Musician and occasional actor Freddy Fender represented a veritable anomaly: a Hispanic star of country & western, who effortlessly broke the "racial barrier" in that musical genre much as Charley Pride did -- almost concurrently -- as an African-American country singer.
Born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, TX, to an impoverished Latino family (the child of migrant laborers), Fender took to the guitar as a young child, and dropped out of secondary school at the age of 16 to enlist in the armed forces. After his service ended, Huerta, then 21, recorded a series Spanish hits (including versions of "Don't Be Cruel" and "Jamaica Farewell") under his birth name. Not one year later, he made the crossover to English-language material and white audiences by changing his name to Freddy Fender -- Fender from the headstock on his guitar, and Freddy because he liked the way it sounded with Fender.
In 1960, he released the single "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," which shot up to number one, but a three-year stint in prison for marijuana possession ensued, followed by years of musical inactivity. Fender rebounded to stardom in the '70s at the hands of Crazy Cajun music label founder Huey Meaux, and landed one of his biggest hits, the country staple "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." Many successful LPs and singles followed throughout the 1970s, into the early '80s, until about 1983, when his hits began to dry up.
Fender's obituaries would widely report that he turned to a movie career largely after his musical success died, though this is somewhat inaccurate. He actually debuted onscreen in 1977, as Johnny (a bit part) in Robert M. Young's adaptation of the Miguel Piñero play Short Eyes, a drama about an imprisoned child molester. He doubled it up that same year with a turn as Pancho Villa in Albert Band's low-budget Western programmer She Came to the Valley. Fender's next major role did not arrive for another decade, when he played Mayor Sammy Cantu in Robert Redford's finely felt magic realist parable The Milagro Beanfield War. Fender made his last onscreen appearance as Tebano the Younger in Luis Valdez's 1992 picture La Pastorela, a contemporization of the traditional Spanish Christmas play about the shepherds visiting baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
Additional filmed appearances by Fender include a number of concerts, such as the 1986 Great Country: Live from Church Street and the 2003 Freddy Fender Live!, a performance conducted and filmed at the Riverside casino in Laughlin, NV. In 1990, Fender formed the Tex-Mex band the Texas Tornados, but after three albums with that ensemble, the group disbanded and Fender struck out on his own, once again, as a solo musician. On October 14, 2006, Fender died of lung cancer, at the age of 69, in his home of Corpus Christi, TX.