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Lydia Motion

"I remember us all travelling together," says Yolanda. "It was a great experience, a way to see parts of the country that we might normally have never seen. Back then there was still quite a lot of discrimination, it wasn't always easy. The whole Mendoza family were travelling in a big caravan and often playing in theatres that would show a movie then be followed by the stage show. Good times."

In 1947 Lydia began recording for Azteca, finally on a label that paid artist royalties. Lydia recorded and toured regularly, her existence now much less difficult. Not that Lydia remained faithful to Azteca; like John Lee Hooker she recorded for whomever offered cash for tunes. I've not heard all these recordings but the Arhoolie CD First Queen Of Tejano Music captures Lydia's exceptional 1950-64 recordings for Ideal Records. Ideal paired her with Tony de la Rosa and Orquesta de Beto Villa, so creating a richer tejano sound that appealed to the varied tastes of the US's burgeoning Spanish-speaking population. Yet in concert it remained only Lydia and her 12-string guitar, the border lark, who continued to mesmerise audiences.

Lydia's popularity had spread throughout Latin America yet Ramiro Cortes initially ignored all offers to cross the border. Then, in 1950, a Mexican promoter, frustrated by Cortes's refusal to bring Lydia, sent him $5000 for two Lydia concerts. This was more than Lydia could ever earn in the US, so Cortes and Lydia went down to Chihuahua where she was welcomed as a superstar, playing to 20,000 fans a night. Regular tours of Mexico followed: when she first played Mexico City, Lydia recalls the promoters insisting that a woman with a guitar was not enough to play to a sophisticated urban audience and made a mariachi troupe stand on stage with her. Flanked by mariachis she played the opening notes of Mal Hombre on her guitar and saw the audience go ballistic. For the rest of the week the mariachis had nothing to do but stand in the shadows. She began recording for Columbia Records' Mexican branch and appearing in Mexican films. She also ended up playing for a month in Medellin, Colombia, to equally popular response, although Lydia claims she didn't enjoy the experience. "I didn't like Medellin even though I was made very welcome there. I thought it was a very rough city and after that visit they used to call me to come back again but I refused. 'No thank you' I would say."

Lydia's husband died in 1961 and upon being offered a theatre contract she shifted to Denver for two years. Here she met her next husband and, upon the contract's expiry, they relocated to San Antonio. She continued to record throughout the 1960s - including a Christmas album! - and tour the US ("even Alaska!") and Mexico. The Arhoolie albums and Chulas Fronteras introduced Lydia to both a younger Chicano audience and folk/ roots music fans. This led to her being employed as a music teacher at Fresno University, California. "They would take me into the classroom and get me to sing a few songs and tell the students about my life."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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