Memo Re: Borders

In 1964, when Memo Villarreal opened a tiny record store on the corner of 75th and Canal Street in the East End, Houston had only one Spanish-language radio station. Now the dial is as crowded with them as his shop is with music. "I used to have to carry candles, herbs and piñatas just to fill the store," he says. "Now where could I fit a piñata?" he asks, waving his hand at the packed shop.

The bins are full of CDs in a dozen different categories, from the latest merengue titles to early-'70s Sunny Ozuna releases. Magazines and videos still priced in pesos spill off shelves. Blond guitars hang from the ceiling, just high enough for Tejano cowboy hats to pass below. And hundreds of photos cover the walls: Here's Memo with cumbia king Rigo Tovar, and there with a baby-faced, 12-year-old Ricky Martin. Here's one of him with a slightly plump Selena, her outfit straining at the seams. Over there, Memo poses with Mexican legend Vicente Fernandez, the man who first recorded the cry-in-your-cerveza classic "Volver, Volver."

The pictures of Fernandez are in a plastic case along with a mariachi costume the singer gave Villarreal. "Vicente came to Houston in '75,'' he says, pointing to a picture of the singer on stage, fans trying desperately to touch him. Then he points to another: "Here he is giving me the costume and telling me, 'Look, look what they did to me!' The crowd had ripped the decorations off his costume!'' Torn threads and dangling spangles on the dark blue pants prove his story true.

Now Fernandez, who built his career singing at palenques (Mexican rodeos that feature cockfights), is best known in some circles as Alejandro Fernandez's dad. The younger Fernandez, a bolero singer with a velvet voice and striking good looks, stars in VH-Uno music videos and flirts with the idea of singing in English.

"Vicente Fernandez's son recording in English? Who could have ever imagined it? It would be great, though," Villarreal shrugs. "And why not?''

The store owner has witnessed a mixing of genres that seemed unimaginable 30 years ago. "It's incredible the changes that we've seen," he says. "Tejanos buying salsa. Mexicans buying merengue. Never in my life would I have thought that I would see that."

For outsiders unfamiliar with the rigid separations that once divided Latin music, the term "crossover" refers to a Latin artist breaking into the English-language market -- like Gloria Estefan or Carlos Santana. But to industry insiders like Villarreal, the first crossovers were Tejano artists like Selena reaching Mexican fans.

"Tejano bands like Mazz and La Mafia revolutionized everything. It wasn't just Tejano anymore. They mixed it with Mexican music, with international styles. They gave it a different sound," he says. "We used to sell accordion music, Tejano, mariachi only. Now look at all the kinds: tropical, grupero, banda, norteña, Tex-Mex, salsa, merengue, reggae, boleros. Everything's changed."

Some things haven't changed. Latin music is notoriously sexist, and the few female artists Memo stocks are relegated to a small bin tersely labeled "Women." Villarreal walks down an aisle. "Look at the Tejano [section] and you're going to see nothing but men. Let's see, there's Elsa [Garcia], here's Jennifer [Peña], that's two. Then Selena. There might be four or five female artists in the entire section," he says unapologetically.

But while music by female artists might be hard to come by in the tiny store, reissues of obscure, early recordings by men are not. Freddy Fender from the mid-'70s, Fito Olivares of "Juana la Cubana" fame, Lalo Guerrero and Guty Cárdenas, among other largely forgotten artists, are well represented -- bell-bottoms, huge lapels, funny hair and all.

When it first opened, Villarreal's store was one of only a handful of places where fans could find Latin music in Houston. Now megastores have large sections aimed at the Latin market, and almost any title can be ordered online. But Villarreal doubts he'll lose many of his Spanish-only customers. And Borders -- with its piped-in bebop and $3 cups of coffee -- doesn't worry him a bit. "I go to those stores and check them out," Villarreal says. "If you ask for something, they want to know what it's called and who the artist is so they can pick at their computer and see what it says. But they don't know what they're selling.

"The majority of people who come in [here] looking for a song don't even know what it's called or who sings it," he continues. "They just know part of the lyrics. We're able to deal with that. We listen to the same stations they listen to, so we know the same music. Nobody at those big stores is listening to Tejano radio. And it's still going to be a long time until Latinos get on the computer, at least until they become a big segment."

Villarreal acknowledges that more and more companies are courting his customers. "Sears, Johnnie Walker, Chrysler -- everybody's coming after this market now…It hurts me to say this, but I think it took Selena dying for them to notice us," he says. "When they saw the thousands and thousands of people that responded to Selena's death, they said, 'Where were all these people?' We've always been here, but they hadn't bothered to look for us. [Then they found out] we had media and money to spend. I guess they thought we were just in cantinas or something, just laying bricks and roofing houses."

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Olivia Flores Alvarez