The Reverse Crossover of La Mafia

The Empire Builders

by Abel Salas

Until Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla Perez was slain last spring, few people outside of the Latin music industry really knew who the young artist was. Her audience was undeniably Latino. Long popular among Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, her fame had already crossed over into the larger landscape of Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. However -- truth be told -- among some of the more hard-core Tejano and conjunto purists, she was still dubiously regarded as nothing more than a flash in the pan, a media construct whose 15 minutes on the Spanish side of the radio dial could just as easily be over. Of course, there were those dinosaurs in the world of Tejano music who had been saying the same thing about Houston's La Mafia for years. What's more, people living on the English-only end of the musical spectrum probably still don't know who they are. For La Mafia, none of that matters. Combined sales of the last their three albums in Latin America, Mexico, and the U.S. are nearing the two-million unit mark. Together since 1980, the veteran sextet sells more records than ZZ Top, according to a recent Texas Observer article by Brad Tyer, a music writer in Houston who follows Tejano music. The secret to their phenomenal success? A reverse crossover that has taken La Mafia to the top of Billboard Latin charts.

The band is big, a mega-monster group, in fact. From high-gloss power-pop Tejano to the slow and tender ballads that showcase a new direction for La Mafia, the band has gone atomic. And they've done it by heading south of the border, building a gargantuan international pop following along the way in record time. When Sony Discos signed La Mafia four years ago, no one, except maybe keyboard player Armando "Mando" Lichtenberger, Jr., could have predicted the meteoric trajectory that would bring them to the forefront of a blue-chip business.

My first memory of the group came from the cover of notebook belonging to a cute Chicanita in a San Marcos high school during the fall of 1983. "You like them?" I'd asked the girl after seeing "La Mafia" etched everywhere in ink. "Yeah, they're fine," was the goo-goo-eyed response. Noting a gradual shift in the sound and style of singles being selected for airplay over the last several years, I was admittedly curious (I'd been out of high school for at least a decade). I also fancied a personal connection: An uncle in Houston named Sabas Espinosa, who tunes accordions for a living, was allegedly on friendly terms with Armando Lichtenberger, Sr., a former Tejano musician himself. Music biz rumor credited his son, Armando, Jr., as the technical and logistical wizard behind La Mafia's higher profile presence on the Tex-Mex, and international music scene.

Cousins my age from Houston were sold on the spectacular sound and light shows for which La Mafia was widely known stateside. They swore by the band whenever the subject of Tejano music came up in conversation and regularly attended the annual Festival Chicano where La Mafia had often played. And it was on the Texas-Mexico border this summer that I was able to witness first-hand the band's counter-crossover effect. When playbills were posted for an appearance by La Mafia in Matamoros, radio stations on both sides of the Rio Grande hyped La Mafia as the headliner on closing night at the annual Expofiesta held on the outskirts of the infamous Mexican bordertown. Other scheduled stops included Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. The band's publicist, Irene Lichtenberger -- Mando's sister -- warned me that it might be difficult to catch up with La Mafia on tour, but gave me the dates, nonetheless.

Arriving by bus ride from Matamoros, I inquired on the whereabouts of the Nuevo Laredo Fairgrounds. Two short "pesera" rides brought me to a flat, circular, open-air stadium as the five or six opening acts unloaded equipment. Overhead the sky went gradually grey, matching the asphalt underfoot. Approaching a musician with one of the opening bands, I asked when La Mafia would show. "Those guys don't get in until 10 or 11," he said. It was only 7pm and the skies were almost entirely covered with fat, heavy clouds. Rain was imminent, gauging from the thunder and lightning that gathered on the dark horizon.

The light rain had fallen for several hours by the time La Mafia's chartered bus appeared inside the fairgrounds. A meeting among band managers led to a cancellation. From my anonymous vantage point, I could see disappointment on the faces of those few fans that had been able to sneak inside the fairgrounds early. When I finally cornered tour manager Saul Rodriguez, he handed me a ticket to the Monterrey show the next night. Though he spoke no English, he was in control, responsible for the mammoth undertaking. I felt I needed to get out of his way. Members of La Mafia remained aloof, sequestered away inside the bus, avoiding the drizzle. As I left the Fairgrounds, the oncoming traffic was overwhelming. Fans were not yet aware that the baile (dance) had been called off, and lines for tickets were several hundred feet long.

The trip to Monterrey from Nuevo Laredo the next day took less than three hours, a lot like going from Austin to Houston. The passenger next to me, a young woman whose face lit up after I let her know I was covering the big show at the Expo Guadalupe, told me I could reach the concert grounds in minutes by train. Monterrey's new metro system consists of the short subterranean Green Line and the much longer above-ground Yellow Line. The city is Mexico's third largest and relatively prosperous in relationship to the rest of the country. Thriving industrial and service sectors generate a standard of living that makes recreation a bigger part of the social milieu. The peso devaluation has not, however, slipped by unnoticed here. Full of architectural marvels and modern conveniences like 7-Eleven and ATM machines, the city seems poised, breath held. On the faces of both shoppers and vendors, a kind of hopeful anxiety can be seen just beneath the surface.

