Belen Escobedo stands apart on the musical landscape of the Texas-Mexico borderlands; amid the accordion-led conjuntos, she is gaining more and more attention as one of the only—if not the only—musician still playing traditional Tejano conjunto fiddle music.
“There was a man in his 80s who had done it but he couldn’t play anymore and that was four or five years ago,” Belen explains, relating what a Tejano music scholar concluded after researching the music. “So maybe I’m the only one now. Or maybe there are others and no one knows it.”
A lost art
Tejano conjunto—Spanish for “group” music played by “Mexican Americans from southern Texas”—is a 19th-century musical tradition from the border region between southern Texas and northern Mexico. The traditional style was, at one time, a strings-only affair, featuring a tololoche (a stand-up bass from northern Mexico), a bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar-like instrument) and fiddle. Surprisingly, many of the traditional tunes sound German; their roots can be traced to Eastern European immigrants, especially of German, Czech, and Polish descent, who arrived in the region in the 1800s.
These new arrivals from Eastern Europe also introduced the accordion to the region, and by the 20th century, it had come to dominate the conjunto sound. The traditional acoustic three-piece string band became rare as louder, electrified instruments were needed to balance the bold sound of the accordion. Belen’s conjunto trio, called Panfilo’s Güera, is one of the few Tejano string bands playing today.
“I’m trying my best to keep this going,” she says. “It’s like everything else in our culture—the old cultures are changing so much to the modern stuff; it makes us older folks sad.”
Belen likens the old music traditions to home-cooked food.
“You knew your mama loved you and you knew your grandmother and your great-grandmother loved you because they made you homemade tortillas from scratch,” she says. “All the time they’d spend grinding and cooking and if they finished they’d go help the men in the fields after that. The main ingredient in that was love. Now maybe you just heat them in the microwave but then, they took the time to make that just for you. That’s how I feel about the music.”
Growing up in a religious family on the South Side of San Antonio, Belen was not exposed to much beyond life on the Texas-Mexico border. At the age of 59, she only recently flew in an airplane for the first time. Coming to Virginia for the Richmond Folk Festival will be a major trip for someone who has left Texas only once—last year.
“I went to Washington State, to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes,” she explains. “That’s on the border too and I asked them if Immigration and Border Patrol drive around their neighborhoods. ‘Do they stop you and ask you a lot of questions?’ They said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ That was really crazy to find out. When we were children, we had to take our birth certificates with us all the time cause they’d stop you.”
Finding out that border patrol is only an issue on one border was one surprise. The other was finding out that there are large Hispanic communities beyond Texas, California, and the Southwest.
“They send me pictures and posters from restaurants where they’re having conjuntos—even in Virginia. I said, ‘Does that music sell up there?’ They said, ‘Yes, it does,’ so now I want to go and play in other places.”
“I thought Mexicans and Hispanics were only heavily populated in Texas, California, Nevada, and those places because of the border to Mexico, but I was wrong. I just thought, ‘Wow, I hope to travel more and share our music with everyone.’”
A man’s world
The music Belen shares is the music of her childhood. A Texas native of Mexican descent, Belen traveled back and forth across the border and learned music, she recalls, from “real Mexican men, not Mexican men from Texas.” That music was also what the radio played, what the bands played, and what everyone danced to.
Her music career was launched when, as a fourth grader, she was offered free music lessons and a loaner violin at school. She was a natural and quickly picked up techniques and compositions she was playing in the school band and orchestra. At home, she began to learn to the traditional string-led conjunto tunes that were whistled by her grandfather, Panfilo Padilla.
By the time she was in high school, it was clear to everyone in town that Belen was exceptional. (As a high school student, she also mastered the French horn, a very difficult instrument, in her spare time.) A well-known local mariachi singer asked her to play fiddle with his group and she entered into the male-dominated world of mariachi.
“It was not easy and it’s still not easy. Oh my God, the machismo—it’s pathetic,” she says. “It sounds sad but when you have to make a living, you have to do what you have to do. You keep your religious morals but anything else, you had to swallow your pride.”
