Agapito Zuñiga, a pioneer of Tejano conjunto music and a Christian gospel music innovator, was born at the Potreros Ranch in Burgos, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on November 19, 1924, to Wenceslao Zuñiga Zuñiga and Lucía de la Garza Gonzalez. As a child, he developed a lifelong passion for the accordion, the principal instrument of conjunto music. His father, recognizing his love of music, first bought a harmonica for Agapito. One family story notes that his father sold his only horse to purchase his son his first accordion. Zuñiga’s facility for music led to a career that spanned several decades.
Under the tutelage of two uncles and aided by his ability to decipher complex musical notes and sounds, Zuñiga became adept at the accordion. Although as a youngster he worked in the fields alongside his family, he also entertained his fellow farm laborers in the after-hours. By 1936, at the age of twelve, Zuñiga was playing his accordion at the train station near Sandoval, Tamaulipas, and earned money to support his family. Soon he formed a duet with guitarist Irineo Orta González.
In 1940, at the age of sixteen, the musician organized Trio Los Desveladores, his first conjunto, with Juan Valdez and José “Chepe” González and gained fame in Matamoros. In 1948, after playing in another duet with Guadalupe González, Zuñiga formed Los Desveladores de Agapito Zuñiga, a four-member conjunto, and gained a strong following on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border. By 1951 the well-regarded Tejano Ideal and Falcón recording companies began to issue the conjunto’s music. Zuñiga ultimately recorded with Peerless, Bego, El Toro, Freddie, Frontera, and Hacienda recording companies. In the late 1960s he also established his own recording label, which was named after his nickname, Escorpión.
Zuñiga and his wife Odilia married on December 4, 1951. In 1954 Zuñiga moved with his family to Corpus Christi, where he reunited with members of Los Desveladores for four years before establishing Agapito Zuñiga y Su Conjunto, with which he toured across the United States to great success. Zuñiga’s conjunto was unique within the genre in that the outfit employed two saxophonists and the accordion piano (key accordion). The conjunto regularly performed at Club Westerner, a well-regarded Tejano music venue in Victoria.
In addition to playing in Tejano dance halls, Zuñiga and his conjunto performed in theaters, alternating with such other notable musicians as Lydia Mendoza, Isidro López, Chelo Silva, and Valerio Longoria. As Zuñiga’s fame spread, his conjunto was invited to the popular weekly Domingo Peña Show. His success garnered a contract in 1960 for La Hora de Agapito Zuñiga, his own radio show on KCCT-Radio. The show, which began as a weekly program, ultimately became a popular daily offering for many years.
After decades of performing traditional conjunto music, Zuñiga turned his love for the genre into one that served his Christian faith and allegiance to gospel music. With his wife Odilia, he formed a duet. They toured with their ministry across the United States and in Bolivia, Guatemala, and other Spanish-speaking countries.
Over his long career, Zuñiga’s compositions became well-known across the spectrum of conjunto music. His popular musical compositions included “Vieja Escalera,” “El Corrido de Oscar Martínez,” “Mujer Aventurera,” and numerous others. He was featured in albums heralding the genre, including South Texas Polka Party, 15 Early Tejano Classics, and Texas Conjunto Pioneers, the latter produced by Arhoolie Records.
Accolades for his achievements came with his induction into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito in 2008 and the South Texas Music Walk of Fame in Corpus Christi in 2010. He was also honored with the Christian Hispanic Music Awards in 2000, 2001, and 2005 and with the David Music Award in 2008. In 2010 he was inducted into the Ben F. McDonald Public Library in Corpus Christi for his contributions to South Texas music. His home city of Burgos also honored him by adopting his composition “Burgos Es Mi Tierra,” his affectionate homage to his hometown. Later, to celebrate the town’s 258th founding anniversary, he composed yet another song, “Corrido de Burgos.” In 2014 Corpus Christi Theological Seminary awarded him an honorary degree in Doctor of Theology in Missions with Honors.
Agapito Zuñiga died at age ninety on January 16, 2015, in Corpus Christi. His funeral service was held at The Lord Is Peace Worship Center in Corpus Christi. Internment was at the city’s Memory Gardens Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and two daughters.