In spite of the economic crisis, or because of it, tickets for the all-night concert featuring La Mafia were roughly $6, or about 35 pesos. My arrival at the gate coincided with a sudden rush on tickets sales sometime around 6pm. Wandering about the fairgrounds, two or three times the size of the one in Nuevo Laredo, I was struck by the expanse. Eight or nine 18-wheeler trucks stood guard in secured parking lots. Beer and food booths were doing brisk business. Tightly clothed cigarette girls handed free packs to new arrivals at the main entrance, courtesy of a sponsor.

Close to midnight, La Mafia hit one of the four stages set up in the Expo Guadalupe arena. Already, several of the six bands on the line-up had worked the sizable crowd into a frenzy. Grupo Pesado, in particular, whetted musical appetites with a zippy accordion/bajo-sexto back-beat, a high-tech light show and a flurry of fireworks. "It would be wrong for me to say musica nortena wasn't my favorite music," said Rodriguez, as he watched a non-stop parade of guests pour through entrance gates. Dressed in western wear, the 31-year-old concert promoter and tour manager hails from Monterrey originally. "To talk about La Mafia in Mexico is to talk about going back as far as 1989," Rodriguez said, keeping one eye pinned to the onslaught of ticket holders.

I asked how many people he expected that night. "We won't know until morning when the show is over," was his reply. La Mafia, comprised of Oscar Gonzales on lead vocals, Mando Lichtenberger on accordion, keyboards and arrangements; Leonard Gonzales on guitar, Rudy Martinez on bass, Michael Aguilar on drums, and David De La Garza on keyboards, was the primary reason for the substantial draw. Crushed among the masses sardine-style, I heard voices in English. Turning to the source, I asked a female fan how far she had come. "We drove down from Laredo," came her answer.

Climbing onto the stage -- a precarious press privilege -- I sat unobtrusively in a corner and watched Gonzales in his trademark black bolero hat. His stirring tenor crept gently into the evening, bearing warmth and love. The crowd was an ocean stretching into the distance, a sea that swayed in time to ballads, bouncing and clapping in time to cumbias and rancheras laden with Lichtenberger's crisp keyboard and accordion. The pinnacle, for me, occurred in the middle of a tune I could never have predicted, a bilingual version of the Beatles' "Let It Be." It's undoubtedly the only version of that song I will ever qualify as being equal to or better than the original. To see a legion of fans waving their arms into the night sky took me to another place, lifted me with the energy of a spiritual anthem.

After that, I couldn't find it in me to stick around for what would be a recap of the last five bands on the bill. La Mafia would retire to the tour bus, returning to the stage at four or five in the morning and going until dawn. I caught the last train to my downtown hotel, named for a turn-of-the-century romantic poet named Amado Nervo -- appropriate in light of the heart-wrenching ballads that La Mafia delivered almost effortlessly. Drifting to sleep I was secure knowing the bus station was half a block away. Guesstimates of the attendance on my way out of the arena had pegged the crowd size at somewhere between 30,000-35,000.

Two days later, I caught up with La Mafia once more for a remarkably affordable show at the "People's Theater," an outdoor stage on the Convention Center grounds in Matamoros, the border city across from Browntown (Brownsville) in the state of Tamaulipas. The number of Texas plates in the parking lot matched the Mexican tags. Even with the mid-July temperatures staggering into the upper 90s, the outdoor concert attracted approximately 15,000 people. Until climbing onto the stage, members of La Mafia seemed a bit road weary. Yet once into their set, they about-faced with an energy level that matched the Monterrey show. Gonzales maintained the pace despite an obvious sore throat, paying tribute to a Matamoros musician named Rigo Tovar and thereby endearing his band even more. The crowd went wild, and kids who suffered heat exhaustion were lifted to the stage by Red Cross volunteers.

Several weeks later, I made the trek from Austin to Houston for a chat with Gonzales (who uses De La Rosa as his stage surname). La Mafia Enterprises is situated on an ample tract of land just off of I-44 north of I-10. The multi-building complex encompasses Houston Sound Studio, an office where Saul Rodriguez and his international concert promotion team is based, and the Mafia command headquarters. The place resembles a hive. I would be granted an interview with Gonzales and Gonzales alone, as he was the group's designated spokesman. Superstardom, I imagined, changes the way a hometown band conducts itself before the media. I wondered about the dynamic there, especially since Mando Lichtenberger had figured so prominently in two seemingly important articles about La Mafia's surprise counter cross-over success. One article had appeared in Billboard and the other in Latin Style -- a glossy English-language, Los Angeles-based magazine with national distribution.

