Lydia Mendoza, known as “La Alondra de la Frontera” (“The Lark of the Border”), “La Cancionera de los Pobres” (“The Songstress of the Poor”), and later as “La Gloria de Texas” (“The Glory of Texas”), was born in May 1916 in Houston to Francisco and Leonora Mendoza. From an early age she was taught to play a variety of instruments by her mother and grandmother, and when she was four years old, she made a guitar for herself from wood, nails, and rubber bands. Within a few years Mendoza joined her family in performing songs and variety shows for the Tejano community. Her ability to sing and play the twelve-string guitar ultimately made her the family’s principal bread earner.
In 1928 when Lydia Mendoza was only twelve years old, her family responded to an OKeh Records Company advertisement seeking Spanish-language recording artists placed in La Prensa, the Spanish-language newspaper in San Antonio. After successfully auditioning, the family recorded twenty songs under the professional name Cuarteto Carta Blanca and earned $140. However, they soon left San Antonio to seek work in the sugar beet fields in Michigan. Upon their return to San Antonio by the early 1930s, Mendoza and her family found work performing at Tejano business establishments, on the streets, and at the Plaza del Zacate. During the week they earned twenty-five or thirty cents a day to cover food; on the weekends they pulled in a dollar and twenty-five cents to cover rent. Soon Manuel J. Cortez, a Tejano broadcaster, heard Lydia Mendoza sing at the plaza and offered her a guest appearance on his radio show, Voz Latina (see MORALES, FELIX HESSBROOK). The audience’s quick and positive response to her talent led Cortez to invite Mendoza to appear regularly on his show for $3.50 a week. The money provided the family much-needed income. Mendoza recalled years later, “With that three-fifty, we felt like millionaires. Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent.”
At a 1934 Bluebird Records audition in San Antonio, Mendoza recorded four songs, including “Mal Hombre” (“Evil Man”), and earned $60. When the song was released a few months later, it became the first of many hits she would record during her lengthy career. As Mendoza’s popularity grew, her performances were considered “magical and could awaken a populist frenzy and collective pride in Mexicans.” She toured with her family throughout the Rio Grande valley, performing as a soloist; her siblings sang as a group and performed a variety act. Like many other Tejano artists, the Mendoza family entertained at tent shows, including the Carpa García and the Carpa Cubana. Discrimination against Mexican Americans in West Texas forced the family to stay in private homes while on tour. They also avoided restaurants that posted signs warning “No dogs or Mexicans Allowed.”
Mendoza’s “soulful, yearning voice” and her skillful acoustic guitar-playing resonated with her audiences. Among her early hits were “Pero Hay Que Triste” (“But Oh, How Sad”), “La Valentina,” and “Ángel de Mis Anhelos” (“Angel of My Desires”). By the start of World War II, Mendoza was one of the most famous Spanish-language singers of the Texas-Mexico border region.
In 1935 she married Juan Alvarado, and during the early 1940s she retired to rear their three daughters. After World War II she resumed her career, attracting large audiences. Her reentry into touring took her initially to the Colón Theater in El Paso and culminated at the Mason Theater in Los Angeles where the 2,500-seat auditorium could not contain all the people who clamored to see her and to hear her voice. For the next seven years, from the late 1940s into the early 1950s, Mendoza and her family were on the road performing in theaters and movie houses. She began to record again, this time accompanied by a Mexican orchestra. Mendoza also became increasingly popular outside the United States through her regular tours to Mexico, Cuba, and Columbia, often playing to as many as 20,000 fans at a time. She went on to record hundreds of songs and some fifty albums in a career that ended only after she suffered a stroke in 1988. Other popular songs she recorded included “Ojitos Verdes” (“Little Green Eyes”), “Delgadina,” and a song she wrote entitled “Amor Bonito” (“Beautiful Love”).
After her husband’s death in 1961, she married Fred Martinez in 1964. In the 1960s when she returned to live in Houston, Mendoza found a following among white college students who were interested in the folk music movement sweeping the country. In Houston she performed in nightclubs, basing her repertoire on more than 1,000 songs that spanned one hundred years. After some of her recordings were re-issued in the 1970s, Mendoza became even better known among young people. Her fame also bought her to the attention of universities, and for a time she served as a music teacher at California State University in Fresno. Her appearance in Chulas Fronteras, a 1976 documentary on Tejano culture, fortified her enduring importance as a musician.
As a Spanish-language singer, Mendoza struggled to achieve recognition beyond Latino audiences for most of her career. Nevertheless, she gained national prominence when she was invited by President Jimmy Carter to sing at his inauguration festivities in 1977. More tributes to her followed. In 1982 she won the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. In 1999 President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony. In her native state Mendoza was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1982, the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985, and the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002. Near the end of her career, scholars produced books on her life, further ensuring Mendoza’s legacy. The prominent visual artist Ester Hernández created paintings of Mendoza that reflected the continuing respect in which she was held by the Mexican-American community in Texas and the music world in general.
Lydia Mendoza died in San Antonio, the city where she first found a strong following for her work, on December 20, 2007, at the age of ninety-one. Hundreds of fans came to that city from across Texas to pay their final tributes to her. Her funeral Mass was celebrated in San Antonio at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and she was buried in the city’s San Fernando Cemetery on December 27, 2007. See also TEJANA SINGERS, TEXAS-MEXICAN CONJUNTO, and RECORDING INDUSTRY.