhibit at The Smithsonian for taking the “Elvis-impersonation phenomenon and reinventing it into a cross-cultural live performance combining a love of Elvis with an impressive knowledge of popular music and a pro-Latino political agenda.” One of his gold suits is displayed in between of the memorabilia of the iconic Ritchie Valens and Celia Cruz.

“To be named at the same thing as Ritchie Valens,” says Lopez about one of his biggest inspirations, “I felt really proud.”

Lopez’ career impersonating “The King” started while working as a curator at an art gallery, La Luz De Jesús, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

“I curated a theme on Elvis Presley,” says Lopez. “I hired an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn’t very good. I started showing him what he should be doing, and I thought ‘I could be the Mexican Elvis.’”

Lopez says he was such a hit with the hardcore Elvis fans passing by the art gallery, they urged him to go to Elvis Tribute Week in Memphis. There, he competed in an Elvis impersonator contest, made it to the finals and the rest is history.

“I was listening to Elvis since I was a baby,” says the Chicano performer, who currently resides in Seattle and has a restaurant named after him in Philadelphia and one coming this fall to New York City. “When I was 16, I was moved by punk rock, but Elvis was the punk rock of ‘56…I knew I wasn’t a regular Elvis impersonator, I think my punk rock attitude made me feel I could do this and do it my way.”

One of the biggest hits, of his more than 20 albums — “Immigration Time” — talks about immigration to the tune of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”

“It was the hot topic in ‘88, and it’s a sad thing that 25 years later nothing has changed,” says Lopez. “It just shows you that things don’t change, but no reason to stop trying. I go through different phases with my material — I reinterpret it — it’s gone through angrier versions and lighter versions…”

He says he likes to sing as a way to give tribute to Elvis but also to Latino culture.

“It is funny and it is political all at the same time in one song,” says Lopez. “I’ve always been doing music, but I’ve always loved the idea of parody. The best parody is when you really love the subject.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Mexican-American woman vintner tells family secrets to success

Amelia Ceja (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

Amelia Ceja (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

The Ceja Vineyards in Napa, Calif. have continuously flourished since Amelia Ceja took charge of the family wine production company in 1999 as the first Mexican-American woman vintner.She says the way they’ve been able to penetrate a really difficult market is the Latino way – with warmth, great food, great wine, and most recently, with social media.

The family-owned business has grown to produce about 10,000 cases of wine a year, and to owning more property in Napa and Sonoma. But it’s not all just about the wine. Ceja also opened a wine tasting salon, lounge and art gallery in downtown Napa. Visitors can enjoy wine and cheese while listening to Latin funk, salsa and appreciating the local art.

Ceja says she works around the clock to introduce people to her wines, and she is currently reaching out as far as China for distribution.

“We appeal to every demographic group because of the way we bring people in,” she says. “We have gone from vineyard workers to an award-winning business. If we’re not on hugging terms, we didn’t do our job.”

Ceja runs her business like a home; everyone is family. She wants her customers to feel at home and appreciate wine and food. If you’re not in Napa, you can share in the experience through videos on her blog, where she pairs Mexican food with wine.

“What I missed the most was the food,” says Ceja about her earliest memories of coming to the U.S. “The food here in the ‘60’s was atrocious. I took my thermos, because I wanted to eat warm food at school. I got my love of food from my grandmother.”

The Ceja Family (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

The Ceja Family (Courtesy Ceja Vineyards)

Her son Ariel now owns the restaurant Bistro Sabor, which serves many of the families recipes paired with Ceja wine. Her other son, Navek, studied digital arts and shoots most of their videos, more than 136 currently on YouTube with more than 180,000 views.

“My daughter, Dalia also loves to cook,” says Ceja. “We’re launching another site called Salud Napa which means cheers and health. I’m very interested in the diabetes and obesity epidemic in the Hispanic community. It’s very important to me that everything I prepare is healthy and nutritious.”

Ceja, who has been honored as “Business Woman of the Year” by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and “The most outstanding female leader, innovator and visionary in the wine field in the North Bay” by North Bay Business Journal, says what she is most proud of is having three highly-successful children. She says they have been crucial asset to the company.

“It wasn’t because we urged them, but they all went away to college, and they all came back, and now indirectly they are working with us,” says Ceja. “It really enriches our brand because it is very important to take Ceja to the next level. They are contributing really great content and ideas in which to grow.”

Her daughter, Dalia, the director of sales and marketing of the family business, wants to pursue an executive MBA in the near future. Dalia followed in her mother’s footsteps and now maintains her own blog, while also continuing to write on the company’s blog several times a week.

Ceja is always moving. This month, she will travel to Michigan to be a keynote speaker at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. On February 22, she will be featured in the independent documentary Dreamland as one of 12 Californians who have made pioneering imprints on the state. The documentary will air on PBS.

Ceja says it’s been a lot easier for her kids than when she arrived in California from Jalisco,Mexico in the 1960’s. At 12 years old, she helped her migrant farm worker father pick grapes.However, her children don’t take anything for granted.

“They also follow our tradition of giving back,” says Ceja of her three children. “And that really comes from my parents.”

“I hope if they have children, they will transfer that. We have to leave this earth better than how we found it. Both our people and our planet. We’re building a legacy.”

And just in time for the Super Bowl, try this award-winning recipe for carne con chile that she prepares here for us.

As Ceja says, “Salud!”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.