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Lydia Motion

"Well, with that three-fifty, we felt like millionaires," recalled Lydia in A Family Autobiography. "Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent. Because to get the rent together, which was one dollar and twenty-five cents a week, we had to play... two days. We had to play Saturday and Sunday to put together the rent. And sometimes we didn't even get it together. Now with three-fifty, we had the rent for sure."

The rise in the family's fortunes didn't initially make things much easier for Lydia and her siblings. "From 1927 to 1933 we didn't have any novelties; we were just striving for life and working to make a living; sometimes better, sometimes worse. Encountering a lot of calamities, that was our life. And I say that it was my life, because I didn't know what parties or friends were. There was nothing to make my years happy. I didn't have clothes. We didn't have anything, and as I was growing up, reaching a certain age, well, I would look at the other girls, all so neat, and I didn't have anything like that. I didn't rebel against my situation, but it did give me sadness that I couldn't enjoy life like other girls. But it was impossible. It was nothing but working in order to live. That is the reason that I had so little gaiety in my youth, just bitterness and sadness."

The Great Depression was in full effect across these years and Francisco's refusal to seek work meant the family were dependent on the teenage Lydia for all income. In 1932, as Lydia's popularity rose, Manuel Cortez insisted she stop singing in the Plaza, booking her and the family group into restaurants, tent shows and talent contests (which Lydia easily won). Cortez helped Lydia reach out to a wider public yet at the same time he grew wealthy on the income she generated while the Mendozas remained poor.

In 1934, Blue Bird Records came to San Antonio and set up auditioning/ recording local talent in The Texas Hotel. Lydia was asked to record four songs. Everything was done in one take and she was paid $15 a song. Lydia thought little of it until two months later when a 78 of Mal Hombre and Al Pie de tu Reja was released. Mal Hombre was immediately a huge hit amongst the local Mexican community and Blue Bird Records offered to sign Lydia to a contract guaranteeing royalties. Papa Francisco made the biggest mistake of his life when he refused royalties, saying Blue Bird should pay him cash for each song Lydia recorded. Blue Bird offered the princely sum of $40 per two songs recorded and later had Lydia and her husband - she married in 1935 - sign a new contract which stated (in English) that all royalties due to her would go to a Blue Bird employee. Lydia's family possessed little understanding of how the entertainment industry worked and were thus fleeced for tens of thousands of dollars over the next six years: at the end of 1935 she received a demand from the Inland Revenue for 30,000 dollars in taxes due to all the records she had sold!

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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