29 December 2007

Lydia Mendoza

They called Lydia Mendoza “The First Queen of Tejano Music,” but that’s over-qualifying what ought to be a very simple statement: she was the Queen of Texas. She has died now, at the age of 91, and I’m immensely sorry, for entirely selfish reasons. Not realizing that she was still alive, I didn’t seek out an opportunity to meet her. I came thisclose, years ago, at a ceremony for the Texas Walk of Fame, when my former boss, Dan Rather, got a star in the Austin sidewalk. Lydia Mendoza was also honored at the ceremony, but she didn’t attend; her daughter stood in her place.

I’d never heard of Mendoza before, but her story intrigued me. I went directly to the Tower Records near The University of Texas campus and bought a copy of Mal Hombre, a collection of her early recordings. The title track is perhaps her most famous, and surely one of her most evocative recordings, a lament for the “bad man” who done her wrong. She discovered the lyrics on a bubblegum wrapper, heard the song at a vaudeville show a short time later, and promptly made it her own.

In all those early recordings, her voice is thin and plaintive yet tough and sweet. She plays twelve-string guitar with virtuoso nimbleness; she started out with a violin, in a family act with her father and siblings, but she traded in the fiddle for the guitar, which freed her to sing. Many of her songs are solos, but sometimes she’s joined by her kids. Several of whom have serious pitch problems, but that’s part of the charm.

Listen to her music, and you will be transported to a Texas you probably never knew — it’s lodged deep in your subconscious. Air conditioning hasn’t been invented. You can hear the Texas heat. You can hear the poverty, too, and the sorrows of working women and the resilience of the state’s oppressed Mexican-Americans. So it’s a Great Depression? Mendoza’s folk have always been poor. Prosperity is something she’ll work for — work hard for — but for her kids and grandkids. She doesn’t expect it for herself.

Meanwhile, people — your neighbors — are doing terrible things to each other on a Lone Star scale. Yet Mendoza doesn’t sing of big social problems; she sings of personal problems, with an immediacy and candor that belie the sometimes over-the-top Latin melodrama of the lyrics. And all at once, even if your Spanish doesn’t rise above the Español de Cocina level (mine doesn’t), you understand what she’s talking about. It’s the stuff that connects us that matters to her.

I’m a gringo from the suburbs, and half her age. I haven’t experienced any of the things that marked Lydia Mendoza. She had a lot to teach me, and in conversation she might have told me about the record business at its most exploitative and least remunerative; she might have shared her recipes, which I’ve found represented on the Internet. Yet what she did teach me, and continues to teach me, is plenty. Her music carries me to a Texas that is bolder and richer and more ancient even than the state’s most ardent admirers can possibly imagine.