Born On The Border

At the club Santa Fe in Corpus Christi, Texas, Pete Astudillo is working the crowd. The Santa Fe is a big, engulfing place--too big for Astudillo, maybe too big for a Wednesday night in this midsize city on the Gulf Coast. Until last year Astudillo had been a backup singer in Selena's band; now, with her family in support at the rear of the room, he is on his own. One by one, couples slip onto the dance floor: Anglo and Latin, twentysomethings and middle-agers, easing or wrestling each other in a jaunty two-step as Astudillo sings songs of love in Spanish.

The accordion propels them, the joyous oom-pah that is the heart of Tejano music. It came to these parts with the Czech and German settlers of the 19th century and flourished in the cantinas of the Mexican working class. Now, as men in cowboy shirts swing their partners in front of him, its buoyant fluttering makes Astudillo silly. "Put your hands in the air," he chants, "and wave 'em like you just don't care." He has crossed not only to English, but to the English of rap music and the South Bronx, come down this way via MTV. As the polka beat barrels behind him, this is a perfect Tejano moment: a first-generation Mexican-American playing the past against the present, the cantina roots of the south against the video rootlessness of the north, while a bicultural audience drinks 50-cent beers and has a good time.

Literally, "Tejano" means Texan, not just the music but the people as well. It is the soundtrack to MexAmerica. "Tejano," says Abraham Quintanilla Jr., Selena's father and Astudillo's manager, "is a fusion, with all these influences: rock and roll, pop, country, rap, jazz. We're Americans who happen to be of Mexican descent. When [the musicians] play a Mexican song, they infuse it with all the influences in their heads." Nurtured in the '30s and '40s, as a synthesis of the accordion-driven Mexican conjunto and the North American big-band sound, the music took root in the cantinas and speak-easies of south Texas. But as migrant farm laborers and later the Mexican-American factory workers moved north, the circuit followed. After a flash in the late '60s and early '70s, when rock-friendly acts like Freddie Fender and The Sir Douglas Quintet briefly crossed over to national attention, the music is now surging, driven by a battery of telegenic young stars. This summer Selena's posthumous album "Dreaming of You," with four songs in English, took a dramatic measure of this audience. Selling 175,000 copies in a day, it became the second fastest-moving album ever by a female performer. Tejano has become the fastest-growing market in Latin music, with annual revenues topping $100 million.

In Corpus Christi's working-class neighborhood of Molina, Lupe Lopez, 22, and her sister have decorated their modest family home as a shrine to the music. Promotional glossies of Tejano stars take their place beside family photos and religious portraits. Selena lived down the street, in a little brick house she shared with her husband, Chris Perez; Selena's parents and her brother, A. B. Quintanilla, lived in the two houses next door. In her living room, piquant with the smell of cooking food, Lupe says she remembers Selena for her red Porsche, and for her humility: "You'd see her in Wal-Mart, you'd see her working in the yard." After Selena was killed in the Corpus Christi Days Inn on March 31, just two weeks before her 24th birthday, Lopez spelled out SELENA in paper cups in the wire fence in front of her home. She had to give up on the cups--fans making the pilgrimage to Selena's house, as many as 1,000 a week, would take them as souvenirs. But she has kept up her brilliant blue sign reading HEAVES NEEDED ANOTHER ANGEL. WE'LL MISS YOU.

For Lopez, as for many Tejanos, the music has always been around. Her parents and her aunt would sing at family gatherings; her cousin Albert Zamora is one of the rising stars of Tejano. But in the late '70s, Tejano lost a lot of young fans. Kids identified the music with their parents. The huge waves of recent Mexican immigrants wanted music that was more Mexican, like the horn-driven banda sounds that flourished in California. Like many young Mexican-Americans, Lopez didn't consider the music her own until the advent of performers like Selena: stars her own age who, like her, grew up in a mixed cultural environment. "The music has changed a lot," she says. "Kids can dance to it now. You could relate to [Selena]. All of a sudden you'd go to dances and you couldn't dance anymore, because there wasn't room." She beams as she says, "I feel a lot of pride in her."

For Bob Pena, the current Tejano revolution began in the early '80s. A massive man, Pena grew up with the Tejuno industry; along with the Dallas Cowboys, it is his life. For 40 years, his father was a pioneering AM disc jockey in Alice, Texas, spinning Tejano in the morning and country in the afternoon. Now, at 39, Pena is program director at the station Club 98.3-FM in Corpus Christi. "Tejanos are fiercely proud of our culture," he says. "That's why we embrace the music so much. It's ours, it was born here. Most of our audience, their parents speak English in the house, but maybe their grandparents only speak Spanish. They flip back and forth." Around 1980, he says, groups like La Mafia and Grupo Mazz revolutionized the music, using synthesizers and bits of international pop sound. "In California, people are much more influenced by Mexican culture. We embrace that culture, but we don't mind the music changing. Banda would not survive here because it's too Mexican."

