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Frontera Project

Artist Biography: Lydia Mendoza, Meadowlark of the Borderlands
agurza | Thursday, July 6 | 0 comments

Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) was one the most enduring and highly honored female artists to hail from the immigrant Mexican-American communities of the Southwest United States. Nicknamed “La Alondra De La Frontera” (The Meadowlark of the Borderlands) and “La Cancionera De Los Pobres” (The Songstress of the Poor), the singer-guitarist enjoyed a career that spanned well over half a century, hundreds of recordings, and thousands of personal appearances.

Starting humbly as a child singing with her impoverished family for tips, Mendoza quickly emerged as a pioneer in the field of Mexican-American popular music. She became the genre’s first female superstar at a time when the business of vernacular music was still in its infancy, and dominated by men. For decades she served as a role model and inspiration for other female artists.

When Mendoza died at age 91, major papers on both coasts ran obituaries, an honor not always granted to deserving Latino artists by English-language media. The Los Angeles Times eulogized her as a trailblazer “whose passionate, despairing songs about working-class life” connected with audiences throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

            “Mendoza's career lasted from the late 1920s through the 1980s, and her music embodied much of the odyssey Mexican Americans traveled in the twentieth century,” wrote James M. Manheim for Contemporary Hispanic Biography. “She made over 1,200 recordings, and they spread her fame far beyond the Mexican neighborhoods in Texas where her music was born.”

Mendoza was born in Houston, Texas, on May 21, 1916. She was the second of eight children in an immigrant family that initially fled the Mexican Revolution and was almost always on the move during her early years, back and forth across the border. Her parents, Francisco and Leonor, met in Monterrey, Mexico, when they were both working for the Cervezería Carta Blanca; her father was a plumber and her mother a maid in a hotel owned by the company and located across the street. Later, when the Mendozas took up music as a family, they would adopt the brewery’s name for their group.

            The family started making regular trips to the United States after Mendoza’s father took a job as a mechanic with the railroad that linked Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, with Laredo, Texas. He crisscrossed the border for his job and his family often tagged along. On one of those border crossings in 1920, when Mendoza was four years old, immigration agents washed the girl’s hair with gasoline to exterminate potential lice.

            “They had a bad opinion of all Mexicans, and especially of the children,” Mendoza recalls in Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography, by Chris Strachwitz and James Nicolopulos. “Right away they took us there in back behind the immigration station where they had a bath, one of those big ones, full of gasoline… And they doused us with gasoline; they threw on plenty. The gasoline got in my eyes and I became very ill.”

            The discrimination and harsh conditions did not prevent the child from flourishing artistically. Mendoza was home-schooled by her mother, who taught her how to read and write and play the guitar. But Leonor Mendoza was very careful with her instrument and wouldn’t let her daughter touch it without supervision. So the little girl, still barely four, fashioned her own guitar out of a plank of wood, nails, and rubber bands. Rudimentary, but it worked. "It made a sound,” Mendoza told the Houston Chronicle in 2001. “I was happy enough."

            Music ran in the family. Lydia’s grandmother, Teófila Reyna, was a schoolteacher with formal music training who also played the guitar. Her sisters Maria and Juanita, who would later form their own duet, also learned to sing and play instruments. Another sister, Panchita, played the triangle. Lydia added the mandolin and violin to her repertoire. Their brother, Manuel, also got into the act as a singer. They learned music primarily by oral tradition, hearing songs played at family parties or country dances. Lydia additionally picked up lyrics by collecting bubble gum wrappers, on which music publishers printed words to songs as a way to promote them.

            By the late 1920s, the Mendozas had formed a family band, calling itself the Cuarteto Carta Blanca. They played for tips on street corners and in the restaurants and barbershops of border towns along the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The family did not own a car, so they often hitchhiked from town to town.

            In 1928, Francisco Mendoza spotted a classified ad in La Prensa, a popular Spanish-language newspaper in South Texas. As part of the effort by U.S. record companies to exploit ethnic music, the New York-based Okeh label announced it was looking for artists to record music in Spanish. The label had set up a mobile recording studio at the Bluebonnet Hotel in San Antonio, where candidates were asked to convene.

            “We’re going to San Antonio!” the elder Mendoza announced to his stunned family.

            Still with no car of their own, the Mendozas hitched a ride with a friend who owned an old Dodge with bad tires and no windows. They made it to San Antonio, but only after patching many flats along the way. At the session, they recorded 20 songs on 10 discs as the Cuarteto Carta Blanca, for which they were paid a flat fee of $140.

            “To us, $140 was a fortune,” recalled Lydia, who was ten at the time. “But the big thing, what we were really happy about, was that we got the chance to record, that they accepted us. The amount they paid us wasn’t important. What we were after was … a beginning, a start.”

            After three weeks in San Antonio, the family hit the road again, without ever hearing the recordings they had made. This time, they headed to Michigan where the elder Mendoza had heard that agricultural work was plentiful and musicians scarce. In Detroit, they “found receptive audiences among Mexican Americans who had migrated north to work in the automobile industry,” according to a profile on the National Endowment for the Arts webpage. For more than a year, they performed in small venues in both the Detroit and Pontiac areas.

