Soaring expenses pushed one Calgary guitarist to GoFundMe. He raised $25,000.

“I’ve played festivals and won Juno awards, but somehow I found myself living in my car”

Oscar Lopez
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(Photography by Allison Seto)

Growing up in Santiago, Chile, I used to look up at the balcony in Sunday church and watch the huge choir sing and play instruments. I loved the sound of the violin and, when I was nine, I told my father I wanted to play it someday. The next week, he came home with one and I started teaching myself how to use it. Playing music came naturally to me, so later I took up the mandolin and then the guitar. By 17 years old, I was playing guitar professionally. That year, I recorded my first album—a small vinyl with one song on each side.

On October 14, 1979, I fled Chile, which had fallen under a military dictatorship that tortured and killed thousands of people. I came to Winnipeg to live with my sister. I was depressed that first year: I didn’t speak a word of English and I was a factory worker and janitor cleaning toilets. Eventually, I landed a job at an auto body shop, where the owner connected me with a rock cover band that needed a lead guitarist. I picked up the electric guitar for the first time, auditioned for the part and got in.

From 1979 to 1981, I played rock and roll with my signature Latin flair all over Manitoba at a time when no one was performing Latin music in the province. I had long hair and wore platform shoes and makeup. I played in front of 15,000 people at the Montreal Jazz Festival—twice—and 40,000 people at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I toured across the country, in the United States and all over the world. I won my first Juno in 2002 for my album Armando’s Fire and, three years later, my second Juno for Mi Destino. 

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I was doing financially well then—record sales and artist fees were paying my bills—but the industry’s transition to digital distribution changed everything. I only get less than one cent per play on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, which come nowhere near the revenue I once got from CD sales. At the same time, prices for everything are going up. For example, a one-bedroom apartment in Calgary, where I live now, is on average $2,000. Last year, food prices in Calgary went up by 11.4 per cent and will go up by 2.5 to 4.5 per cent more across the country this year. I have diabetes, too, so I take a pill everyday and an injection once a week. Luckily, the Canadian Red Cross helps to cover some of my medication.

Early this year, I fell on hard times and couldn’t afford my rent anymore, so I moved into my 2009 Nissan SUV on and off. I had some mental health struggles and had no place to go. My car had all my food, clothing, guitar and belongings. Surviving was not easy: I didn’t know when the cops would ask what I was doing and struggled to stay warm when the temperature dropped to minus-40. When I had a bit of money, I stayed in a motel and took a shower and shaved. I’m a blessed man, but I forgot all about that when I was sleeping in my car. I was having my doubts about life.

I needed help but my pride stopped me from reaching out. I was afraid of what people were going to think of me. My music is everywhere. About a year ago, I was driving for Skip the Dishes and some people recognized me. And as I got older, some of my health issues worsened—I needed knee replacement surgery—and my 15-year-old car wasn’t reliable anymore. 

I’d heard of GoFundMe so, around a month ago, I started a campaign there to ask for help. I set $5,000 as my goal, which I thought would be enough to fix the broken CV joint in my car and find an apartment. Within hours, I got my first donation: $30 from a woman in B.C. Since then, more than 300 people—fans of my music, people I used to know and strangers—donated almost $25,000 in total. I was blown away by people’s generosity and, at one point, wanted to tell GoFundMe to stop the campaign; I got more than enough. But I decided to accept it because I needed the money. I am so grateful for the donations. 

I am keeping donors informed about what I am doing with the money through social media. I immediately took care of my health and scheduled a knee replacement surgery in mid-March. Then I fixed my car. I also went to the Kerby Centre in Calgary, which helps seniors and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds find affordable housing, and added my name to the waiting list for an apartment. They told me that I could wait for as long as a year and a half but, a few weeks ago, they called me to say they found an apartment for me. Now, I’m renting a place I can afford—a private and comfortable spot where I can reflect, play my guitar and write music. My personal thanks to GoFundMe, Elephant Artist Relief Society, the Calgary Musicians’ Association and, of course, to my fans. God bless you always. 

I’m 70 years old now and have been in Calgary for 44 years. Two weeks ago, I received a Life Achievement Award from the Calgary Musicians’ Association. I will focus on my health first. Then, if it’s meant to be, I’ll play in front of crowds and make music again. Times have been tough, but my spirit has not died.

—As told to Emily Latimer