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Tejana Legends

A look at Tejana music pioneers – radical in their time – and the path they paved for Selena and others

"La Reina de Tejano"

When Consuelo "Chelo" Silva, born in 1922, was a little girl, she stood on a soapbox outside a cantina in her hometown of Brownsville, Texas, pretending she was the singer that the audience was listening to so raptly. In the school choir, the teacher always placed her back in the second or third row — her voice, she was told, overpowered those of the other children.

Silva longed to be the center of attention. Perhaps because they needed the money to support a family of seven children, Silva's parents bucked the taboo against women singing in public and allowed her to perform when she was in her teens. In the 1930s, she sang at clubs, at church and with the local Tito Crixell Orchestra.

The whiskey-voiced cabaret singer performed throughout the Western Hemisphere songs such as "Imploración" and "Soy Bohemia," which she sang with Mexican superstars such as Vicente Fernández. She signed her first recording contract at age 30.

She had two turbulent marriages, both damaged by her infidelity — one to famous folklorist Américo Paredes, and a short-lived one with the owner of a nightclub. Both husbands furthered her career — her first radio appearance was on a show hosted by Paredes. She and Paredes would travel to border radio station XERF in Villa Acuña, Mexico, across from Del Rio, Texas. That station, where disc jockey Wolfman Jack became famous, had a signal far more powerful than those allowed in the United States. Amateur and professional singers simply dropped in and performed.

Silva was a rebel in her personal and professional life. Her frank and sensual approach might have shocked her contemporaries, but she has inspired Clemencia Zapata. "Just listen to these words of hers," says Zapata. "'I've never been an open book, but for you I am/Fill my pages/Escríbeme.' Whew. That's hot."

Peter Gonzales Falcón, who has acted in many international films, recalls meeting Silva when he visited the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles. "Chelo had this blond bouffant hairdo, a comfortable dress and was drinking liquor; I forget what her drink was. She was onstage, in her flip-flops. She was surrounded by young men. She would motion to them and say, 'Vené, mis hijos! Todos son mis boyfriends!' I said to her assistant. 'She's just joking, right?' Her assistant laughed and said, 'No.'"

That rather naughty reputation follows her, even years after her death in 1988. When a website recently ran the poem "Bohemian Rhapsodies" by Rose Canales Pérez lauding the "Queen of Tejano," it was sharply criticized for publishing a poem praising her. How can you praise a woman of such poor repute, people said.

Next: Rosita Fernández as "La Rosa de San Antonio." >>

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