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Jonathan Villagomez started this summer as a photographer. He left as a musician to tour and play across the U.S.

COURTESY PHOTO - Portland photographer Jonathan Villagomez has begun a new career as the keyboardist for the famed Grupo Montez de Durango. Jonathan Villagomez was a photography intern at the Portland Tribune this summer. Now, he's on the road, performing live at venues across the country and dedicating his life to music.

Already, he's traveled to more than 11 states with his new band, Grupo Montez de Durango. The internationally recognized group is based in Chicago, and Villagomez had to pack up his things in Canby and fly to his new home with a moment's notice — almost right after he finished up at the Tribune.

He loves photography, but it's been music from the beginning for Villagomez, he said.

Villagomez started playing piano when he was 5 years old, when his dad bought the instrument for himself but didn't have the time to play. Villagomez picked it up and stuck with it.

Villagomez gained inspiration from his favorite bands and their music. He was a big fan of Montez de Durango through his life, and his dad took him to their shows whenever they came to town.

At a show when Villagomez was 11 years old, he saw the band's keyboard player, Paco Lopez, standing by the stage. Villagomez whipped out his iPod touch, typed out a lengthy paragraph and handed it to the keyboardist.

The paragraph told Lopez that Villagomez was a huge fan, and it was his dream to play with Montez de Durango.

"It's surreal to think that I am now in that position many years after that happened," he said. "All of that thanks to the hard work and sacrifices I have made throughout the years."

In 2013 — when Villagomez was 15 — he formed a band with his friend, Samuel Andrade, who would be the singer. The new band, Los Patrones de la Tierra Brava, played locally at first, then the five band members moved on to traveling on weekends around California and the Northwest. Villagomez's dad was the sound engineer for the band, so he was able to travel alongside his son.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jonathan Villagomez (right) plays the keyboard for the first time with Grupo Montez de Durango in Hillsboro this summer.Villagomez has always been dedicated to music, but "it hasn't been an easy road," he said. He missed out on school dances, his junior and senior prom and a lot of weekends when any other teenager would've been hanging out with friends.

"But I loved doing what I did," he said. "I loved traveling and getting to play music."

A second love

As his passion for music kept growing, Villagomez was introduced to photography through a yearbook class he stumbled into in high school. Luckily, his family had a nice DSLR at home, which was an upgrade from the class's 10-year-old point-and-shoot cameras.

"Me bringing that camera to school, that kind of set off my whole other career path into photography," Villagomez said.

He photographed for the yearbook for three years, and quickly got into shooting sports.

"I absolutely fell in love with sports photography. And to this day, it's still one of my favorite things to shoot."

After high school, Villagomez said he didn't want to stop taking photos. He quickly joined the newspaper at Clackamas Community College and became the photo editor after his first term. Villagomez stuck around for a couple years, taking photos and even writing articles for the paper.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jonathan Villagomez gives knuckles to Bobby Sigala, former keyboard player with Grupo Montez de Durango, after Villagomez played the keyboard for the first time with the band in Hillsboro this summer. Villagomez replaced him just after that weekends shows.At this point, Villagomez had applied for a one-time gig with Montez de Durango, but The Clackamas Print needed him. He had to back out of an opportunity to play with the band because of his role as editor. But working at the paper was worth it.

"I had a blast," he said. "It offered so many opportunities to go cover different events, big sporting events … I got to go shoot concerts, Cirque du Soleil came into town, I got to shoot that. And it just made my love of photography grow even more."

Then came the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism.

Villagomez's advisor at the time sent him an email about the internship and told him he should apply. But Villagomez said it didn't seem like it was for him. He thought it might just be for students at the University of Oregon.

"And me, coming in from a community college, I felt like I didn't really have a chance," he said. "Because lot of people always have this misconception that people at community colleges don't have the same equipment, or they don't have the same opportunities that they would get at a four-year (school). But I actually found that was completely untrue … I got so much experience."

Last minute, Villagomez decided to apply for the Snowden internship. "I'm not going to get it if I don't apply," he said. He got called back for an interview, and he got the internship.

Snowden coordinators send their interns to newsrooms across the state, and Villagomez said he feels lucky to have been placed at the Tribune.

"I got to meet so many amazing people there. And for the first time I was put into a real big circulating newspaper, and I had an absolute blast. Even though my internship was only10 weeks, I got to learn so many cool new things," Villagomez said. "And thanks to my mentors and people that were working on staff, they really taught me so many things."

A new life

Villagomez worked harder than ever at the Tribune, building his portfolio and doing what he loved. Then, one of Montez de Durango's leaders called him. Turns out a full-time position had opened up for a keyboardist, and they wanted it to be him.

"I was like, 'This is my chance,'" Villagomez said. "I don't have any big commitments right now, and I felt like this is the time I needed to take advantage of this big opportunity and just jump in and follow my dream. It was either now or never. I'm still young right now, I have the time and I felt like it was a perfect timing. I love to travel and being with this band is going to allow me to do that."

"Everything seemed to work out," he said.

Now, Villagomez is a full-time keyboardist and band member. Every weekend, he hits the road or grabs a flight to a new place while killing time with the other band members on their travels. He'll work 49 out of 52 weeks each year, and he'll tour with Montez de Durango for three to five years.

He's in it for the long haul.

The beginning

Villagomez's introduction to the band was abrupt, since his predecessor left the band pretty suddenly, he said. He had to prepare the whole set — meaning Villagomez had to memorize about 20 songs — in three days.

"That wasn't even the hard part," he said.

The band uses a program called MainStage, run off a MacBook, for their live shows. The program contains all of the sounds a keyboardist will use during the show, Villagomez said, such as trombone and saxophone parts that go alongside the band's other musicians. Needless to say, Villagomez needed to know how to use it.

At his first show, in Los Angeles, Villagomez had three hours to learn the entire program.

"I was there. I had to make it work," he said. Even though it was stressful, he said it was a fun challenge.

"And luckily, things went pretty good that weekend. But it's times like those where you're like, 'Oh my gosh, can I actually pull this off?' When you have to do a sold-out show in Los Angeles, you have to work well under pressure and keep a cool mind, because there's a lot at stake. You know, there's the reputation of the band who has been playing for 25 years."

"But I was up for the challenge. And here I am," he said.

Since he was mostly focusing on photography for the last few years, Villagomez said the sudden shift back to music was a big shock. He not only flipped a complete 180 on his career path, but he also packed up and moved halfway across the country when he's never even lived away from his family at home. Villagomez said he's close with his family, and it'll be tough to miss birthdays, weddings and more over the next few years.

"Things like that just made it a little bit harder. But honestly, I love it. It's my dream, and I'm willing to do anything to make my dream happen," he said.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jonathan Villagomez and his parents, Rudy and Maribel, watch the international band, Grupo Montez de Durango, play in Hillsboro this summer. Villagomez recently joined the band as a keyboardist.Villagomez said he'll keep taking photos during his next few years playing music, and music is definitely something he wants to do for the rest of his life. But after his time with the band ends, Villagomez has no idea what his plan is.

"I just have to see where the road takes me and see what fits in my life, whether that be music or photography," he said. "So, it's kind of a problem for future Jonathan to worry about."

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