Everybody in the bar had to drop a quarter in the jukebox or be shamed by “Momo” Villarreal. It wasn’t about the money, Mary Ann Villarreal’s grandmother insisted. It was about the music—more songs for all the patrons of the Pecan Lounge in Tivoli, Texas. But for Mary Ann, whose schoolbooks those quarters bought, the money didn’t hurt.
When as an adult Villarreal began to wonder how the few recordings of women singers made their way into that jukebox, questions about the money seemed inseparable from those about the music. In Listening to Rosita, Villarreal seeks answers by pursuing the story of a small group of Tejana singers and entrepreneurs in Corpus Christi, Houston, and San Antonio—the “Texas Triangle”—during the mid-twentieth century. Ultimately she recovers a social world and cultural landscape in central south Texas where Mexican American women negotiated the shifting boundaries of race and economics to assert a public presence.
Drawing on oral history, interviews, and insights from ethnic and gender studies, Listening to Rosita provides a counternarrative to previous research on la música tejana, which has focused almost solely on musicians or musical genres. Villarreal instead chronicles women’s roles and contributions to the music industry. In spotlighting the sixty-year singing career of San Antonian Rosita Fernández, the author pulls the curtain back on all the women whose names and stories have been glaringly absent from the ethnic and economic history of Tejana music and culture.
In this oral history of the Tejana cantantes who performed and owned businesses in the Texas Triangle, Listening to Rosita shows how ethnic Mexican entrepreneurs developed a unique identity in striving for success in a society that demeaned and segregated them. In telling their story, this book supplies a critical chapter long missing from the history of the West.
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Listening to Rosita
The Business of Tejana Music and Culture, 1930â?"1955
By Mary Ann Villarreal
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
BECOMING SAN ANTONIO'S ROSE
A la encantadora estrella Rosita Fernández En este homenaje de reconocimiento por su gran labor artística a través de los años. Radio, cine, televisión, discos, variedades. Por llevar el talento artístico de nuestra raza y nombre de San Antonio más allá de nuestra frontera. En nombre de sus numerosos admiradores. KCOR Radio
To the charming star Rosita Fernández This homage is in recognition for her great artistic work through the years [in] radio, movies, television, records, and variety shows. For taking the artistic talent of our raza and the name of San Antonio beyond our borderlands. In the name of her numerous admirers. KCOR Radio
When Rosita Fernández began traveling with her uncles, the band Los Tres San Miguel, she had little idea of the music world that lay before her. As a nine-year-old, she suddenly had new opportunities to sing in front of audiences other than her family. She never spoke publicly of herself as someone who pioneered access to performance spaces, nor did she associate herself with the Spanish-language music industry that catered to working-class spaces such as bars or cantinas. Instead, as she often insisted in newspaper and oral history interviews, she simply loved to sing. Her singing ability in both English and Spanish produced more than just a sixty-year singing career; she also built a business of "Rosita" on a divisive cultural landscape that often revered its "Spanish past" and dismissed its Mexican American present.
Building and managing her varied and well-received career across music, tourism, advertising, and even film industries, Fernández earned her place in Mexican American history. Consider, for instance, KCOR's 1967 public recognition of her, which not only reflects her reputation among San Antonio's Spanish-speaking listeners as an artist and performer, but also hints at the influence she had outside of the city. The award came to her mid-career — at the height of her public visibility as a constant source of entertainment on the River walk, at conventions, and at local and regional charity events. Another high-profile award was the naming in Fernández's honor of "Rosita's Bridge" in 1982 for her annual participation in the Fiesta Noche del Rio. The bridge spans the San Antonio River and links to the Arneson River Theatre. The plaque on the bridge reads: "Dedicated to Rosita Fernández, singer of songs which have helped to build the bridge." Fittingly, this was the same bridge her father worked on in 1939 when it was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Located on San Antonio's Riverwalk (Paseo del Rio), which attracts approximately 5.2 million visitors each year, Rosita's Bridge represents the twenty-six years of Fernández's performances at Fiesta Noche del Rio and the strong connection between the city of San Antonio and its popular entertainer.
The narrative of this relationship however, does not emerge as a central storyline in the development of San Antonio's tourism industry. Although Fernández received numerous awards from the city and local organizations, and was honored at her death by political officials, her name and contributions are not publicly remembered in the same vibrant spirit with which San Antonio is known to celebrate its numerous iconic legends. The bridge named after her is one reminder of her cultural impact, but it stands alone, offering little hint of Fernández's civic contributions to the preservation of San Antonio's historical sites and cultural traditions. When laid out over six decades and viewed through a wide lens of music, culture, philanthropy, and civic engagement, Fernández's career provides a rich, little-explored layer of San Antonio's social and economic growth in the twentieth century. Her participation in numerous parades, her travel as a delegate of San Antonio's cultural tourism efforts, her performances at dinner clubs and military shows, and her support — financial and otherwise — of public performance space in San Antonio informs scholars of the politics of representation in San Antonio in the formative years of its entertainment industry.
