Women of Mexican descent have played major roles as interpreters of Tejano music. When música norteña developed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, women sang in its early recordings, and they have remained involved in both Texas-Mexican conjunto and orquesta music since then.
Only a few references to women singers have appeared in standard sources, and only Lydia Mendoza, the earliest recognized Tejana singer, has received much attention by scholars. The Arhoolie Record Company releases Los Primeros Duetos Femininas, 1930–1955, The Soulful Women Duets of South Texas, Las Hermanas Mendoza: Juanita and María, and Tejano Roots, The Women have brought belated attention to the achievements of Tejana singers and provided a summary of their work. These recordings were compiled from original recordings for Tejano labels, and for many years the texts that accompany them formed the few written accounts of significant Tejana singers.
Lydia Mendoza, known as "La Alondra de la Frontera" ("The Lark of the Border"), made her first recording in 1928 as a member of her family-based Cuarteto Carta Blanca, which Leonora Mendoza, her mother, managed. In her four-decade career as a soloist, she usually accompanied herself on a twelve-string guitar and was considered a uniquely artful and dramatic interpreter of Spanish-language songs. Among her most famous singles were "Mal Hombre" ("Cold-hearted Man"), a song she said she got off a chewing-gum wrapper from Monterrey, Nuevo León, and "Delgadina," which expressed a critical view of a father's questionable intentions toward his daughter. Lydia Mendoza was honored in 1982 with a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in 1985, and became the first Tejana admitted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1991. Juanita and María Mendoza, Lydia's sisters, had important careers as Las Hermanas Mendoza, a duet that their mother also managed. María had originally been part of the family's Cuarteto Carta Blanca.
During World War II the Mendoza family stopped touring due to tire and gasoline rationing, so Leonora acquired singing jobs for Juanita and María at the Club Bohemia in San Antonio and accompanied them on the guitar. When the Mendozas resumed touring after the war, Las Hermanas Mendoza found greater popularity as a duet. They recorded for nearly all the Spanish-language recording labels of the day, including Falcon, Alamo, Sombrero, and Imperial. Leonora Mendoza died in 1952, and Las Hermanas Mendoza subsequently undertook only a few more tours; the duet broke up when María married. Juanita, however, continued to work as a soloist at La Casita Nightclub in San Antonio through the 1970s. María died in 1990.
When Armando Marroquín and Paco Betancourt established Ideal Records in 1946, Marroquín's wife, Carmen Hernández Marroquín, and her sister, Laura Hernández Cantú, became an important duet known as Carmen y Laura. They brought fame to the new recording company with their war-time hit, "Se Me Fue Mi Amor" ("My Love Went Away"). Carmen y Laura, like Las Hermanas Mendoza, toured extensively in the Southwest and in Kansas and Illinois in the 1950s. Their recording career lasted into the late 1970s. The famous Alice-based duet collaborated on numerous occasions with Narciso Martínez, the "father of conjunto," and Tejano orchestra leader Beto Villa. The pair made many records for Ideal and were among the first Tejana singers to introduce blues, swing, and boleros to their repertoire.
Other Tejana recording artists who worked as duets or trios were Las Hermanas Segovia, Las Hermanas Guerrero, Las Hermanas Cantú, Las Hermanas Góngora, Las Rancheritas, Hermanitas Parra, "Las Preferidas" Hermanas Sánchez, Hermanas Peralta, Marcela y Aurelia, and many other groups about whom little is known except the titles of their records. These groups recorded for such Tejano labels as Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, Globe, Rio, and Corona. A number of these groups remained popular for many years.
Besides singing in ensembles, Tejanas have also had significant careers as soloists. Chelo Silva, Delia Gutiérrez, Rosita Fernández, Juanita García, and Beatriz Llamaz were some of the most famous. Chelo Silva was born in Brownsville and later worked there as a singer at the Continental Club. In 1941 William A. Owens recorded her in his music-collecting project on the Texas-Mexico border. She was married for a while to folklorist and University of Texas at Austin professor Américo Paredes. She made her recording debut in 1954 on the Falcon label and became the most popular Texas-Mexican female singer along the border during the second half of the decade. In addition, she pursued an active career throughout the United States as well as in Mexico and became known for her bolero renditions of romantic songs, a style similar to American pop and jazz singing. Chelo Silva, La Reina Tejana del Bolero, an Arhoolie CD release, consists of some of her best-known songs, including "Amor Burlado." She died of cancer on April 2, 1988.
Rosita Fernández was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, and started singing as a youth in the 1920s with her uncles, the Trío San Miguel of San Antonio. In 1932, after winning a singing contest sponsored by a local radio station, she became a soloist. Principally as an interpreter of boleros and rancheras, she was featured with the Eduardo Martínez and Beto Villa orchestras. In her more than fifty years as an entertainer, she sang for many presidents of both the United States and Mexico. She was best-known in Texas for her twenty-six years as the star performer at the Fiesta Noche del Río in San Antonio.
Delia Gutiérrez, born in Weslaco, started singing at the age of eight with the orquesta headed by her father, Eugenio Gutiérrez. She also recorded for the Ideal and Falcon labels. In addition to her work as a soloist, she collaborated with Laura Hernández Cantú of Carmen y Laura on numerous recordings. Juanita García won a talent show in 1950. Her prize, a contract with Falcon, launched her career. In the early 1960s Beatriz Llamaz, who apparently recorded some 100 songs, became quite popular on tours throughout the Southwest. She retired in the early 1980s but by the end of the decade was once again recording music.
Many Tejanas were also part of male-female duos, including Victor y Lolita (Falcon records), and Martín y Malena (Azteca records). Most of the Tejana singers working in the 1980s and early 1990s have also become popular in the conjunto, bolero, and ranchera styles. Laura Canales grew up in Kingsville, where she first performed in 1974 with the famous Conjunto Bernal. By the early 1990s, after suffering several setbacks, she had formed a new group, Laura Canales y los Fabulosos Cuatro. She died in 2005. Selena garnered enormous attention in the world of Tejano music in the late 1980s and early 1990s; tragically, her death in 1995 spotlighted her musical appeal to broader audiences throughout North America. Jean Le Grand, born in California but reared partly by relatives in Laredo, has also fronted her own group and is an attorney. Other important contemporary Tejana singers have included Patsy Torres, Janie C. Ramírez, and Lisa López.
Grupo Imagen from Corpus Christi formed in 2013 and was heralded as the first all-female conjunto band. They joined other Tejanas such as Eva Ybarra, Katie Lee Ledezma, and Linda Escobar as major acts in the “Women in Conjunto Music Tardeada Showcase” at the 2015 Tejano Conjunto Festival—thus confirming the growing recognition of the importance and popularity of Tejana singers as well as instrumentalists in the twenty-first century.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Austin American-Statesman, July 14, 1990. Yolanda Broyles-González, Lydia Mendoza’s Life in Music: La historia de Lydia Mendoza (New York and Oxford University Press, 2001). Lydia Mendoza, Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography, comp. Chris Strachwitz and James Nicolopulos (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1993). Lydia Mendoza (http://www.worshipguitars.org/Interviews/lydiamendoza/index.html), accessed January 21, 2010. Manuel Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Lea Thompson, “Festival honors S. A. music roots,” La Prensa, May 18, 2015 (http://www.laprensasa.com/326_entretenimiento-entertainment/3109641_festival-honors-s-a-music-roots.html), accessed August 26, 2015.
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