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Los Alegres de Terán

Artist Biography: Los Donneños, Norteño Pioneers

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.

            Cavazos was born in 1927 in Garza Ayala, a rural community on the road between Monterrey, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. Montes was born four years earlier in General Terán, southwest of Monterrey, home to another famed norteño group from the same period, Los Alegres de Terán, Tomás Ortiz and Eugenio Abrego. In fact, in the early years of both acts, Cavazos performed with Los Alegres and actually recorded with them on several 78s for the Orfeo label, billing themselves as Ortiz y Cavazos con el Dueto Abrego.

            Cavazos and Montes immigrated separately to the United States and met in the sleepy town of Donna, Texas, named after the daughter of an early frontier developer, Thomas Jefferson Hooks. When they arrived in the late 1940s, the town of some 5,000 residents still had schools with three tiers of segregation: whites, Mexicans, and migrants.

             In Donna, both musicians held day jobs while pursuing their passion for music—Montes picking fruit in the fields and Cavazos washing dishes at a small restaurant for $14 a week.

            More than 60 years later, Cavazos still fondly recalled the first time he met his future partner, as he told journalist Eduardo Martinez in a 2012 interview published by The Monitor of McAllen, Texas. He said he was riding his bicycle one day when he saw two men playing music on the street. When Cavazos approached, one of the men, who turned out to be Montes, asked if he was a musician. Yes, Cavazos said, he played the guitar and sang. That’s all it took to strike up a lifelong musical partnership.

            Cavazos and Montes made their first recordings in 1947 for Discos Falcon, based in McAllen. According to an article in El Extra, a news website in South Texas, the initial tracks were “Ojos Negros Nunca Engañan” (Dark Eyes Never Lie) and “El Corrido De Bernabé Mata,” released on 78-rpm disc the following year. However, the Frontera Collection has a different song on the flip side of the duo’s debut disc – “Así Se Baila en Reynosa” (This is How They Dance in Reynosa). The aforementioned corrido is cited incorrectly; it’s actually titled “Bernardo Mata” and is a popular ballad that appears in the Frontera archive by a dozen different artists. In the database, recordings of the corrido by Los Donneños include a 45-rpm single and an album track on a greatest-hits compilation, both on Falcon’s Bronco imprint.

            The group’s early recordings featured Cavazos on guitar rather than the traditional bajo sexto. But he would soon take up the 12-string guitar commonly used in conjunto music because he said it had a stronger and more appealing sound. He won acclaim for his style on the instrument, which played bass lines against the accordion in these early duets.

            Following that first recording session, Falcon label owner Arnaldo Ramirez dubbed the new act Los Donneños, based on the fact that they were residing in Donna. The artists were perplexed, however, because they were actually from Mexico and had just recently moved to their namesake city, and didn’t stay there long. But the name stuck, as if they were native sons.

            Still, their partnership remained fluid in the early days.

Montes soon married a U.S. citizen and legalized his status. Meanwhile, Cavazos, who remained undocumented until 1954, would spend time across the border in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. There, just across the river from McAllen, he played guitar with Los Alegres, performed constantly, and made good money. The musician recalled that heady time in an interview with Frontera Collection founder Chris Strachwitz, who wrote liner notes for a 2006 retrospective album, Los Donneños: Grabaciones Originales/Historic First Recordings, 1950-1954 (Arhoolie 9057).

            “Around 1950, Ramiro made more records with Tomas Ortiz for the Orfeo label but earned his living playing weddings, quinceafieras, and on weekends in the cantinas,” Strachwitz wrote. “Ramiro said that in those beer joints there was plenty of money to be made from the Braceros who had come back from the cotton fields of Texas and wouldn't let the musicians go until two or three in the morning. They charged three Mexican pesos per song and made about 40 or 50 pesos each per night, with which he says you could live like a king!”

            Later in the 1950s, Cavazos and Montes appeared in five films along with the colorful norteño singer and movie star Lalo Gonzalez, a.k.a. "El Piporro." In this clip from the 1959 film Dos Corazones y un Cielo, the duo expertly accompanies the showy star on the comically flirtatious ditty, “Las Quedadas” (The Spinsters). Piporro also took Los Donneños on tour as his backup group throughout the United States, Venezuela, and Cuba, boosting their popularity internationally.