As I waited for the interview to begin I traded a few words with Mando Lichtenberger, who was in the midst of ordering a conference table and taking measurements in a room where life-sized, full-body portraits of each musician lined the walls. Mentioning my uncle, I was acknowledged. "Sabas does all my accordions," said Lichtenberber. "It's a dying art. You don't find many people who can do what he does, anymore." Though neither curt nor impolite, Lichtenberger was somehow reluctant, almost as if he himself has chosen to slide into a more comfortable behind-the-scenes role as the mastermind behind a talented core of musicians and technicians: The empire builders.

Soon after, Oscar sat patiently with me in an empty office as I asked for an abbreviated historical update. The phone rang incessantly until it was unplugged. The band, he said, began as Los Mirasoles. Inheriting a neighborhood night club from their father, Henry Gonzales, Sr., brothers Oscar and Leonard rehearsed there in the afternoons before the evening acts came on. They were managed by their older brother, Henry, Jr., who ran the bar. It was Henry who saw fit to invest heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, mimicking trends in the pop and rock universe. In 1980, Lichtenberger joined the Gonzales brothers and La Mafia was born. A contract with Diana, an independent label out of Baytown, was followed by a deal at Cara, the San Antonio label that brought La Onda Tejana to the attention of major industry players.

Hearing about the early years, the wacky shows replete with costumes and gimmicky stage antics, I was reminded of the KISS air bands I organized once in a South Austin garage. La Mafia hadn't stopped at rudimentary pyrotechnics and glam-rock pantomime. They had gone all the way, do or die, which is why they were treated with scorn by the stodgy old-guard. Once regarded as kids with gear and gadgets, La Mafia developed staying power, recording and touring relentlessly until it occurred to Henry that a bold move south might uncover fertile turf. After all, Tejano music had roots in Mexico and the influences had been there all along. "I like Mexico," says Gonzales. "They know we were the first group from the United States to step foot into the country and the first ones to be successful." The acclaimed reception there led to concerts in Guatemala and Puerto Rico. Industry indicators point to Spain and South America next.

Launching a world-wide presence with Estas Tocando Fuego ("You're Touching Fire"), an album that went directly to the top of the Billboard Latin charts and culminated in both "Album of the Year" and "Group of the Year" awards for the band, La Mafia followed up with Ahora y Siempre ("Now and Forever"). Both records were weighted heavily with romantic ballads. With the release of Vida ("Life"), the in-house studio, art, promotion, and marketing components were firmly in place. The album taps well-known Latin-American composers and balladeers, a step calculated to solidify La Mafia's international standing. A new band logo design incorporates the black bolero hat, and the Vida tour was punctuated by the flying "victory-V" which doubles as a peace sign, Gonzales' worldwide salute.

A sticky issue still, Gonzales noted, is the cross into an English-speaking market. "I admire people like Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada, and pioneers like Freddy Fender because it's lot of work to break in," he said sincerely. A moment later, La Mafia's symbolic leader was just as prepared to prop the Tejano legends: "There's a lot of people that I respect in the music industry... for opening doors for Tejanos.... Some of us forget. We shouldn't. Little Joe is one... because I know what he was and what he did."

Wrapping up the conversation, Gonzales was cordial enough to lead a short tour through the maze. At Houston Sound Studio, bands of every stripe record new CDs. Henry, Jr., has moved on to head Voltage Entertainment, a label, management, and booking agency that handles new Tejano acts. Currently at the helm of booking and management for La Mafia is Pete Gonzalez, a former Austinite and a Tejano industry veteran. In Pete's office, a map of the U.S. is littered with color-coded push-pins from New York to the West Coast. Naturally, the border was invisible under the concentration of pins.

Pete confirmed my suspicion that Lichtenberger is the motor behind the operation. "Mando is the manager," explained Pete. "He looks out for the guys in the band, what they need, how they're feeling, especially on the road. I'm proud to be working for them. Their operation is tight. They have it all together. But above everything, they're extremely dedicated and talented musicians. They never stop working."

Referring to a calendar, Pete was still amazed at the band's grueling year-round schedule. He talked about having to spend more time in the office. He didn't miss his days as a road manager. Nonetheless, he was excited about the Las Vegas Hard Rock Cafe & Casino where La Mafia would present an industry showcase in the coming week. Although he wouldn't be going, the gig was a milestone and a testament to his connections.

As far as making it in English, the label support isn't there, according to Oscar Gonzales. Who knows, though? Selena was proof positive that there is room for a few more brown faces in the land of North American Pop (NAP?). But, as Gonzales said ruefully, "It's just too bad she wasn't around to be a part of it."

In the end, it will be her success that determines if La Mafia's next move is marked by a confident stride into the mainstream U.S. consciousness. n

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