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.
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.
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 first time a tejano record had reached that lofty mark.
Today, despite hints of a breakup and solo careers on the horizon, La Mafia remains the most bankable act in an otherwise regionalized genre, the group’s blend of soul-tinged melodies and Caribbean-inflected rhythms immediately distinguishable from the more formulaic tunes of other tejano bands. La Mafia’s members, all accomplished musicians, can still hold their own on an old boot-stomping polka, rolling out the accordion trills and cowboy shouts. But they are better known as masters of the power-pop ballad, with thick electric guitars and a symphony of oohs and aahs behind De la Rosa’s throaty tenor. Synthesizers and conga drums add dashes of funk to the mix. The band’s live shows open with a recorded prelude of dance and electronica music borrowed from the French Canadian modernist troupe Cirque du Soleil. “If it weren’t for groups like La Mafia,” wrote Houston Chronicle critic Joey Guerra in a review of the band’s rodeo performance this year, “tejano music would be at a virtual standstill.”
The irony is that La Mafia’s ascension to the tejano throne did not come by just playing Texas. To the contrary, the band’s success has hinged on an ability to traverse the Rio Grande, to build bridges to Mexico, Central America, even South America, where it played to packed houses last year in Argentina, Venezuela, and Paraguay. By looking south instead of north, La Mafia has offered a new take on the musical mainstream, challenging notions of whose mainstream is really in the main. Rather than seek validation with an English-language hit, La Mafia has performed its crossover in reverse, tapping into a worldwide Latin market that is every bit as lucrative as the one in the U.S. “Their style is not just for Tejanos, or for Mexicanos, but really for all Latin people, in general, everywhere,” says Johnny Rojas, the director of talent for the Miami offices of the Telemundo network, which selected La Mafia for its Señorita Mexico broadcast. Other American musicians have recorded albums in Spanish—Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt, David Byrne, Jon Secada—while remaining primarily English-language artists. And many Spanish-language artists—from Julio Iglesias to the Gipsy Kings—have found audiences in the U.S. But La Mafia is a rarity—a U.S.-born, U.S.-raised band that has struck gold by exporting itself to a Spanish-speaking audience outside of this country. Perhaps only Gloria Estefan has crossed those borders more adeptly.
To non-Hispanic ears, that might not sound like much; why wouldn’t a tejano band be able to win Spanish-speaking fans, wherever they may be? The short answer: Music may be universal, but marketing is not. The Spanish-language music business is carved up by formats and demographics—tejano, Mexican regional, tropical, Latin pop—just like its English-language counterpart. And of all the Latin genres, tejano is perhaps the most circumscribed, a unique expression of the Mexican American experience in Texas. Tejano’s bouncy accordion licks tend to sound too countrified for the salsa-and-merengue market in New York and Miami; its pop melodies and polished arrangements tend to sound too Americanized for the banda-and-norteño market in Mexico and the large immigrant communities of Southern California. In Texas there are tejano festivals, tejano radio stations, and tejano concert halls to promote home-grown talent. But there is no such thing as tejano in Los Angeles. To get air time there, a group like La Mafia must try to squeeze its ballads onto a romantic-pop playlist and its dance numbers onto a ranchera station. Even Selena struggled with those formulas; her latest post-humous collection, Anthology, is divided into three sections—mariachi, English, and cumbia—but nothing called tejano.