            When their Falcon recording contract expired in 1954, the duo went looking for better deals, as Strachwitz notes. They first jumped to Discos Torero, a Corpus Christi label owned by Genaro Tamez. Frontera has 32 of those tracks, all 78- or 45-rpm singles, on Torero, whose slogan was “Cada Disco, Dos Exitos.”

            By the time the duo returned to Mexico in 1957, they had signed a new contract with Columbia Records, recruited by the label’s renowned artistic director Felipe Valdez Leal. They remained on the Columbia roster for the next 17 years, defying the presumption that Mexico City labels were not interested in promoting “low-class” conjunto music from across the border.

            More than 140 of those Columbia sides, mostly 45-rpm singles, are featured in the Frontera Collection. They include a newer version of the corrido of “Bernardo Mata” with improved sound quality that is especially noticeable on the vocal harmonies. In all, the archive holds a total of 373 tracks by Los Donneños on some 20 labels, with Cavazos credited as composer on dozens of tunes.

            In 1962, their wide popularity was confirmed with their triumph at a national competition involving more than 85 musical acts, held in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. Los Donneños walked away as Campeones Nacionales de la Musica Norteña, the recognized leaders in their field. The win gave them the nickname of champions: “Los Campeonísimos Donneños.”

            By the mid ’70s, the duo had returned permanently to the United States. Cavazos opened his own record label, Discos RyN, and a retail music store in downtown McAllen. His store became a cultural hub in the area, and the label recorded many important artists from the Rio Grande Valley, including Narciso Martinez, Conjunto Tamaulipas, Beto Quintanilla, and Ruben Vela. Sealing the band's cross-border ties, Montes married Alma de la Garza on February 25, 1951, their union officiated by the Justice of the Peace of Donna, Texas. Their daughter Diana later married famed Tejano saxophonist and bandleader Roberto Pulido, and their children, Bobby and Alma Pulido, also went on to build separate Tejano music careers of their own. 

            In 1976, Cavazos appeared with Conjunto Tamaulipas in the Les Blank/Chris Strachwitz documentary Chulas Fronteras, the seminal documentary on conjunto and norteño music. The film opens with Cavazos delivering a classic interpretation of “Canción Mixteca,” the nostalgic song of immigrant yearning for the homeland.

            After Mario Montes passed away on January 28, 1993, Cavazos went on to perform with other outstanding accordionists, including Rene Maciel, Juan Antonio Coronado, and Beto Espinosa, in various incarnations of Los Donneños. In 2007, at age 80, he was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame.

            For the next decade, the octogenarian could still be found behind the counter at his record store on South 23rd Street in McAllen. And he continued to perform.

            In 2010, Cavazos participated in a recording that brought together other veteran stars of the norteño genre, including Hector Montemayor, Lorenzo de Monteclaro, and Poncho Villagomez, calling themselves Los Amigos Desde el Rancho. The CD, entitled La Antología de La Música Norteña, features Cavazos on his own composition, “Enseñate a Perder (Learn to Lose).” The studio recording was followed by a live performance on a separate disc, Los Amigos del Rancho, Vol. 2, Live At Allende Nuevo León. It includes another Cavazos composition, looking at heartbreak from the losing side, “Enseñame a Perder” (Show Me How to Lose).

            On February 16, 2019, Cavazos celebrated his 92nd birthday with a backyard concert, captured in a homemade video posted to the band’s Facebook page. In the clip, he performs one of Los Donneños’ most famous songs, “Mataron a la Paloma,” which Cavazos co-wrote with Basilio Villiareal, “their old compadre,” as Strachwitz calls him. The tune is a tongue-in-cheek torch song about a heartbroken man who sends a message to his lost love via messenger pigeon; tragically, the bird is killed before completing is mission, so the woman never learns that the man is sorry and wants her back. In the song, he says he’ll never forgive himself for trying to save himself a stamp with mail service being as good as it is.


Mataron a la paloma que te llevaba el recado,
Por eso siempre pensaste que yo te había abandonado.
El recado se quedó en el pico de una loma,
Allí prietita querida, mataron a la paloma.

