"La Cancionera de los Pobres"
Lydia Mendoza learned to play the guitar on an instrument she fashioned from rubber bands and plywood. She memorized song lyrics, which at that time were printed on gum wrappers, then picked up the tunes from itinerant street musicians. Born in Houston in 1916, "La Cancionera de los Pobres" (singer of the poor) traveled with her parents between Monterrey, Mexico, and the fields of the Midwest. But they soon found they earned more playing music than picking beets.
A radio host discovered Mendoza when she was 18 and singing for tips with her family in San Antonio's lively Plaza del Zacate. She went on to cut the records that made her internationally famous — "El Tango Negro" and "Amor Bonito" among them — and lived long enough to perform at President Jimmy Carter's inauguration and receive the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1999.
"I saw Lydia when I was a little girl, in 1953," says Rosa Canales Pérez, 62, who left teaching at 51 and started a band that plays South Texas classics as well as her own compositions. "She stood in front of the red curtains and played solo. She played the 12-string guitar, which is my instrument. My middle name is Lydia, so I was fascinated by her."
The women of those times were pioneers, says Canales Pérez. "Tejano music to this day is pretty much a man's world."
Mendoza's husband, who repaired shoes for $7 a week in the 1940s, wanted her to end her career — until he realized the money she made would allow them to buy a car. Her in-laws never approved of her singing in public, Mendoza said during the taping of an oral history.
The popular Tejano songs of Mendoza's day were written and sung from a man's point of view and were often about women who cheated on their men, recalls Austin's Clemencia Zapata, 56, a singer and drummer in the band Conjunto Aztlan. "And then Lydia came out with ´Mal Hombre´ (bad man)," she says, strumming an imaginary guitar and singing the first few lines. "She took a man's industry and grabbed it by the balls. She said, 'I have a life too. My experiences are worth talking about.' She spoke the truth, from her heart."