“There have always been walls—a cultural wall,” laments La Mafia accordionist, keyboard player, and co-founder Armando “Mando” Lichtenberger, Jr., the band’s producer, manager, and mastermind. “It’s a curse. ‘Where do you fit in?’ That’s what this band is about.” Lichtenberger was sitting in Houston Sound Studio, La Mafia’s state-of-the-art, computerized, 32-track digital and 24-track analog recording facility. He was putting the finishing touches on the band’s twenty-sixth and latest album, Euforia, which features several lush bolero-style ballads that represent La Mafia’s most deliberate strategy yet for international Latin-lover status. “We’ve accepted that we’re going to be called tejano no matter what we play,” says Lichtenberger, whose great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century and married a Mexicana in South Texas (“I guess that’s where my polka taste comes from,” he says with a laugh). Still, he considers La Mafia more of a pop band, “in the English sense of the word.” Lichtenberger cites the Commodores, Kiss, the Eagles, and Prince as some of his and De la Rosa’s influences. “There’s no category for La Mafia in Spanish music,” he says. In the past the band has sometimes strayed perilously close to bubblegum turf, with sing-along melodies and cloying orchestration. On Euforia, however, La Mafia has seized upon a more refined, almost neoclassical pop sound, sprinkling its ballads with gentle piano lines and flamenco guitar flourishes. “In South America they don’t know what a tejano polka is or a Mexican-style cumbia,” Lichtenberger explains, “but the whole world knows what a bolero is. The whole world knows ‘Besame Mucho.’”
The ability to find a common denominator, or “the neutral zone,” as Lichtenberger calls it, is what sets La Mafia apart from the rest of the tejano scene. Where others have failed, or not even dared to try, La Mafia has managed to transcend a remarkable set of boundaries—commercial, geographic, linguistic, creative—a feat exceeded only by Selena, and only after her murder. Yet crossing over, whether to an English-language or a Latin American audience, has its price. “They’ve taken a lot of heat from traditionalists in Texas who feel they’re no longer tejano, that they’re really a romantic ballad outfit,” says Ramiro Burr, a critic at the San Antonio Express-News who is writing a book for Billboard Books about tejano and Mexican music. (La Mafia has returned the disdain, boycotting the annual Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio for nearly a decade.) For his part, Burr thinks that the band’s two Grammy-winning albums, 1996’s Un Millón de Rosas and 1997’s En Tus Manos (In Your Hands), were not the best tejano records those years, or even La Mafia’s best work. “I thought they had flattened out, run out of steam,” says Burr, who chafes at the way La Mafia has nonetheless capitalized on those back-to-back awards, trumpeting themselves as the “two-ston from Houston” and putting one of the statuettes on display at the city’s Hard Rock Cafe. “They have to drop it in every press release, yell it from every street corner, ‘We won, we won,’ like nobody knows.” Burr believes that other artists have produced better music but have been hobbled by lawsuits, no-shows, and personnel changes. “La Mafia is among the most organized groups in the business,” he adds. “I understand why they promote themselves. But sometimes I think they go overboard. Why worry so much about image and perception?”
If La Mafia sometimes appears calculated and self-conscious, or even insecure, as Burr would contend, it is probably a reflection of the difficult road they’ve chosen. The band has had to accept not only the slights that go along with being Mexican American artists in a predominantly Anglo America but also the snubs of a Latin recording industry run by East Coast executives of primarily Cuban descent. (Arrows also get slung from the south: After losing out at this year’s Grammys, the Mexican norteño band Los Tigres del Norte complained that La Mafia had an unfair advantage because its members were American.) Band members have had to withstand jabs from native Spanish speakers about their bad grammar and Tex-Mex accents; they’ve suffered the embarrassment of groping for words and asking interviewers to speak more slowly. They have had to endure months of touring far-off corners of Mexico and beyond, playing cramped dance halls in jungle villages and mountain hamlets where no Texan of any stripe had ever performed. And they have had to do it all without estranging their hardcore fans back home, a balancing act that can elevate local heroes to pan-Latin greatness or leave them dangling in a musical no-man’s-land. “It’s been hard for them to overcome all those barriers, but that’s just a part of being tejano, of being in the middle, on top of this fence, where you’re not totally American and not totally Mexican,” says Vilma Maldonado, who writes about entertainment and culture for the Monitor in McAllen. But, she adds, “You also have the best of both worlds.”
AS KIDS IN THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES, the members of La Mafia found both of those worlds in one place: Houston’s North Side. They heard Spanish in their homes but barely spoke it themselves. “And the Spanish you did speak was not correct. I wouldn’t even say Tejano, more like barrio slang,” remembers De la Rosa, who grew up as Oscar Gonzales but recently took his mother’s maiden name as a stage moniker. A different set of divisions emerged during lunchtime at school. “You’d have your little tacos, and everyone else would come in with their bologna sandwiches,” De la Rosa says.
