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Lydia Motion

Lydia Mendoza
Photo: courtesy of the Arhoolie Foundation
What the 78s' success did guarantee was road work: Lydia and her family began touring constantly, playing to an adoring public. There was no circuit so they'd play in church halls, tents, deserted buildings, wherever it was possible to hold a concert. Her mother, brothers and sisters would put on a variety show involving music and comedy, so warming the audience up for the evening's star. Lydia would come on and perform solo to huge applause. By 1936 Lydia was mother to a baby girl and managed by Antonio Montes who set the family touring Texas. Francisco's alcoholism was worsening so Montes banned him from coming on tour, paying him to stay in San Antonio and drink. For all his faults, Francisco Mendoza must be seen as a figure comparable to A.P. Carter, a belligerent male force who helped focus the family's female energy until it was creating startling music. Yet by the mid-1930s, when Lydia was the biggest Mexican-American star going, he was an alcoholic anchor.

"Your dad," I say to Lydia, "he was a handful." She nods, reflects on the past and mentions that it was Mama Lenor who taught them how to make music when they were children. "Grandad was quite a character," adds Yolanda. It was during Lydia's first flush of fame that she attracted two nicknames forever linked to her: 'La Alondra de la Frontera' (The Meadowlark Of The Border) and 'La Cancionera de los Pobres' (The Songstress Of The Poor). Both titles fit perfectly as Lydia sang with incredible gusto, the beauty of her voice given an emotional temper by the desperate poverty and hunger that shaped the first 17 years of her existence. In concert she mixed songs from Argentina, Cuba, Colombia and Spain with her vast repertoire of Mexican rancheras, corridos, boleros, huapangos and canciones, along with several of her own compositions. And as Mexican border radio stations began broadcasting Lydia - one even had a woman pretending to be Lydia making announcements! - her fame grew.

Why, I enquire, does she believe she became the first Mexican American singing star? Lydia looks at me as if making a silent judgement, then says, "Whether I was singing a bolero or a waltz or a polka it didn't matter. When I sang, I sang it so it felt like I was living that song. I felt what I was singing. Every song I ever sang I did with the feeling that I was living that song."

Songs of heartbreak and hunger, songs of bad men and unfaithful women, of heroes of the Mexican revolution and those Anglos across the border who treated Mexicans with such contempt, Lydia sang the blues for a Chicano populace who couldn't return home yet were considered as little more than cheap labour - 'bean eaters' - by Anglo Americans. No Statue Of Liberty welcomed these tired masses as they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, instead their experiences largely consisted of poverty, exploitation, humiliation, abuse. Lydia's not the type to complain about past injustice but it's worth noting that both her father and first husband drank themselves into early graves.


This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005

 

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