"It was nerve-wrecking," Rodríguez said about his semi-finals appearance. "It was one of my first times performing in front of people."
While out in the spotlight, with his button diatonic accordion strapped on, he saw his family out there in the audience. The judges in front of him were accordionist David Farias and bajo-sexto player Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs.
Rodríguez began playing the redova "El Porrón" and the polka "Idalia".
"That first year was a little rough," Rodríguez said. "My mechanics were very frigid, very stiff. I didn't really move a lot, I was just playing, looking at my fingers. Just trying to concentrate on my playing and not really entertaining the people."
Despite what Rodríguez thought about his self-admitted flaws, the judges were impressed, and advanced him to the finals that year.
"David Farias came up to me right after that," Rodríguez said. "He said, 'I really like your style of playing, it's very clean.' He told me that I needed to loosen up a little more. Enjoy the music, feel the music. I just kept that in mind."
Rodríguez feels that it was the challenging nature of his pieces that sent him to the finals, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.
"There was even way more people," Rodríguez said. "I was even more nervous that time around. I just remember playing my stuff, bowing and moving on."
Later that night, Johnny Ramirez of Houston was announced as the winner.
"I wasn't too disappointed," Rodríguez said. "Obviously I was sad, but I told (then Texas Folklife executive director) Nancy Bless that I am going to come back next year and hopefully win it all."
The following year he sent a recording for his audition that was produced at the home studio of his teacher and mentor Benny Layton. The two tracks were "Maria Bonita" and a potpourri of polkas that included "Viva Seguin", "Atotonilco", "La Piedrera" and "Dolly".
After his audition was reviewed, he was called up and returned to Austin for the semi-finals. From there, only two Rio Grande Valley natives advanced to the finals in Houston — Rodríguez and Gloria Jean Cantu.
To the observers at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in 2009, Rodríguez looked like a totally different performer.
"It was a big difference," Rodríguez said, compared to his first year. "I had more fun performing. I had a whole year to prepare for this again. I worked on my dancing skills while I was playing. I was smiling, giving the crowd something to feed off of."
Towards the middle of his potpourri, a loose screw caused a leak in the accordion's air flow. Rodríguez was forced to improvise on the spot. He signaled to the rest of the band, and rushed towards the final pasada (run) of his medley.
"That had never happened to me before," Rodríguez said. "I was so mad, I looked at Mr. Layton, and I said, 'I can't believe that happened. I'm so mad at this accordion!' (laughs) He's like, 'It's okay, don't worry about it. I'm glad you finished the song off, you just didn't run off stage or make it obvious.'"
Even though Layton was trying his best to cheer him up, Rodríguez couldn't help but feel disappointed at that moment.
"My performance is ruined," Rodríguez said. "I'm not going to win, I came all the way over here for nothing. That's what was going through my head."
When the award ceremony came up, Rodríguez says his heart was racing. Rodríguez points out that Cantu, his fellow Valley accordionist, did a great job that night.
The winner was going to be announced next.
"'And our grand champion...'," Rodríguez remembers of that moment. "'Heriberto Rodríguez!' Wow, I can't believe I won. It was a heartwarming experience, one of the best experiences I've ever had.
With that win, Rodríguez became the second Valley native to be crowned "Big Squeeze" champion. The first was Juan Longoria, Jr. at the inaugural "Big Squeeze" competition in 2007. The third locally produced title holder was Peter Anzaldua in 2012.
The 2015 "Big Squeeze" season will officially start on Saturday morning at La Joya High School. A "Showcase" will be held where local accordionists who are 21 years of age or younger are welcomed to audition, so they could have their opportunity to advance to the finals of the "Conjunto" category, which was created last year. As someone who has participated in two "Big Squeeze" seasons, what advice does Rodríguez have for young accordionists who will be performing this year?
"Honestly there is nothing to be nervous about," Rodríguez said. "Practice, practice, practice. That's the biggest thing. Get those songs down and enjoy the music. In the words of David Farias, 'Feel the music.' And just have fun out there. I can say that after this competition, it made me a more confident person and musician."
What: Texas Folklife's "Big Squeeze" Showcase and annual La Joya ISD Spring Conjunto Festival. Bands include La Joya High School Conjunto "Los Diamantes", J.V. Conjunto "Acordeones de Oro", Palmview High School Conjunto "La Tradicion & the Silver Bullet Band". and Juarez Lincoln High School Conjunto "Sol".
Time: 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM for the showcase and 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM for the festival.
Cost: Free for the showcase, $6.00 per person for the festival.
Phone Number: 956-580-5160
Location: La Joya High School, 604 North Coyote Avenue in La Joya, Texas.