If the Alamo is San Antonio’s most famous attraction then Lydia Mendoza is the city’s greatest star. Attending a film club screening of Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borders) in the 1980s I was introduced to Tex-Mex music and Lydia. I then came across her music through Arhoolie Records’ reissues of Mendoza’s historic recordings (1930s-1950s) alongside two superb 80s albums La Gloria de Texas and In Concert. Lydia’s bell-like voice, fluid 12-string acoustic guitar picking and pioneering conjunto style bowled me over and I’ve been a fan ever since. Yet as Lydia made her most famous recordings in the 1930s I felt she surely must have since left this world. Interviewing Mexican cabaret diva Astrid Hadad in 2004 I pestered her for tales of Mexico’s many musical legends. Astrid was generous but nothing surprised me more than when she mentioned Lydia was still alive. ‘She’s had a stroke and isn’t playing music any more but beyond that I hear she’s well,’ said Astrid. My heart skipped a beat.
We turn off the highway before reaching central San Antonio, Lee negotiating through sun baked suburbs, running smooth towards our destination: Laurel Heights Nursing Home. Via Chris Strachwitz I’d arranged to interview Lydia through her daughter Yolanda Hernandez. Lee’s never heard of Lydia, understandably, yet mention her name in the South West and people light up: Alejandro recalled his parents playing her records, an uncle dating her sister; Kell whooped, declaring ‘I saw her play one time in the 1950s. It was in Texas, on stage alone with her guitar. She was spellbinding and very beautiful.’ Freddy Fender, the Mexican American singer who enjoyed great crossover country and pop success in the 1970s, once noted ‘I would hear her from every window in our San Benito neighbourhood while I staked the wire of my mother’s old radio into the ground while my mother sang along in the house. She was such a powerful singer.’ Lee remembers Freddy Fender (more for a kitsch album cover featuring him hugging a cactus than his superb voice) and has taken to Kell and Alejandro so wants to know more. OK, I say, it’s an epic American story: Lydia Mendoza was born May 21, 1916, in Houston to a Mexican family who had fled the chaos of the Mexican Revolution. Her grandmother and mother Lenora were both musical and from early childhood Lydia and her siblings were taught a variety of musical instruments. This training was anything but a luxury – the Mendozas’ were impoverished migrant workers with the family’s patriarch, Francisco Mendoza, disillusioned by life’s disappointments and discrimination, turning to drink so forcing his children to earn money by playing music on the streets. Lydia never went to school, instead her prowess at singing and playing the 12-string guitar found her designated the family’s main income earner even before adolescence. The Mendozas’ regularly moved between Texas and the northern Mexican city of Monterey with Francisco relentlessly changing jobs and cities. When the harvest season was underway they would travel across the Rio Grande Valley, shifting from town to town, playing on the street, in restaurants, barbershops, even going to the fields and serenading the workers, hopefully earning enough nickels and dimes for food, accommodation, transport. Hunger and the threat of eviction were a constant. A 1928 advertisement in La Prensa, a popular local paper, announced auditions were being held in San Antonio by Okeh Records. Francisco convinced a friend with a car to drive the family to San Antonio where they auditioned and were subsequently paid $140 to record twenty songs. Before the 78s were pressed the family left for Detroit, seeking work picking sugar beets. Francisco quickly found the work not to his liking so got the family playing on city streets and at migrant worker camps. In 1930 the family returned to San Antonio where they became fixtures in the city’s old public market. It was here in 1931 that a broadcaster heard Lydia sing and invited her to guest on his program.
As Lydia’s popularity rose she began getting restaurant and tent show bookings. An unscrupulous agent held onto most of the fees, forcing Lydia to continue entering talent contests (which, naturally, she won). In 1934 Blue Bird Records came to San Antonio. Lydia auditioned and recorded four songs for $60. Two months later her first 78 Mal Hombre (Evil Man) became a huge hit across the South West. Blue Bird offered to sign Lydia to a contract guaranteeing royalties but Francisco, ignorant of how the music industry worked, insisted she receive the fee of $40 per two songs recorded. Lydia recorded hit after hit: in 1935 she was horrified to receive a demand for $30,000 in taxes. Blue Bird dealt with the tax authorities and it wouldn’t be ‘til decades later that the family realized Lydia had missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties. Her fans nicknamed her “La Alondra de la Frontera” (The Meadowlark Of The Border) and “La Cancionera de los Pobres” (The Songstress Of The Poor).
In the 1970s Arhoolie Records began issuing albums of Lydia’s pioneering recordings so introducing her to a younger audience. A stroke in 1988 curtailed her ability to play guitar. Which is why we’re now entering a nursing home. Yolanda and her husband Ricardo meet us at the entrance. Lydia has, says Yolanda, experienced five heart bypasses, broken both hips and a leg and, earlier this year, experienced a hernia. ‘Man,’ says Lee, ‘she’s a survivor.’ Indeed, but infirmity charges a high price and when I meet the pale, silver haired woman in a wheel chair she doesn’t resemble the Lydia I’m familiar with from CD sleeves and Chulas Fronteras. At 89 years of age Lydia Mendoza is confined to a wheelchair, very thin, the wide smile and laughter that once accompanied her every gesture now silenced. Yet wrapped in a black shawl – rouge on cheeks, gold rings on fingers, nails painted a colour as fierce as her lipstick – there’s no question she remains a Queen. Introductions are made and I quickly realise Lydia, although having lived her entire life in the US, has never learnt to speak English.
‘The doctors are surprised Lydia has healed so fast,’ says Yolanda of Lydia’s recent hernia operation. ‘I put it down to her cooking with a lot of garlic and chilli.’ While Lydia retains her health she’s now too fragile to make music. Does she, I enquire without much sagacity, miss making music?
‘That’s why I’m dieing here because I miss my music so much,’ is the blunt reply.
READ THE COMPLETE INTERVIEW WITH LYDIA IN MORE MILES THAN MONEY