Where did Tejano’s music go?
My family travels often to the northern part of Mexico. We visit relatives, eat too much, spend a few pesos and dread the day of departure. Our sad return home is always accompanied initially by Tejano music, my father’s favorite jam. On the radio we hear Grupo Mazz, Little Joe, The Mafia, Jay Perez and Selena. But it never fails that the closer we get to Dallas, the more Tejano music starts to get static. Eventually we cross an invisible line and there is silence.
I’ve always wondered why cities in South Texas seem to have a lot of train stations while Dallas doesn’t? Where did all the Tejano music go?
“We must be more Mexican than Mexicans and more American than Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting,” says Edward James Olmos as Abraham Quintanilla in the 1997 biopic. Selena. This line sums up what many generations of immigrants face. It’s a balancing act where your citizenship and culture are often divided but need to be recognizable on both sides. Tejano music unifies the two.
Olmos’ line resonates with Mauri “Mean Mauri” Reynoso, who was a DJ for Dallas Tejano music station KHCK “Kick” FM from 1996 to 2004. He’s a first-generation immigrant, and he remembers what c was to be Mexican. American who grew up in West Dallas at a time when being labeled Chicano was not a matter of pride. Finding refuge in Tejano music meant a lot.
Tejano music is a combination that personifies the Mexican American people.
“It’s our music,” he says. “You Can Relate To It” Blending the Spanish language, country dancing, modern synth keyboards, jazzy saxophone elements and German and Czech accordion influences, it’s the perfect mix of what our parents used to listen to in Mexico and what we grew up listening to in the United States. It is a combination that personifies the Mexican American people. And it flourished in Dallas, where dance clubs, radio and touring Tejano artists were all part of the scene.
So where did he go, and why did he leave? Well, for starters, when KHCK was sold to Univision in 2004, programming shifted to mostly regional Mexican music. But for Reynoso, that wasn’t exactly the end. He theorizes that a decline was inevitable, as Tejano music was stereotyped as something we just listened to in Texas. He was walled off, refusing to share the stage. “I don’t think anyone thought about how we should evolve,” he says.
Ralph Thompson operates the only Tejano music nightclub in Dallas. He has run New West since 1995 and has worked in the entertainment industry for over 40 years. He jokes that at first it was a little intimidating being a white guy running a Tejano music club, but he always remained optimistic, encouraging Tejano music in the best way possible.
New West has the feel of a honky-tonk. There’s a huge pair of cowboy boots outside, and the inside features wood-paneled walls and a hardwood dance floor. On the wall of the main entrance, there are some recognizable faces on the framed photographs but also some less familiar ones.
“David Lee Garza, Gary Hobbs, Ruben Ramos, Emilio Navaira, Jay Perez, Jaime Y Los Chamacos,” Thompson recites, pointing to them one by one. There’s a very young woman on the wall that I don’t recognize. “Jennifer Peña, she was only 15 or 16 when she first came,” Thompson says. Peña is a three-time Grammy nominee, including one for Best Tejano Performance. The faded photograph is giving me some serious FOMO.
New West hosts a Tejano music act almost every Friday. Sometimes the Tejano performer is paired with a Norteño, conjunto, or cumbia performer. “I think I can make it work without offending anyone,” says Thompson, accepting the market changes and the delicate balance required when introducing a mix of old and new generations of music.
It was clear that I was wrong. Tejano music is still present in Dallas. But I wanted to know more. “You should just interview Johnny Canales,” my dad suggested casually. How accessible did my parents think he was? On The Johnny Canales Show, which debuted in 1983, Canales would tell his guest artists “You got it—take it away!” He is often called the Dick Clark of the Hispanic community and was like the godfather of Tejano music, credited with introducing emerging stars including Selena Quintanilla herself. The show, originally filmed and broadcast locally in Corpus Christi, was picked up by Univision in 1988 and aired internationally.
Although he was born in Mexico, Canales moved to Robstown, Texas when he was just over a month old. His television career embraced his “Texi-can” experience. It was not uncommon to hear him speak English and Spanish on his show, and he often brought in musical acts who were more from the Mexican side of the border. The result of his ability to connect Tejanos to their Mexican roots, territory often left untouched, was overwhelming support from viewers. It became a household name, a name my father thought I could just call.
A little research led me to his Facebook page. “Yeah, that’s Johnny,” my dad confirmed when I showed him. So I texted Johnny Canales. I needed the insight of a true advocate for Tejano music, someone who understands the culture behind it as well as the music. I rewrote my message in Spanish; something told me it would hit a little differently that way. I like to think that helped because after two days I got a response and we set up a time to chat.
A retired musician, Canales has an eye for talent. When we spoke, he recalled some of the pioneers of Tejano music in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Sunny and the Sunliners, Isidro Lopez and Flaco Jiménez. Before them, from the 1930s, Tejano bands were called orchestras, playing on the popularity of the big band era. Later, with the introduction of electronic keyboards and synthesizers, the sounds of music became popular in the 80s and 90s.
The Johnny Canales Show ended in 1996, but the former host’s passion for music never waned. Canales and his wife, Nora, began building a studio to continue exploring the Tejano music scene, seeking donations through GoFundMe to achieve this goal. Currently they broadcast on Facebook Live as The Johnny and Nora Canales Show. “Tejano music is part of Tejanos life,” says Canales. “It’s unique!”
And, all things considered, it’s really not gone. Some radio stations will mix up a song or two, and New West always brings names I heard growing up. Although the formula is a little different, the musical genre is no longer as isolated as it once was and is now associated with its Mexican roots. When we celebrate both, we end up with the incomparable experience of always having one foot firmly on either side of the border. Tejano music keeps playing – on the radio, in the club, on Spotify playlists, on CDs. Or just a capella on a road trip, minus the accordions, courtesy of my dad.
This story originally appeared in the September issue of Magazine D. Write to [email protected].
Aileen is the Research Editor for Magazine D and D Home. Proud native of Dallas, she happily obtains the…