Everything is going fine until Lupe Saenz sees the CDs.
I’m paying my check at a run-down diner in downtown Mercedes, a town of about 15,000 a little east of McAllen. Standing with me is Saenz, head of the South Texas Conjunto Association and self-described head of conjunto preservation in the Rio Grande Valley.
That’s when Saenz sees the CDs stacked by the cash register. “We’re getting invaded,” Saenz says. He’s a big, bulky man, an administrator at nearby Donna ISD, and he’s prone to rants about the death of family values and Tejano culture. “That’s all there is to it. These Mexicans are coming in, they’re destroying our culture. Look at this!”
He holds one up. It’s an album of norteño music, a style native to Northern Mexico. On it is a line drawing of what looks like the Frito Bandito holding an AK-47 in one hand and a half-naked woman in the other. The title says “Canciones Chingones”—Badass Songs.
Saenz darkens. “You see this?” he says. “This is why conjunto is dying. This is why our culture is dying. It’s because of this garbage.”
He notices the cashier, a woman in her 20s, staring at him. He turns to her.
“Do you know what conjunto is?”
She eyes him nervously. “It’s … you know. It’s conjunto.”
Saenz throws his hands up. “Name me one conjunto musician.”
“Tony de la Rosa!” Saenz yells. “Gilberto Perez! Do you know Gilberto Perez?”
As it happens, Gilberto Perez is standing behind us. Perez is one of the last of the great conjunto musicians. Once he was known throughout Texas for his accordion and his alto voice. Not half a mile from where we are standing is a street named after him. Above and to the right of his head is a signed picture of him holding his accordion.
“Perez,” Saenz says. “You don’t know him? He’s recorded over 50 albums!”
“I’m sorry,” she says, “no.”
“This is him!” Saenz thunders. “Right here, that’s him!”
Saenz throws her a couple of dollars as if to say, sorry for using you as an example. He turns around and walked out.
Outside, Perez shakes his head forlornly. “The kids,” he says. “They don’t know.”
“Ah, her,” Saenz says. “Look at the way she dresses. Just another mojadita. That’s exactly the problem. ”
Saenz, like many Tejanos, is angry because he sees conjunto, the traditional music of Tejanos, vanishing from the airwaves and record stores, replaced by norteño. Since conjunto’s boom days, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the style has faded. Except for a couple of stations in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, you can’t hear any conjunto on commercial radio anymore. Most of the conjunto record labels—Falcon, Del Valle, Bernal—have gone out of business. Only a couple survive.
Older Tejanos worry that if you can’t hear conjunto on the radio, the kids are going to stop listening and it’s going to vanish. “I first noticed it in my kids when they were in high school,” Amancio Chapa, a music teacher at La Joya ISD in the Rio Grande Valley, told me. “I looked through their records, and I couldn’t find any of the conjunto groups that were still playing. It was still accordion-style music—but it was norteño style.”
To an outsider, the two sound almost identical. And the two styles share a common history. Both conjunto and norteño were born in the Rio Grande borderlands around the turn of the last century. Both came about through the fusion of Czech and German polkas with Spanish-Mexican ranchero music. Both styles are sung in Spanish and use the same four instruments. There’s the accordion, borrowed from the Central Europeans, and the bajo sexto, a twelve-string acoustic bass, borrowed from the Spanish. Later, in the 1940s, conjunto and norteño pioneers borrowed the electric bass and drums from early rock ’n’ roll, creating a four-piece combo that’s the sound of the border.
But there are stylistic differences. Norteño is faster, with a more insistent beat; conjunto is slower, more like a polka. Conjunto is more likely to be instrumental; when its songs have lyrics, they are often about love and heartbreak. Norteño, by contrast, tends to be built around the corrido. Corridos are an ancient form of ballad, going back to Spain, which tell the story of some person, place or event. Often they are based on real events—Cristina Balli, a researcher at Texas Folklife in Austin, calls them “sung newspaper stories.” Often, as with the famous narcocorridos, these ballads are about drugs and drug traffickers. Lately it has become fashionable for Mexican cartel bosses to commission norteño groups to write ballads in their honor, and prominent musicians are often seen at cartel parties. In December 2009, norteño legend Ramón Ayala was nearly arrested when the Mexican police stormed the party where he was playing and captured his hosts.
The two styles blur together. There are plenty of traditional conjunto corridos, like “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” about a folk hero fighting the Texas Rangers. And there are plenty of sappy norteño love songs. On Ayala’s 2008 album Almas Perdidas, or Lost Souls, half the songs are narcocorridos with names like “Un Rio de Sangre” (A River of Blood). But the other half are songs like “Si Volvieras” (If You Came Back) and“Te Necesito” (I Need You).
