Tejano Music Trailblazer Lydia Mendoza, 91

Lydia Mendoza, known as
Lydia Mendoza, known as "the lark of the border," sang at Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration. (By Delcia Lopez -- Associated Press)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lydia Mendoza, 91, a trailblazing Mexican American singer whose powerful and affecting performances earned her the title "the lark of the border," died Dec. 20 at Nix Medical Center in San Antonio. Her death was the result of injuries from a fall the day after Thanksgiving, a granddaughter said. She also had suffered a series of strokes over the years.

In a career that spanned almost 60 years, Ms. Mendoza recorded more than 800 songs on more than 50 albums and received a National Medal of Arts and a National Heritage Fellowship award. She also sang at Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration.

"La alondra de la frontera" (the lark of the border) also was known to fans as "la cancionera de los pobres" (singer of the poor). Her music reflected the trials and daily toil, as well as the joys and hard-won happiness, that was the lot of poor and working-class Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

Women in particular responded to such perennial favorites as "Mal Hombre" ("Evil Man"), a tango she first recorded when she was 17.

"She was singing as a woman at a time when women of her color, class and race weren't singing," said Graciela S¿nchez of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio.

"Every third or fourth woman of a certain age in South Texas was named Lydia, after Lydia Mendoza," said Pat Jasper, a Texas folklorist and guest curator at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. "She was an incredibly powerful figure."

Ms. Mendoza was born in Houston in 1916 to a musical family. Her mother, who sang traditional songs she had learned growing up in San Luis Potos¿, Mexico, taught her to play guitar, and Ms. Mendoza eventually would make the 12-string guitar her signature instrument.

The Mendoza family moved frequently, living in border towns and in Houston, Detroit and Monterrey, Mexico, where, as a child, she bought penny-a-piece bubble gum and discovered song lyrics inside the wrapper. Soon she had collected 20 gum-wrapper songs. She memorized the lyrics but didn't know any of the melodies until she heard "Mal Hombre" sung onstage. It wasn't long before the 10-year-old was warbling, "Evil man, your soul is so vile it has no name. You are despicable, you are evil, you are an evil man."

In 1927, when Ms. Mendoza's father lost his job as a railroad mechanic, the family members began to play music on the streets of border towns in South Texas. The next year, they responded to a classified ad in La Prensa, San Antonio's Spanish-language newspaper, for Spanish-speaking singers and musicians to make recordings.

The family christened itself Cuarteto Carta Blanca -- after the Monterrey brewery where the parents were working when they met -- and recorded 20 songs for the Okeh record company. The Mendozas made $140 for the 10 double-sided records.

Settling in San Antonio in 1932, the Mendozas performed in cantinas, neighborhood grocery stores and in La Plaza del Zacate (now Milam Park downtown), where other musical acts and the savory stew dished up by "the chili queens" always attracted a crowd. The family also toured as part of traveling tent shows throughout the borderlands.

By then Ms. Mendoza was performing solo, and in 1933 she recorded her first song -- "Mal Hombre" on the RCA imprint Bluebird. Many hits followed, including "La Valentina" and "Angel de Mis Anhelos."

More records and regular appearances on border radio made her the best-known songstress of her time, on both sides of the Rio Grande. She also toured on both sides of the border.

"For Mexicans and Mexican American communities, the border in those days was a meeting place, not a dividing place, and she reflected those conjoined worlds," said Jasper, the folklorist.

She continued to perform and record in both countries for the next four decades, as well as in Colombia and Cuba. Moving to Houston in 1964, she began to attract a more diverse following by playing at folk festivals, on university campuses and in small nightclubs.

In 1982, she became one of the first recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her distinctive voice was silenced in the late 1980s, when she suffered the first of several strokes.

Her first husband, Juan Alvarado, died in 1961. Her second husband, Fred Martinez, died in 1999.

Survivors include a daughter, 13 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company