Por eso aunque pase el tiempo no me podré perdonar,
Que habiendo tan buen correo, con quién te lo fui a mandar.

En él te contaba todo, pidiendo que regresarás,
Que perdonarás mis faltas y conmigo te casarás.
Por eso aunque pase el tiempo no me podré perdonar,
Que habiendo tan buen correo con quién te lo fui a mandar.
Por ahorrarme una estampilla, maldita estampa, la mía!


            “Ramiro Cavazos is an icon and a legend in his own style that only he can produce," Lupe Saenz, president of the South Texas Conjunto Association, told The Monitor. “His compositions are constantly being recorded by conjuntos because they know that his songs are quality compositions. Composers like Mr. Cavazos are few and far between.”


– Agustín Gurza


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Artist Biography: Los Alegres de Terán

Los Alegres de Terán, a vocal duet founded by a pair of humble migrant workers from northern Mexico, stands as one of the most influential, long-lived and commercially successful regional music acts from the last half of the 20th century. The duo of Tomás Ortiz and Eugenio Ábrego are today remembered as the fathers of modern norteño music, the accordion-based country style that traversed borders as fluidly as its immigrant fans.

            Founded in 1948 in the town of General Terán, Nuevo Leon, about 130 miles from the border with Texas, Los Alegres became the first norteño act to break out of the genre’s regional boundaries in northern Mexico, gaining wide popularity on both sides of the border, from McAllen to Mexico City. The prolific duo wrote scores of songs and recorded over 100 albums, backing themselves on bajo sexto and accordion, while delivering emotional vocals that blended in a warm, natural unison.

            Although Ortiz and Ábrego followed in the tradition of popular vocal duets from the 1920s and ’30s, they were the first to combine their harmonizing with the accordion. Until they came along, accordion music was mostly instrumental and vocal duets were primarily backed by guitar accompaniment.

            Beyond their singing and playing style, Los Alegres were able to tap into the massive migrant market because they were a part of it. They modernized the themes of the traditional corrido, or narrative ballad, making the music more relevant to migrant workers who were not only moving north across the border into the US but were also flooding urban centers such as Mexico City in the mid-20th century.        

             “As the first popular norteña ensemble, Los Alegres made an impact that was greatly aided by their ability to tap into the feelings and experiences of the growing Mexican migrant population of the late 1940s and 1950s,” wrote Cathy Ragland in her book, Música Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation Between Nations. “The working class community in Mexico embraced (them) because of the group’s ability to merge sophisticated vocal harmonies and arrangements with an updated corrido narrative form that, in addition to love songs, included themes of travel, alienation, and nostalgic images of rural and ranchero life.”

            Eugenio Ábrego García was born May 2, 1922, in Rancho de La Soledad, within the municipality of General Terán, a town named for a military hero of Mexico’s War of Independence. Tomás Ortiz del Valle was born two years and one month later, on June 2, 1924, in Terán’s Rancho San Rafael community.

            Their full names and birth information are cited on the city’s Facebook page, which includes the most complete profile of the duo available on the web. Other sources, such as Wikipedia, provide scant biographical details. In fact, the group’s Wikipedia page is only a stub (a short article deemed encyclopedically insufficient), which links to a defunct website for the duet. A book-length biography of the band, Alegres de Terán: Vida y Canciones by Francisco Ramos Aguirre, is available only in Spanish and somewhat hard to find. (The book does not appear prominently in Google searches by the band’s name.) This article was compiled from multiple sources, including album liner notes, in both English and Spanish.

            Aside from its musical native sons, Terán is considered the birthplace of Mexico’s once dominant political party, the PRI, and was once home to the party’s controversial founder, President Plutarco Elías Calles. From there, it’s approximately a 90-minute drive to the state capital of Monterrey, and approximately 2.5 hours to the U.S. border at McAllen, Texas. That geographic triangle – Terán to Monterrey to McAllen – would be the original base of operations for the two migrant musicians who were destined to make history in their field.

            Both Ortiz and Ábrego picked up their instruments at a young age, and started performing around town independently.  Depending on the source, the two men met either playing at a bar or at a gathering in a private home. Be that as it may, sources agree they hit it off right away.

