the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
A true record collector is more than a mere music aficionado. Collectors are also part historians, part archivists, part treasure hunters, and part detectives. They look at records like archeological artifacts, analyzing them for clues to a particular culture and way of life, in a specific time and place.
Even the common price sticker, for example, can offer a tantalizing glimpse into the life of a record, especially one that keeps circulating, passed lovingly (one hopes) from hand to hand. It tells you where that record made a stop on its road from manufacturer to market. And it allows you to imagine the details of that retail sojourn.
The recording career of Margarita La Chaparrita was modest and short-lived but remarkable, nevertheless. After struggling through a series of traumatic relationships and raising seven children with meager resources, the late-blooming performer decided to start her own band in the midst of middle age, when most other mothers are winding down to retirement.
“I remember always hearing her singing in her kitchen while she was making dinner and I knew that music was a secret passion of hers,” said her daughter, Diana Benavides-Arredondo. “Once she finished raising all her children, she went for it. When she was in her late 40s and found herself an empty-nester, she started a small Mexican band and Margarita La Chaparrita y Su Conjunto was born.”
The coronavirus pandemic has all the makings of a corrido, the historic narrative ballad of Mexico. The public health crisis has brought fear, death, tragedy, and social conflict – all of which have been subjects of this song form since before the Mexican Revolution.
“Perfidia” has stood as one of the most cherished and enduring songs in the Latin American songbook. Composed more than 80 years ago by Mexico’s Alberto Dominguez, it is enshrined as one of those timeless standards that continues to inspire artists and resonate with music lovers, young and old.
Recently, I heard the song’s memorable melody which watching a new movie on Netflix, the Spanish film Vivir Dos Veces (2019), by Barcelona-born director Maria Ripoll. The movie is about an aging math professor named Emilio, a lonely widower who finds himself sinking into the terrifying early stages of dementia. It explores how he and his small family, a take-charge daughter and precocious granddaughter, handle the crisis.
During the funeral services of Mexico’s beloved pop singer José José this month, a tune was played that surely touched the hearts of most Mexicans, especially those watching from afar. The song is titled “La Golondrina” (The Swallow), a veritable hymn that for more than a century has added a note of nostalgia to moments of loss, departure, and exile.
Part of the frustration of building a musical archive like the Frontera Collection is the lack of reliable and readily available information for every recording. Key data – such as release dates, accompaniment, musician credits, and studio locations – is often missing or simply beyond the reach of researchers.
Until her recent death, singer Rita Vidaurri (1924–2019) stood as the last surviving star of what is considered a Golden Age of female vocalists from San Antonio, during the 1930s and ’40s. Like her contemporaries Eva Garza (1917-1966), Rosita Fernandez (1919-2006), and Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007), Vidaurri relied on the Alamo City’s vibrant Mexican-American music scene to launch an international career, sharing world stages with superstars such as Nat “King” Cole, Pedro Infante, and Celia Cruz.
Los Donneños, a duet formed in the late 1940s in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, were pioneers in the evolution of norteño music during the 1950s. They went on to become one of the first Tex-Mex acts to find major success on both sides of the border.
The historic duet was formed by two musicians, Ramiro Cavazos on guitar and Mario Montes on accordion. They both hailed from the Mexican border state of Nuevo Leon, but they met only after moving to the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.
Among acculturated Mexican Americans, only a handful of Mexican songs have managed to gain wide popularity and a special cultural significance on this side of the border. A few become iconic songs, with lyrics and melodies memorized by the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Mid-century Mexico was the hub of the Latin American entertainment industry, a leader in music and film production for the continent. But breaking into that establishment was not easy, especially for an outsider.
“Listen, México at that time was an extreme bunker of nationalism,” said Odeon Chile’s artistic director Rubén Nouzeilles, in an interview on a Chilean music website. “Nobody could go there to sing boleros because that was the patrimony of the Mexicans, just as nobody would think of donning a charro hat and go compete with (a mariachi star). Lucho Gatica, apart from being a great artist, was also a conquistador.”