            After the Great Depression devastated the job market, the Mendozas and other Mexican families headed back to Texas. The move had a silver lining, since it would lead to the opportunity for Lydia to record as a solo act. She was on the verge of becoming a star in her own right.

            The family settled in San Antonio in 1932, when Lydia was 16. There she learned to play a 12-string guitar, one that had been modified by her father at her request. The top four sets of strings were rearranged to create pairs of alternating notes, rather than the same notes. This gave her instrument a distinctive sound.

            Mendoza’s big break came after the family started performing at San Antonio’s popular outdoor market, La Plaza de Zacate (Haymarket Square). It was there, in 1934, that she was discovered by Manuel J. Cortez, host of "La Voz Latina,” a 30-minute radio program that aired in the early evenings. The pioneering Mexican-American broadcaster had gone to the plaza to have dinner with his wife and happened to catch Lydia singing solo and playing the guitar. On the spot he invited her to perform as a guest artist on the radio. But Lydia’s mother balked when she learned her daughter wouldn’t get paid for the broadcast. Tips were their livelihood – they earned 25 cents a day during the week for food, $1.25 on weekends for rent – and they couldn’t afford to lose their lead singer.

            Cortez prevailed by promising to escort the girl  to the nearby station and bring her right back to work. She sang two songs on her first radio appearance and that’s all it took: The station was deluged with calls demanding an encore. She also won the program’s amateur contest. To keep her on the air and ease the family’s concerns about income, Cortez found a sponsor – makers of a local vitamin drink called Tónico Ferro-Vitamina – to back her appearances.  Mendoza was paid $3.50 a week.

            “We felt like millionaires,” the singer recalled. “Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent.”

            Mendoza was a hit. And soon she was back in the recording studio, this time as a rising star.

            She had her first solo recording session that same year for Bluebird Records, a Victor subsidiary. She recorded two songs, including “Mal Hombre,” the defiant indictment of abusive men by an outraged woman. It was an instant smash that would become her theme song, defining her career for the rest of her life.

 

Era yo una chiquilla todavía cuando tú casualmente me encontraste.
Y a merced a tus artes de mundano, de mi honra el perfuma me llevaste.
Luego hiciste conmigo lo que todos, los que son como tú, con las mujeres.
Por lo tanto no extrañes que yo ahora, en tu cara te diga lo que eres.

 

Mal hombre, tan ruin es tu alma que no tiene nombre.
Eres un canalla. Eres un malvado. Eres un mal hombre

 

            Mendoza herself had picked the song to record in her first solo session.. As a child she learned the lyrics from one of those gum wrappers. But she didn’t learn the melody until later, when her father took her to see a musical show at a theater in Monterey. In his introduction, Strachwitz speculates that the singer she heard that day was probably Elisa Berumen, the first to record “Mal Hombre” (Bad Man) for Victor in 1926, which is also included in the Frontera Collection. The label identifies Berumen’s version as “soprano con piano,” compared to Mendoza who accompanied herself on guitar.

            "Mal hombre" eventually became a song known in much of the Spanish-speaking Americas, and the Mendoza family became a guaranteed draw at small theaters and variety shows wherever Mexican Americans were found in the western United States,” writes Manheim.

            The record launched Lydia’s prolific recording career. There are more than 1,000 tracks of her performing as a soloist (not counting collaborations) in the Frontera Collection.

            Based on her initial success, Bluebird kept her under contract for the rest of the decade. Mendoza  had recording sessions three or four times a year, whenever the label came to town to set up studios at the Texas or Bluebonnet hotels. By 1940, she had recorded hundreds of songs in a wide variety of styles, from corridos to tangos..

            “When I went to record, they never told me, ‘Record this, record that,’ ” she recalled in her memoir. “I recorded the songs that I brought with me, many of which were the songs that my mother sang … I recorded a lot of her repertory, like ‘Pero Hay (sic) Que Triste,’Al Pie de Tu Reja.’ Those songs didn’t come on gum wrappers.”

            During that time, the singer continued to tour with her family throughout the Southwest, often at carpas, or tent shows, that featured vaudeville-style comedy sketches. Lydia would perform solo while her siblings put on a variety act. There was no doubt the crowd, lured by the popularity of “Mal Hombre,” came out to see the star of the Mendoza family. On stage, Lydia exuded vitality and charisma.   

            "The very sight of her was magical and could awaken a populist frenzy and collective pride in Mexicans," Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez wrote in her 2001 book, Lydia Mendoza's Life in Music.

By this time, touring was less of a challenge because the family finally owned its own car. Unfortunately, through most of her early career, Lydia failed to fully capitalize on her fame and popularity. Neither she nor her family had the business acumen to negotiate on a par with crafty agents or promoters, but her father did his best to protect the family’s interests.