Appearing continuously over a period of six decades on stage and in recordings, Rosita Fernández became a popular icon among Euro-American San Antonians as a representative of "Old Mexico." She was versatile in repertoire, providing accompaniment to orchestras, singing a range of boleros and rancheras. In her compilation of greatest hits recorded by Ideal Records, songs like "Mi Fracaso," "No Faltaba Más," and "Adiós Felicidad" were well known to her audiences. Early in her career, Fernández used her "Latin" look and Mexican heritage as a way of showcasing her talents. Drawing on her cultural background, her status in San Antonio radio, and the city's relationship to Mexico, she promoted herself as a representative of San Antonio's Mexican culture. While she did not resist the stereotypical images promoted by public relations representatives in San Antonio, she also shaped images of herself starting as early as the 1930s. Commercial spots and appearances on hour-long shows gave Fernández a boost toward establishing her local celebrity status, building upon her popularity among American audiences.
Early in her career, Fernández starred on live local radio stations, posed for city tourism marketing pieces, and acted as a spokesperson in advertising campaigns. As manager of her own singing career, Fernández led the life of a professional businesswoman who adapted to her changing audiences and clients. Fernández began appearing in public advertisements sponsored by the city of San Antonio in the 1930s, using her reputation to shape her niche in the market and direct her career according to her own desires. During her early years in the spotlight, for instance, she appears as an anonymous figure in a 1936 postcard. The back of the postcard reads: "A Senorita of Old Mexico in gala dress standing in front of picturesque Old Missions that are so numerous in this historic old land." Although unnamed on the postcard, Fernández was on the verge of becoming a popular public figure. Catering to San Antonio tourists, she reinvented herself culturally, mixing her "Spanish" heritage of music and dance into her roles as entertainer and hostess. Her innocent 1930s image, though transformed from señorita to señora over six decades, became the symbol of "Rosita." Her conscious decision to make San Antonio her home speaks to the significance of the making of place. In particular, the Riverwalk became Rosita's place. She became a fixture at the Arneson River Theatre, the historic outdoor theater spanning the river, where guests could sit on terraced steps or listen while floating in boats.
Fernández's career highlights the layers of negotiation within a male-dominated industry when viewed against a backdrop of discrimination and stereotypes. Fernández did not use those descriptors in stories of her career nor did she frame her experience in a narrative of racialized segregation; however, two pictures become clear from the news articles generated throughout her career. One, gendered language referring to body size and how she balanced work and family pervaded all news articles about her. Two, if she ever responded negatively to participating in places that played on stereotypical assumptions about Mexicans, she did so only privately. The second is evident, in that Fernández's place in the history of Mexican Americans and Chicanos does not fit the traditional mold of struggle and response to discrimination. In fact, she did not claim to have lived the life of negotiating between working-class roots and a Tejanaidentity. In addition, she traveled long enough with her uncles to acquire recording contracts, though she certainly faced discrimination during her travels, as did her predecessor, Lydia Mendoza. Instead, Fernández employed a professional image, playing to Euro-American stereotypes while not giving up her Mexican identity. What Fernández shares with Mendoza and other women performers of her time is that they negotiated a livelihood on the stage in the face of gendered and racialized assumptions, and while dealing with family obligations.
In interviews, photographs, and newspaper stories, Fernández promoted the stereotypical image of a submissive, quiet Mexican woman who did not question authority. Although in the 1930s and '40s divisions along lines of race, class, and nationality characterized the cultural landscape of the Texas Triangle — the area of south Texas between Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Houston — such was not always the case in the business world, where Rosita Fernández sang the jingle for the nationwide company Fritos. She also acted as the face of Gephardt Chili, whose commercial character "Rosita" reached everyone, regardless of citizenship. The story of becoming "Rosita" speaks to the productive use of stereotypes for marketing purposes. Fernández's husband told the story of how Rosita went to "an audition for a Gephardt Chile Powder program. ... They told her she would have to change her name from whatever it was to Rosita." She replied that her name was indeed Rosita, ostensibly not challenging the company for its stereotypical request. Though these images might suggest a voiceless person, such a conclusion is premature, for Fernández, particularly early in her career, used her influence to raise money for charities and bring attention to the city of San Antonio's need to address the loss of important entertainment sites.
In 1967 Fernández renegotiated her place in San Antonio's tourism market, dabbling in acting, and creating her own "crossover" image that included accessing space on the convention and cocktail dinner scene. As an entertainer and singer, Rosita Fernández claimed spaces operated for and by white audiences. Her strategies parallel the actions of Paduanos, the name given to performers who appeared in shows at the Padua Hills Theater for more than four decades in Claremont, California. Historian Matt Garcia's work on the Paduanos offers an example by which to frame Fernández's rise. The Mexican Players of Padua Hills found their opportunities during the same period as Fernández, beginning in the 1930s. Garcia contends, "Given the context of discrimination, segregation, and repatriation, many Paduanos valued the opportunity to perform in a public space rarely accessed by Mexican Americans." Fernández laid claim to public space in a similar fashion. Given the discriminatory climate of the time and place in which Mexican artists lived and performed, the act of claiming space for performances played an important role in community building. Though both Rosita and the Paduanos performed for mainly white, middle-class audiences, they had clear strategies for successfully making a name for themselves in entertainment circles.
