IT USED TO BE THAT ACCORDIONIST Eva Ybarra was known mainly for being the only female of any consequence in male-dominated conjunto. But in the early nineties, as Hispanic culture began easing into the mainstream, all that changed. Like Flaco Jiménez, Steve Jordan, Mingo Saldívar, and other veterans of the genre, Ybarra traded the insular world of local labels and cantina gigs for national exposure. A Mi San Antonio, her 1994 debut for Massachusetts-based Rounder Records, was a superb if largely conventional conjunto set. And her new Romance Inolvidable (Rounder) is even better, adding a daring mix of banda (Mexico’s big-band form), ballads, and country and jazz flavorings to the traditional polkas and rancheras. “I wanted this album to sound different—progressive as well as traditional,” says Ybarra, who has been invited to play an international music festival in Seattle this fall.

Word is finally spreading that the fortysomething performer (she won’t reveal her age) is no novelty but a genuine trailblazer. Women have always been discouraged from leading conjuntos (the term for the bands as well as the music), but Ybarra’s family was different. Growing up in south San Antonio, she taught herself the accordion by following along to the radio. When she was six, her parents took her to local restaurants to play and continued to chaperone her gigs until she was in her late twenties, enabling her to crack the all-male circuit. “Women were not supposed to go into the cantinas—there was nobody in there except drunk men,” she says with a laugh. “But I liked playing for the borrachitos, the drunk men, because they listened to the music and they cheered.”

Still, Ybarra has never gotten sufficient work with her conjunto; even today she supplements her income by leading a mariachi trio through San Antonio restaurants. And she has had terrible luck keeping bands together because, she says, hidebound traditionalists won’t take orders from a woman. The day after she tore up the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio in 1991, every member of her all-male band quit. “It’s jealousy,” she declares. “They won’t accept a woman getting the applause.” Her current conjunto includes no Hispanics except for her longtime singing partner, Gloria Garcia Abadia.

Historically, Ybarra’s closest female peers had been the blind San Antonio accordionist Lupita Rodela and Chavela, a �ashy young Southern Californian who died in a freak accident three years ago. But thanks to the lessons she has been giving at San Antonio’s Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and elsewhere, the stage is getting crowded: One student, Davette Esparza, plays accordion for the tejano group Inocencia, and another, Brenda Martinez, leads her own band. The queen of progressive conjunto is happy to spawn her own competition.