Lydia Mendoza: Borderland Music Star
Lydia Mendoza, a Tejana singer of Spanish-language ballads and Borderland Norteno corridos, was the first Latina to achieve international recognition–in any field. Over her stellar six-decade career of recording and performing live she recorded more than 50 LP albums singing more than 200 different songs. Her records exceeded more than 1200 recordings and were sold in the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Latin America.
A talented and versatile musician, Mendoza first recorded with her family at age 12, as the main vocalist playing the mandolin. Early in her teen years, she became known as “La Alondra de la Frontera” [The Lark of the Border]. Mendoza was born in Houston in 1916, the child of Mexican immigrants who fled to Texas in 1910 at the start of the Mexican Revolution. Her family returned to Mexico in 1918 and remained for two years. When they returned to Texas in 1920 her father found work as a mechanic with the railroad in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Mendozas were a musical family and their singing and playing, often in public plazas, street corners, bars, and restaurants contributed to their meager income. Lydia Mendoza loved music and learned vocals from both her parents and her grandmother.
I learned much about Lydia Mendoza from the excellent essays by Teresa Paloma Acosta, Michael Joseph Corcoran, James M. Manheim, and Vicki Ruiz. The only two books on Lydia Mendoza written by Professor Yolanda Broyes-Gonzalez and Chris Strachwitz are out of print and not available to most readers.
Lydia’s musical journey began when she was four years old. Her family had relocated to Monterrey, Mexico in 1918 and had returned to the United States in 1920. She was fascinated with her mother’s guitar and would play with the strings. Her mother was tired of re-tuning the guitar and placed it out of reach. Lydia was four years old, writer Teresa Paloma Acosta writes, when “she made a guitar for herself from wood, nails, and rubber bands.”
Lydia’s mother eventually began giving her guitar lessons and both her mother and grandmother gave her vocal instructions. Lydia was undoubtedly a child prodigy, learning at a young age to be proficient in the mandolin, violin, six-string guitar, 12-string guitars, and Bajo sexto. Lydia Mendoza inspired both musicians and artists.
Lydia’s family was in South Texas in 1928 when they read an advertisement in La Prensa placed by the Okeh Records Company of New York seeking Spanish-language artists. The family did not own a car and had to hitchhike to San Antonio for an audition. The audition went well and the family recorded twenty songs under their professional name, Cuarteto Carta Blanca. Okeh Records paid them a total of $140, or seven dollars per song. Lydia Mendoza, at the time only 12 years old, performed as the main vocalist and also played the guitar in all of the recordings.
The family used the money to travel to Michigan with the intent of picking beets. They ventured to the fields less and less as they found that playing for tips in the Detroit Mexican community gave them slightly greater earnings. The Mendoza family returned to San Antonio in the early 1930s and performed almost daily at the Plaza del Zacate across from the farmer’s market square. It was at the Plaza that Lydia Mendoza was discovered by Manuel J. Cortez, a former writer of La Pensa, and popular San Antonio radio personality with a daily live show called Voz Latina. Following a very successful show, Cortez was able to find a vitamin company sponsor who agreed to pay her $3.50 per week for daily appearances. Lydia recalled years later “With that three-fifty, we felt like millionaires. Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent.” [Acosta]
Victor Records came to San Antonio in 1934 and set up a temporary recording studio at the Bluebonnet Hotel, not far from the Market Square where the Mendoza family performed for tips. The Mendozas recorded six songs together, and 18-year-old Lydia Mendoza sang six songs as a solo artist. Her recordings for Victor Records’ Bluebird subsidiary were a grand success according to writer James M. Manheim. With their new popularity, the Mendoza family began booking in small theaters and variety shows such as El Nacional in San Antonio [See an image of the Nacional in the Jesse Trevino mural painting provided for this essay].
Over the next six years, 1934-1940, Lydia Mendoza recorded over 220 songs in San Antonio. Over the next forty years, 1940-1980, Mendoza wrote and also recorded hundreds of songs, some including backing from mariachi bands, conjunto groups, and even electric guitars. For Rangel Records, a small recording company in San Antonio, Lydia Mendoza was accompanied by only one musician, a 17-year-old accordionist who performed by
two different names, Jimmy Jimenez and Santiago Jimenez. With Jimenez, Mendoza recorded her signature song, “Mal Hombre” [Bad Man], but while Santiago Jimenez’s name was not added to the record label, well-versed accordion music lovers can recognize Santiago’s style in the recording.
Lydia Mendoza received many distinguished honors over her lifetime including her selection in 1982 in the first class of 15 National Heritage Fellowships awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She was the first Latina to earn this award. In 1999 Lydia Mendoza was named the Texas Voice of the Century by Texas Monthly magazine, edging out country vocalist George Jones. Perhaps her greatest honor came in 2013 when the United States Postal Service unveiled the Lydia Mendoza Forever Stamp, the first of the Postal Music Icon series.
Copyright 2021 by Ricardo Romo. Lydia Mendoza stamp in the public domain, All other visuals courtesy of Ricardo Romo.