The "Lark Of The Border" - Lydia Mendoza
In 1928, at the age of 12, Lydia Mendoza made her recording debut in a San Antonio hotel room-studio set up by Okeh Records. Lydia's signature song, "Mal Hombre," has become an enduring classic on both sides of the border ever since.
Lydia's mother, Leonora Mendoza, was the musical head of the family. Leonora played guitar and taught the other family members to sing and play violin, mandolin, and percussion. When not entertaining, however, the family had to support itself by working as migrant laborers. The 1928 recordings brought a family windfall of $140, which enabled them to move to Detroit, their home base for several years of entertaining migrant workers and fellow Mexican Americans who had moved north during the Mexican Revolution.
Returning to Texas in the early thirties to play in San Antonio's Plaza de Zacate, the family again were invited to record in 1934. One of the songs cut was "Mal Hombre," which became a hit throughout the Spanish-speaking parts of the U.S. As a result, between 1934 and 1940 Lydia recorded just under 200 songs for the Bluebird label.
Ms. Mendoza lives in a neat white corner house in the Houston Heights. From its modest exterior you would be hard pressed to discern that it was occupied by a Texas legend. The interior also gives little indication of its host's importance aside from a few photographs of her famous past.
A one time sitting with Ms. Mendoza is tough. Abstract musical questions are almost laughed off. When asked what the purpose of music is, she replies "Music is for celebration and enjoyment."
Being a musician in Mexican culture is a well respected profession. And so it was for the Mendoza family. It was a living. Sadly though, Mendoza's musical career is a thing of the past. "I suffered a stroke a few years ago which has taken away my ability to sing and has prevented me from playing my guitar." Her public still wants her presence though. "I am occasionally asked to do presentations or speak to groups of children, but no more music."
When we asked her about having been taken advantage of by record companies Mendoza replies "I can't say that I was ever taken advantage of because my father took care of all our business arrangements for myself and the family."
This is only partially true. There was one incident where two unscrupulous people from Bluebird left the company with a substantial chunk of Mendoza's royalty money from her hit "Mal Hombre." This became even more of a problem when the IRS came looking for it's share of that money. But Bluebird patched things up with the IRS when the situation was made known to them. After that incident Mendoza pretty much stayed away from royalties and instead made sure she was paid an up front flat fee per recording.
As for her father, Francisco Mendoza may have formed the early Mendoza family into the Carta Blanca Quartet (named after the beer when put on the spot by a record company) but he became less helpful, to be polite, as the years went on. Manuel J. Cortez, who owned KCOR in San Antonio was the first to manage Mendoza's career and give her a weekly radio segment. This pulled Mendoza out of the Plaza Del Zacate, an outdoor plaza where musicians performed. But it was not until 1936 that the Mendoza family's career truly took off. That was when Antonio Montes began to manage the group. Lydia Mendoza recalls, "Of all the people who helped us during our career, Antonio Montes was the principal one…. When Montes joined up with us, we really didn't know what to do. My name was well known, but we had to fill out an entire show with something. Montes put together a complete variety show." For 6 years the family traveled successfully performing as a troupe. Their touring ended in 1942 by the Second World War which severely limited travel.
Musicians as diverse as Selena, Glen Campbell, Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell have cited her as a musical influence. Asked who her own influences have been through the years she replies, "I never tried to emulate anyone. I always had my own style, though I learned all about playing the guitar from my mother."
Surely if anything held the Mendoza troupe together it was Lydia's mother, Leonor Mendoza. Upon her death in 1952 not only did the troupe fall apart completely but, without Leonor, the success of Las Hermanas Mendoza (Lydia's sisters Juanita and Maria) was cut short by shortsighted and jealous husbands.
Lydia though, continued touring by herself and even expanded her tours into Mexico and as far away as Columbia. In 1971 Mexico, not the United States, chose Mendoza to represent them in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life. She appeared at the Library of Congress in 1977 at the request of the American Folk Life center for the conference on "Ethnic Recordings in America." Furthermore she has been properly honored by many other appearances at the request of people who see her as a living legend and link to an American Heritage that many have forgotten.
In addition to being beautiful and a fine singer, Lydia was an excellent 12-string guitar player. Her style is subtle and pleasing, as if the instrument were another voice part. It was said that she sang a duet with her guitar.
While she is glad to see people recognize her work, she hasn't lost sight of what her early conjunto/tejano style of music truly was. "This was music for the workers."
Lydia was the first Tejano recording artist, and as a pioneer of Texas music we congratulate her on being inducted into the Texas Hall Of Musical Excellence.