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Lydia Motion

By 1936 Lydia was touring Colorado, Arizona and California, not just a star but a beacon to all Chicanos, that no matter how humble their situation they had a culture worth celebrating. Yet getting theatres was difficult - Anglo managers initially refused to book Mexican acts and segregation against Mexicans was comparable to that against African Americans: time and again they were refused hotel rooms, refused restaurant service. "No Dogs Or Mexicans Allowed" read an omnipresent sign in shop windows and on camping ground gates. Lydia and family resolved this difficulty by travelling with cooking equipment, camping or staying in Catholic church halls, preparing all the required food. In her autobiography, Lydia recalls hotel owners mistaking the family for Gypsies and saying, "Oh no! No Gypsies here!" My curiosity about all things Romani finds me asking if she often encountered actual Gypsy families. Lydia simply replies that her mother had Italian blood and a sharp nose so perhaps resembled a Gypsy.

Life on the road charges many tolls and in 1936 Lydia's husband insisted on driving back from Houston to San Antonio on a winter night. The car missed a bend, skidded, flipped and inflicted such serious injuries on Lydia's teenage sister Panchita that she would die two years later, never having fully recovered. Indeed, reading A Family Autobiography, racism and car crashes are two constants: once when rushing to a concert in Nebraska the car crashed, Lydia was taken to hospital, had her head bandaged, literally ran to the theatre and played the gig. "Things are better today," says Lydia when I ask her how she finds 21st century USA. "Today we have so many good highways and it's so easy to get around. Back in the 1930s driving long distances was always very difficult."

Lydia retired over the war years - petrol and tyres were rationed and thus touring ended - to raise her daughters. Yolanda recalls Lydia being, "A great mom, always there for us and very affectionate. She was a housewife and in her spare time she was always happy to sit down and play her guitar and sing."

In 1947 Ramiro Cortes, a Mexican-American entrepreneur, persuaded Lydia to go on the road again. Much to her surprise she was still capable of packing venues. The audience was also surprised - many had mistaken Panchita's passing for that of Lydia, so watched with slack jaws as "the ghost" took the stage and began singing, as beautifully as ever. In Los Angeles her return was such an event that thousands of Chicanos mobbed the theatre, necessitating the police and fire brigade being called out to clear the street. She now took her daughters with her and from then on every time they had summer holidays the family would hit the road.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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