            In 1935, Mendoza married Juan Alvarado, a shoemaker with whom she had three daughters. For a time, she was forced to give up her career, even as contract offers piled up. Her husband, pressured by his relatives who believed a woman’s place was in the home, didn’t want her to work. But the couple struggled on the cobbler’s meager salary, and he eventually relented, convinced that his wife’s income was sorely needed.

            Unfortunately, gasoline rationing during World War II brought touring to a halt. In addition, the shortage of shellac put the recording industry on pause for several years. But when the war ended Lydia resumed her career, touring with her family and recording as a soloist for all of the important Mexican-American labels that were now flourishing.

            By 1952, the death of Leonor, the Mendoza matriarch, led the family to disband as a performing act. That year, Lydia’s younger sister Maria got married, also ending Las Hermanas Mendoza, the duet Maria had formed with sister Juanita.

            Lydia’s first husband, Juan, died unexpectedly in 1961. While he was still alive, she had come to appreciate his support of her career. Although she composed relatively few songs, one of her personal favorites was "Amor Bonito," inspired by thoughts of her husband while she was away on tour.  

            Her deceased husband had been close to the owner of the shoe shop where he worked, a boss who appreciated his employee’s craft as a cobbler. In a tragic coincidence, immediately after hearing of the shoemaker’s death, the owner also passed away. “That same day we were mourning two corpses: the owner’s and my husband’s,” Mendoza recalled .

            Although his loss was a blow, the singer was nevertheless determined to rebuild her career. Almost right away, she started personally writing to promoters to get back on tour.

            Three years later, she married another shoemaker, Fred Martinez, whom she met during an extended, two-year engagement at a well-known ballroom in Denver, Colorado. The couple moved to Houston, where Mendoza continued to perform, despite suffering from arthritis in her hands. She remained active until a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed and she was forced to retire in 1988.

Lydia Mendoza died of natural causes on December 20, 2007. Hundreds of fans came from across Texas to pay their final respects to the “Songstress of the Poor.” She was laid to rest at San Fernando Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, where her career had begun almost 80 years earlier.

Mendoza gained a new generation of fans in her later career, due in great measure to efforts by Strachwitz to collect, reissue, and promote her work. In 1976, she was featured in Chulas Fronteras, a documentary on border music and culture produced by Strachwitz and directed by Les Blank. In 2001, Arhoolie Records released a concert recording entitled “La Alondra De La Frontera - Live!” (Arhoolie 490) and taped in 1982 at Wheeler Auditorium at University of California, Berkeley. The set highlights the singer’s remarkably wide range of material: songs from Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, and Spain, intermingled with Mexican rancheras, corridos, boleros, and huapangos.

The depth and variety of Lydia’s repertoire displayed a nimble versatility that helped her win fans across the continent. She was one of the first artists in her field to bridge the gap between rural and urban styles. And she had an astounding ability to field a wide variety of requests from her audiences, in both concert halls and cantinas. Seldom was she unable to deliver.

“In all my years of recording vernacular folk artists, I cannot recall ever meeting another singer with such an incredibly large and varied repertoire in her head and at her instant command!” wrote Strachwitz in the liner notes to the live album, which he produced.

In addition to releasing several LP compilations of Mendoza’s  early work, Strachwitz also recorded new material by Mendoza in the 1980s. It was then, Lydia recalled, that she finally heard, for the first time, the old recordings she had made as a young woman, played for her by Strachwitz from his collection.

            Lydia Mendoza’s contributions to America’s musical heritage and history have not gone unrecognized. Among her many awards, she received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982.

During her career, Mendoza was honored by two American presidents. In 1977, she was asked to sing for President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Twenty-two years later, President Bill Clinton awarded her the nation’s highest cultural honor, the National Medal of the Arts, presented at a White House ceremony in which she shared the stage with Aretha Franklin, TV producer Norman Lear, and others.

            In her home state, Lydia was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame (1982), the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame (1985), the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame (1991), and the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame and Museum (2002). She was also was awarded the Texas Medal of Arts by the Texas Cultural Trust in 2003.

            Lydia’s enduring popularity and appeal were largely due to the emotion she brought to her songs. She would say that she felt like she lived every song she sang, be it about romance or betrayal. However, she debunked the popular misconception that her signature song, “Mal Hombre,” was based on her own experience with a bad man. After all, she argued, she was a child when she learned the song, too young for such adult experiences.

            Still, she knew how to deliver the song with passion her entire life, and her fans loved it.

            “I recorded ‘Mal Hombre’ more than 40 years ago and not a night passes that someone doesn't ask for it,” Lydia told an interviewer for an article which appeared in Ethnic Recordings in America: A Neglected Heritage, published in 1982 by American Folklife Center.  “And me - I'm never bored or tired of it. I don't know how to repay this audience that's still with me … except by singing whatever they want to hear. I'm happy with my music, and while God allows me and I'm able to do it, and while my public can still stand me, that's where I'll be.”

 

– Agustín Gurza

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