Growing up in Robstown, Manuel Gonzalez III had the same attitude as a lot of small-town teenagers - he lacked purpose and motivation and had a generally negative outlook on life. That all changed 11 years ago, when he found himself fighting for his life at the bottom of a cold ravine in the mountains of California.
Manuel is the owner of Legends, a recording studio that opened on Leopard Street in Annaville in January. Legends is just one of several businesses that Gonzales and his wife, Christina, operate around South Texas. And although they have now found success and happiness in the work they love, Manuel said it wasn't always this way.
The 'Top Pops' guy
While Manuel hasn't always had direction in life, one thing he has always had is business sense. His first experience in the business world came as a student at Robstown High School. Tasked with partnering with a fellow student to form a working business at the school for an economics class project, Manuel said he hit upon a winning idea immediately - he would sell lollipops to students immediately after lunch.
He christened the business "Top Pops," and completely sold his case of 100 lollipops in his first day. While most students would have been happy with that success, Manuel saw an opportunity for growth.
"I said, 'OK, now I'm going to have to find a distributor, a company that can give me the hook-up on candy,'" Manuel said. "I bought boxes and boxes and boxes of these candies."
Soon he was selling hundreds of lollipops each day, pushing his boxes through the hallways on a cart commandeered from the art classroom while wearing a cardboard sign advertising his business.
"I don't know if everybody was laughing at me, but it didn't matter because I was making money. It was awesome, it was great," Manuel said, laughing. "I wound up having six people working for me selling lollipops."
And while he enjoyed learning how to make a business grow, following graduation in 1999 he soon became disillusioned with life in a small town.
That unrest led him to drop out of college, where he had been studying business, to take a job that would take him out of town and to a life-changing experience.
At the age of 18, Manuel began a job that took to trade shows all over the southwest, where he sold a variety of products. He and a high school friend, Porfilio Favela, drove an old meat-packing truck towing a trailer through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, hitting trade shows along the way.
On March 15, 2000, Manueal and "Porfi" were driving the truck and trailer through the mountains of California, heading back to Texas. Manuel said they were both excited about the return home, because it would give them a chance to celebrate Porfilio's birthday at home, and to partake in Spring Break festivities at the Texas beaches.
Porfilio was at the wheel, when the truck's brakes failed while descending the 4,000-foot high mountain. With the truck plowing down the mountain out of control, Porfilio tried engaging the emergency brake and changing gears, but nothing slowed them down.
"I was telling him, 'Ram it into the side of the mountain,'" Manuel said. "He turned off the truck, and when he turned off the truck the steering wheel locked… I looked forward and I saw nothing but black and we felt the tires come off the ground and we started falling."
The impact knocked Manuel unconscious, and when he awoke he was pinned beneath debris and he felt something cold and wet on his face. He began crying for help, and Porfilio soon answered him. Porfilio had broken his arm, but he somehow managed to free Manuel from the debris, and both lay side by side in the darkness. Both boys tried to remember what had happened, as a freezing rain began falling on the mountain ravine.
"The last thing I heard from him was 'Manuel I can't breathe, Manuel I can't breathe'," Manuel said. "And then I fell asleep."
He awoke several hours later, and it was daylight outside.
"I woke up and saw a beautiful blue sky. Everything around me was so green and lush. I saw the mountains and I heard a river," Manuel said. "Then I looked down and started to remember everything that had happened."
Looking around, Manuel saw debris from the truck and trailer strewn around the ravine. Porfilio was lying a short distance away, and as Manuel approached him he could tell his friend was gone. Manuel tried to push away the panic and fear that nearly overwhelmed him.
"Then I thought of everybody back home, all my friends and family," Manuel said. "And I just said, 'This is not going to happen. So what do I have to do to survive?'"
Manuel tried to climb the more than 200 feet to the roadway above, but discovered he had broken his leg in the accident. Lying on the side of the mountain, he began calling for help to each passing car above him. After some time, a woman who lived in a home near the accident heard his cries for help and called 9-1-1. A short time later, he was in a hospital.
A change in
Manuel said that it was while he was in the hospital recovering from his injuries that his life changed forever. A week after the accident, a friend brought him a newspaper with an article about the woman who found him and called for help.
