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‘La Calandria’ has died

January 17, 2019

One of San Antonio’s most beloved and colorful native songbirds has taken her final bow.

Rita Vidaurri, the Golden Age ranchera singer known as “La Calandria” (the Lark) who achieved fame throughout Latin America in the 1940s and ’50 and was rediscovered by a new generation in the 21st century, died Wednesday evening after a brief illness.

Vidaurri was 94.

The deep-voiced singer and songwriter — the first Tejana to sing at Madison Square Garden — is remembered for her fierce spirit, deep religious faith, indomitable personality, love of family and risqué humor.

“She was the Beyoncé and Selena of her day,” said daughter Linda Alvarado about a mom who was indeed “bigger than life.”

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Many local musicians knew her simply as “Mom,” one who enjoyed a bawdy joke, the occasional glass of Mexican beer and her turquoise jewelry.

Vidaurri’s last public performance was November 1, 2018 at an Esperanza Peace and Justice Center event on the West Side.

She sang with her group, Las Tesoros de San Antonio, with equally cherished and powerful singers Blanca Rodriguez and Beatriz Llamas.

“She was still belting songs, entertaining the crowd,” said Graciela Sanchez, Esperanza executive director. “They don’t make performers like that anymore.”

Together, the three divas in the winter of their lives often joked that they were “The Golden Girls” of ranchera and bolero music.

Tejano music historian and collector Ramon Hernandez calls Vidaurri a true pioneer and musical giant, not a novelty.

“Performing was always the best medicine for Rita,” Hernandez said about her longevity. “She ranks with the all-time greats and still hasn’t received all the recognition she deserves.”

At the height of her solo career, Vidaurri shared stages with Nat “King” Cole, Eydie Gormé & Los Panchos, Celia Cruz and Mexican superstars Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Cantinflas, Tin Tan, as well as legends Lydia Mendoza, Eva Garza and Rosita Fernandez. She was once a calendar poster girl for Jax Beer.

But her roots were humble, and Vidaurri experienced tragedy, depression and hardships in her sometimes tumultuous personal life.

Named for Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of the impossible, for those in mourning and for the lonely, Vidaurri said the name suited her. “I’ve suffered since I was a little girl,” she told the Express-News in 2013.

The San Antonio native was born in a small house in the 600 block of Montezuma Street on the West Side on May 22, 1924.

She was the oldest of three children born to Juan and Maria “Susie” Vidaurri. Her father operated a gasoline station and boxing ring; her mother worked as a housekeeper.

The singer told the Express-News in 2015 that one of her earliest memories was of eating an apple on the steps of a church while her mother cleaned Our Lady of the Lake University.

Susie encouraged her shy daughter and paid a neighbor to teach her to play the guitar but she didn’t live to see her success. She died of tuberculosis when Rita was 15.

It fell to the girl to raise her siblings and work as a mechanic for her father, who didn’t want her to sing, at first. To please him, she boxed and played baseball. She went to night school at Lanier High School.

Vidaurri’s early singing career is weaved into the rich, if forgotten, music history of the West Side.

In the late 1930s, she performed with her sister, Henrietta, as Las Hermanitas Vidaurri. Vidaurri’s first record was with the duo. “Alma Angelina” and “Atotonilco” was done at Tomas Acuña’s garage studio.

As a gangly teen, she helped christen the Guadalupe Theater in 1942. She sang at carpas, the traveling Mexican vaudeville tent shows. Soon, she was a radio star.

She broke barriers for women. She often wore pants when she performed.

Rodriguez recounted how after Vidaurri became an international star, she’d give the teenager her hand-me-down charro outfits.

“I wanted to be just like Rita,” said Rodriguez. “I posed just like her in my first publicity photos.”

Filmmaker Jorge Sandoval explored her life in the 2016 documentary “Las Tesoros de San Antonio: A Westside Story.”

Vidaurri, the mother of four children with three different men, was twice married and twice divorced. Her second husband, Hillman Eden, was also her manager.

Since 1968, she’d lived alone at her modest home on Texas Avenue. She survived three heart attacks and struggled with diabetes.

Until the end, she carried in her purse the laminated photos of her three sons who died young: Leo Palewich, Roger Gonzalez and Hillman Eden Jr.

One of her records, “Hijo Mio,” included son Roger when he was a child singing along.

Her catalog includes songs “San Antonio Hermoso,” “Por Que Señor,” “Sacrificio,” “Asi Pago Yo,” “Tonto,” “El Dinero Vale Nada,” “La Mula Bronca” and “La Esposa Del Caminante.”

Surrounded by family and friends in her last days in hospice care, Vidaurri enjoyed serenades from musicians she regularly performed with -- Henry Gomez, Albino Alonzo, Francisco Perez, Ricardo Garcia and Daniel Gallegos.

They played favorites like “Tómate Una Copa,” “Cuatro Vidas,” “Que Seas Felíz” and “Fué Un Placer Conocerte.”

Vidaurri nodded her head in approval and managed a smile.

“She reacted immediately,” said Gomez, who with the others often backed Vidaurri at Flor de Chiapas restaurant on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. “Anywhere where there was music, she was there.”

No one did more to orchestrate Vidaurri’s comeback than Esperanza’s executive director.

Sanchez formed Las Tesoros around Vidaurri after searching her out nearly 20 years ago.

She got the aging singers (including original member, the late Anita Jeanette “Janet” Cortez) back into the recording studio with Southtown record producer Joe Treviño and staged concerts for them.

Vidaurri was the oldest, the strong-willed matriarch, the grand dame. Her resurgence was a reminder that she had long been a symbol of female empowerment and independence — and perseverance.

“She came up against sexism her entire career. But she survived,” said Sanchez. “How come she got lost? But in truth, she never stopped singing. She’s leaving us way too soon.”

Hector Saldaña is the curator of the Texas Music Collection at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

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