Belen was a standout musician with orders never to stand out. Or speak. Her bandmates told her never to talk or to make eye contact with anyone. Sometimes she had to argue for her paycheck and sometimes she was asked to play in a recording studio but then wasn’t allowed onstage where she could be seen.
“It was bad but I always said I can play dumb for $60 an hour,” she recalls. “There are more women now, but I was the only one then. Now I’m old and I don’t care what they say anymore. I was very lucky though—some of the guys were very good to work with.”
She was also lucky because the gigs paid her way through college and graduate school. Unlike most of the people she knew, she never had to travel North for a season working in the Wisconsin dairies or the California cucumber fields.
“They’d go up for a season and then come back. ‘Vamos a norte’; they’d follow the seasons. Praise God, I never had to do that,” she remembers.
Instead, Belen went on to teach orchestra and band in the San Antonio Independent School District–a career she held for 30 years while also earning a name as one of the state’s most accomplished fiddlers.
For the most part, her life went on as lives do—she got married, she went to work, she played music. And when her father developed Alzheimer’s disease, she became his primary caregiver.
And then came the hurricane
Taking care of her father was one of the two most significant experiences in Belen’s life; the other came after she retired. At the age of 51, she got a call from the Texas State Guard. They wanted to recruit her.
“Wasn’t that crazy?” she asks. “I didn’t have any prior military experience and I was over 50. But they were desperate. They wanted to start a band. They said, ‘You don’t have to do all the stuff, we just want you for one specific thing.’”
She took their word for it and went to work for the State Guard full-time, playing French horn.
“Ohhhhh boy, Hurricane Harvey,” she shudders.
The hurricane blew into Texas in 2017, dropping 40 inches of rain in four days and causing historic, catastrophic damage. Belen was called up with the rest of the Texas State Guard.
“I was away for a month, but I was already out of school and my father was already gone to glory and my husband, praise God, can take care of himself for awhile,” she says. “It changed my life.”
The 57-year-old Tejano woman put down her French horn and waded into the flood waters next to men half her age and twice her size, trying to help flood victims to safety.
“Trying” was sometimes the operative word.
“There were a lot of illegal immigrants out and they’d refuse help because they were afraid we’d deport them,” she remembers. “We’d try to tell them we just wanted to help but they’d be in water up to their chests with children on their shoulders and they still wouldn’t want our help.”
Sometimes though, the older Spanish-speaking woman was the only one in the unit who could get through.
“When these women and children saw these huge men, they were afraid, but when they’d see me and I’d speak to them and extend my hand, they’d come. I was privileged to be there to help them as much as I could,” she says. “These people lost everything. Everything. It was hard but it was an honor to help. And it forced me to grow up.”
It was a life-changing month; two years later, it still gives her strength.
“It was a really good experience because I’d thought all I was good for was playing music,” she explains. “It’s good to find out you can do so much more.”
But even while working as a French horn player and floodwater rescuer, fiddling wasn’t out of the picture; only a few months after the hurricane, Belen was named 2017 Texas Master Fiddler by Texas Folklife and the Festival of Texas Fiddling.
In awarding her the title, the association noted that she was “single handedly keeping alive the traditional string-led Tejano conjunto tradition” and that she is “recognized as one of the most significant fiddlers in the state.”
Belen said she’s looking forward to bringing that tradition to Virginia, but she’s also enjoying playing other music now.
“When I was young, being very inquisitive and being from Texas, I listened to the radio and I heard bluegrass. I liked it and when I just wanted to have fun and be me, I would try to imitate bluegrass and norteño music,” she says. “After awhile, I just wanted to experiment and now that I’m retired, I’m playing what I want to play, not just what I have to play.”
That doing-what-she-wants attitude is something Belen feels she’s earned at this point in her career. At 59, she remembers how her father taught her to survive in the world. Having done that well, she’s ready to be herself.
“I survived being a woman playing mariachi, I survived 30 years of teaching, I survived Hurricane Harvey, I survived taking care of my father with Alzheimer’s—now I don’t care what anyone says.”