Anita Janet Cortez
"Perla Tapatía"

(1931-2014)

Pioneer of Mexicana women in music

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Anita Janet Cortez, also known as Perla Tapatía, was a trailblazing ranchera singer from the Westside who performed throughout the United States and Mexico. She was a role model for the LGBT community, and she became the only known singer to sing with a tracheostomy.


Cortez was born in San Antonio to a single mother in 1931 who gave her up for adoption. Her mother was Anglo, but Perla grew up a Mexicana adopted by the Cortez family. She was lovingly teased with nicknames like “la güerita” and “la gringuita.” Perla grew up on Matamoros Street and worked at Fort Sam Houston for 23 years. She began singing as a young girl at a family event at the Cabana Night Club when Meme Reyes asked her to perform on the spot. Perla got her first big break when she sang with Mexican comic Tin Tán at the Municipal Auditorium in the mid-1950s. In order to perform on stage, she had to borrow a ranchera costume from famed singer Lydia Mendoza. In later years she adopted her own style using a black bolero hat and colorful dramatic capes called ruanas that were designed by her niece, Connie Cortez. 


Perla lived publicly with her lifelong partner Marie A. Torres for 34 years. In 1973 Perla was diagnosed with throat cancer which led to a lifetime of struggle and 40 operations of the trachea. She even stopped singing for a while. After losing part of her voice box to cancer, she lived with the aid of a tracheostomy, an open airway in her throat. Her doctor told her she would never sing again. Despite this prediction, Perla did sing again and returned to the doctor to show him that he had been wrong. After this she would be known for her dramatic singing style, with one hand covering her tracheostomy to control air flow.


At the urging of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Cortez joined other legendary Ranchera singers Rita “La Calandria” Vidaurri, Beatriz “La Paloma del Norte” Llamas, and Blanca “Blanca Rosa” Rodríguez to form the group Las Tesoros de San Antonio in 2008. In 2013, Cortez was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in August 2014. Perla Tapatía’s last public appearance was at Rita Vidaurri’s 90th birthday tribute at the Guadalupe Theater in May of 2014 where she sang a rousing “Fallaste Corazón” to Rita. She received a standing ovation. The surviving members of Las Tesoros sang farewell to Perla at her gravesite at Mission Burial Park South.


Cortez would be honored posthumously in a 2016 documentary by filmmaker Jorge Sandoval, Las Tesoros de San Antonio: A Westside Story, which debuted at the Mission Marquee Plaza, site of the old Mission Drive-In Theatre in south San Antonio. In 2018, the group was also honored with an exhibit at Texas State University, and by the San Antonio Arts Commission and the City of San Antonio, in a ceremony at the Tobin Center, as 2019 Distinction in the Arts Honorees, for providing “enduring and effective cultural leadership” and “exceptional artistic accomplishments” in the San Antonio arts community.

[about the decision to remove all or part of her larynx] "If I'm going to be living without being able to talk, I might as well be dead. I'm taking the second choice [to remove only part of larynx]. And that was the best choice I ever made in my life."

— Anita Janet Cortez, interviewed in "Las Tesoros de San Antonio, A Westside Story"

 

"She brought inspiration to a lot of people...and I'm going to miss your fideo."

— John Cortez, Anita's brother, at her funeral