Monday, March 11, 2013

Local conjunto accordionists looking for their big break.

Alan Cavazos and Juan Longoria Jr. Photo Courtesy: Iliana Vasquez. 

This past Saturday afternoon, Texas Folklife hosted an audition for their Big Squeeze accordion contest at the University of Texas-Pan American. Sarah Rucker, program and events manager at Texas Folkife, was in attendance to record the performances. She thanked UTPA and Iliana Vasquez for making this event possible.

"I was looking for a way to bring conjunto to the university," said Iliana Vasquez, an undergrad at UTPA's Mexican-American studies program. "So Lupe [Saenz] got me in contact with Don Chilo (Cecilio Garza) and Chilo got me in contact with Texas Folklife."

That led to a phone call between Vasquez and Cristina Balli, the executive director of Texas Folklife. It didn't take long before Vasquez was given the opportunity to host these auditions at UTPA.

Two button diatonic accordionists auditioned for their opportunity at advancing to the semi-finals in Austin. The first contestant was Alan Cavazos, a 17-year-old accordionist from McAllen, TX. He's been accepted to UTPA and has made plans to attend the university this fall. Alan might be best known for being the grandson of Don Ramiro Cavazos, the legendary bajo-sexto player of "Los Donneños". Alan had the honor of performing with his 86-year-old grandfather at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center last month. Alan hasn't been playing the accordion long but he's proving to be a natural at it with his clean, classy style.

"I started [playing the accordion] about three years ago, when I was barely a [high school] freshman," said Alan Cavazos. "[Los Donneños] are my biggest influence, I love the old songs and the polkas."

The second contestant was Jacob Vela, a 21-year-old accordionist from Lyford, TX. Vela works at the oil rigs, but on his free time he works at improving his musical skills and securing gigs. Before arriving at the auditions he performed at a Brownsville parade with Pete Anzaldua, last year’s Big Squeeze grand champion. Vela has been influenced by country, which he showcased with confidence during his audition by performing Folsom Prison Blues. For Vela, the accordion has been a lifelong commitment.

"My dad bought me my first accordion when I was four, it was a piano accordion," said Jacob Vela. "I learned on the piano accordion, then at the age of eight I got a button accordion."

Along with the auditions, Juan Longoria Jr. and Conteño brought their own hybrid brand of conjunto, Tejano, and norteño music to the event. Longoria, the first ever Big Squeeze grand champion performed boleros, polkas, redovas, schottisches and even a mazurka for the live audience. Along with his musical performance, Longoria discussed the history of border music and his role in bringing a conjunto music program to Los Fresnos High School. He also shared his memories of winning the 2007 Big Squeeze championship.

"It was nerve wrecking, especially in Houston when you know what the prize is and the bragging rights," Juan Longoria Jr. remembers. "It's a competition and it brings out the best in a person. I played cause I love playing but at the same time I wanted to do it to represent my family."

The semi-finalists are scheduled to be announced on April 5, and are set to compete at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin on April 20. If any Valley accordionists under the age of 21 missed out, they can still audition on March 30 at Los Fresnos High School. If you can't make it there, Texas Folklife encourages you to visit them online at and inquiry about emailing a video audition before April 1.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful article, Eduardo. I'm very proud to coordinate the Big Squeeze statewide contest and we're so happy Iliana helped us to present it at UTPA this year. Keep in touch with us!
    Sarah Rucker

  2. Thanks Sarah! I had a great time at the auditions and look forward to writing about the Big Squeeze in the months to come. I will keep in touch, hope you have a great week Sarah.