We’re an American Band

How did La Mafia get to be the biggest tejano group in the world? By stretching the boundaries of their music—and crossing borders.

“SEÑORITA ME-XI-CO…”

Upstairs, the guys in the band were fidgeting and yawning, fighting off boredom in their windowless dressing room. Downstairs, on the stage of Mazatlán’s elegant nineteenth-century opera house, mainstream Mexico was putting on its best face for the world.

“Señorita Me-xi-co…”

The pageant’s canned theme song soared over the audience. Folkloric dancers twirled and kicked. Mariachis strummed mute guitars and shirtless Indians rowed invisible boats. To a chorus of whoops, the young lovelies began parading out in traditional garb—the statuesque Aztec princess, the sombrero-clad rodeo queen, the fruit-on-the-head tropical vixen—each delivering a paean to the wonders and warmth of her native state. The requisite stable of telenovela stars and overripe celebrities blew kisses from the judges’ aisle. After an hour of bikinis and evening gowns, the 32 contestants in last May’s Señorita Mexico contest had been trimmed to 10: Señorita Campeche, Señorita Oaxaca, Señorita Sonora, Señorita Chiapas, Señorita Distrito Federal, Señorita Jalisco, Señorita Baja California Norte, Señorita Sinaloa, Señorita Veracruz, and Señorita Chihuahua.

The announcement of those names was La Mafia’s cue, even though half of the guys in the band would have needed an atlas to figure out where in Mexico the girls were from. “T-las-ka-la… T-las-ka-la,” Miss Tlaxcala had repeated for the benefit of La Mafia’s bassist, Eutimio “Tim” Ruiz, earlier during a break. The percussionist, Brian Doria, had his eye on Miss Michoacán. “How do you say, ‘Don’t worry. Your smile is very beautiful?’” he had asked La Mafia’s more fluent publicist. La Mafia may be Texas’ number one Spanish-language musical act—winners this year of a second consecutive Grammy in the best Mexican American—tejano category—but that is no guarantee of making it south of the Rio Grande. A good many borders have to get crossed before a group of Mexican Americans—most of whom live in the suburbs of Houston, speak English as their first language, and fret about Montezuma’s revenge as surely as any gringo—can land an internationally televised gig on Señorita Mexico ’98.

Un millón de rosas, ” crooned La Mafia’s lead singer, Oscar de la Rosa, as he took the stage. A million roses.

Rosas,” came the breathy echo of the band, backing him with a bubbling, synthesizer-fueled cumbia beat.

They were dressed in shimmery, black Galleria-bought silks and polyesters, their whiskers neatly coiffed in a hipster’s arsenal of sideburns, goatees, and lower-lip tufts. De la Rosa, who has dark eyebrows and long straight bangs parted in the middle, was sporting a full face of dapper stubble under his trademark gaucho hat, a black leather lid from Meyer the Hatter in New Orleans. Although several are in their early twenties, the elders of La Mafia are approaching forty, baby boomers who drive BMWs and SUVs. All in all, they looked like they would have been more comfortable at the House of Blues jamming to “Shake Your Booty” (which they have been known to do) than stuck on an ersatz colonial set, caked in TV makeup, grinning their way through a spectacle of Mexican kitsch.

While De la Rosa sang, the semifinalists began returning to the stage, now in swimsuits and pumps. They were accompanied by a troupe of tiny boys and girls, not much older than six or seven, in miniature tuxedos and frilly lace gowns. Each child offered a red silk rose; each señorita reciprocated with a kiss. Soon, everyone was dancing, De la Rosa with the dolled-up kids and then with the half-naked ladies: swaying among them, stopping to gaze into the eyes of Miss D.F., serenading Miss Baja, grabbing Miss Oaxaca for a spin. “ Rosas,” he kept on singing. “ Para amarte. ” To show my love.

He ended up crouched behind the children, smiling at the camera, fake flowers waving in rhythm.

“There are a lot of times,” he said after the show, “that you have to do things that, uh . . . I don’t know how to put this . . .”

It was about midnight in Mazatlán, six hundred miles south of El Paso on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. De la Rosa was sipping his second Diet Coke at Mr. Taco Baby, a greasy spoon he had patronized with trepidation the day before but that now—with his plumbing still intact—he lauded for its down-home taste. “To grow, you have to keep doing different things,” he finally offered. “We don’t want to just stay in one place . . . I think what we did tonight was an accomplishment. It opens a lot of doors. It really puts the group on another level.”

FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS—long enough to add a few gray hairs to De la Rosa’s chin—La Mafia has been growing, from a barrio band on the cantina-and-quinceañera circuit to an international megagroup that is to Latin music what other Texas icons, like Willie Nelson and ZZ Top, are to country and rock. Although its name is meant to signify unity, not organized crime, more than a few eyebrows were raised when Mayor Lee Brown officially designated May 12 as La Mafia Day in Houston. If you’re not a Spanish speaker, this might be the most successful Texas band you’ve never heard of. Then again, most Americans had never even heard of tejano, a slick hybrid of Mexican ranchera and European polka, until the shocking death in 1995 of Selena, who is often credited with being the music’s first and only global superstar. Not to be impolite, but it was La Mafia that blazed many of Selena’s trails, not the other way around. In 1992, a year before she first packed the Astrodome for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, La Mafia set what was then a Go Tejano Day record, crowding 55,000 fans into the stadium. The year before that, the group released Estás Tocando Fuego (You’re Playing With fire), an album of romantic pop ballads that would, according to its label, eventually sell more than one million copies worldwide (about half in the U.S. and half in Latin America), the

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