Lydia Mendoza: 'Songstress of the Poor'

Wednesday 02 January 2008 01:00

Lydia Mendoza, singer and guitarist: born Houston, Texas 21 May 1916; married 1935 Juan Alvarado (died 1961; one daughter, and two daughters deceased); 1964 Fred Martínez; died San Antonio, Texas 20 December 2007.

Known as "La Alondra de la Frontera" ("The Lark of the Borderlands"), Lydia Mendoza was an iconic figure in Tejano music which originated among Hispanics in Texas.

She was among the first female stars in an era when women played very much a subsidiary role in Hispanic-American culture, and her devotion to her working-class audience would see her dubbed "La Cancionera de los Pobres" ("The Songstress of the Poor"). During the course of a 60-year career she recorded hundreds of songs, many of them showcasing both her passionate vocals and the distinctive 12-string guitar style that she perfected to accompany them.

Mendoza was born into a musical family in Houston, Texas in 1916. An accomplished performer from an early age, she learnt to play guitar, fiddle and mandolin before she was seven years old. In 1928 her father saw an advert inviting musicians to audition for a series of field recordings to be held by the Okeh label in San Antonio. He took the family band, at that time known as Cuarteto Carta Blanca, to these sessions, and they cut some 20 sides, earning themselves $140.

Buoyed by their success, the family briefly relocated to Detroit and then returned to Texas where they developed a loyal following among the many thousands of Mexican migrants who had flooded into the state since the Mexican revolution, beginning in 1910.

In common with their fans, the Mendozas frequently encountered racism from the white majority. Lydia's brother, Ramon Mendoza, later remembered their experiences in a particular west Texas town: "I hate to think back about how they treated people in places like that, but it's part of our history. There was a restaurant in Levelland that had a sign right next to the door: 'No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.' "

In 1934 the group, by now billed as La Familia Mendoza, recorded another six discs and Lydia also found herself recording a selection of solo sides. One of these, "Mal Hombre" ("Bad Man"), a song she learned from a gum wrapper, proved a major hit and led to a contract with the Bluebird label in a six-year period she made 200 records. They represented a variety of forms, from the bolero to the tango via the rumba, and included the bleak danza "Amor Sin Esperanza" ("Love Without Hope", 1936) and the wistful "Vida Mia" ("My Life", 1939).

The family continued to tour as a unit until American involvement in the Second World War restricted their ability to travel. In 1947 they resumed their hectic touring schedule, but the death, some five years later, of the family's matriarch, Leonor Mendoza, caused La Familia Mendoza to disband.

Lydia then emerged as an important solo act, touring throughout Mexico and the United States, and recording prolifically for labels including Falcon, Ideal and Victor.

In 1977 she sang at the presidential inauguration of Jimmy Carter, in 1982 received a National Heritage Fellowship, and in 1999 she was awarded the prestigious National Medal of the Arts by Bill Clinton.

Paul Wadey

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