They listened to Top 40 radio—De la Rosa remains a huge Rod Stewart fan while Lichtenberger was into Led Zeppelin—but the music they learned to play was the Mexican conjunto of their parents. De la Rosa’s father, who died when Oscar was fifteen, owned Henry’s, a popular nightclub on North Main Street, where the jukebox was stocked with tejano legends like Little Joe y La Familia, Sunny and the Sunliners, and the Latin Breed. Oscar and his two older brothers—Leonard (who became La Mafia’s guitarist) and Henry Junior (the eldest, who became La Mafia’s manager)—grew up working and playing inside the bar, with the two younger boys eventually forming Los Mirasoles, which became a house band. Lichtenberger’s dad, who moved the family up from Alice when Mando was eleven, plays the accordion and the bajo sexto; his bass lines can be heard on Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Under his tutelage, Mando picked up the accordion and formed his own band, Cielo Azul, which began landing gigs at the Gonzales family’s club. In 1980, while still teenagers, Oscar, Leonard, and Mando merged into La Mafia.
“Since we were ten years old, we’ve been playing those places: beer joints, weddings, quinceañeras,” says Lichtenberger, who projects a scholarly aura, with oval glasses and wide jowls. “That’s the reason we’ve been successful. It’s not just a device, a formula. It’s in our blood. We feel it . . . the music is real.”
In the beginning La Mafia played the role of teen idols, gilding its live shows with glam-rock imagery. The band performed polkas—mostly simple boy-meets-girl tunes en español—but added lights, fog, explosions, and spandex. By the late eighties, joined by drummer Michael Aguilar and keyboardist David de la Garza, they had matured into a skilled musical outfit (De la Garza has been known to sit in with Santana and War), yet they could never sell more than 50,000 albums—a respectable number but one that ensured they would forever remain a regional act. “It would have been real easy to do tejano hit after tejano hit,” Lichtenberger says. “We would have made great money here in Texas, by our standards, but nobody would have known who we are right across the border.”
The band’s steady sales attracted the attention of Sony Discos, who in 1991 signed the group to a seven-album contract. With major-label backing, De la Rosa, Lichtenberger, and company set out purposefully to cross the border, deliberately blurring the lines between Texas and Mexico. In other words, more ballads and pop hooks, less oompah-oompah. Their first two Sony albums—1991’s Estás Tocando Fuego and 1992’s Ahora y Siempre (Now and Forever)—sold almost two million units worldwide and forever changed the face of tejano. “They’re our idols,” says Jesús Juárez, the bass player for an up-and-coming band, Tiro al Blanco (Bullseye), which models itself musically after La Mafia. That would not be so unusual, except that he and his bandmates all live in Mexico and sport a look (red satin shirts and white leather boots) that is unmistakably norteño cowboy. At a show headlined by La Mafia in Monterrey last May, they got their chance to share a stage, adding a new spin to the reverse crossover. Here was a tejano band that was not only reaching Mexican fans but also inspiring Mexican bands to play tejano music. “This is the first time we’ve ever seen them up close like this,” gushed Tiro al Blanco’s twentysomething drummer, Daniel Guard-iola, as they posed for photos together.
For all the adulation that has been heaped upon La Mafia, the band remains a strikingly humble ensemble, spared the destructive egos and appetites that eighteen years on the road can breed. Band members tease one another affectionately, especially the newer ones: percussionist Doria, for his liberal applications of hair gel; bassist Ruiz, for his paralyzing fear on the dance floor; their publicist, Abel Salas, for his poetic aspirations. They are almost never rude when recognized in a restaurant or hotel; indeed, they seem to get a charge from the fact that the autograph seekers are usually the waiters, valets, and housekeepers, not their fellow diners and guests. They are frugal to the point of cheap, content to stay in a Hampton Inn, bunking two to a room, or drive eight hours in a rented van from the Rio Grande Valley to Houston rather than pay for a flight. (The three founding members own all of La Mafia’s trademarks and corporations; the other musicians receive a per diem and salary.) After a concert, they are just as likely to hit the pillow as to party. “I could really go for a Big Red,” De la Garza kept sighing after the Mazatlán show.