"The lady that found us said she doesn't usually wake up that early. But for some reason, her daughter who had died a year ago came to her in a dream, telling her to wake up… She woke up and went outside, and that's when she heard me screaming for help," Manuel said. "After that moment, I thought to myself that this life is for a reason and I want to take advantage of the time I have here on Earth. I want to go a step further and go to a path that's not paved."
When he returned home, he had a newfound passion for knowledge, and he began reading as many books as he could. Confined to a wheelchair for nearly two months, friends and family brought him book after book.
"I was like a sponge," Gonzales said. "I wanted to absorb everything."
He returned to college, and studied with a renewed interest in business, accounting and ethics.
He also began dating Christina, who he had met while he was still a student at Robstown High School. They were married in 2003 and now have a young daughter, Nyomi Rose.
For nearly 10 years now, Manuel and Christina have started and maintained a string of businesses. Manuel first began working as an installation contractor for Time Warner Cable, and then switched to Dish Network. He is now the contractor for a Dish Network region that runs from Victoria to the Valley. He recently added a contract with Direct TV, and opened several Pocket and Cricket Wireless stores around the area.
'Legends' is born
Manuel said his love of music goes back to his teenage years, and in a foreshadowing of Legends, he and Christina started a DJ business in 2002 and ran a teen dance hall called "The Spot" on Main Avenue in Robstown.
Manuel said he had aspirations to become a musician, but soon realized he didn't have the energy required to develop from a good artist to a great one. Someone who does have that energy, Manuel said, is Jacob Canchola, who Manuel called "the heart" of Legends.
Jacob, a native of Victoria, was originally hired by Manuel to work at one of his stores. Jacob grew up around the recording industry and performs under the name "Official." It was a long time before either learned of the other's interest in music, though, something both said probably contributed to their lasting friendship.
Manuel and Christina had talked for years about opening a recording studio, but had always put the thought aside. Last summer, while sitting in an unused suite in a shopping center the Gonzaleses own on Leopard Street, Manuel, Christina and Jacob decided to make the dream a reality.
Manuel said the goal was to find the best equipment possible and to provide the most affordable prices possible, so the studio could provide quality recordings to new artists with limited resources.
Jacob was put in charge of finding the equipment, and soon the renovated suite in the shopping center became a recording studio with top-of-the-line equipment. The studio offers recording with a Neumann microphone, Avalon preamps and Digidesign recording software.
"It's a brand that everywhere they go that's considered a commercial studio, they will have that," Jacob said. "It will allow them to take what they record here and work on it in any studio."
Manuel said the studio has already seen a variety of artists in the few weeks it has been open, from country and folk to pop and rap.
"We've seen so much since we've opened, and I cannot believe how much talent there is here," Manuel said. "I truly believe that one day there's going to be superstars coming out of here."
Manuel joked that he might find one of those superstars closer to home. Nyomi is currently taking piano and vocal lessons, and Manuel said she already has the hard part of being a star down - the name.
"Her name is awesome - Nyomi Rose. We'll see what she can do with that. We gave her the assets," Manuel said, laughing.
Although their new business is still in its infancy, Manuel and Christina said they are already looking toward the future. The name "Legends" was selected from the movie "I am Legend," because Manuel was inspired by the film's message of finding hope in the face of loss. Manuel said he is working to build a positive reputation for Legends as a place of hope and integrity - two things that are rare in the music business.
"It gets cutthroat, and we cut that out of what we're doing," Manuel said. "Everything is clean, everything is upfront."
And out of the loss he experienced on that cold day in 2000, Christina said Manuel found a hope that life could be different.
"He was a very different person (before the accident)," Christina said. "I think that whole accident changed his life, only for the better."
"I didn't care about life or anything," Manuel said. "That's the attitude of people who don't understand that a dream can be obtained."
Jacob acknowledged that he has seen that attitude in some who have questioned why anyone would start a recording studio in northwest Corpus Christi.
When he, Manuel and Christina encounter negativity out in the community, though, it doesn't affect them.
"People like that reject success, and they're never going to achieve it," Jacob said. "They push away what they want."
Manuel has returned to Robstown High School to speak with students about overcoming that negativity, and he said his goal is to spread a message of hope to his hometown.
"I felt like I had a light bulb, and I wanted to shine it on people," Manuel said. "Life is awesome… all life is about is making good decisions to make sure you are on the right path."