            “When they improvised a duet at a family fiesta, they felt a certain chemistry,” states a profile at Sabados Rancheros, the website for a Chicago radio program featuring Mexican music. “They were pleased with the ensemble, and thus was born the duet which was named Ábrego y Ortiz.”

            In 1948, the newly minted duo started making the rounds of clubs and cantinas in their hometown’s red-light district (zone de tolerancia). Their crowd-pleasing performances spurred them to travel to nearby Monterrey to pursue their careers. The following year, they made their first recording on the Orfeo label, a 78-rpm single titled “El Corrido de Pepito,” backed by “La Matrera,” a polka composed by Ábrego.     

            Today, Orfeo discs are extremely rare. The Frontera Collection contains 145 recordings on the label, all 78s, including 25 original tracks by Los Alegres de Terán. In addition, there are works attributed to other incarnations of the duo, such as Ortiz with other partners, as well as one song by Dueto Ábrego, though its members are not identified individually.

            Although tales about how bands got their names are often apocryphal, the Facebook bio tells a plausible story about how Dueto Ábrego y Ortiz became The Happy Ones from Terán.

            The duo was making an appearance on a radio program called “El Pregonero del Norte,” broadcast on XET, a Monterrey radio station that was key to their early success, with a signal reaching the border and beyond. While on the air, the two artists broke out in laughter, prompting popular deejay Juan Cejudo to ask what was so funny. The answer: “That’s just the way we are, the people from Terán, very happy. (Es que así somos los de Terán, muy alegres).” From that moment, the deejay christened them Los Alegres de Terán.

            Los Alegres were no overnight sensation. It would take years for them to score a major hit and their popularity rose “at a desperately slow rate” (con desesperante lentitud), as another radio website put it. Meanwhile, on bus rides from Terán to Monterrey for radio appearances, they would still play for fellow passengers and pass the hat for tips.

            In 1950, Los Alegres moved to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a border town directly across from McAllen, a Texas town that was then emerging as a focal point for the border music industry. In 1948, the same year Los Alegres came together, Arnaldo Ramírez had founded Falcon Records, the McAllen-based label that would become a major player in the field. It didn’t take long for the label and the duo to join forces, setting Los Alegres on the path to stardom.

            Los Alegres had their first major hit on Falcon in 1953 with “Carta Jugada,” about a spurned man who discovers that the object of his hopeless love was, as the titles suggests, like a card that had already been played. Their early Falcon albums, Los Ojos de Pancha and Más y Más Corridos, are considered classics of the genre.

            “ ‘Carta Jugada’ reveals some of the stylistic nuances employed by the group to update the traditional border corrido form, rendering it more musically expressive,” writes Ragland, associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of North Texas. “Ortiz and Ábrego sing in parallel thirds, but with the second voice sung in a high register that produces a vocal strain, thus bringing more emotion to the song and its subject matter.”

            The regional success of Los Alegres coincided with the growth of the Mexican record industry in Mexico City. The duo ­– with its blend of country and romantic styles showcased in polished arrangements – drew the attention of producers in the capital, who historically had looked down on the working-class music of the border regions. In 1956, according to the Facebook biography, famed composer and producer Felipe Valdez Leal signed Ortiz and Ábrego to a contract with Discos Columbia, the Mexican CBS affiliate and a Mexican music powerhouse.

            Musical trends in the capital were driven at the time by wider cultural forces in a country rapidly developing within a proud, post-revolutionary climate. Record executives sought out acts that reflected a modern, nationalistic, urban ethos. Los Alegres, who had already modernized the rustic, rural sound of norteño music, fit the bill.

            At Columbia, Los Alegres had graduated to the big leagues, marketed nationally as “the first stars of norteña music.”

            “Los Alegres knew how to connect with their local audiences,” writes Ragland, “but they were also aware of their role as representatives of a regional genre that was compelled to compete with the urban popular music singers” marketed by major labels and movies in mid-century Mexico.

            In the country’s highly centralized capital, the duo became beneficiaries of the industry’s powerful promotional machine, which vastly enhanced their international profile. They joined the famous “caravanas artísticas”—a caravan of stars composed of a rotating bill of major acts that hit the road as a touring attraction. The lowly country musicians found themselves rubbing shoulders and sharing stages with first-rate luminaries such as José Alfredo Jiménez, Miguel Aceves Mejía, Las Hermanas Huerta, Chelo Silva, Lola Beltrán, and others.

