Born on May 21, 1916, in Houston, TX; grew up partly in Monterrey, Mexico; married Juan Alvarado (a shoemaker), 1935 (died 1961); married Fred Martínez (a shoemaker), 1964; children: (first marriage) three. Addresses: Home--Houston, TX. Record company--Arhoolie Records, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530-3123.
One of the first real vocal stars in Mexican-American music, Lydia Mendoza was a pioneer in another way as well: she was a woman in a man's world. "It's more difficult to build a career like I did for a woman than for a man," Mendoza recalled in the book, Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography. Mendoza's career lasted from the late 1920s through the 1980s, and her music embodied much of the odyssey Mexican Americans traveled in the twentieth century. She made over 1,200 recordings, and they spread her fame far beyond the Mexican neighborhoods in Texas where her music was born. Known as "La alondra de la frontera" or, "The Lark of the Border," Mendoza thrilled listeners everywhere with her passionate, despairing songs of two-timing men and love gone irrevocably wrong.
The second of eight children, Mendoza was born in Houston, Texas, on May 21, 1916. Her family came from northern Mexico, and they moved back and forth between Monterrey, Mexico, and south Texas several times during Lydia's childhood, as her father, Francisco, took jobs with the Mexican national railroad and with the Carta Blanca brewery. At the border, Mendoza later recalled, Americans, who were convinced that all Mexicans had head lice, poured gasoline in her hair. Mendoza's father was a music lover who admired opera singer Enrico Caruso, and her mother and maternal grandmother both played the guitar. When Mendoza was four she began to emulate them, creating her own guitar by nailing rubber bands into a plank of wood to make her own instrument.
Learned Song from Gum Wrapper
Mendoza was still a girl in Monterrey when she learned the song that would become her signature number for much of her career. She was in the habit of collecting chewing gum wrappers that had song lyrics printed on them, and when her father took her to a concert in Monterrey she was able to put a tune to a set of lyrics she liked called "Mal hombre." The family would eventually began performing as La Familia Mendoza in the late 1920s, with Lydia on mandolin, passing the hat in restaurants and shops up and down the border until they had saved enough money to reestablish themselves permanently in the United States in 1927.
As Mendoza's father's health worsened, the family began to rely more and more on music for their income. In 1928 Francisco Mendoza spotted an advertisement in a San Antonio newspaper stating that the New York-based OKeh recording company hoped to record Spanish-language musicians. The $140 the newly christened Cuarteto Carta Blanca was paid for recording 20 songs came as a godsend--however exploitative such a payment might seem today. Even though the Mendozas were now recording artists, they still traveled to find work when possible. When they got word of profitable farm work in Michigan they quickly relocated and spent several years working and performing in small restaurants in Pontiac and Detroit.
Back in Texas after the Great Depression dried up Michigan's prosperity, the Mendozas began performing at an outdoor market in San Antonio called La Plaza de Zacate. Around 1934 the host of the San Antonio Spanish-language radio program "La voz latina" was eating dinner in the plaza area and heard Lydia, who by that point was the groups lead vocalist, singing. He invited her to sing on the radio, but the family initially refused to give her time off from what was then their main source of income. After Lydia sang two songs, the station was deluged with calls asking for her return. The manufacturer of a local vitamin drink called Tónico Ferro-Vitamina agreed to sponsor her appearances for three dollars and fifty cents a week, and Lydia Mendoza was on her way to success.
Feared Records Would Cut Demand
Word of her popularity reached Victor Records executive Eli Oberstein, who had spearheaded an effort to record and market the music of working-class Americans and had sent engineers around the country to make recordings of popular local groups. In 1934 La Familia Mendoza cut six sides at a studio Victor had set up in a small San Antonio hotel. Lydia made six more recordings as a solo vocalist. Again Mendoza was reluctant to record. "Who is going to come to hear me if they already have the record?" she recalled wondering in Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography. Her fears were quickly dissipated as her recordings, released on Victor's Bluebird subsidiary, spread her fame far and wide. "Mal hombre" eventually became a song known in much of the Spanish-speaking Americas, and the Mendoza family became a guaranteed draw at small theaters and variety shows wherever Mexican Americans were found in the western United States.
