On the historic Plaza in Los Angeles' Mexican quarter, Felipe de Neve, the founder of the city, is honored with a statue. There seems little danger that his people will ever similarly bronze Baldemar Huerta (the fellow in the ample flesh to the right of Felipe). Huerta is of similar origin, his father having arrived as a "wetback," and young Baldemar is best known in U.S. archives as a young man who did Marine brig time (for insubordination) and then two-and-a-half years in the civilian slammer (for possession of pot). Of course, who knows what memorialization lies ahead for Huerta under his stage name of Freddy Fender?

As Freddy he recorded the bathetic recent No. 1 hit, Before the Next Teardrop Falls, and the now rising re-release Wasted Days and Wasted Nights. He still sings verses of his tunes in Spanish and has a distinctively soulful delivery. Those touches plus powerful guitar-picking and microphone presence (belying his resemblance to a day-old tamale) have made Fender, at 38, the unquestioned king of Tex-Mex country rock.

Freddy took up music at 5, with a guitar rigged from a sardine can and stretched screen-door wire. Two years later his father died, and the family (Fender's the eldest of his mother's 10 children) worked as migrants from their native Texas to Michigan. "My brothers are still the kind of people who like a good barroom fight," he notes. Freddy himself has an ugly knife scar on his neck, and he was regularly beaten in the federal pen in Louisiana for jamming with black musicians in violation of early '60s segregation rules. "I smoked dope when it was still a crime," he recalls, "but now that it's easy I don't do it at all." (In common with many other saloon singers though, Freddy got into whiskey and now tries to limit himself to wine.)

Even before his bust, he took his name ("I got Fender off a guitar and Freddy from the air to make myself appeal to gringos") and was beginning to establish it with his original recording of Wasted Days. Prison set him back into another decade of playing honky-tonks at $75 or $100 a week. Angie, whom he married 18 years ago, had to help support their three kids as a nurse. She and Freddy have been "separated 100 times," he says, and even divorced once, for 18 months. "After I came back home that time, I found the kids speaking only English," Freddy recalls, "but I soon got that straightened out." Freddy, who himself still thinks in Spanish, prefers the Mexican life rhythm. "Americans," he observes, "will work their asses off and have ulcers and heart attacks until they're 65, and then try to start to enjoy life. A Mexican will work less hard but enjoy life now." So despite the deluge of lucrative deals that followed Teardrop, he's staying in his modest frame house in Corpus Christi. "I bought my old lady a king-size bed, new carpeting, a color TV and a refrigerator. If that's all I get out of this," he sums up (in a gringo word he'd spank his kids for using) "Groovy!"