Juan’s life is nothing short of amazing. An immigrant from the Philippines, his musical talent has taken him to many places around the world. Thankfully for us, most of it has been in the Pacific Northwest – and at El Gaucho Tacoma since February of this year, after a 27-year career with Nordstrom Tacoma.
Born in Manila, he took piano lessons when he was 7-years-old, but didn’t continue because he fell in love with the “mellow sound” of the marimba, which is played with 2-4 mallets. His parents bought him one and encouraged him to play by providing lessons, although he admits, most of it was self-taught. As a youth, he won several radio and TV contests, which helped him get auditions. It was the late 60’s, and he started performing at various military bases; there, he met a USO representative from Vietnam. After gaining the proper credentials, he boarded a C130 airplane from Clark Air Force Base to Tan Son Nhut. His job was to entertain the US troops in Vietnam. He signed a 1-year contract in 1969.
“We flew everyday to different bases all over Vietnam,” Juan remembers. “We were attacked at least three times while performing. We would travel by land at night after our show, sometimes in a convoy of about 20 military vehicles crossing valleys and rivers. All the vehicles drove without headlights – we just had the moon shining bright,” he recalls.
After his USO contract was up, he married his wife, Susan, in the same church in Manila where they met, when Juan served as an altar boy at just 11-years-old. They moved to Guam where her parents lived, and his first gig was for the Bank of America Christmas party at the Guam Hilton Hotel. He was immediately asked to play marimba for the Governor’s Ball, which was on New Year’s Eve.
It was there he was offered an audition to play the piano – not the marimba – for the Galleon Grill, a restaurant at the Hilton. Juan immediately called his pianist friend to help him learn to play the piano. Two weeks later, he auditioned and after the third song, was offered a year contract. He stayed for 10 years.
In October of 1985, Juan and his family moved to Washington State and has never lacked for work. He started playing for Nordstrom in February 1986, where he stayed for 27-years until this past January when they eliminated live music from the store. He has performed in numerous other locations, including the Governor’s mansion, starting with Governor Booth Gardner, Tacoma Country and Golf Club, Tacoma Yacht Club, Muckleshoot Casino, and staying true to his roots, McChord Air Force Base. The list of places is long and amazing, considering that he held more than two full time jobs at any given time.
What’s even more impressive is that he has somehow found time to volunteer for Holy Rosary Church (he received an award for over 1000 volunteer hours given). His greatest accomplishment, however, is raising his 10 children (seven sons and three daughters) “with love and hardships and difficulties” with his wife of now 39 years. His youngest is a senior at Bellarmine High School this year, and seven of his children are college graduates. He also has nine grandchildren.
El Gaucho Tacoma is proud to be a part of Juan’s incredible journey. You can hear him play every Sunday-Tuesday from 5:30 – 9:30 pm.