Narciso Martínez, the "father" of the Texas-Mexican conjunto, was born on October 29, 1911, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His parents immigrated to the United States the year of Narciso's birth and settled in La Paloma, near Brownsville, Texas. The family often migrated from one town to another doing farmwork, and Martínez received little formal education. As a child he often listened to orquestas típicas, regional musical groups made up of violin, flute, bass, and guitar, but he preferred the accordionists who also played in the Rio Grande valley. In 1928 he was married; he and his wife, Edwina, had four daughters.
Martínez took up the accordion in 1928 and became proficient enough to play at dances. Around the same time he moved to Bishop and absorbed the accordion-playing traditions of the local Czechs and Germans during a three-year stay. He purchased his first new accordion, a Hohner, in 1930. In 1935 he switched from the one-row button accordion to the more versatile two-row button version and also began his productive association with Santiago Almeida, a talented bajo sexto (twelve-stringed bass guitar) player. Working together, the two established the accordion and bajo sexto as the basic instruments of the conjunto and became well-regarded as a team. Their pairing led to Martínez's major innovation in the development of the conjunto. He emphasized the right-side melody and treble notes of the accordion, leaving the left-side bass notes to the bajo sexto player. Most other conjunto accordionists soon adopted this change.
In 1936 Martínez and Almeida started recording for Bluebird Records, a subsidiary of RCA. Their first record, "La Chicharronera" ("The Crackling"), became a big hit. After 1936 Martínez became the most prolific of the conjunto stylists, capable of recording up to twenty pieces in one session. He continued to record instrumental polkas, which were his most popular compositions, and other traditional forms such as huapangos and Bohemian redowas for the Bluebird label until 1940. Some of his early pieces were "La Parrita" ("The Little Grapevine"), "La Polvadera" ("The Dustcloud"), and "Los Coyotes," all of which reflected his close ties to his rural background.In 1946 he began to record for Ideal. As the house accordionist for this company, he accompanied some of its artists, notably the duet Carmen y Laura. Martínez remained a popular performer throughout the 1940s and was nicknamed "El Huracán del Valle" ("The Hurricane of the Valley") for his fast-paced accordion-playing. His Bluebird and RCA recordings were also well-received outside of Texas. In San Francisco, for instance, Basques relished his sound and eagerly bought his records. In the Bluebird Cajun series, Martínez was billed as "Louisiana Pete." In the label's Polish series, Martínez and his band were marketed as "Polski Kwartet."
Despite his artistic ability, however, Martínez, like many other conjunto pioneers, never earned much money as a musician, although his recording career during the Great Depression brought him some financial rewards. Because Mexican Americans, his principal audience, could not afford to pay much, he had to take other jobs to support himself throughout his life, including work as a truck driver, field hand, and caretaker at the Brownsville Zoo. To support himself in the 1930s he often played at outdoor public dances throughout the Valley. He also entertained at bailes de negocio, public "for-pay" dances where women earned money for their families by selling dances to men. In the 1950s, with his popularity still growing, Martínez joined other Mexican-American performers on the Tejano dance-hall circuit. He also toured New Mexico, Arizona, and California, and even played in Chicago. A new generation of conjunto musicians emerged in the mid-1960s, and Martínez returned to work as a field hand in Florida. In 1968 he recorded for ORO Records, a Tejano label in McAllen.
Despite the subsequent emergence of other accordionists, Martínez maintained his importance as a conjunto innovator and received accolades for his work. In 1976, for instance, he was featured in Chulas Fronteras ("Beautiful Borders"), a documentary film about Texas-Mexican music. He was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and was honored the following year with a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to the nation's cultural heritage. The 1985 publication of Manuel Peña's The Texas-Mexican Conjunto, History of a Working-Class Music brought Martínez critical attention. In 1989 Arhoolie Records reissued some of his work; the new record earned him a nomination for the Grammy Award for best Mexican-American recording of the year. In 1991 the San Benito Cultural Arts Center was dedicated to him.
In January 1992 Martínez released 16 Éxitos de Narciso Martínez ("16 Hits of Narciso Martínez"), his last recording, on the R y R Record label in Monterrey, Nuevo León. After he retired from his job at the Brownsville Zoo in 1977, he continued to play on weekends, traveling to engagements from his home in La Paloma. The annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio also brought him before a new and larger audience. He was scheduled to appear at the event in May 1992 when illness forced him instead to enter the hospital. He died in San Benito on June 5, 1992. A funeral Mass was offered for him at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in La Paloma, and he was buried at the Mont Meta Memorial Park in San Benito. Martínez was an inaugural inductee into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame in 2000. The Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito honored him with induction in 2002. He is also an inductee in the Houston Institute for Culture's Texas Music Hall of Fame. In 2014 the Narciso Martínez Cultural Arts Center in San Benito held its twenty-third annual Narciso Martínez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival.