|Talking to Pepe Maldonado|
"La Lomita Park today is very important to the conservation of conjunto music," Lupe Saenz, president of the South Texas Conjunto Association, said. "La Lomita Park is like an icon in conjunto music, in the Valley. You can compare La Lomita now with La Villita in San Benito, and other famous dance places in the Valley. What La Villita, and the other salones were in the 60's and 70's, La Lomita is today."
The man behind it all is conjunto musician and promoter Jose "Pepe" Maldonado Sr.
On February 23, Maldonado Sr. celebrated his 73rd birthday. He was wearing a sharp looking suit for the occasion. While a little under the weather, he was excited about performing for his weekly Sunday audience.
"Me siento muy bien, gracias a dios (I feel real good, thanks to god)," Maldonado Sr. tells me as I introduce myself at La Lomita Park and ask how he's doing on his birthday.
Maldonado Sr. was born to Santana and Nieves Maldonado in Rio Grande City. He was one of four brothers, with seven sisters. By 1945, the hard-working migrant family had relocated to Edinburg.
From a very young age, Maldonado Sr. dreamed of entering the music scene. While he can play a variety of instruments, including the accordion, bass, and bajo-sexto, he was especially interested in singing.
I asked him, "How did your parents feel when you told them you wanted to sing?"
"You want me to tell you?" laughs Maldonado Sr. "They were very much against it. (My dad used to say) that, '(Singing) is for the birds. You're not going to make it, so you better just keep on picking cotton or picking tomatoes.' They didn't believe in music, they didn't believe that we could make it."
Maldonado Sr. rebelled against his parents and forged his own path in life.
"Anything can be done, no matter what," Maldonado Sr. said. "It's all up to you, if you want to do something real bad, you'll do it."
During the 1950's, a theater in Alamo would host weekly amateur events for local musicians. That's where Maldonado Sr. got his first taste of what it felt like to perform in front of a live audience.
"At that time, Pedro Suarez was the disc jockey there, the guy that made the show," Maldonado Sr. remembers. "That was the first time I ever started singing with a group, and I started singing with Ricardo Guzman. From there on, I caught on pretty well."
Shortly thereafter, Guzman mentored Maldonado Sr. and help him advance in his craft.
"He had one of the greatest groups here," Maldonado Sr. said, referring to Ricardo Guzman y Los Tres Aces. "After a while he said, 'You know you sing good, I'm going to help.' He taught me a lot. He taught me how to vocalize."
It was in 1956 when Maldonado Sr. joined his first group. He started singing and playing bass guitar for Gilberto Lopez y su conjunto.
"We had a real nice time en ese tiempo (in those days)," Lopez said. "En esos tiempos todos trabajamos en la labor (In those days we all worked on the fields). I had to pick him up from where he was working (on our way to a gig)."
With Lopez, Maldonado Sr. recorded "Nada Me Importa" and "La Quintanita" in 1957 for Discos Ideal.
Maldonado Sr. notes that in 1958, his father finally accepted his son's path.
"I can remember my dad, hearing the radio with me, and we were sitting on the porch. They played a record that we had done, that was recently out. He was hearing it, he told me, 'You know what, I think you can really sing.'"
For the next few years, he recorded with Lopez and Guzman until he started his own conjunto in 1962. His fellow band-mates included his brother Margil Maldonado (bajo-sexto), Joe Luna (accordion) and Ramon Morales (drummer). Pepe Maldonado y su conjunto switched to Bego Records in the mid-1960's.
"El Troquero" and "Amorcito Consentido" were two of his biggest hits. There was another hit that reached even greater heights.
"In '67, I made the greatest hit of all (for me), 'Al Pie De Un Crucifijo'," Maldonado Sr. said. "Even New York (radio stations played it). We sold to New York, I don't know how many thousands of LP's when it came out. At that time I was working with Bego in the shipping department. We used to ship to New York, 200-300 LP's a week."
That same state where he sold so many albums to was also the one state that alluded him in another category.
"I went to all the states except New York," Maldonado Sr. said, when asked about how many states he has performed in.
Maldonado Sr. estimates that he recorded about 20 LP's and 20 CD's. Some of his latter, post-1970's releases were recorded at his own recording studio, and released on his own label, which was known as Del Sur Records. He tells me that over the course of twenty years, he recorded many local musicians there.
While Maldonado Sr. is reminiscing about his career, his accordionist Juan Antonio Tapia pulls up a seat right beside him. The Brownsville musician played previously with Cornelio Reyna in the 1990's.
"This guy is a hell of an accordion player, we do well together," Maldonado Sr. said, pointing to Tapia.
The two have been playing together since 1996.
It was 1992 when he started envisioning a setting that would allow him to host weekly conjunto music events.
"They weren't playing conjunto music, they weren't working things like they should be working around the Valley," Maldonado Sr. said. "So I decided to go ahead and put up this place, and try to promote these groups."
The process took over 10 years, as he worked towards building a physical representation of what he had imagined. The western aesthetic is the first thing one notices about his creation.
"Let me tell you why (I designed it this way)," Maldonado Sr. said. "That's the way we were raised. I was born in 1941, and what we had, was exactly what you see in my place here. It's all 'rancho' style. People like it here, because they come, and they feel at home. It's very, very homey. I decided to go that route, to do something different for the people."
In 2002, the site opened with a performance by Freddy Gonzalez. Judging by its attendance, it's come a long way since then.
"That was the first dance we ever made, we had two couples," laughs Maldonado.
As my conversation with Maldonado Sr. draws to a close, he notices his grand-daughter, Becky Palacios approaching. He starts to introduce her and his son Joe Maldonado Jr. to the surrounding crowd.
"This is my nieta, she takes care of Facebook and he takes care of YouTube. And I take care of the money," Maldonado Sr. said with a sly smile.
