From San Antonio With Love

By Juan Antonio Cuéllar,
Frontera Collection Curator

Over my twenty-year span of digitizing the Frontera Collection as the Head Digitizing Engineer, many aspects of the collection resonated with me. I was born in Mexico and spent my formative years here in the United States, where I balanced that fine line every immigrant does between maintaining your cultural roots and assimilating to the dominant culture. The themes and songs I found in the Frontera Collection spoke my own feelings of insecurity, as well as the challenges and joys I had encountered in my life as an immigrant. 

This was very isolating work. Throughout the long eight-hour days, the artists on the records became my coworkers and the music I was hearing came to impact me profoundly. I understood that most of the music in the Frontera Collection originated in and around the border region of Tejas and Northern Mexico. I had never been to this region, so while digitizing I was confronted with music coming from places that only lived in my imagination. One of those places was San Antonio.  

Recently, I had the thrill of being invited to speak at the Western History Association conference, held in none other than San Antonio! I fell in love with San Antonio through the music that was created and recorded there. My talk centered around the challenge of creating broader access to the Frontera Collection and our continued mission to make the collection a living, breathing, dynamic digital archive accessible to all. A welcome byproduct of this exciting opportunity was that I would finally be able to see, experience, and immerse myself in a city that I grew to love from a distance. 

Standing in front of the La Musica de San Antonio mural featuring Lydia Mendoza, 1303 W. Commerce, San Antonio.

I envisioned how the streets looked and my imagination ran wild with visions of huge box trucks dropping off palettes of records to addresses all over San Antonio. I became familiar with San Antonio’s city layout through street names I encountered on record labels. Streets like W. Commerce Street, Guadalupe Street, S. Presa Street, N. Flores Street, Hwy. 90 W., W. Poplar, Fredericksburg Road, and Castroville Road all had flourishing record labels at one time. These labels pumped out music that helped shape San Antonio’s music scene.  

One section of the Frontera Collection that has always intrigued me are the two-part corridos which tell of historical events that happened in and around San Antonio. One that I highlighted in my presentation was “Las Huelgistas” by Cuco Luevano y Luis Vera. They recorded this along with a handful of other tunes in the Texas Hotel in San Antonio on the February 23, 1936. This corrido tells of protests led by women workers in San Antonio who were fighting for better working conditions. Las pureras, or cigar makers, and workers from the garment industry took to the picket lines. The corrido does not name any of the companies that were targeted but did mention the cross streets where the protests were being held—South Frio and Buena Vista streets—which turns out to be the location of the Fink Cigar Company warehouse. In peeling back the layers of the corrido, I discovered the leader and spokesperson of these protests,  a 16 year-old named Emma Tenayuca. I dug deep into her story, become more excited with each new piece of information I found about her. 

My experience learning about Emma Tenayuca and the cigar makers’ protest through music—just like my experience of coming to know San Antonio before ever setting foot there—reinforced my belief that the Frontera Collection provides a secondary education not offered by educators, researchers, or academia, but only by the lived experiences that these songsters sing about. These recordings are primary sources of events, people, and places as told through the voices of those artists. We have much to learn from them, and I feel lucky to be able to share their stories through my own work. 

To explore more hidden gems from the Frontera Collection, check out our YouTube channel. And stay tuned to the blog for more stories from the archive!