de la Frontera
by Barbara Karkabi
Lydia Mendoza, La A londra de la Frontera
(the lark of the border), has been called
the major interpreter of the traditional
music of the Rio Grande Valley Musica
Nortenas. The 62-year old woman lives
with her husband in a simple home in the
Heights, not far from where she and her
seven brothers and sisters were born.
As Mendoza explains it, Musica Nortenas evolved at the turn of the century
when the Spanish-speaking people of the
Texas-Mexican border region came into
contact with the music of the Bohemians
and Germans who settled there in the late
Mendoza learned these old Mexican
rancheros, boleros and ballads from her
mother, in the age-old oral tradition. To
this day she cannot read music and has
never received a formal education of any
kind. "Girls just didn't go to school in
those days," she says, "but it was acceptable for me to sing and play the guitar."
Mendoza was allowed to develop her
talents largely because of her mother's persistence. "My mother encouraged all of
her children to do what she had never been
allowed to do. She was the teacher of all
Her mother could have been a great
artist, Mendoza believes, but she grew up
in Mexico where she was not allowed to
develop her talents fully. Life became easier
for her after she married Mendoza's father,
who was also musically involved. They
would sit around the house for hours,
playing the guitar and singing. "There was
always music in my house," Mendoza remembers.
Although Mendoza modestly refuses
to acknowledge that she is a natural talent, she does admit that her career started
at the age of four. By seven she was playing the guitar and at nine, she had perfected her skills. In later years, she learned
to play the violin and the mandolin.
The same modesty Mendoza uses when
discussing her talents extends to what has
been called the "unique Mendoza sound,"
produced by her 12-string guitar. "It was
really accidental," she recalls, "when my
father bought me my first guitar from a
pawn shop, I rearranged the strings myself. I just preferred the sound and it has
stuck with me all my life."
Her first performance was at the age of
12 and even though it was before a group
of friends gathered for her father's birthday, she remembers feeling extremely shy.
"But, somehow I knew that performing
Mai Hombre was the first of many hits
for Lydia Mendoza and from that point
on, her fame grew rapidly. "I always knew
I was going to be an artist, but I never
imagined I would reach such a level of
fame and I'm happy about it."
For the first part of her career, Mendoza
sang and travelled primarily with her
family. Lydia Mendoza y Familia became
a household name to many Mexicans. But,
after her mother died and her sisters married, she was on her own and it was by
herself that she achieved her greatest triumphs.
"Girls just didn't go to school in those
days, but it was acceptable for me to
sing and play the guitar."
was going to be my life, so I tried to forget my fears and imagine that I was singing
before a great audience."
It was years before Mendoza lost this
shyness. Even after she became famous
she would put her head down while singing
and not look at the audience. She laughs
when she remembers the rumors, started
years ago by a journalist, that she was
Nowadays, although she has gotten
over her fears and laughs and jokes with
her audiences, she still holds her head close
to the guitar, often laying her cheek on it
while she sings. "I do this because I feel
very close to my guitar. I want to speak
to it and let my voice penetrate it."
In 1931 the Mendoza family moved to
San Antonio, where Lydia's career really
began. She started to sing at festivals and
in 1933, at the age of 17, won several talent
contests, which led to her cutting, at 18,
her first record, Mai Hombre.
Mendoza has performed in every city
in the United States that has a Mexican-
American population. But there are two
performances over the years that she remembers with special fondness. The first
was in 1937 when her performance at the
Mason Opera Theatre in Los Angeles broke
all attendance records. The crowds that
came to hear her sing literally overflowed
the four-story theatre, she remembers.
The second date was in 1950 when she
travelled to Chihuahua, Mexico. She remembers that the people lined the streets
cheering and throwing flowers at her. "I
had never been greeted like that. For the
first time I felt like a public person."
Although she has been famous most of
her life, Mendoza's fame has brought her
very little money. It wasn't until 1962 that
she began to get royalties from her albums.
She remembers one three-day performance
for which she earned $1500 but actually
received only $500 from her agent.
Mendoza never really cared about the
money. She did what she most loved to
do, and was happy that people like it. "I
came from a poor family and I've had my
good times and my bad times, but my life
has been-happy. God has given me everything I ever asked for. All I want now is
to see my daughters and my grandchildren
Admitting that she is a romantic,
Mendoza says the old Mexican love songs
remain her favorite pieces, but she sings
whatever the audiences request. Recently
they have been asking for corridas, songs
connected to history and based on parti
cular wars or heroes. Mendoza is not poli
tically active, believing that an artist
should be above politics and also that
"everybody is treated the way they be
have." But one of her favorite corridas is
the classic Joaquin Murieta, which tells
the story of a Mexican in the California
gold rush days who cannot prospect or
farm in peace because of harassment from
a group of Anglo vigilantes. He becomes a
widely feared bandit, gathering a gang of
70, but he is eventually betrayed, captured and killed. Murieta's legend has become the subject of scholarly works, a play
and this popular classic corrida.
Lydia Mendoza's career has spanned
44 years during which she has recorded
50 albums and countless singles and appeared in a documentary film, Chulas
Front eras. At an age when most people
think of retiring, Mendoza is planning
more performances and talking about her
album of original recordings that will be
released soon. As part of Hispanic Arts
Month in Houston, Mendoza will sing at
Dudley Recital Hall, University of Hous
ton, on September 15, 7-10 P.M.
She smiles gently when retirement is
mentioned, "I just can't stop singing. I
love music so much that I will never stop
singing until I die."
Special thanks to interpreter
Paid-Does not apply
Unpaid—Jody Blazek, Janice Blue, Gabrielle Cosgriff, Nabila Cronfel, David Crossley,
Anita Freeman Davidson, Patsy Dozier, Marilyn Marshall Jones, Barbara Karkabi,
Marianne Warfield Kostakis, Paula Leone, Gary Allison Morey, Virginia Myers, Loretta
Standard, Jerry Tipps, Kathleen Williamson.
Cover photograph by Marilyn Marshall Jones.
Second-class postage paid at Houston, Texas.
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the International Women's History Archive in the Special Collections Library, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 6020L