"And I take care of Pepe as long as he's carrying the money," adds Tapia, laughing.
At the entrance sits a group of men that are here every Sunday. One of them is Roberto Hernandez, or "Vato Loco" as he's known around these parts.
"Pepe I've known him, I think, 46, 48 years," Hernandez said passionately. "This is a good place cause it's puro conjunto, que los pachucos le gustaba mas antes (that the pachucos liked back then)."
The people that shows up to these weekly gatherings all seem to have known each other for decades. One person that knows this crowd better than most is conjunto legend Gilberto Perez Sr.
"I like to play there because of the people, mostly from middle-age on up, older people that are strictly conjunto fans," Perez Sr said. "When I play there, I see people smiling, hollering, gritando. They are having a lot of fun. They make you feel good because they applaud a lot."
I ask him if it is just like the old days. He says that while it is the same crowd, it is a little bit different in 2014.
"In the old days, when we were young...," Perez Sr. starts to laughs, subtly hinting that the scene was a bit more wild back then. "(Now) they are older, they behave better."
When you enter the venue, the first person you're probably going to run into is Irma Maldonado, as she accepts your $10.00 entrance fee. Her and Maldonado Sr. have been married for over 54 years. They have four children; three girls and one boy.
Maldonado Sr. goes up to the stage, grabs a hold of the microphone and greets his audience.
"Ahora estoy un poco malo de la garganta (Today I'm a little sick, from the throat)," Maldonado Sr. said. "Me pusieron tres inyecciones. Me dijo vete a dormir. Me veni a cantar!" (He gave me three injections. (The doctor) told me to go to sleep. (But) I came to sing!)"
The dance floor slowly fills up with a group of people, dancing in a circular motion. Some of the dancers salute and tip their hats at Maldonado Sr. as they glide by in front of the stage. Maldonado Sr. nods back and smiles.
As the Vato Loco gets close to where I am sitting, he presents his dancing partner to me. He calls her his "Loca".
In the middle of the set, Maldonado Jr. calls me over to a laptop he has in the back of the building. There he shows me how they operate the live U-Stream video. He demonstrates what he does by changing the camera angles that are broadcast through the internet.
"I try to push it as much as I can," Maldonado Jr. said. "I wanted something else that added more attraction to La Lomita. (My dad) didn't believe me in the beginning. He's not familiar with the technical progress que estamos ahorita (that we have now)."
Maldonado Jr. explains how after they added this feature, they started receiving a lot more attention from outside the Valley. His father now understands the value of the internet and social media.
"You'd be surprise how many people call," Maldonado Sr. confirmed. "From Washington, Illinois, Florida, from everywhere."
After an hour of performing, Maldonado Sr. steps out and Bernardo y Sus Compadres steps right in.
At this point, Maldonado Jr. leads me throughout the dance-room, showing me some of the highly decorated walls. The walls are covered with vinyl record covers, photographs, newspaper clippings and posters. The photographs are mostly made up of musicians that have played here in past years. Two large images of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne stand out. One framed certificate reads "Smithsonian Folklife Festival". This brings Maldonado Sr. back to the Summer of 1998.
"Going to Washington D.C. is beyond your imagination," Maldonado Sr. said, adding that he performed at the White House lawn that Summer. "Es un paraiso. Sabes lo que es un paraiso? Paradise!"
On a day off, Maldonado Sr. and Tapia walked over five hours visiting the Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and several other monuments.
"We had a blast," Maldonado Sr. said. "That's a great memory for me. Visiting all those places."
Maldonado Jr. also clues me in on one aspect of his father's career that doesn't get discussed much.
"In 1963, I worked at a radio station in Fowler, California," Maldonado Sr. later told me when I asked him. "I worked for a couple of years there. Then after that, I came (back) here, and started working for KIRT (AM 1580) radio. Then after that I started working for 840 AM. I was working for quite some time on the radio."
The two radio shows that were broadcast here aired under the title "Estamos en Tejas con Pepe Maldonado". He credits his time there with learning a lot about the business side of music.
After an hour, Maldonado Sr. steps back into the spotlight. This time he has an accordion strapped on. He gets on the microphone, and singles out two regulars in the audience. Their names are Fred and Nena Palacios.
"Estoy mas que seguro, porque esto fue en los 60's, que les tocaron un vals para bailar en su boda (I'm pretty sure, because this was in the 60's, that they played a waltz for you two to dance to at your wedding)," Maldonado said.
It was their 54th wedding anniversary and his gift to them was in the form of a waltz. The two walked over to the center and danced slowly, as Maldonado Sr. took them back to their youth.
"I made them feel like they were 54 years back," laughs Maldonado.
He finished his second set with "Al Pie De Un Crucifijo". As the crowd applauded, Maldonado Sr. joked that it's been so many years, that he forgot a few words but it doesn't matter.
He is now running around, doing work around the site as his birthday party nears its end. He does a little bit of everything, keeping his joint in tip top shape.
"I do all my maintenance," Maldonado Sr. said proudly.
At the end of the night, Maldonado Sr. walks back to his house, which is located right in front of his business.
"From the recording studio, to the record store, to this, to him playing on weekends, lo a hecho todo (he's done it all)," Maldonado Jr. said. "I'm extremely proud. He has done a lot, solo. He probably hasn't been given the credit that he deserves for trying to keep the music going."
Maldonado Sr.'s status as a legendary conjunto musician was established long before La Lomita Park came into fruition. Now in 2014, his stature has only grown since the creation of this outlet. He's one of the bright lights that has helped keep this music from fading away into obscurity.
"I feel that I have done something great for the conjuntos," Maldonado Sr. concludes. "Something great for the people that are diehards. I feel that I have accomplished what I have set out to do. I'm glad everything turned out to be fine."