But to many Tejanos, the biggest difference comes down to this: Conjunto is Tejano. Norteño is Mexican. And as there have been more and more Mexicans in Texas, there has been less and less conjunto on the radio. “There’s been a lot of very nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Texas Mexicans,” says Balli, the Texas Folklife researcher. “The debate about music brings out a lot of intra-ethnic tension.”
During my time in the Valley, a lot of old conjunto fans—and they were mostly old—told me that conjunto and its pop-music cousin, Tejano, went off the air because of the Mexicans. “I’m not against Mexicans,” Pepe Maldonado told me. “I’m a Mexican. Well, Mexican-American. But our music lost out because the Mexicans took over.”
Maldonado is another old lion of the conjunto and Tejano scene; he and Perez still sometimes play together. He’s in his 70s but still has a thick head of black hair. He runs the only Tejano dance hall in the Valley. “The Mexicans don’t care nothing about our music,” he said. “They care about Monterrey style, Guanajuato style. They push their groups. They don’t care nothing about us locally. Not that I’m trying to be prejudiced about it; but they came and they worked cheaper than we did. So they took over the radio stations.”
Watch a YouTube clip of Gilberto Perez
The ethnic element has been there almost from the beginning. Conjunto has been played in South Texas, from San Antonio to the Rio Grande, since the end of the 19th century. But in the 1960s it suddenly boomed, spreading across Hispanic communities throughout the country.
Perez rode the boom from the beginning. In 1960, when he was 22, he released his first hit, “El Dia de tu Boda” (The Day of Your Wedding), a maudlin tune about watching an old girlfriend get married. I met Perez at his home in Mercedes, a few miles from where he was born. His house is a whitewashed clapboard farmhouse; he and his wife have lived there since the 1970s. Perez is dark and severe-looking, although he smiles a lot. He has the slightly distracted air of a man waiting for a train that may not be coming. At 75, he is in poor health, his body worn out from decades of touring. He doesn’t play much anymore. His most recent song, “El Ultimo Deseo” (My Last Wish), sings of his funeral Mass, his burial, his final ascent into the arms of Jesus.
But throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, he was on near-constant tour, living in his van on trips as far as California or Seattle. Many people from South Texas were migrant farmhands, working the fields and orchards from California to the Midwest. They formed Tejano expat communities in places like Southern California or rural Idaho or Seattle, Washington. And wherever they went, they brought their demand for music.
Perez, like fellow conjunto legends Ruben Vela or Tony de la Rosa, lived on tour for the whole agricultural season, working the gypsy camps. “We would follow the workers,” he said. “We would spend eight weeks at a time on tour, living out of our van. We did everything ourselves; we didn’t have a road crew. We’d come home for maybe two weeks, and then we would head out again.”
They played to a young, rowdy crowd, mostly blue-collar workers and field hands. Their audience was Tejanos, but there were also a lot of undocumented Mexicans. There was sometimes tension between the two groups. “They’d work all week so they could come to the dances, get drunk and fight,” Perez says. “The Tejanos and the Mexicanos would fight each other a lot. They were like the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
I asked if that was about the music. He laughed. “No, they were just rowdy. It was about women, too. The Tejanos would come with their families, but the Mexicans would be there alone, since their families were in Mexico. There would be a lot of fights—hey, you looked at my wife, you looked at my sister.”
One reason for the closing of conjunto venues across the country, Perez says, was simply that Mexicans spent more money. They tended to be single, which meant they drank more, so venues made more money catering to them.
An underlying tension, he says, was that the Mexicans were slowly displacing the Tejanos. The longer Perez toured, the more Mexicans it seemed there were. Mexicans and Tejanos would go to the same dances, but Mexicans preferred norteño. As they slowly displaced the Tejanos, there was less and less demand for Tejano music. There were also fewer and fewer jobs for the Tejanos.
At the same time, Tejanos have watched with concern as the wider culture became more and more intolerant of Mexican migrants—which, they are worried, will include them. “Not only immigrants are affected by anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Balli says. “A lot of people don’t distinguish between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. To some people Mexicans are Mexicans.”
When my great-grandparents’ generation—poor, religious Russian Jews—came to America, they were met with disgust and contempt by the older generation of German Jewish immigrants, who had had time to become prosperous and begin to assimilate. The Germans were afraid that America would confuse them with these new interlopers. They were suspicious. Some lobbied the government to keep the newcomers out.
Almost every conjunto proponent I talked to seemed to speak out of that same fear of being judged one of those people, from across the border. Every single one stressed how long their families had been in South Texas—many from before it was South Texas.
“Yeah, I may look Mexican,” Maldonado, the club owner in Edinburg, told me, “but I’m Mexican-American. I think like you.”
