Jose (Joe) Jesus Serrano was born 1944 in Tijuana, Mexico. His father, Lucio Lopez, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. A musician, Lucio moved to Tijuana in order to play the congas and sing in a Big Band orchestra. However, Joe didn’t know much more about his father because Lucio died when Joe was a young child.
Joe was raised by his mother, Maria de Jesus Serrano who was also born in Guadalajara, Mexico. She came to Tijuana in 1945, a year after Joe was born. Because his parents only got married through the church, but they did not register in the courts, Joe took his mother’s last name. Joe lived in Colonia Libertad and went to Escuela Libertad in Tijuana, graduating in 1957. He then went for a year to Instituto Politecnico Agua Caliente.
Joe’s mother Maria worked in Coronado as a housekeeper, so in 1959 when Joe was fourteen, they moved to San Ysidro. They lived in an apartment where the I-805 freeway now exists. Two years later, in 1961, he attended Mar Vista High School, but still hadn’t been able to gain a strong command of English. As a consequence, trying to study was near impossible and he dropped out at the age of seventeen.
However, he wasn’t sure what job he could get in the United States because he had such trouble with English, so Joe kept going back across the border to Tijuana. This is where he saw a club along Avenida Revolucion, “Aloha and Mike’s”. He asked if they would allow him to play the drums. Although he had never played the drums before, he performed and did well. It was clear he had talent.
Thereafter, Joe began to jump from one place to another playing the drums. He would play mostly American pops music, including Santana — who showed up one nigth at the club and Joe was a drummer for him. Joe recalled those days as a performer; his employers wanted him to have long hair so in order to keep drumming, he bought himself a wig. He also noted that going across the border during the 1960s was easy, but the border would close at a certain time of night. One time he didn’t get to the border on time and had to sleep on the grass in a Tijuana park.
Joe played in Tijuana throughout the 1960s until he was persuaded to play in San Diego. He found his first gig with the Hi-Ho Club on 28th & National Avenue. At Hi-Ho he played the drums, but when the singer of the band quit, they asked Joe to fill in. Seeing greater talent, the owner of the club encouraged Joe to create his own group. That was in 1972 and his group became called Joe Serrano y Su Combo Latino.
Why Joe and not Jose? Joe tells the story that when they gave him the final paperwork for citizenship, it said “Joe.” He told them, “Excuse me, sir, it’s wrong.” But then they told Joe it would take more paperwork again, going back to Washington and a fee of $150 to correct it. So he left it like that and became Joe.
In 1974, Joe started playing at the 21 Club full time, located on 21st and National City Blvd. In addition, at his San Ysidro apartment — Del Prado on Beyer Blvd — he started a low powered radio station. Channel 12 provided him with a military transmitter that could reach Tijuana. In his apartment he played folklorico and his own music from his group Joe Serrano y Su Combo Latino. It became the first radio station in San Ysidro. Thereafter, he became a radio personality on RADIO KJS La Pequeña GIGANTE 850 KG am La Primera en San Ysidro (1975-1980), Radio XHRM 92.5 Fracc,Doctores Tijuana Bja mex (1980-1985) and KJS La Pequeña GIGANTE estación radiofonica por Internet.
By the early 1980s Joe landed a full-time performing job in Sacramento and for three years he performed at The Reno Club in the Old Town area of Sacramento while his family stayed in San Ysidro. Six months before his contract was up, he became ill from exhaustion and quit. He returned to the South Bay and eventually began to perform again.
Over time, Joe saw San Ysidro as his home. He was the President of the Executive Board for the Fiestas Patrias de San Ysidro in Larsen Park. He also played with various groups, including Los Cientificios de Ritmo, Los Reyneros de Monterrey (1980-1984), Sabor Norteño (1984-1996), Los Tremendos de Apaxtla and Los Rayos de San Diego (1999-2006). He created about thirty-six CD’s and also made LP’s.
His most famous South Bay song became Mi Pueblo San Ysidro. In addition, after the tragic 1984 McDonald’s Massacre he recorded “La Tragedia En San Ysidro” with Los Reyneros de Monterrey.
Joe married Ernestina Gallardo (b. 1944 in Tijuana). They were married on December 29, 1962 at the Immaculate Conception Church in Tijuana. Together they had four children: Maria, Jose Luis, Ernesto and Albertito. They have nine grandchildren and one great granddaughter.
In addition to his music and family, Joe ran for San Ysidro School Board at the age of thirty-five, but lost. Since 2011 he’s owned a soccer team, Liga de la Mistadad. He is also a proud lowrider, owning a 1965 Chevy Impala, and is a member of the TJ Friends Car Club. The San Diego City Council declared June 27, 2015 to be Jose Serrano Day in the City of San Diego.
(Interview: March 11, 2016)