Rosita Fernández, known as San Antonio’s First Lady of Song, a title bestowed on her in 1968 by Lady Bird Johnson, was born to Petra San Miguel and César Fernández on January 10, 1918, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. She attended school in Laredo, and moved with her family to San Antonio when she was nine years old. While still a youngster Fernández began to sing with her uncles’ Trio San Miguel. Together with them she performed in carpas (tent shows) across South and Central Texas during the 1920s and 1930s. Throughout her life the singer was guided by one simple career motive, “God gave me a voice that is pleasant to hear, and I want to share it.”
In 1932 when Fernández was fourteen, she won a local singing contest sponsored by WOAI Radio, giving her the opportunity to sing on the station’s Gebhardt Chili Show. Soon she recorded radio commercial jingles and was launched on a long career as a radio entertainer, a recording artist, and television and film actress. In 1938 she married Raúl Arturo Almaguer who became her manager. Her husband often translated English-language songs into Spanish. She was the first to perform live when WOAI launched its television station in 1949. From the late 1950s to the early 1980s she became best-known as the headliner for the Fiesta Noche del Rio at the Arneson River Theatre. Fernández also appeared in A Night in Old San Antonio, which was held each April. For many of her appearances, she performed in costumes that she created.
Like Lydia Mendoza and Chelo Silva, two other notable Tejana singers of her generation, Fernández was a pioneer in the Spanish-language musical world in the state. She performed on radio and was one of the first Tejana singers to record. She recorded hundreds of songs for such labels as Bluebird, Brunswick, Columbia, Decca, and RCA. For more than fifty years she also performed with the famous Beto Villa and Eduardo Martínez orchestras. Her accomplishments helped solidify the professional arena for such future Tejana singers as Laura Canales, Shelly Lares, and Selena. Throughout her career she chose to remain in San Antonio to be close to her husband and two children. While her contemporaries, most notably Lydia Mendoza, became more popular, Fernández carved out an important role as the “embodiment of Mexican-American music for generations of San Antonians” who saw her at the Arneson River Theatre and at Teatro Alameda, a more traditional Mexican-American venue in San Antonio.
In addition to her singing and recording career, Fernández was an actress. She appeared in the 1960 film The Alamo and played the lead in the 1962 Disney film Sancho, the Homing Steer. She also played parts in Seguin and the CBS television movie Three Hundred Miles for Stephanie (1981). On television she appeared with such stars as Garry Moore, Dean Martin, and Xavier Cugat. Fernández also performed for President Jimmy Carter, President and Lady Bird Johnson, Pope John Paul II, and Prince Charles.
Her talents and contributions to the world of music and to her beloved city of San Antonio were recognized with several honors and awards. The Arneson River Theatre Bridge was dedicated by city officials as Rosita’s Bridge in 1982. The San Antonio Musicians Hall of Fame inducted her in 1979, and Mayor Henry Cisneros named her Woman of the Year in 1983. The San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 1984, and in 1987 the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame honored her contributions as a singer. The Friends of the San Antonio Public Library presented her with the Arts and Letters Award in 1997, and the Mexican American Unity Council awarded her the Albert Peña Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Fernández left yet another part of her legacy to San Antonio when she placed her papers at the University of Texas at San Antonio Library. The collection documents her career from her earliest professional appearances on radio to her work as a performer in television and films to her retirement in 1982. She was inducted into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame in 2005.
On May 2, 2006, Rosita Fernández died in San Antonio at the age of eighty-eight. Her funeral Mass was held at San Fernando Cathedral on May 6, 2006. She was buried beside her husband in San Fernando Cemetery No. 2.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Rosita Fernández Papers, 1925–1997, Archives and Special Collections, UTSA Library, University of Texas at San Antonio.
Deborah R. Vargas, “Rosita Fernández, La Rosa de San Antonio,” Frontiers 24 (2003).
Genres (Conjunto, Tejano, and Border)
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