If you listen to the lyrics of the song “Duele,” you can see why 27-year-old Elida Reyna now dominates tejano music like no woman since Selena. The title means “It Hurts,” and the song, which she co-wrote, is a defiant mariachi ballad that describes a woman who is devastated when she learns that her man has another lover. She and her girlfriends hit the bars to drown her sorrows in tequila. That may sound like any number of country and western weepers, but no Tejana had ever described life that rawly before, and Elida compounds the shock by singing of her open wounds with an unabashedly erotic tone. “It’s not meant in a vulgar way,” she says of the single that won song of the year and Mexican regional song of the year for her band Elida y Avante at this year’s Tejano Music Awards, while she won female vocalist and female entertainer of the year. “It was to the point. It was controversial, but at the same time, it was something people were ready to hear. I was kind of afraid in the beginning, because I’d never pushed things to that length before.”
In fact, since she emerged on the tejano scene in 1994, Elida has made a career out of pushing things, and not always in the direction of her apparent best interests. Born in San Antonio and raised in the Valley town of Mercedes, Elida was an education student at the University of Texas-Pan American, in Brownsville, when she formed Elida y Avante (or EYA, as its members call it) with bassist Noel Hernandez, accordionist Cande Aguilar, Jr., and a drummer who is no longer with the band. Even in the beginning, they were making unusual moves. Their music was puro tejano, rejecting English-language crossovers and other experiments of the era. And they promoted themselves as a band rather than as a solo star with backup musicians. “I felt people would take us more seriously,” she says. “You don’t really know how a working relationship is going to go between a girl and a bunch of guys, but we were lucky. The guys are easygoing and we all get along, so it has worked out.”
The young band was an immediate hit. They recorded Atrevete, their 1994 debut, for La Mafia’s label at the time, Voltage Entertainment: It went gold (denoting sales of at least 50,000 units), propelled by the hit single “Luna Llena” and Hernandez’s use of a stand-up bass to create a unique sound. Before they could enjoy their success, however, they were feuding with Voltage. Groups rarely leave a powerhouse like Voltage (with its major-label distribution) unless they’ve already lined up another company with comparable juice, so Elida y Avante shocked the industry by going out on its own. The group self-released one single and then did something nearly as shocking by signing in 1996 with unknown Tejas Records in San Antonio, which had released just one album—and a blues album at that.
But somehow, like everything else Elida does, the pairing clicked. Tejas bosses Chris Lieck (now also EYA’s manager) and John Whipple gave the group a handsome recording budget, resulting in sound quality superior to that of most tejano CDs, and marketed the results aggressively. EYA built momentum, winning a 1999 Tejano Music Award for the most promising band. They’ve now had twelve hit singles.
And Elida, who is married to her high school sweetheart and is expecting her first child in November, is stepping out. The 1999 Magico, the group’s fourth CD, pictures her alone on the cover and reflects new musical influences. She is clearly, like Selena, moving away from puro tejano. Dance mixes of one track include some English. After the group records its next CD later this year, she begins work on a mariachi set that will be marketed as a solo album. Then she’ll branch out into English-language and international recordings with the group. In its uncertain, post-Selena phase, Elida y Avante could become the standard-bearers tejano so desperately needs.