Scratch a Tejano, and chances are you'll find mixed roots. Pena says he "was a rocker until high school." Selena's first song, sung for her father when she was 6 1/2 was "I Wanna Be Loved by You"; her father taught her Spanish only to further her career. Emilio Navaira, perhaps Selena's closest rival, says that when he started out in San Antonio, he wanted to sing country music, but that "it would have been hard to be a country band coming from the Hispanic part of my town." Now. after great success in the Tejano market, he has released an album of country songs in English, "Life Is Good." (He has also dropped his surname, for the benefit of Anglo disc jockeys.) Even Abraham Quintanilla, who had a middling career in the '60s and '70s with Los Dinos, originally saw their future as an American-style vocal group, in the manner of the Four Aces. "I told him, 'If you're going to make it, you'll have to record in Spanish'," says Johnny Herrera, a Tejano legend who recorded the Dinos' early work, and who himself had wanted to follow the style of Frank Sinatra. "'You can't compete with the big companies'."

Chris Perez, Selena's husband, embodies many of the cultural contradictions facing young Tejanos. In his favorite restaurant, a Chinese place in a strip mall in south Corpus Christi, Perez, 26, wears his black hair pulled back underneath a Lakers baseball cap. Since Selena's death, he has kept a low profile, quietly seeing friends and playing guitar in his home studio. "I just now started getting angry" about the murder, he says. "My main concern was what her last minutes were like." Before Selena's death, the two had put down money on a house, to move away from the family compound. "I let it go," he says. "I didn't need it." He says he dreams about his wife all the time. "I even dream that I dream about her. I dream that I wake up from the dream of what happened."

With his deeply set dark eyes and classically handsome features, Pe-fez vaguely resembles a skinny Antonio Banderas. He first heard Tejano as a kid in San Antonio, when his grandmother came to baby-sit. "She'd pop that s--on, I'd start crying." He laughs; across the table, his friend Rudy Martinez laughs as well. Rudy is the bass player in La Mafia. In their teens, Chris and Rudy played in rock bands--"My ceiling, wall to wall, was covered with Kiss posters," says Perez -- until a friend told them they could make $70 a night playing Tejano at weddings and debuts. Now, though they play in two of the most successful Tejano acts, they'd rather listen to Van Halen. After a scheduled tribute tour next spring, Perez intends to return to rock.

At their most agile, Tejano musicians negotiate the boundary between two sometimes clashing cultures. The rocky juxtapositions and dislocations of MexAmerica bubble up in the identities and styles of the musicians. Within the roots of the music there are conflicting messages, traditions of antagonism toward the north (fomented in the cantina traditions of musica nortena and corrida), as well as those of genuine synthesis (which emerged in the jazzy Tex-Mex orquesta tejana of the 1950s). The music can hit both of those notes. As Gerard Behague, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Texas, puts it, "It says, 'Yes, we are Americans but we speak Spanish and are very proud to be Americans'."

Selena worked the boundary perfectly: the powerful family bonds of Latin culture along with the economic possibilities and pop self-invention of the north. When she was criticized in Mexico for her weak Spanish, kids north of the border just loved her more; they got the same grief from their own relatives. Other acts, like Stephanie Lynn and High Energy, are still working to find their own niches along the border. "We're what you call coconuts," says Bob Rivera, in the family's San Antonio living room. "Brown on the outside. white on the inside." Stephanie Lynn, his sister, is not so sure. Her hair, her signature, is dyed a peroxide blond; like her brothers, she speaks Spanish only weakly. "To me Tejano is a symbol of the Mexican-American race," she says. "It reminds me of Motown. The mainstream wasn't available to many of us. Mexican-Americans couldn't be pop stars or jazz stars. So we made our own music and our own industry." At the same time, she admits, "we have confusion about who we are. Are we accepted by Mexicans? Are we accepted by Americans?"

This negotiation of identity runs through the airwaves and nightspots of MexAmerica, where musicians move nightly along a constantly changing cultural border. It invigorates the shifting lexicography of Spanglish, and the bilingual hustle of Tejano radio. It holds together the polka beats and the rap theatrics and the adversarial folklore of a heritage determined not to be swallowed.

At the Club Santa Fe, though, even on a slow night, the contradictions melt easily into the infectious, giddy rhythms of the accordion and the double-time drums. The music is weightless, Texan in its unwillingness to waste too much time in cultural accounting. It would rather make sure everyone has a cheap drink and a good time. At the lip of the stage, Astudillo poses for snapshots with a couple of young female fans, mugging ingratiatingly without missing a line in his singing. The music gets richer: elements of reggae creep in, a hint of the Caribbean cumbia favored by Selena. It has antennae as well as roots. On the dance floor, couples take their spin around the parquet one more time, and one more.

Something old, something new: five CDs that give you the flavor

Conjunto Bernal "Mi Unico Camino": vibrant, polished '50s orquesta tejana

Little Joe y Mi Familia "Para La Genre": ambitious '70s classic, with strings

Los Alegres de Teran "La Traicionera": simple, rootsy, festive

Emilio Navaira "Unsung Highways": con-junto meets country

Selena "Dreaming of You": her Latin hits, plus four songs in English