RIP, Lydia Mendoza

mendoza

Another legendary Texas musician has passed.

Lydia Mendoza, the “Queen of Tejano Music,” died Thursday in San Antonio at the age of 91. She began her career singing in the plazas of San Antonio during the 1930s and was a beloved folk icon in the Mexican American culture.

Mendoza, who scored her first big hit “Mal Hombre” in the 1930s, became one of the era’s first Mexican American superstars by singing to the poor and downtrodden.

Over time, Mendoza became known as La Alondra de la Frontera (The Lark of the Border), La Cancionera de los Pobres (Songstress of the Poor) and La Gloria de Tejas (The Glory of Texas).

“She was the first and only real voice of Mexican Americans,” said Arhoolie Records owner Chris Strachwitz, who co-wrote an autobiography of the Mendoza family for Arte Publico Press. “People always told me that Lydia sang to every class. She sang to the poor, and the wealthy loved her too.”

Her memorable musical style earned her a National Medal of the Arts and a National Heritage Award fellowship. She was also asked to sing at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977.

Mendoza recorded more than 200 songs on more than 50 albums, including boleros, rancheras, cumbias and tangos for such labels as RCA, Columbia, Azteca, Peerless, El Zarape and Discos Falcon. In addition to pursuing a solo career, she also enjoyed performing with her family.

“Mal Hombre (Evil Man),” released in 1934 on the Bluebird label, became a hit on both sides of the border and was her signature song. Other hits included “La Valentina” and “Angel de Mis Anhelos.”

South Texas Conjunto Association Executive Director Lupe Saenz called Mendoza a trailblazer.

“She set the trend for others, Las Hermanas Cantu, Chelo Silva, Las Rancheritas, and other women who followed Mendoza’s lead in the world of Spanish music,” he said. “Mendoza will be remembered for her unique style of the 12-string guitar and unique voice and style of singing that set her apart from all others.”

Born in Houston, Mendoza learned to sing and play the 12-string guitar before she was 12, and later learned to play violin and mandolin. In 1928, her family landed a recording session at the Blue Bonnet Hotel in San Antonio with the Okeh label, which generated five singles.

In 1999, Mendoza received the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony in which she shared the stage with Aretha Franklin, producer-director Norman Lear, architect Michael Graves and sculptor George Segal.

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