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Lydia Motion

In 1927 the family dedicated themselves to music full-time: Mama Lenor played guitar, Papa Francisco played tambourine, Lydia played violin, a sister played mandolin and a brother played triangle. Living in the Rio Grande Valley they would shift from small town to small town, playing on the street, in restaurants, barbershops, anywhere for tips. When the harvest season was underway, the family would travel to the fields and serenade the workers with the popular Mexican folks songs and hits of the day. This existence meant Lydia and her siblings could never attend school. In 1928 an advertisement in La Prensa, a popular local paper, declared auditions were being held in San Antonio by Okeh Records. Francisco managed to convince a friend who owned a car to drive the family to San Antonio - a testing journey with the car suffering many flat tyres - for the audition.

Even then the 12-year-old's talent must have shone through, with Okeh hiring them to record 20 songs as Cuarteto Carta Blanca for $140. Before the records were even pressed, the family had left San Antonio for Detroit, looking for work picking sugar beets. Francisco quickly found the backbreaking work not to his liking yet, noting that most of the workers were Mexican, he got the family playing for pennies on the streets and camps. This proved to be a more profitable enterprise than harvesting sugar beets until - boom! - 1930 and the Great Depression kicked in. The family returned to San Antonio where, with a $5 gold coin won in a talent contest, they had just enough money to rent a house and furnish it. Immediately they started playing in San Antonio's Plaza del Zacate, the city's old public market.

"We finally got started here in San Antonio, in a huge open-air market," recalls Lydia. "In the evenings from midnight on, it was the market where all the produce trucks from the Valley and everywhere would arrive. This went on from midnight until about 10 or 11 am. Then around seven in the evening all the people who were going to sell food there would come in and set up restaurant tables. Each stand would set up its tables and sell chile con carne, enchiladas, tamales. There were a lot of them and there were a lot of groups singing there. It was around this time that I started to sing solo. I asked my mother to give me the guitar and I'd sing. People started to hear my voice and like it. That's how a radio announcer came to hear me."

The announcer, Manuel J Cortez, fronted San Antonio's only daily Spanish language programme - La Voz Latina, a half-hour show - and invited Lydia to sing on the programme. Lenor was initially reluctant to let Lydia go as it meant giving up valuable earning time in the Plaza but Lydia insisted. She sang two songs and returned to the Plaza. Back at the station the phone lines lit up. No wonder Lydia was a hit: her beautiful voice and fluid 12-string guitar playing suggested something new, Mexican folk song reshaped by the tumultuous USA she lived in. Indeed, Lydia was a sonic sponge: folk songs sung in the fields, ballads from parties, the latest hits on Mexican radio, absorbing and transforming all she heard. This, and the fact that she was a cherubic looking 16-year-old who bossed a big 12-string guitar with the ease of a veteran bluesman, made her irresistible. Yet before Mama Mendoza would let her leave the Plaza to sing on the radio show again she insisted Lydia get paid. Thus an advertising sponsor was found and Lydia sang two songs every night of the week for the sum of $3.50 a week.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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