As much as anything, love of music has helped Alex Gutierrez of Mariposa, California, get through a life of multiple disabilities. His journey began at age one when polio began affecting his legs.
Said 60-year-old Gutierrez in a telephone interview, “I wasn’t able to play sports like the other kids when growing up. I could hit a baseball well, but couldn’t run. My friends always challenged and pushed me into playing though. However, later on, because I couldn’t play sports, I took up music and was in the school marching band.”
People often viewed him early on as being disabled, he said, but his friends would never allow him to feel as if he was any different. After attending college and marrying, he began having at age 24 problems with tunnel vision, balance, hearing loss, and headaches. Eventually, doctors in an 11-hour surgery were able to remove 90 percent of a brain tumor and four years later using experimental surgery take out the rest.
“Because of the tumor, today I have trouble walking and am completely deaf and yet can hear through a cochlear implant,” he said. He also has trouble with double vision. He has been receiving disability payments the last eight years after “blowing out his shoulder” while working for Yosemite National Park.
But as for music, Gutierrez said, “I met the harmonica when I was four years old-my uncle came from Europe with a Hohner (harmonica). I couldn’t be an athlete in school and so took up music, which helped me save my life. My grandfather took me to play in church when I was eight. Today, I play harmonica, guitar, and bass.”
Matched with his long-time best friend, he has played 47 years professionally and they dabble in blues, folk, jazz, and gospel music. His son now plays with them. His favorite musicians are Louie Armstrong, Herbie Hancock, Phil Keaggy, Al Dimeola, and Chick Corea. And he owns a small part-time business, ElSpyder Music & Photography.
He said, “Music can help anyone. It’s the way to reach a person deep down inside. I’ve seen how music we have done for little kids has helped put smiles on their faces.” Of all instruments, Gutierrez said the harmonica was easiest for anyone with a disability to learn because it required no batteries or electricity, stayed in tune, and could be kept in a shirt pocket.