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Lydia Motion

Back in The Esquire the mariachis are still sending lush Mexican ballads towards the carved wooden ceiling. Everyone's having a good time, even the bar's security guard, who's keeping an eye on some heavily tattooed, tequila-slamming patrons, a 9mm pistol prominent on his hip. As noted, this bar is straight outta Peckinpah and Ford's Wild South West cinema. I order more beer and reflect on this rarest of days, one where you actually encountered a musical legend, a pioneer of tejano song. There have been many highs in my two decades plus of writing on music but few equal that of meeting Lydia Mendoza.

The interview took place earlier in the afternoon at a nursing home in San Antonio's suburbs where Lydia now resides. Lydia suffered a stroke in 1988 and since then has experienced five heart bypasses, broken both hips and a leg and, earlier this year, experienced a hernia. Which is to say that when I meet the pale, silver-haired woman in a wheelchair, she doesn't resemble the Lydia I'm familiar with from CD sleeves and Chulas Fronteras. At 87 years of age Lydia Mendoza is confined to a wheelchair, very thin, the wide smile and laughter that once accompanied her every gesture now silenced. Yet wrapped in a black shawl, her eyes huge, dark and brooding, rouge on her cheeks, gold rings on fingers, there's no question that she remains a Mexican matriarch, a Chicano queen. Lydia's daughter Yolanda Hernandez and her husband Ricardo are there to help with the interview because Lydia, although having lived her entire life in the US, has never learnt to speak English.

"The doctors are surprised that Lydia has healed so fast," says Yolanda of Lydia's recent hernia operation. "I put it down to her cooking with a lot of garlic and chilli." While Lydia retains her health she's now too fragile to make music. Does she, I enquire without much sagacity, miss making music? "That's why I'm dying here because I miss my music so much," is the blunt reply. I then mention that Kell Robertson, a 76-year-old cowboy poet I encountered in New Mexico, recalled seeing Lydia in concert in the 1940s. "She was playing in Texas, on stage with her guitar, spellbinding and very beautiful," said Kell. I recite this to Lydia and she says, "Where is he now then when I need him?" Hey, she's lost her strength but not her sense of humour. Lydia pulls her shawl tighter and looks directly at me, eyes that have seen so much, experienced an America constantly reinventing itself, as if to say, "Music is what brings you, the strange gringo, to me. My music".

Music, I think it's fair to say, literally saved Lydia Mendoza's life. Without music she and her family - revolution-torn Mexico behind, ruthlessly capitalist America in front - would have been destitute, perhaps starved. Born in Houston in 1916 to Mexican immigrant parents fleeing the ravages of civil-war-torn Mexico, Lydia grew up with little but music to look forward to. Her formidable mother, Lenor Mendoza, taught all her six children to play musical instruments while her father, Francisco Mendoza, disillusioned by life's disappointments and the discrimination he experienced in the US, turned to drink, forcing his young family to earn money by playing on the streets while regularly beating Lenor. All this is vividly documented in the superb 1993 oral autobiography Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography (Arte Publico Press) that Chris Strachwitz and James Nicolopulos compiled by talking to Lydia and her brothers and sisters. Back then the family regularly moved between the northern industrial Mexican city of Monterey and Texas - border controls were not what they are now - with Francisco relentlessly changing jobs and cities.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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