From the beginning of her career, Fernández asserted that she had the future of San Antonio's Mexican heritage in mind. She saw her contribution as important, especially in later years, given the explosion of the competing genre known as Tejano music, which integrated U.S. styles and fashions into Mexican-influenced music. She created her own mark with her handmade sequined dresses sewn mostly by her mother, The singer built her success on her choice to stay in the San Antonio area and cultivate an audience specifically to create a "legacy of Mexican singing and dance." She once told a reporter that she "would like to leave a show or wonderful group of (performers who will carry on the) more typical roots of our culture so that the heritage — our dances, music and costumes of Mexico — don't die away in San Antonio, and so that it is not modernized so much that it's not our heritage anymore." This legacy embodied a middle-class ideal, traditional in form, and tied to an often idealized and romanticized Spanish past. Her prominent visibility led to appearances across the United States as well as to the role of cultural icon among San Antonio's Anglo and Mexican American populations. The irony is that Fernández has been discounted as a part of the history of la música tejana (Tex-Mex music) because of her relationship to American middle-class audiences. Until recently, scholars have treated her as a popular figure known mostly among Americans and not as one of the prominent Mexican American singers in twentieth-century history. Returning to the kaleidoscope metaphor (see introduction to this book), it is evident that the various lenses through which audiences viewed Rosita's narrative did not change. And the parts that composed the whole of Rosita Fernández's story did not change.
The process of "becoming San Antonio's Rose" brings together the overarching themes and arguments of negotiated spaces, cultural production, and the significance of place and region that I make throughout this book. As an entertainer, Rosita demonstrated how she strategized and cut new paths as a businesswoman who created a marketable icon for audiences across age, race, and language.
This chapter, through oral histories and other archival materials, breaks Fernández's career up into three stages with overlapping chronology. First, as part of San Antonio's "Old Mexico," seen through San Antonio tourism advertisements, and as spokesperson for a variety of products including milk, tortillas, and beer. Second, as the performer "Rosita," who located her "Spanish" heritage of music and dance within U.S. culture and played hostess to San Antonio tourists. Third, as the "family before fortune" representation of motherhood and domesticity. Her constant refashioning of herself as a public persona often required that she open up her private life for outsiders to see, and thus she projected an image of a Mexican woman devoted to family. Specifically, through the local media, photo opportunities, and city affairs, Fernández crafted an image of a superwoman — mother, wife, and performer. Fernández not only managed her career as a songstress, but more significant to this study, she also self-managed and orchestrated her own persona — Rosita — in the public eye. As her own best public-relations agent, she used the media to remind them of her long-standing relationship with the city, as well as her friendship with various political and religious leaders in San Antonio.
Before moving into the three stages of Fernández's transformation, it is important to get a sense of how she described herself and how the media read her. While she attributed her success to God and family, the fact remains that Fernández held a clear vision of how she should promote herself. She often told reporters, "God has given me this, and I like it!" Neither in press nor in oral history documentation did Fernández state directly that her ambition included becoming nationally renowned, but her actions to become part of San Antonio's entertainment industry demonstrate her ambition. Indeed, Fernández often played on her "God-given talent" — her voice — as a way to explain her supposedly unanticipated venture into performance. Like other women performers and business people, particularly Mexican American women, she had no formal training in either arena, leaving journalists wondering how she had found such success. In an undated biographical flyer, the description of the singer begins: "Not dreaming that singing would become a life-time career, Fernández started singing with her uncles. Arguably, this tale of her beginnings might have been true when she was nine years old, but later Fernández was clearly both ambitious and strategic in her ability to sell ideas and images relevant to the Mexican community.
Fernández's strategies at times created a tension between luck and aptitude. Journalists often noted her husband's professional position and identified her as "the wife," overlooking how she deftly handled the broadening of her performance spaces and her status as a married woman. The gendered and racial language used to describe her tended to depict Fernández as a fragile flower with surprising talents given her lack of training. A caption under Fernández's picture in The Indianapolis Star illustrates this point. "Her [Rosita Fernández's] sweet, strong voice is untrained but 'lovely things keep happening' to dark-eyed Rosita." In one sentence, the writer alludes to the fact that Fernández has more luck than talent. In case the reader cannot tell from the photo, she does have dark eyes, like a true "Latin." With examples like this from The Indianapolis Star prevalent throughout her career, Rosita capitalized on the desire of tourists and middle-class San Antonio to capture a romanticized picture of Mexico through her music and her persona.
Excerpted from Listening to Rosita by Mary Ann Villarreal. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Introduction: No Ordinary Place,
1. BUSINESS FIRST: BECOMING SAN ANTONIO'S ROSE,
2. A "PROPER, FITTING OR MORAL OCCUPATION" FOR WOMEN: GENDERING THE SPACE OF BUSINESS,
3. THE BUSINESS OF CULTURE: SELLING POLITICS AND CULTURAL GOODS,
4. FIGURING SPACE: THE TEXAS TRIANGLE,
5. MAPPING COMMUNITIES: RACE, GENDER, AND PLACE,