Recognized by her soulful voice accompanied by her signature 12-string guitar, Lydia Mendoza was known not only for her performances, but for the way she pushed the boundaries of music for women of her time. In a career that lasted 50 years, Mendoza was recognized as a pioneer of the Tejano music movement. In the first six years of her career, she recorded more than 200 songs, popularizing Mexican-American music for a wide audience.
Named the "greatest Mexican-American female performer ever to grace a stage" by Texas Monthly magazine in 1999 (as quoted in her Los Angeles Times obituary), Mendoza was the recipient of a National Medal of Arts and a National Heritage Award. She was celebrated by the Tejano Music Awards, Tejano Conjunto Festival, and inducted into the Texas Women hall of fame. "She was a rebel, in that she did what no other woman artist singer had done before her; that is, she sang about the 'machismo' culture in a way that set the course for many women today," Lupe Saenez, president of the South Texas Conjunto Association, told the Los Angeles Times.
The child of Mexican immigrants, Mendoza was born in Texas in 1916. As a child, she was surrounded by music; at four years old, she attempted to make her own guitar. Cobbled together out of a plank of wood, nails, and rubber bands, the toy made enough sound to make Mendoza happy. By the age of 12, she had learned to play the 12-string guitar, and she learned both violin and mandolin.
Mendoza's family moved back and forth between Mexico and Texas as Mendoza's father looked for jobs. He worked primarily as a railroad mechanic, but when he became too ill to work, Mendoza, her parents, and her sister began to sing on the streets and in restaurants to earn a living. Encouraged by their talents, in 1928 Mendoza's father answered an advertisement from a New York record company looking for Spanish-language musicians. They were paid $140 to record 20 songs in the Blue Bonnett Hotel, calling themselves Cuarteto Carta Blanca after a Monterrey, Mexico, brewery.
For the next several years, the Mendozas lived in San Antonio, performing in restaurants and cantinas, as well as grocery stores and parks. At a performance in Plaza del Zacate, Mendoza charmed the owner of a local radio station and was soon given a weekly slot. She earned $3.50 a week and was offered a recording contract with Bluebird. She toured with her family, continuing to appear in cantinas, often singing solo while her siblings performed variety act numbers. In 1934 her song "Mal Hombre," which means "Evil Man," became a hit in both the United States and Mexico. She continued to tour with her family until World War II, and her recordings increased her popularity with such numbers as "La Valentina" and "Angel de Mis Anhelos."
In 1947, Mendoza and her family returned to touring, but in 1952, one of her siblings got married and her mother died, ending the performances as a family. Mendoza continued to produce records and tour on her own, on both sides of the border, as well as in Cuba and Columbia. As her popularity increased, she received the nicknames "La Alondra de la Frontera," which means "Lark of the Border," as well as "La Cancionera de los Pobres," which means "Singer of the Poor." Her style and content resonated strongly with Mexican-American workers, who often suffered prejudice and discrimination. Mendoza took what was best from both sides of the border and used that in her music. "For Mexicans and Mexican-American communities, the border in those days was a meeting place, not a dividing place, and [Mendoza] reflected those conjoined worlds," folklorist Pat Jasper said in the Washington Post.
In the 1960s, Mendoza moved to Houston with her second husband where she became a regular at small nightclubs in the area. Her songs, drawn from nearly 100 years of Mexican-American traditional music, attracted a more diverse crowd as Mendoza made appearances at folk festivals and on university campuses. Her repertoire included more than 1,200 songs.
By the end of her career, Mendoza had recorded more than 800 songs on more than 50 albums for record companies including RCA, Columbia, Azteca, Peerless, El Zarape, and Discos Falcon. She was asked to sing for Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration in 1977, and was invited back to the White House to receive the National Medal of the Arts in 1999. At that presentation, she was on stage alongside Motown star Aretha Franklin, and was praised by President Bill Clinton as "the first rural American woman performer to garner a large following throughout Latin America," according to the New York Times.
Though her height of popularity occurred in the 1950s, Mendoza continued performing until she was forced to retire in 1988 due to a series of strokes. She died on December 20, 2007, at the age of 91. She is survived by her daughter, 13 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
Born May 21, 1916, in Houston, TX; died of natural causes, December 20, 2007, in San Antonio, TX. Singer.
- Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2007, p. B10;
- New York Times, December 24, 2007, p. A16;
- Times (London), January 3, 2008, p. 58;
- Washington Post, December 25, 2007, p. B5.