Lichtenberger so prefers his behind-the-scenes role (he produces other bands, including rising tejano stars Los Palominos) that he decided to stop touring this year, hiring Lorenzo Banda to fill in on accordion and keyboards. Leonard Gonzales is even more of a cipher. In Mazatlán, while the other guys were getting tugged across the ocean on the back of an inflatable banana, he stayed holed up in the hotel, practicing his guitar. Both seem relieved to let the top billing go to De la Rosa, whose olive face and leather hat are perhaps La Mafia’s most recognizable images.
“CAN I GO UP AND GIVE OSCAR A KISS?” cooed Miss Tabasco during a break in the Señorita Mexico rehearsal. Later, Miss Campeche and Miss Coahuila wrapped their arms around him. “They’re both La Mafia’s girlfriends,” another contestant snickered.
“Not La Mafia’s!” Miss Campeche fired back. “Oscar’s.”
De la Rosa usually plays along in good humor, but he rarely drinks it up. Although he is perceived and promoted as a sex symbol, there is a fragility about him, as if he distrusts the motives behind such fleeting sentiment. He is trim but not chiseled, handsome but not a hunk. His voice is like that too, not particularly powerful or versatile, but warm and expressive, even vulnerable. When he sings, he hoists his chin up high and shuts his eyes. His left hand grips the microphone and his right rests over his heart. Before taking the stage, he makes the sign of a cross. He won’t reveal his age, and he is uncomfortable talking about his private life, including the poorly kept secret that he has two grown sons. He still stings from a painful split with Henry Junior, who managed the band until a financial dispute sent him packing in 1996. Their mother lives with Henry, so De la Rosa doesn’t get to see her as often as he would like. At a Grammy celebration at Houston’s Hard Rock Cafe last year, she was in the audience, and De la Rosa dedicated a song to her, “Vivir.” “To live,” he sang. “I don’t want another thing with you, but to live.” By the end, tears were streaming down his cheeks.
“Not every day is a perfect day for me,” he said later. “I understand what life is about.”
Recently, De la Rosa has been hinting that La Mafia may pull the plug after the new millennium, fulfilling two decades together. “After twenty years, there probably won’t be no more Mafia,” he told fans at a sweltering outdoor show at the fairgrounds in Mercedes in June. “I just hope we make it to the year 2000.” It was unclear whether that was a prophecy or just melodrama and fatigue; he didn’t elaborate and, after the show, refused to discuss it. There has been talk of a solo project for him or an English-language album for the band. A year ago La Mafia even recorded a demo song in En-glish, “Angels and Miracles,” which sounds like a cross between Supertramp and Bryan Adams. But Sony executives so far have shown little interest. “They don’t want to chance it,” says De la Rosa.
For now, the strategy is to keep mining the Spanish-speaking mainstream, adding more stamps to the band’s Latin American passports. “There’s as much work down there as this band can handle,” Lichtenberger says. After Mazatlán, La Mafia spent most of the summer in Mexico—the band is still there now—doing three shows every weekend, from Juárez and Acapulco to Tejupilco and Nezahualcoyotl. On September 1 Sony released Euforia. The album’s cover art shows the band standing on the roof of a skyscraper (the Lyric Centre in downtown Houston), striking a pose that is meant to be both cosmopolitan and geographically ambiguous. The group also recently became pitchmen for juice giant Jumex, shooting a commercial that is being shown on both sides of the Rio Grande. The ad is another bit of hokey choreography, but one that again serves La Mafia’s purposes.
“Qué rico,” De la Rosa exclaims, taking a sip. “Más mango!”
“Mmmm,” mimics his brother. “Con más tamarindo!”
Ruiz chimes in: “Y más durazno (peach)!”
Lichtenberger adds: “Oye, con más guayaba (guava)!”
“Wow,” De le Rosa gasps. “Mas fruta de mi tierra!”
More fruit from my homeland—a place somewhere between Texas and Mexico that exists in the heart and mind, if not on a map.