Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
On Saturday afternoon, a new Texas Historical Commission marker honoring Tejano star Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) was unveiled at Mendoza’s San Fernando Cemetery No. 2 gravesite.
A group of Mendoza descendants, including 13 grandchildren and various great-grandchildren, joined dignitaries and 120 members of the public to honor the much-beloved singer and guitarist, who lived in San Antonio from 2000 to her death in 2007, after relocating from her native Houston.
Great granddaughter Barbara Ramirez sang the national anthem to open the dedication ceremony. Afterward, Ramirez said she grew up enjoying her great grandmother’s delicious tamales and sing-alongs at family gatherings. It was not until one day in middle school, bored with her Texas History class and peeking ahead in her textbook, that Ramirez realized the woman she affectionately called “Grandma Cantar” was actually famous.
“I saw her picture and I was like, that’s my grandma! Why is she in our history book?” Only when Ramirez spoke with family members later that day did she learn the extent of her Mendoza’s fame and influence.
As a pioneering female Tejano music singer and 12-string guitarist, Mendoza scored her first hit in 1934 with the song Mal Hombre. She toured widely while continuing to play for working-class Mexican-American fans, including migrant workers. In 1977, Mendoza sang at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, and in 1982, she became the first Texan to receive the National Heritage Fellowship lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mendoza played often in Texas, performing at venues including the Guadalupe Theater, where she was honored in 1983 with induction into the Tejano Conjunto Hall of Fame. In 1999, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, and was given a Texas Medal of Arts in 2003 by the Texas Cultural Trust.
The official historical marker, which is located in the cemetery near the corner of Castroville and Cupples Roads, notes Mendoza’s most famous song and several of her many honors.
“When I think of Lydia Mendoza … she is first and foremost an American artist, one of the great American singers of the 20th century, and we should never forget that,” said Hector Saldaña, a noted scholar of Mexican American culture and Texas music curator of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University.
Saldaña was one of several speakers during the ceremony, emceed by musician and Tejano Conjunto music historian Juan Tejeda. Other featured speakers included Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar and his father Placido, Sarah McCleskey of the Texas Historical Commission, and Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, who said, “Ms. Mendoza was a jewel of our community forever and ever.”
The pursuit of a historical marker for Mendoza to join other honored Latina heroes of Bexar County, including labor leader Emma Tenayuca and Alamo savior Adina de Zavala, was a yearslong process, said Rodolfo “Rudy” Gutierrez of San Antonio Music Publishers.
In securing the marker, which was approved in 2016, Gutierrez said he was also honoring his father’s legacy. Music composer Salomé Gutierrez ran a record label that recorded Mendoza’s music for 60 years, Rudy said, “from 1955 until she passed away … it was a work of love to honor both of them.”
Gutierrez also asserted Mendoza’s importance to women in Tejano and Conjunto music.
“When she started her career in the 1930s, there were no women leads. They were like eye candy in the boys’ bands,” he said. “She was the first headliner in Tejano music. That made it possible for other women to have their own groups and perform on stage.”
His point was echoed by Mendoza’s granddaughter and goddaughter Veronica Acevedo. “She was the first female to break that glass barrier,” Acevedo said.
For all of her importance, Mendoza’s family still considered her just grandma, said Ann Hernandez McKinney, daughter of Mendoza’s sister Yolanda Alvarado Hernandez. “Her cooking was out of this world,” McKinney said.
Mendoza is buried alongside her first husband, Juan Alvarado (1913-1961). After the ceremony, their granddaughter Marisol Salazar revealed what she called “a little known secret.” The ashes of her mother Leonora, youngest daughter of Lydia and Juan who died in 1999, are also interred in the grave.
The death of Leonora precipitated Mendoza’s move to San Antonio to join a preponderance of family members, said eldest grandchild Leroy Davila, who also spoke at the ceremony.
Following the ceremony, Mendoza’s 13 grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren – some of whom traveled from Houston – celebrated Mendoza’s 103rd birthday at the Rincocito de Esperanza community center on the corner of Guadalupe Street and Colorado Street, with a public party featuring several bands playing in honor of the Queen of Tejano music.
Sarah Zenaida Gould, director of the nascent Museo del Westside, headquartered at the Rinconcito and set to open later in 2019, said Mendoza’s history aligned with the goals of her own community center.
“She came from the working class, and she spent her career performing for the working class,” Gould said. “They called her the singer of the poor … she was someone very connected to the community.”