Lydia Mendoza Worship Guitars header Lydia Mendoza

A national treasure, the living legend, the queen of Tejano, la londra de la frontera - the lark of the border, Lydia Mendoza deserves a spot in any respectable c.d. collection. Her voice was the voice of immigrant labor in Texas during much of the first half of this century. It conveyed longing, desire, sadness, and rapture. Like Violeta Parra or the Carter Family, Lydia Mendoza's voice defines another place and time. " We were playing for the workers."

Ms. Mendoza presently lives in a white, corner lot bungalow in the Houston Heights. From its modest exterior you would be hard pressed to discern that it was occupied by a Texas legend. The interior also gives little indication of its host's importance aside from a few framed photographs of her famous past. Mostly, it looks like your tia's house. Jesus, knick-knacks, avocado green carpet and faux gilded fixtures.

Professional is the way to describe Lydia Mendoza. She greets us at the door in her PR best. A lovely stage dress, rouged cheeks and lips, her face freshly powdered. She was not only doing an interview, but she was making an appearance.

A one time sitting with Ms. Mendoza is tough. Abstract musical questions are almost laughed off. When we ask her what the purpose of music is, she gave a surprised grin that masked alarm, like asking an evangelist if the devil existed. We try to rephrase it and she shakes her head and replies "Music is for celebration and enjoyment."


Being a musician in Mexican culture is a well respected profession. And so it was for the Mendoza family. It was a living. Sadly, though Mendoza's musical career is a thing of the past: "I suffered a stroke a few years ago which has taken away my ability to sing and has prevented me from playing my guitar." Her public still wants her presence though. "I am occasionally asked to do presentations or speak to groups of children but no more music."

Most people would agree that, back in the 30's and 40's, life in Texas was tough for Mexican-Americans but Ms. Mendoza is downright chipper, if not sometimes evasive, when posed with questions regarding any hardships she or her family endured.

This makes for some perplexing responses.

WG: Did you ever experience racism on the road?

Mendoza: Oh no. We never had any problem with white people.

Well of course not directly. The book Lydia Mendoza: a Family Autobiography (Arte Publico Press) paints a slightly different story. Mendoza, herself, here states that they avoided discrimination by "cooking our own food, staying out of restaurants…staying in people's homes or in tourist courts where we could cook for ourselves."(p.141)

Manuel Mendoza (her brother) recalls Levelland in West Texas.

"that place was so famous for its discrimination that Arturo Ortiz even wrote a corrido about it during the war [WW2]. Something happened to us there when we came back from the Service. I don't even like to think about it. It's just something that happened, and I want to erase it from my mind. I hate to think back about how they treated people in places like that. But it's part of our history….There was [even] a restaurant in Levelland that had a sign right next on the door: "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed."(P.267)

When we asked her about having been taken advantage of by record companies Mendoza replies "I can't say that I was ever taken advantage of because my father took care of all our business arrangements for myself and the family."

This is only partially true. There was one incident where two unscrupulous people from Blue Bird left the company with a substantial chunk of Mendoza's royalty money from her hit "Mal Hombre." This became even more of a problem when the IRS came looking for it's share of that money. But Blue Bird patched things up with the IRS when the situation was made known to them. After that incident Mendoza pretty much stayed away from royalties and instead made sure she was paid an up front flat fee per recording.

La Familia Mendoza:
Lydia and Juanita
Manuel and Maria.

As for her father, Fransico Mendoza may have formed the early Mendoza family into the Cuarteto Carta Blanca (named after the beer when put on the spot by a record company) but he became less helpful, to be polite, as the years went on. Manuel J. Cortez who owned KCOR in San Antonio was the first to manage Mendoza's career and give her a weekly radio segment. This pulled Mendoza out of the Plaza Del Zacate, an outdoor plaza where musicians performed. But it was not until 1936 that the Mendoza family's career truly took off. That was when Antonio Montes began to mange the group. Lydia Mendoza recalls, "Of all the people who helped us during our career, Antonio Montes was the principal one…. When Montes joined up with us, we really didn't know what to do. My name was well known, but we had to fill out an entire show with something. Montes put together a complete {variedad} [similar to a vaudeville troupe]." (pp.107-109) For 6 years the family traveled successfully performing as a troupe. Their touring ended in 1942 by the Second World War which severely limited travel.

The few years from which Mendoza was out of the spotlight made for a hilarious problem when she returned to the stage in 1947. Ramiro Cortes tells the story:

"About that time, everybody had almost forgotten about her. Because the public thought that Lydia was the one killed in the car wreck that had caused the death of her sister Panchita. When I started to try to book her in theatres, nobody wanted to believe me. In Sonora, Arizona I was in the lobby when here comes and old woman and hit me on the head, blood came out and everything. I was taken to the hospital because she hit me with the handle of the umbrella."

'You should be ashamed! Bringing this woman to sing here, using the name of people who are already dead! Lydia Mendoza is in heaven now! And you bring somebody else here thinking you could get away with it! You should be ashamed!'

And she kept hitting me with the umbrella. I couldn't convince her; they took me away in an ambulance. On account of those five years she hid from people, things like that happened many times on that first tour in 1947." (PP. 159- 160)

Asked who her influences have been through the years she replies, "I never tried to emulate anyone. I always had my own style though I learned all about playing the guitar from my mother." And surely if anything held the Mendoza troupe together it was Leonor Mendoza. Upon her death in the 1952 not only did the troupe fall apart completely but, without Leonor, the success of Las Hermanas Mendoza (Lydia's sisters Juanita and Maria) was cut short by short sighted and jealous husbands.

Lydia Mendoza today

Lydia though continued touring by herself and even expanded her tours into Mexico and as far away as Columbia. In 1971 Mexico, not the United States, chose Mendoza to represent them in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life. She appeared at the Library of Congress in 1977 at the request of the American Folk Life center for the conference on "Ethnic Recordings in America." Furthermore she has been properly honored by many other appearances at the request of people who see her as a living legend and link to an American Heritage that many have forgotten.

When she is asked about the newer forms of Spanish Language Tex-Mex Mendoza seems less than exited. Her preference is for the older Conjunto with its emphasis on stringed instruments than on horns or the bane that is the inorganic sound of the synthesizer. She feels that people who go back and enjoy her and other folkloric music aren't having the same experience. "Oh, no it's not the same. This was music for the workers."

And while she's probably right on one level, it is still a joy to listen to the old recordings and important for people to make that leap to the past and realize that this music was and is an important part of the American experience.

Authors notes; suggested books and albums:

Our talk with Lydia Mendoza was done entirely in Spanish and translated to English for the purposes of this article.

We would like to encourage you all who are interested in getting the full story on Lydia Mendoza to pick up a copy of..

Lydia Mendoza: A family Autobiography
Compiled and introduced by Chris Strachwitz and James Nicolopulos
© 1993 by Chris Strachwitz and Lydia Mendoza
On Arte Publico Press
University of Houston
Houston, TX. 77204-2090
ISBN 1-55885-065-1
ISBN 1-55885-066-X (pbk.)
You can order via this link to
Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography (paperback)
Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography (hardback)

or visit your local library or bookstore.

This article posed some huge technical problems which we shall not bore you with here and thankfully the above book (the source of the page numbers referred to at the end various quotes) patched up some holes and provided authoritative background. It's a great read in general for those interested in Texas and chicano history. Its done entirely in the first person which also makes it a great read.

All photographs and music clips are used with permission by Lydia Mendoza.

A full discography up to 1993 takes up 50 pages in the Arte Publico Book so we shall give you a very abbreviated starting point. Lydia Mendoza (You can order these via by following the links).

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