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Before Selena: Lydia Mendoza and More Queens of Tejano Music

Last month I was excited to review the annual selection of 25 films that the Library of Congress chose for inclusion in its National Film Registry. One of the films inducted, Selena (1997), depicts the life of Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez (1971-1994). Selena, as she was known, was born in south Texas and performed Tejano music, which encompasses a variety of musical forms, styles, and ensembles originating from the musical culture of Texas Mexicans and the south Texas border region. With her 1990 album Ven Conmigo (added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2019), Selena became the first Tejano artist to earn a gold album, and in 1994, she went multi-platinum with Grammy-nominated Amor Prohibido. She was tragically murdered the following year at the age of 23, leaving behind a beloved legacy that has endured to this day.

Seeing Selena on the National Film Registry reminded me that the NLS Music Section’s collection offers talking books that feature Tejana singers Lydia Mendoza and Las Tesoros de San Antonio. I became curious to learn more about these women who shined brightly in Tejano music earlier on in the 20th century, before Selena’s momentous rise to fame.

Narciso Martínez and Lydia Mendoza (DBM01024)

Tejano music refers to several genres and styles of folk music developed by the Mexican-American community in Texas. Some of these genres combine the waltz and polka stylings brought to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century by northern European immigrants with Spanish-language songs that originated south of the border and were passed down through generations of Mexicans. Typical forms include the corrido, canción ranchera, conjunto, and orquesta.

Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) was born in Houston, Texas, to a father who worked as a railway mechanic and a mother who taught her to play guitar before she also learned violin and mandolin. By the late 1920s the family had formed a band that traveled throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley, playing in restaurants and barber shops for Mexican and Mexican-American agricultural laborers, thus beginning Lydia’s performance career that would span six decades.

Lydia Mendoza became strongly associated with the rural working-class genre of canción ranchera, and her music reflected the economic and social struggles of Tejanos especially from the 1920s through the 1950s. Scholar Yolanda Broyles-González has written in an essay for the National Recording Registry: “As a grassroots idol, she was loved for her ability to articulate a working-class sentimiento (sentiment and sentience) through song and through the breathtaking visual spectacle of her flashy hand-sequined, hand-beaded performance attire whose symbolic designs announced her ancient cultural roots in the Americas.” Lydia became known as “La Alondra de la Frontera” (“The Meadowlark of the Border”) and “La Cancionera de los Pobres” (“Songstress of the Poor”). She learned to play the 12-string guitar and accompany herself, and in 1934, she made her first solo recording, “Mal Hombre,” which was added to the National Recording Registry in 2010. As a result of her many successful recordings, Lydia became the first interpreter of rural popular Tejano and border music to become a star and was called the “Queen of Tejano.” She was honored in the inaugural class of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellows in 1982 and received the National Medal for the Arts in 1999.

Las Tesoros de San Antonio: Tejano Singers from San Antonio, Texas (DBM04326)

This talking book features a conversation with two 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellows, Beatriz “La Paloma del Norte” Llamas and Blanquita “Blanca Rosa” Rodríguez, accompanied by music from Mariachi Esperanza in the Coolidge Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress on September 18, 2019, as part of the Homegrown concert series sponsored by the American Folklife Center. Llamas and Rodríguez are members of a group of four women who, through the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas, collaborated in the 2000s to form Las Tesoros de San Antonio in order to preserve Mexican and Tejano cultural expressions through singing and storytelling. The other two members of the group were Janet “Perla Tapatia” Cortez and Rita “La Calandria” Vidaurri. All four women grew up in the Westside of San Antonio and had successful singing careers in the 1940s-1970s. Although Janet Cortez and Rita Vidaurri passed away in recent years, Llamas and Rodríguez continue to perform and maintain the legacy of the group. Each singer, with her personal style and grace, forms part of this unique ensemble that represents the sound of the Mexico/Texas border. They are inspired by and connected to many other important Tejana singers, including Lydia Mendoza and Eva Garza.

All of our materials on BARD are also available on digital cartridge or in hard copy as braille music. If you prefer to borrow the materials listed below through the mail, please contact the NLS Music Section. You can call us at 1-800-424-8567, or e-mail us at [email protected]

If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

To learn more about Tejano music and other music of the Texas-Mexico border, check out the following talking books:

Corridos: Contemporary Chicano Music (DBM01023)

Corridos: A Mexican Ballad Tradition about Outlaws & Heroes. Juan Dies presents an illustrated lecture on the corrido, a 150-year-old Mexican ballad tradition that narrates tragic tales based on true events and honors folk heroes. (DBM04308)

Juanita González ; Santiago and Flaco Jiménez. This program includes an interview with Mexican folk song collector Juanita González and musicians Santiago and Flaco Jiménez. (DBM01025)

Mariachi Music: El Vaquero (DBM01072)

Narciso Martínez ; Lydia Mendoza (DBM01024)

Songs of the Mexican Border. Program of the Mexican border music, a blend of Anglo and Latino cultures (DBM00049)

Las Tesoros de San Antonio: Tejano Singers from San Antonio, Texas (DBM04326)

More resources from the Library of Congress:

Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month: Exploring and Celebrating Our Diversity

With talking books from the NLS Music Section, you can celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at any time of year! Check out the new music appreciation books and music lessons we have to offer!