            Traveling with the caravans throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, Los Alegres appeared at premiere venues, from the capital’s Teatro Blanquita to The Millon Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles. They also made cross-genre inroads, invited as guests at the first international polka festival held in Chicago in the early 1960s, where they shared the ethnic bill with other immigrant musicians from Eastern Europe, Germany, and elsewhere.

            At the same time, Los Alegres made their first forays into film. They appeared in 1962’s “Pueblito” (Little Village), by famed director Emilio Fernandez, though they are uncredited on the International Movie Database.  They also appeared as musical performers in “El Contrabando del Paso” (1980), and later in “El Güero Estrada,” based on a corrido about a “fearsome” criminal who robbed and killed innocent immigrants as they crossed the border, then threw their bodies in the river.

            Over a career that spanned four decades, Los Alegres recorded more than 100 albums, according to conservative estimates. They scored a long line of hits, including "El Ojo de Vidrio," “El Golpe Traidor,” “Moneda Sin Valor,” “Dos Gotas De Agua,” “La Mesera,“Alma Enamorada,” and “Entre Copa Y Copa,” to name just a few.

            The duo split up for two years in mid-career, but they happily reconciled. They continued recording and touring, pushing norteño music to global heights with fans as far away as Japan, Iraq, Spain, and even parts of Africa. 

            They received many honors as ambassadors of their proletariat folk style. Their hometown was especially appreciative that the duo carried its name proudly around the world.  And to show its own appreciation, beginning in 1964, Los Alegres performed an annual free concert on Mexican Independence Day in the central plaza of General Terán, with proceeds going to the city for social works.

            Los Alegres marked their 25th anniversary with fanfare in 1974. They were the guests of honor at a state banquet held by the governor of Nuevo Leon. To mark the occasion, Falcon Records released a comprehensive, three-record set entitled “Bodas de Plata,” using the Spanish term for silver wedding anniversaries, befitting this long musical marriage.

            The duo was also feted that year back in Terán. Their hometown established a symbolic sister-city relationship with Mission, Texas, where the mayor at the time was none other than Falcon founder Arnaldo Ramírez.

            In 1980, a street was named in their honor, Avenida Los Alegres de Terán, in their hometown. Today, an entire neighborhood also carries their name, Colonia Alegres de Terán, with its own zip code (64700). And in 2011, the city fathers erected full-size statues of the duo playing their accordion and 12-string guitar and elevated on a stone pedestal in the city’s Plaza Juarez.

            Three years later, on the duo’s 35th anniversary, Falcon Records organized a major tribute held at the landmark Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. That same year, 1983, Los Alegres de Terán were inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in Texas.

            Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Frontera Collection, also documented the cultural importance of Los Alegres over the years, as record collector, music executive, and film producer. The duo was prominently featured in Strachwitz’s 1976 documentary about border music, Chulas Fronteras, directed by Les Blank. Twenty-eight years later, his label, Arhoolie Records, released a compilation of the duo’s earliest recordings on the Falcon label, Los Alegres De Terán, Grabaciones Originales: 1952–1954, introducing the band and its music to a new generation. Those tracks were culled from Strachwitz’s own archives, where he had amassed hundreds of recordings by Los Alegres, now accessible to the public through the Frontera Collection website.

            The duo’s remarkable run came to an end with the death of Ábrego in 1988. Ortiz survived him by 19 years, continuing to perform with another partner, Leobardo Pérez, on accordion and vocal harmonies. Ortiz died in 2007, in Edinburg, Texas.

            Even today, almost 40 years after the duo’s demise, Los Alegres remain revered and beloved by fans. With feet firmly planted on both sides of the border, they became working-class heroes for fans who, like them, were always on the move.

            “As migrant workers and folk musicians, Los Alegres represented norteño culture and peasant life on many levels,” writes Ragland. “Their music reflected the nomadic lives of working-class Mexicans, and they were viewed as traveling workers, crossing to the other side when necessary in an effort to take care of their families.”


– Agustín Gurza


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