Jose Maldonado is the Mexican Morrissey

Jose Maldonado remembers clearly the fateful lunch break almost 25 years ago that changed his life, artistic path, and identity. On a break from his tretail job, he ducked into a record store when he heard it—a distinct, northern English voice yodeling words about Keats and Yeats. Yes, it was the classic Smiths song “Cemetry Gates,” and over the store loudspeakers followed more of the band’s hits: “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side,” then “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”

With every line of singer Morrissey’s distinctive wail, a little cupid arrow of musical love shot to Maldonado’s heart. “It was at that point,” recalls the L.A. native, “that I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got to find this album, and find out who this group is.’ And then shortly thereafter, it wasn’t just picking up every album, it was picking up every 12-inch single, and every magazine article.”

Morrissey’s fanbase is famously uber-devoted—a Morrissey show is one of the few places you can see a line of adult hetero dudes rushing the stage to hug their idol. But Maldonado may take the crown (or gladiola bouquet) of ultimate Morrissey fan—he became Morrissey, or, rather, what fans worldwide call “the Mexican Morrissey.”

As the leader of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, Maldonado has been channeling Moz since 1992. That’s when his band, then trying to make it with original material, prepared a special all-Smiths, all-Morrissey set for a fan convention in Southern California. As tribute band legend usually goes, demand for the cover sets eventually outpaced demand for the original material. Soon, Maldonado devoted his creative life to perfecting Morrissey’s entire musical catalog—deep cuts as well as greatest hits—along with his signature dramatic dance moves and, of course, his trademark pompadour.

The son of immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico, Maldonado is the first to admit Mexican-American Morrissey fandom is definitely a pop-culture phenomenon—but that’s not originally what drew him in. “It didn’t affect me one way or another,” he says. “I could have been from anywhere. It’s just that as it so happens, he does seem to have quite a Latino following in Southern California specifically. When you go to a Morrissey show in L.A. and you look out into the crowd, it’s a whole lot of Joses and Carloses and Marias and Henriettas.”

Still, the affection between Morrissey and his Latino fans is definitely mutual—so much so that one day, when Maldonado went to a Morrissey in-store record signing, he didn’t have to introduce himself. The Man Himself was already a fan.

Then, there was that fateful Morrissey concert at the Wiltern in L.A. in 2004. Maldonado recounts the scene: “The curtains open up, the lights come on, and Morrissey comes onto the stage and says, ‘Hello we are the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, and I am Jose.’” Maldonado even admits to tears at this ultimate acknowledgment. “I said, just don’t ever wake me up from this,” he recalls. “This is a dream.”

In the ensuing years, among Morrissey super-fans worldwide, Maldonado’s celebrity has approached pretty much a number-two slot behind the real deal. When the Manchester United soccer team recently arrived in L.A. to play a friendly match against the city’s MLS team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, guess who played an opening musical set? Yep, the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, for a stadium audience of 70,000.

But being the Mexican Morrissey is not Maldonado’s entire life, at all. For the past 25 years, he’s served as a devoted lifeguard for Los Angeles County. By day, he saves lives physically, and by night, he saves them with music—pretty darn heartwarming.

In some spare time between all of that, Fusion got to meet up with Maldonado at Bedrock Studios in Los Angeles, where Sweet and Tender Hooligans still practice every week. Check out what he had to say about life as Mexican Morrissey.