Or Lupe Saenz, flushing: “I listen to conjunto sometimes, and people ask me why I’m listening to that Mexican music. Maybe it’s Spanish music; maybe it’s German music; maybe it’s rock ’n’ roll music. But it’s sure not Mexican music.”
Balli sees reflections of the tension between Tejano and Mexican cultures all over Texas, mostly in cities like Dallas or Houston that aren’t as used to immigrants as the border. There, Tejanos complain about Tex-Mex restaurants being replaced with interior Mexican, about suddenly seeing Mexican products in their neighborhood corner stores.
She finds the rift deeply unfortunate. “Here we are making a big stink about the clear distinction between conjunto and norteño,” she says, “and to an outsider it all sounds the same. The roots of the styles are so similar—and yet we are creating these rifts between them, and they’re becoming worlds apart. But in the end, we’ll be locked together by the outside world.”
Despite these tensions, one significant reason for conjunto’s disappearance from the airwaves has more to do with changes in the music business than anything else. In fact, the forces that caused conjunto to disappear from the radio may soon cause norteño to disappear as well.
As Mexicans were replacing Tejanos in the work camps, media conglomerates like Clear Channel and Univision were buying up radio stations and playing homogenized programming. Instead of playing local musicians, they would play big-name, commercial artists signed to major labels like Sony.
No one really knows why the conglomerates stopped playing conjunto—there’s clearly still a conjunto market in the Valley that isn’t being served. But in the past two decades, local, independent radio stations have disappeared all over the country. Conjunto may have been dropped because it was too local. It’s easier for a conglomerate like Clear Channel to broadcast the same music from its stations across the country.
When the radio consolidation started to happen in the 1990s, the new, homogenous music on the Spanish stations was Texan—Tejano, in fact. Tejano is in the same family as conjunto, but it incorporates newer instruments, like keyboards or electronica. During the 1990s, Tejano stars like Selena played on radio stations throughout the United States and in Mexico. At its peak in the 1990s, there were more than 150 Tejano stations in Texas.
Even during Tejano’s heyday, though, Mexican migrants—and norteño consumers—were moving into the United States in increasing numbers. By the early 2000s there were fewer than 10 Tejano stations left. All those stations were suddenly playing norteño.
There are numerous reasons. Part of it comes from the different ways Mexicans and Texans listen to music. “What hurts Tejanos,” Balli says, “is that, simply, they listen to a lot of stations. They’re constantly flipping back and forth between different kinds of American music—Tejano, country, rock. Mexicans tend to listen to one station throughout the day. Because of the way ratings are compiled, this means that Tejano stations are more likely than norteño to undercount their listeners.”
The music business is fickle, though. The same forces that drove conjunto and Tejano underground may soon do the same to norteño. While older Mexicans listen to norteño, their children are more likely to listen to Latin rock, Mexican rap and reggaeton.
That is why Balli and others like her have been pushing conjunto and norteño fans to talk to each other. In October 2010, she helped host the Tejano Conjunto/Norteño Music Convening at the South Texas College Mid-Valley campus in Weslaco. “The two styles face similar issues,” she says. “They have similar history. We’re trying to get them to talk.”
“Now you understand,” Saenz told me as we drove back toward Perez’ house. “This is why we’re anti-norteño.”
I asked if he meant pro-conjunto.
“No,” he said, “anti-norteño. This is Texas. We should have Texan music on the radio. You turn on the radio in Austin, what do you hear? Rock, country. Turn on the Spanish stations, what do you hear? Norteño. Mexican music. You get to hear your music on the radio. Why can’t we hear ours?”
“Lupe,” I said, “I don’t get to hear music I like either. Local music is off the air almost everywhere.”
He glanced in the mirror. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I’ve been to Austin. There are country stations, rock stations.”
Perez sighed. “Kids are just listening to different stuff. They aren’t speaking Spanish anymore. My nephews don’t speak Spanish. They want to speak English, listen to English music.”
Saenz’s plan is to somehow buy a radio station so he can blast Tejano and conjunto all over the Valley. Maldonado, the old musician who runs the dance hall, wants to do the same thing. Their idea: Kids listen to what’s on the radio. If they can get conjunto back on the radio, kids will start listening again.
At least a few kids already are listening. Not as many as before, perhaps, but some. At the semifinals of Texas Folklife’s Big Squeeze accordion contest in April, 71 came to compete. All were under 25. The bulk of them played conjunto.
We were back at Perez’s house now. “This is very serious,” Saenz said. “If we don’t do something, conjunto is going to die.”
He drove away. Perez and I were left in his front yard, looking at each other.
“That Lupe,” Perez said. “He means well. But go to a wedding. Go to a backyard party. Go to a funeral. What do you hear? Conjunto. This is our music. This is what we play. I’ll be gone soon, but conjunto? Conjunto will live forever.”
Contributing writer Saul Elbein lives and freelances in Austin.