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Lydia Mendoza

1916-2007

Pioneer Tejana Recording Artist

Arte y Corazon

THEME

Education

THEME

Lydia Mendoza became one of the most popular Mexican American recording artists of all time. She was called “La Alondra de la Frontera” and “La Cancionera de los Pobres” for the ways that her music reflected and validated the experiences of working class Mexican Americans and migrants.


Lydia was born on May 31, 1916 in Houston, Texas. Her parents were Leonor Zamarripa Mendoza and Francisco Mendoza. Francisco worked as a locomotive mechanic on the rail line linking Laredo and Monterrey, and the family travelled with him on both sides of the border. Lydia was the second oldest of seven children.


Lydia describes her mother Leonor as an educator. When her father didn’t want the children to go to school, her mother bought blackboards and pencils, and taught them to read. She taught them parables  to reinforce moral lessons about what was right and wrong. She taught Lydia how to play guitar when she was seven years old, and directed all of her children in the family variety show for many years. By age nine Lydia was a proficient guitarist. She would come to her grandmother’s house and they would play and sing together; As she got older, Lydia would become a teacher as well, as she taught her younger siblings.


When Lydia was a child, she put together a mini song book made from popular music from the Bella Vista neighborhood of Monterrey where she lived. These songs were printed on chewing gum wrappers. This earned her the name “chewing gum wrapper cancionero”, and she took this along with her everywhere she went. She also taught herself how to play the mandolin, the violin and the piano.


Lydia remembers first coming to San Antonio in 1923, but the family did not settle in the city until about a decade later. By 1927 Lydia and sister Francisca, along with parents, had become traveling musicians, performing throughout the Rio Grande Valley outside bars, in restaurants, and barbershops. Lydia played the mandolin, her sister played a triangle, her mamá played guitar and her papá played a tamborine. They mostly performed for contract laborers and in carpas, hitchhiking from place to place. Mendoza describes these experiences: "Dad would go in and ask permission to play, and then, if folks were there, we'd sit down and sing, and people would give us tips. And later on, when the harvesting season came along, we'd go to the little town where the workers were, where there would be gatherings of Mexican people. We'd sing there and get some pocket money."


In 1928 the family responded to an announcement in La Prensa that the OKeh Record label was looking for singers to record. They borrowed a friend’s car to make a trip to San Antonio, andhere the family made their first recording as “Cuarteto Carta Blanca” while staying in a San Antonio hotel room above the Carta Blanca Restaurant. They were paid $140. This hotel would  later become a reception and banquet hall where La Prensa would hold its anniversary banquets, and Lydia and her sister would be hired to sing.


Shortly after this the family moved to Flint, Michigan, where they worked for a time in the sugar beet fields. They also started performing at a little Mexican restaurant in Pontiac. Their performances were so successful that they didn’t have to return to the beet fields. They then moved to Detroit, and her father began to work for Ford. When the Great Depression hit, her father was laid off and they returned  to Texas in 1930. They initially settled in Houston, but there were not many performance opportunities, so they moved to San Antonio’s Westside in 1932. With a five dollar gold coin that the family won as first prize in an amateur talent contest, they were able to buy furniture and rent a house.


They continued to perform, playing at Plaza del Zacate, a big open space where vegetable trucks from the valley arrived in the morning to sell to small retailers. By the evening the plaza was open, and so people would set up tables where they would sell enchiladas, tamales, and chile con carne. Guitar trios would entertain the crowd. Lydia said that the plaza had a distinct musical ambiance that couldn’t be found in other places, even in other parts of Texas. She said that it felt as if you were in Mexico.

Her family also stood out from other musicians. Lydia was about 16 years old, and had begun singing and  playing the guitarra doble (12 string). This was not a traditional 12 string. At her request, her father rearranged the strings so that the top four pairs were in alternative notes rather than in pairs of the same notes, which created a distinctive sound. It was difficult to make enough money to get by; their audience was poor, and so Lydia’s family would often make only 25-30 cents per night. When it rained they couldn’t make any money at the plaza at all.


Radio announcer Manuel J Cortéz came to the plaza to hear her sing, and afterward invited her to sing on his 30 minute program “La Voz Latina” on KABC as a soloist. Her mother was reluctant to let her go because the station wouldn’t pay for her performance, but they were assured that this would boost her popularity. and soon the station offered to find her a sponsor so that she could be paid to sing nightly for $3.50 a week. Mendoza would note that with this income, “we felt like millionaires. Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent.” Lydia won a competition sponsored by the Pearl Brewery. At the time, there were very few women singers in San Antonio, but several emerged during this competition, including Eva Garza, Rosita Fernández and Esperanza Espino. The family also performed their variety shows at the carpas that would come through town, and also at church halls or auditoriums owned by mutualistas.

“Cada canción es distinta: un corrido, un bolero, una canción de desprecio, una canción de amor, un vals, todas….Es que tienes que darle el sabor según la canción. Si no les das, entonces nomás no sale. Esa gracia viene del alma, del alma viene.”

--Lydia Mendoza

 

“I have at times thought of Lydia Mendoza as a powerful labor organizer and/or curandera, for she has served as a collectivizing and galvanizing force for raza laborers and a sa voice of collective self-power.”

--Yolanda Broyles-González

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The Mendoza family poses with their instruments, 1935.
The Mendoza family poses with their instruments, 1935.

Lydia Mendoza's mother, Leonor, is in the center. The others identified are Juanita, Manuel, Panchita, and Maria Mendoza.

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Lydia Mendoza at 15 years old, 1931.
Lydia Mendoza at 15 years old, 1931.

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Historical marker to Lydia Mendoza
Historical marker to Lydia Mendoza

Lydia Mendoza grave headstone and historical marker at San Fernando Cemetery #2, block 1B, San Antonio, Texas, United States, 2019

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The Mendoza family poses with their instruments, 1935.
The Mendoza family poses with their instruments, 1935.

Lydia Mendoza's mother, Leonor, is in the center. The others identified are Juanita, Manuel, Panchita, and Maria Mendoza.

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MSS0123-0017, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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Courtesy the Arhoolie Foundation

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MSS0123-0005, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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UTSA, Zuma Press, Courtesy PBS

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MSS0123-0015, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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L-3514-A, San Antonio Light Photograph Collection, MS 359, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections

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MSS0123-0021, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0023, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0038, Photographer: Chris Strachwitz, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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Esperanza Peace & Justice Center

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Esperanza Peace and Justice Center

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Photographer: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

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MSS0123-0002, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0011, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MS 359, San Antonio Light Photograph Collection, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections

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MSS0123-0018, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0019B, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0014, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0026, Photographer: G.A. Sanchez-Itta. Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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MSS0123-0050, Lydia Mendoza Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

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Esperanza Peace & Justice Center

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Esperanza Peace & Justice Center

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EDWARD A. ORNELAS/SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS