the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
There are famous country singers, like Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn, whose songs reflect the struggles and hardships they experienced in real life. More than celebrities, they become folk heroes, because people sense authenticity in their artistry. The same is true for singer Lucha Reyes, a pioneer in Mexican ranchera music. Known for her bravado, her forceful voice and her hard-drinking ways, Reyes became a popular sensation in the 1930s as a solo singer, often backed by the legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.
When I was in college, my father would make occasional trips from San Jose to Los Angeles to see the new mariachi at La Fonda, a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard His visits were more like musical pilgrimages. Dr. Gurza would say there was no place to hear a good mariachi in the Bay Area. So, whenever he’d drive south, ostensibly to visit a friend from our hometown of Torreon, he’d always make a beeline for La Fonda first. That was an 8-hour drive in those days, on the old 101 Highway. But Dad was never too tired to take in a set or two by Los Camperos de Nati Cano.
Las Hermanas Padilla, sometimes billed as the Andrew Sisters of Mexican music due to their pitch-perfect harmonies, was one of the most popular and prolific Mexican vocal duets of the 1930s and ’40s. Based in Los Angeles, the Padilla sisters, Margarita and María, set a standard for their style of singing boleros and rancheras, becoming among the first internationally successful recording acts to emerge from the Mexican American music scene in Southern California.
The first accordion was built in 1822 by Friedrich Buschmann (1805 –1864), a German musical instrument-maker also credited with inventing the harmonica. He called it a Ziehharmonika (zieh in German means pull). However it was Cyrill Damian who in 1829 in Vienna, Austria, began to mass-produce and adopt the name accordion for these instruments. (In Spanish, the name of the instrument is spelled acordeón.)
I’ve been listening to Latin music all my life, especially Mexican music. So it’s not every day that I discover a whole new genre, with its own special history. But that’s just what happened recently while I was researching disaster songs in the Frontera Collection. The genre I discovered completely by chance is called La Chilena. And though it’s named for the country in South America, the song and dance style actually come from the coastal area of southern Mexico known as La Costa Chica, along the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.
In my last blog, I looked at the history of disaster songs and cited some examples from the Frontera Collection. But, as it turns out, one of the most original and provocative songs of this genre is about a disaster that never happened.
Most people know that the worst natural disaster in California history was the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. But which calamity ranks No. 2? That happened in Los Angeles in 1932: a catastrophic dam break that killed 600 people, wiped out neighborhoods all the way to the ocean near Ventura, and ended the career of William Mulholland, the famed engineer who had designed the water system for the new metropolis blooming in the Southern California desert.
Recordings are more than just entertainment. They are windows on a culture. In the voice of artists, songs give us a glimpse into what people think and feel in a particular time and place. We hear it in Mississippi Delta blues, the Argentine tango, San Francisco ’60s rock, and a specialty of this archive, the Mexican-American corrido of the early 20th century in the Southwest United States.
Valerio Longoria is considered one of the most innovative conjunto musicians who shaped the music’s classic period in the post-World War II era, a group considered “la nueva generación,” the new generation. The son of migrant farmworkers, he is credited with a number of firsts in the Tejano genre during a career that spanned more than 60 years.
One of the most important contributions of the Frontera Collection is the documentation of Mexican-American music, a cultural legacy that may have otherwise been lost or overlooked. Both as a writer and a record collector, I am often dismayed at how little information is available on artists and their recordings, not just Mexican Americans but Latino musicians in general.