Roll Over, Selena
On August 14, 1994, Second Ward residents opening their windows for a warm breeze could hear, in the distance, Tejano music hitting its peak. Selena, the Lake Jackson-born superstar, was performing "Como la Flor" at the Tejano Superfest at Guadalupe Plaza. Her conjunto band shared the stage with a who's who of Tejano, including Emilio Navaira and Mazz.
Their music, a particularly Texan mix of Mexican norteno and German polka, was the music of Mexican-Americans, sung mostly in Spanish, its country-style sound sometimes zipped up with techniques borrowed from rock or R&B. In its infancy, Tejano was heard only at small cantinas and family weddings. But by the early 1990s, Selena had been dubbed the "Mexican Madonna," and Tejano stars were scoring platinum albums, Grammy awards and major commercial endorsements.
Tejano fans in Houston could dance to live music in many large ballrooms, which were often crowded and commanded high cover charges. There were Tejano TV shows, two and sometimes three Tejano FM stations and a Tejano stage at every festival. Even teenagers, usually the most assimilated demographic slice of any immigrant group, bought Tejano CDs and tapes.
Five years later, the Tejano scene is all but gone. Selena is dead. Mazz has broken up. Emilio sings country songs in English. The Tejano Superfest, as far as anyone can tell, no longer exists. Rather than see Tejano singer Ram Herrera at Frontier Fiesta, Houston Latinos ages 14 to 27 are more likely to buy a rap CD or attend a Spanish rock concert. The salsa clubs, playing tropical Latin music, are the ones that are packed now. Gone are the grand Tejano clubs such as the Pan American Ballroom and El Dorado Ranch.
"Our cultura is dying," says Gus Garza, who used to deejay a Tejano show on KPFT/90.1 FM. "What we have now is trash."
If the period from 1989 to 1995 stands as the period of Tejano's biggest growth, the period from 1996 to 1999 saw its fastest decline. Tejano is estimated to have generated $20 million in 1995; by 1997, that figure had fallen to $15 million.
Radio station executives say that after the death of Selena, the declining ratings and flat sales spurred a change in format. Under pressure to produce higher ratings, stations went to a format that was broader, more appealing to a larger audience. Stations mixed Tejano, which appealed to Mexican-Americans who'd lived in Texas a while, with norteno, the music of northern Mexico, which appealed to new immigrants. As a result, the local flavor was diluted.
And with Tejano losing airtime, Tejano stars began to disappear from the airwaves. Gone are some of the stars such as accordion player Mingo Saldivar and old Tejano superstar Little Joe, replaced by international groups such as the Mexican-based Grupo Limite and teenager Jennifer y los Jets.
With its stars gone, Tejano's record sales and touring revenue declined. And its influence on the international music scene was waning. Once, Mexican-American artists had been all over the place in the Premio Lo Nuestro Latin music awards; in 1996, only four Mexican-Americans were nominated. Very few new stars were breaking into the scene.
Houston-based Elsa Garcia was one of the stars lost in the shuffle. She'd appeared on the scene in the 1980s, and her records were platinum-sellers. Live, she was one of the biggest Tejano music draws pre-Selena. There was an Elsa Garcia doll, and the City of Houston declared an "Elsa Garcia Day."
But now, her voice is seldom heard on Houston radio, a fact that has left Garcia resentful and angry. "Houston is only my home," says Garcia. "Now I have to go elsewhere to perform." Ironically, the Tejano star is forced to work mostly outside Texas. Garcia says she is in demand in Mexico and often travels to places such as Kansas, South Carolina and upstate New York to perform for migrant Mexican workers. There, she says, is where the "real market is."
But she concedes that even she does not call her music Tejano anymore. "What I play now is 'regional Mexicana' -- regional Mexican music. I've expanded."
Tejano fans are quick to blame radio stations for Tejano's decline, pointing to media mergers that left the stations in the hands of owners unfamiliar with Tejano and its culture. For instance, El Dorado Communications, whose partners include Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, owns KQQK-FM 106.5, the most listened-to Tejano station in Houston. Also under its control are KXTJ-FM 108, "Mexican Top Hits," and KEYH-AM 850, "La Ranchera."
Tejano fan Antonio Gonzalez says the stations' corporate overlords did not know how to respond to the changing market. "They had no idea what we were about or what made Tejano music special," he laments. "They sold our music out."
Changing demographics also contributed to Tejano's decline. With the influx of Central American immigration in the 1980s, Latino pop culture shifted. Tropical music, which has a broader appeal, starting making inroads and attracting younger listeners. Clubbers soon ditched the old Tejano ballrooms for salsa venues such as Crystal and Elvia's Pub.
Slow boleros, sung by the likes of Enrique Iglesias, became more popular than songs by Los Palominos. Listeners could catch those boleros on Houston's new popular Spanish radio station, KOVE-FM ("K-Love") 93.3.
Also changing was Tejano's appeal to younger listeners. A 1994 study conducted by the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston found that the teenagers and young college students who hung out at the Mexican-American Studies student lounge listened to Tejano station KQQK-FM 106.5 more than any other. The same study conducted in 1997 found that the most popular station was Kiss 98.5, then a club-music radio station. Enrique Sanchez, 17, says that Tejano music does not appeal to him. "It's the music my mom and dad listen to. Plus, all the guys that sing that stuff are fat." After browsing through the Blockbuster Music CD collection on Shepherd, he takes a CD by rap artist Master P and a collection of recent Spanish rock tapes to the counter.
Gonzalez says that the Tejano market is still there but that the executives in charge do not know how to tap into it. He does not see it coming back. "Quite frankly," he laments, "the way the industry is going, I wouldn't doubt it if ten years from now you will hear Tejano music only sung in English.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.