Which city in Texas had the greatest decade in music history? Austin in the ’70s is a close second, but I’d have to give it to San Antonio in the ’30s. Not just because Robert Johnson made his first recordings at the Gunter Hotel in 1936 and the holy trinity of accordion players- Valerio Longoria, Santiago Jimenez and Narciso Martinez pioneered conjunto there in the years before WWII. Acts living and playing in the Alamo City in the ’30s include Jimmie Rodgers, Lonnie Johnson, Ernest Tubb and Blind Willie Johnson- pioneers of country, jazz and gospel.
And then there was singer-guitarist Lydia Mendoza, whose mournful, emotive voice and skill on the guitar made her something of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe of the Spanish-speaking world. Mendoza sang for those who, like her own family, migrated north from Mexico for a better life and found hard labor and racism. She was “La Alondra de la Frontera,” the Lark of the Border, singing in a raw, dignified quiver that touched the common folk. She never made an attempt to cross over to the Anglo market because her primary motivation was not to sell as many records as possible. It was to give the voice of hope and dignity to her people.
Mendoza started recording as a 12-year-old in a family group in 1928, then in the ’30s did what no other Mexican-American woman of the era had done before. She became a star solo artist. A female playing guitar, a 12-string, no less, was rare enough. Then Mendoza sang with the force of a fight worth winning.
Preserved and reissued by Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, her music has an almost cinematic quality, such was her timeless, dramatic presentation of real-life tales.
There were more than 70 years between the time Mendoza recorded worldwide smash “Mal Hombre” in 1934 and passed away in San Antonio in 2007, and the revered singer became a true living legend during that time. But it went beyond that. In many Hispanic households, Lydia Mendoza was right up there with the Pope.
In the years between World Wars, many Latinos were keen on fitting in with the Anglo world, because that’s where all the money and opportunity was. But Mendoza kept alive hundreds of folk songs from the old country. Even though she received just about every high honor a musician could earn, including the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 1999, Mendoza spoke only Spanish.
Music was a way to make a living before it was a way of life and Lydia sang for tips with her sisters and parents growing up. Chasing centavos. But she thrived in the solo acoustic format after she was discovered by Manuel J. Cortez and hired to appear on his weekly Voz Latina radio show on WOAI. The guest spot led to a turn in the regular rotation, which earned Mendoza $3.50 a week. “With that three-fifty, we felt like millionaires,” Mendoza said years later. “Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent.”
Her varied repertoire of tangos, boleros, rancheras and corridos, with lyrical themes heavy on heartbreak and deceit, hit deep with Hispanic listeners and Mendoza earned an audition with RCA subsidiary Bluebird Records in 1934. She passed and, right away, recorded four songs in a San Antonio hotel. One of those was “Mal Hombre” (“Evil Man”), whose lyrics Mendoza discovered in a bubblegum wrapper.
“Mal Hombre” became an international smash, making Mendoza well known in Spanish-speaking communities in both North and South America. In 1976, she was featured in Les Blank’s revered documentary Chulas Fronteras, which portrayed her deep connection with the working poor. She was called “The Mother of Tejano Music,” not the Queen, because Mendoza was family to all who were touched by her music.
Born in Houston in 1916, Mendoza spent many of her early years in Monterrey, Mexico, where her family returned soon after she was born. The guitar had been passed down from grandmother to mother to Lydia, who moved to the States for good with her family at age 12. .
Father Francisco pushed for his family quartet, rounded out by wife Leonor on guitar, Lydia on mandolin and her sister Panchita playing the triangle, to make a bid for a musical career. While living in Victoria, Francisco saw an ad in San Antonio’s La Prensa newspaper seeking Hispanic acts to record for OKeh Records. The Quartete Carta Blanca, named after Francisco’s favorite brand of beer, recorded 20 tracks, though none were hits.
In the summer of 1929, the Mendozas signed on to pick beets in Michigan, but found they could make more money playing music for homesick Hispanics at the only Mexican restaurant in Pontiac. Francisco then got a job at the Ford plant in Dearborn, but was laid off during the Depression and moved his family back to San Antonio in 1932.
With employment scarce, the family played for tips at the Plaza del Zacate (Haymarket Plaza) and were instantly popular. Where other performers roamed, the Mendoza family stayed in one place; the crowds came to them. While the WOAI gig established Mendoza as a top regional singer, the 1933 repeal of Prohibition was even bigger for the Mendoza family and other street performers, creating work for musicians to play cantinas.
The next year, Mendoza became an international star with “Mal Hombre,” but the money would have to come from live performances. She received just $60 for those first four Bluebird tracks, as the label claimed she had signed the rights away for the cash. Considering that she was unable to read the contract, which was in English, she probably did.
The Mendoza family did variedad shows, mixing music with skits, from Texas to California, with Lydia’s solo segment the nightly highlight. When the family performed in Los Angeles for the first time, at a sold out Mason Theater in Dec. 1937, the review gushed over Lydia’s “historic” set, without mentioning the others.
Although she was becoming a major star in Latino communities, Lydia and her family faced racism on the road which was not unlike that experienced by black entertainers of the time. “No dogs or Mexicans” was a sign seen in West Texas that let the Mendoza family know they were not welcome.
Mendoza married Juan Alvarado in 1935 and, soon after, started a family. She went on hiatus in the early ’40s to raise three daughters, then resumed her career after WWII. Singing and playing was still the best way to pay the bills, especially when the Norteño music she played had a boom in the ’50s. The style was called Tejano when the performers were from Texas.
Mendoza was re-discovered by the folk revival movement in the ‘60s and she played festivals and universities.
The teenager who sang for nickels in San Antonio’s Plaza del Zacate in the 1930s to help feed her family grew into a historical icon, and the lifetime achievement awards started piling up after a stroke ended Mendoza’s musical career in 1988. In May 2013, Lydia Mendoza was immortalized by a U.S. postage stamp bearing her likeness.
But her greatest awards came from her musical interaction with the hard working people whose stories she sang. On her first tour of South America, in 1982, she was shocked at the fervent reception.
“It was incredible,” she recalled in A Family Autoiography (Arte Publico Press). “I didn’t realize that they still remembered that music. The people were crying when they looked at me.” After a show at Medellin, Colombia, many joined in a public prayer for her to return to the region.
In her autobiography, Mendoza remarked on how often she’s approached by people who ask her why she sings with such feeling.
“They ask me if I have passed through what I’m singing about in some part of my hard life,” she said. “Well, thank God, no … I have had happiness. But when I am singing a song, it seems like I live in that moment.”
Lydia Mendoza died in 2007 at age 91, but like the ghost of Tom Joad, she’ll always be aroun’ in the dark, a shimmering voice of conscience.