And the conquest was swift. The singer quickly became part of bolero royalty in Mexico. He was soon turning out hit after hit, hosting his own TV show, and making a series of films with Mexico’s biggest stars.
During most of the 20th century, the world of Latin pop music was dominated by a handful of countries – Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and of course, Spain. But in the 1950s, an exception to that rule became a sensation. His name was Lucho Gatica, and he came from Chile.
Gatica emerged from a small town in central Chile to become one of the most popular Latin American vocalists of all time. In a career that spanned 70 years, he sold millions of records around the world, packed theaters and stadiums from Madrid to Manila, starred in movies, and became a celebrity in Hollywood where his friends included Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.
The Frontera Collection is not a static library archive collecting digital dust. It is designed to be a dynamic, interactive cultural resource, open to contributions from researchers and music fans, as well as from friends and relatives of the thousands of artists represented in this incomparable record collection.
Many Frontera followers have started offering feedback, comments, information, and appreciation. In some cases, their missives point us to hidden gems in the collection that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. Such was the case last month when a music fan from Caracas, Venezuela, contacted us about a song called “Ay Trigueña!” by Dúo Espin – Guanipa, a guitar-and-vocal duet on a Victor 78-rpm disc. I had never heard of the artists, nor this lovely old-fashioned song about a man’s yearning for the love of a beautiful woman with a wheat-colored complexion.
Every genre and sub-genre has its celebrated figures. Sometimes, they become internationally famous, like conjunto music legend Flaco Jimenez, or Afro-Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez of Buena Vista Social Club fame.
When Tejano music legend Jimmy Gonzalez died last month, the sad news did not make headlines around the world. But in Texas, fans mourned the loss of the beloved co-founder of Grupo Mazz, a towering band in modern Tejano music. His death on June 6 and the subsequent memorials made news on mainstream Texas television and in major English-language newspapers of cities such as Houston and San Antonio.
The pantheon of pioneers in conjunto music includes artists who are household names to fans and students of the genre. Among the most recognized are names such as Santiago Jimenez and especially Narciso Martinez, hailed as the father of the conjunto style. Although not as well-known as his celebrated contemporaries, accordion-player Pedro Ayala deserves recognition for his contributions to the early development of this grassroots style during the 1930s and 1940s.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The slain presidential candidate was especially admired by the Mexican-American community, as was his martyred brother before him, President John F. Kennedy. That admiration was expressed poetically and emotionally in many songs written as tributes to the fallen leaders.
In 1939, as the Depression was winding down and a new world war was heating up, Lalo Guerrero was still a struggling musician seeking to make his mark. He was newly married and dirt poor, with a son on the way and work hard to come by, keeping the young family on the move from gig to gig.
In his autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music, Guerrero called this period “our gypsy years.” Yet, the swing-music decade of the 1940s would also bring stardom and some stability to the young performer.
Lalo Guerrero, the son of immigrants from a poor barrio in Tucson, Arizona, was a pioneering musician whose bilingual songs and bicultural persona earned him the honorary title "The Father of Chicano Music."
In a career that spanned seven decades, the versatile composer and performer wrote hundreds of songs in an astonishing array of styles, from romantic boleros to folkloric corridos, from comical parodies to rousing protest songs, from mambos to swing, rock, and cha cha chas. He had several international hit songs, appeared in movies alongside major Hollywood stars, operated a landmark nightclub in East L.A., and eventually earned the highest cultural honors awarded to entertainers.
Every country has a story behind the creation of its national anthem. In my last blog, I recounted the complex history of the Mexican National Anthem, which originated under the reign of President Antonio López de Santa Anna.
The Frontera Collection also contains recordings of anthems from nine other Latin American nations. Most of the Central and South American anthems were initiated in the years following the wars of independence from Spain, starting in 1810. As with Mexico, many of the new nations of the American continent struggled to find an appropriate national song, reflecting the tumultuous political struggles to establish new sovereign identities.