Before she became a Tejano queen, Lydia Mendoza played humble venues
Paula Allen, 07/31/2019
View on San Antonio Express-News
Warning: If you keep reading, you’re probably going to get `Mal Hombre` stuck in your head — not that it’s a bad thing.
That may have happened to the family of reader Leo Reyes when the Tejano classic was a catchy new hit for young singer Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007). His question about the restaurants his grandparents operated during the 1920s and ’30s brought up their connection with East Side real estate/gaming mogul Charles Bellinger, covered here June 9.
Reyes also asked if family lore — that Mendoza sang for coins and meals in one of their restaurants — could be true. So we’re back for the third and last time to consult with experts on the history of the nascent Tejano music scene here.
Thanks to research by San Antonio Conservation Society intern Cole Murray, who traced the progress of Francisco Alcocer Rodriguez (later known as Frank Rodriguez) and his wife, Carolina, through two decades of city directories, we have a pretty good idea of the restaurants with which they were associated.
With some of their 12 children and other relatives, they worked at the Brownskin Chili Stand and Brownskin Café (later Marie’s Café), Louisiana Café and Everett’s Wine House, at various addresses on East Commerce Street. One or more family members, whose names and spellings change often, may also have been associated with El Rio Café at 115 W. Commerce St., the Shanghai Café at 1105 W. Commerce, the Express Café at 218-220 N. Alamo St. and the more upscale Manhattan Café at 228 E. Houston St., all before moving to Austin around 1942.
Except for the Manhattan, most were modest eateries, and an Alcocer/Rodriguez family member usually was in charge. So: Could the Tejano pioneer known as “The Lark of the Border” and “The Glory of Texas” have sung in these comparatively humble settings?
If you’ve been following the recaps of Mendoza’s career around the June 1 dedication of a Texas Historical Commission marker at her gravesite in San Fernando Cemetery No. 2, you might think the trajectory of her career doesn’t match the timing of the Alcocers’ activity in local restaurants.
On ExpressNews.com: Legendary singer Mendoza gets Texas historical marker
In the mid-1930s, Mendoza became one of the first Tejano artists to score hits on a national record label. On the strength of her popularity as a local performer, she was offered a regular spot on KABC radio. After time off to be with her children in the 1940s, she came back to triumphant tours of theaters throughout the United States, Mexico and Cuba. As her fame grew, she received a string of top-shelf recognitions including a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, a National Medal of the Arts and even a commemorative postage stamp.
Glamorous as this sounds, it didn’t start out that way.
Before she was a national treasure, Mendoza was La Cancionera de los Pobres or “The Poor People’s Songstress.” With her parents and sister, Mendoza started singing professionally as a child. As itinerant musicians in the lower Rio Grande Valley, “They performed outside bars or in restaurants where they could, mostly for contract labors or in carpas (tent shows),” writes Leticia Del Toro in “Lydia Mendoza: First Queen of Tejano Music,” a booklet that accompanies an album of the same title.
As one of the family Cuarteto Carta Blanca in 1928, 12-year-old Lydia played mandolin and backed up her mother’s vocals on her first recording.
When the $140 from that 20-song session ran out, the Mendozas went back on the road — to the sugar-beet fields of Michigan, then a vaudeville show in Detroit. Returning to San Antonio, they performed in the Plaza del Zacate (hay market), an area around Milam Square and the Farmer’s Market that was a nightly open stage for strolling musicians. As Lydia increasingly took the lead — a novelty, as a female performer in this scene — the Mendoza family had a distinction: They could set up next to a food vendor and draw crowds to them, rather than having to stalk the crowd for tips.
“When Lydia sang as a soloist,” Del Toro says, “people paid more money and attention.”
With her first big hit, “Mal Hombre,” recorded in 1934, Mendoza “became well-known throughout the Southwest and most of Mexico.” At the same time, the Tejano music scene was still in its infancy.
Local artist and writer Amy Freeman Lee documented its rise in the San Antonio Express, Sept. 17, 1939: “Twice each year, the chief phonograph companies … send technicians to make records of Mexican music,” says Lee, noting that top composers such as Agustin Lara wrote songs for San Antonio-based artists including Mendoza, “who has the distinction of being the most popular artist in the low-priced record field.”
Before and even after Mendoza’s recording career took off, “The family struggled to make ends meet and would often play anywhere they were allowed for tips,” said Rodolfo “Rudy” Gutierrez of the Del Bravo Record Shop, whose father, record producer Salome Gutierrez, was a longtime friend of Mendoza. “I am sure that food would have been offered as payment, as that tradition — playing for tips and meals — continues to this day in Mexican restaurants in San Antonio.”
The tradition of el talón (performing songs at tableside) “is an old one, with roots that go back centuries in Europe,” said Hector Saldaña, Texas Music Curator at the Wittliff Collections, Texas State University. At the time of Mendoza’s first recordings, Texas was still mostly rural, feeling the aftershocks of the Mexican Revolution and weathering the Great Depression.
As an entertainer, “Lydia was not a star in the same sense that the Mexican movie stars or romantic singers of the day,” Saldaña said. “She was earthier and much more rustic and folkloric — and primitive.” Continuing to perform with her family after her solo career was launched, “She played in work camps, picnics and plazas.”
In the recording of a 1982 concert, “La Alondra de la Frontera - Live,” audience members are heard shouting out requests, “and she complies. That’s exactly the kind of ability a musician would have from experiences of playing in restaurants and cantinas.”
Since the Mendoza family band “was known to play at restaurants for tips,” Saldaña noted, “Your reader’s family legend may not be too far off. It’s in the realm of possibility.” Though popular, Mendoza and her family remained “poor people, barely working class,” while the business of Spanish-language music struggled to take off.
Six years after Mendoza’s solo recording debut, the San Antonio Light’s “Around the Plaza,” March 21, 1940, name-checks Mendoza as “the Connie Boswell (a leading pop star) of the Spanish-language recordings … and that she’s still playing the Jalisco, a restaurant off Milam Square, where Mendoza and “hot fiddler” Emilio Caceres are the star attractions.
Both Gutierrez and Saldaña checked with Mendoza’s descendants; none recognized the names of the Alcocers or their restaurants, but El Rio Café, where they’re working as of the 1938-1939 directory, is the most likely, with its proximity to the market area, and we know Mendoza was still playing restaurants even later.
As Saldaña pointed out, “She was known as the songstress of the poor for a reason.”