Mendoza married a San Antonio shoemaker, Juan Alvarado, in 1935; at first Alvarado, pressured by his family, opposed Mendoza's musical career, but the rapidly-growing income from her performances convinced him to set his objections aside. Mendoza, accompanied by her guitar and sometimes in combination with other family members or other musicians, recorded over 220 songs between 1934 and 1940 in San Antonio. Many of them were works she composed herself. She also made several recordings in Monterrey for Victor's Mexican arm. Her name was often spelled "Lidya" on recordings and posters. It was during this period that Mendoza became known as "La alondra de la frontera," although she was unable to recall who coined the term.
Having three daughters did not slow Mendoza down, but the rationing of gasoline during World War II put an end to the family's touring. The Mendoza family re-formed itself as a performing organization after the war, however, and a fresh new wave of Lydia Mendoza recordings began to appear. Although fashions in tejano music had begun to change as more elaborate backing groups began to replace the small string ensembles of her younger days, Mendoza remained as beloved as ever. The family group finally dissolved in 1952 with the marriage of Mendoza's younger sister María (who had performed with another sister, Juanita, as Las Hermanas Mendoza) and the death of Mendoza's mother.
Married Second Shoemaker
But Mendoza herself soldiered on as a solo act into the 1980s, making hundreds of records for an enormous variety of small south Texas labels including Azteca, Ideal, Falcón, Imperial, DLB, and Columbia México. Her backing musicians included conjunto groups, mariachi bands, and electric guitars as well as, on occasion, her own guitar. She toured widely through Texas, the Southwest, and even in South America. While a few collections of her work exist, her music of this period remains largely unexplored by historians. Mendoza's husband died in 1961, and she married another shoemaker, Fred Martínez, three years later.
Awareness of Mendoza's importance spread beyond the Latin American community when she was discovered by Chris Strachwitz, a German-born California record collector and the owner of the folk-oriented Arhoolie label. Strachwitz issued several LP compilations of Mendoza's early work, recorded new material by Mendoza in the 1980s, and, Mendoza recalled, played records she had made in her younger days but never actually had the chance to hear. In the 1970s and 1980s Mendoza performed at several large festivals of traditional music, and in 1979 she was featured in the seminal documentary Chulas Fronteras. In 1984 she received the National Heritage Award.
Mendoza made Houston her home base and finally retired from performing in 1988. Historians began to recognize how much she had to tell, not only about the history of Mexican-American music in Texas, but also about the experience of Mexican Americans in general. She and other members told their story to Strachwitz in the 1980s and early 1990s; the book that resulted was Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography in 1993. Another autobiographical narrative, Lydia Mendoza's Life in Music, was published by the Oxford University Press in 2003. In 1999 Lydia Mendoza was named the Texas Voice of the Century by Texas Monthly magazine, edging out country vocalist George Jones. Writer Joe Nick Patoski called Mendoza "the greatest Mexican American female performer ever to grace a stage."
by James M. Manheim
Lydia Mendoza's Career
Singer, 1927-1988; recorded over 1,200 singles and albuma with numerous south TX labels; performed with La Familia Mendoza, 1927-40, 1945-1952; solo career, 1934-1988; featured in film Chulas Fronteras, 1979.
Lydia Mendoza's Awards
National Heritage Award, 1984.
- Selected discography
- La Gloria de Texas Arhoolie, 1981.
- Mal Hombre and Other Original Hits Arhoolie, 1992.
- First Queen of Tejano Music Arhoolie, 1996.
- Vida Mia: 1934-1939 Arhoolie, 1999.
- La Alondra de la Frontera: Live Arhoolie, 2001.
- Texas-Mexican Border Music, Vols. 15 & 16 Arhoolie.
- Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
- Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale, 1993.
- Strachwitz, Chris, and James Nicopulos, compilers, Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography, Arte Público Press, 1993.
- Texas Monthly, December, 1999, p. 142.
- "Lydia Mendoza," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 20, 2005).