McALLEN — The saloon was empty, but it was filled with music and purpose.
Matt Castillo of “Matt and the Herdsmen,” Joe Vega and Carlos “Denver” Garcia of “Midnight Run,” and Andrew Maldonado of “Drew and the Dancehall Dreamers” strummed their guitars, serenading a desolate dance floor Saturday evening to raise money for the families of McAllen police officers who were recently killed in line of duty. The fundraiser was streamed and hosted by Hillbilly’s Dance & Nightclub in McAllen.
Officers Edelmiro “Eddie” Garza Jr. and Ismael “Smiley” Chavez Jr. were shot and killed on the afternoon of July 11 while responding to a domestic disturbance call in McAllen.
For RC Martinez, general manager at Hillbilly’s for over 30 years, the deaths of the two cops hit home given his family history in law enforcement — his uncle was a police officer for the McAllen Police Department.
“When we heard about what happened, we just felt like we’ve got to do something,” Martinez said. “They’ve always been there for us whenever we need them, so we just felt like we need to give back in some way.”
Martinez initially began raising money for the families with his side operation, Printex Express. He sold masks and plans to donate 50% of the profits to the families. So far he’s raised over $3,000.
But he felt that he needed to do more. He reached out to the performers with the hopes of organizing the fundraiser with less than a week’s notice, and they came through.
“It’s really important for us to come together at this time, especially for the families,” Vega, 44, who himself is a patrolman for the Edinburg Police Department said while holding back tears. “That’s what we’re doing this for — to give back to our fellow brothers.
“We know the sacrifices that they made — the ultimate sacrifice. It’s just the type of thing where we take care of our own.”
Maldonado, 39, a sergeant and detective with the Willacy County Sheriff’s Office, shared similar sentiments.
“If it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us,” Maldonado said. “It’s a brotherhood that you come into. When you take a job that has a calling like that, you take it to heart everyday, 24/7, no matter what. You’re always a cop.”
For the four musicians, playing in front of empty venues is something they had grown comfortable with in the early phases of their musical careers. Now, given the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s simply the new reality of what performers have to live with in order to comply with social distancing requirements.
Still, they are able to find comfort in their art and connect with those who tuned into the livestream via Facebook.
“People lean on music all the time,” Castillo, 33, said. “They depend on music to get them through heartbreaks or situations like this. If I can help somebody get up and fight through the next day because of music, then I’m doing my job.”
Castillo has made a name for himself throughout much of Texas. With degrees in criminal justice and kinesiology, a career in law enforcement was imminent. However, his success in music carried him toward another career path.
Still, he said that law enforcement holds a place in his heart.
“Music can heal all,” Castillo said. “What really matters is who’s on the other side of that screen — the people we’re touching musically.”
For Maldonado, the experience hit home since a colleague of his graduated from the police academy with officer Garza. He said that even though performing in front of a crowd is a stress release for him and his fellow stagemates, the police mentality is always in the back of his mind.
“Nowhere in our police academy do they say that we’re signing up to hurt somebody or kill somebody,” Maldonado said. “All they teach us is we’re signing up to protect people. That’s it. All we signed up for is to protect and serve.”
As the performers took their seats on stage in front of a “thin blue line” flag, they joked and bantered amongst themselves as Martinez notified them that the stream was about to begin.
The stream beginning, Castillo introduced the musicians as they set out to play over nearly three hours worth of music.
“It’s an honor to share the stage with you guys and be onstage at Hillbilly’s,” Maldonado said just before Vega began playing “Turn Loose All The Horses,” and recalled dedicating similar efforts for fallen Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Moises Sanchez. “Not too long ago, we were playing a benefit for Trooper Sanchez, and it’s getting … way too many. Hopefully with our music and our love that you share with the families and McAllen PD, that’s all we can share with you: love and music.”
In the end, Martinez and the musicians were able to raise over $2,000 from the livestream. With the money from the livestream and from mask sales, Martinez plans to donate the over $5,000 to a GoFundMe, organized by McAllen Guns and Hoses Foundation, for the families of officers Chavez and Garza.