San Antonio Mariachis Were Rising Stars When They Were Killed
Can you do a story on the mariachi group from San Antonio that perished in a fire back in the 1960s or ’70s? I don’t recall much other than it was a group that was entrenched at Mi Tierra and had traveled south of the border for a special occasion and died in a hotel fire.
─ Frank Treviño
PAULA ALLEN, COLUMNIST
Updated: Oct. 18, 2017 11:59 a.m.
The Lopez brothers are buried at San Fernando Cemetery. They were members of Mariachi Chapultepec and died in a Chicago fire in 1970.
That must have been the Lopez brothers, who played the Market Square area and lost their lives while performing away from home.
Arturo, the eldest, and his brothers Alberto and Alonso were stars in a genre that wasn’t known for producing them. As the core of Mariachi Chapultepec, they played at Mi Tierra and Mario’s restaurants downtown, quickly rising to the top of a scene crowded with strolling trios who played guitars and sang three-part harmony to provide romantic entertainment for tourists and locals dining out for a special evening.
Mi Tierra, open 24 hours a day, was the hub of the mariachi universe, encouraged by restaurant founder Pedro Cortez. Musicians played in the restaurant and marketplace, which was also their hiring hall for customers who wanted them to play at private parties and serenades. After hours — after their audiences had gone home – the restaurant was their hangout, where they could get a late dinner and catch up with their fellow performers.
It was a competitive world, and the Lopez brothers didn’t have an easy time breaking into it. They grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, where they became self-taught musicians and street performers. During a stint in a children’s home there, La Ciudad de los Niños (The City of the Children), they formed a group called Los Tres Osos (The Three Bears). Father Carlos Alvarez encouraged them to develop their musical gifts.
At 16, Arturo Lopez was playing with Mariachi Infantil (The Children’s Mariachi), a group organized by the children’s home, which was one of the acts invited to San Antonio in 1955 to play for the opening of Spanish-language KWEX-TV. He met his future wife — Beatriz Llamas, a singer known as “La Paloma del Norte” — on that trip and returned to San Antonio a few years later to make it his home base, eventually persuading both younger brothers to join him.
Together they formed Mariachi Chapultepec in late 1964. David Cortez, who with his family continues the music-friendly tradition set at Mi Tierra by his late father, said the young men’s sound stood out.
“He was the first to bring in the guitarrón,” says Cortez, referring to the large, six-string bass guitar that is part of the traditional mariachi. “That made them a little different. They were young, energetic and popular.”
For the rest of that youth-oriented, fast-paced decade, the Lopez brothers were on their way up — past many of the more established mariachis. They were asked to play backup for some of the famous Mexican performers who played the Alameda Theater, including Antonio Aguilar, Lola Beltran and Vicente Fernandez, onstage as well as on recordings. They made singles of their own, including regional hits such as “La Bikina” and “La Chispita.” They made a 1968 appearance with Aguilar in New York’s Madison Square Garden and may have been the first mariachi ever to play the venue.
Like no other mariachi here, the Lopez brothers were a touring band. They added a fourth member, José Luis Frausto, called the resulting ensemble the Arturo Lopez Quartet and took it on the road. “During the slow times,” says Cortez, when tourists where scarce at the market, “they’d take off for three or four or five months.” At the end of 1970, the new unit scored a three-month gig at a Chicago Mexican restaurant, La Margarita. One of the advantages was that the entertainers would have living quarters right over the shop. That’s where they were staying the night of Nov. 25, 1970, when a fire broke out in the floor above the restaurant.
The blaze killed nine people — among them the three brothers. Frausto survived, jumping from a second-floor window. Arturo had just turned 29; Alfonso was 25, and Alberto, 23. Their wives, Beatriz and Lucelva, and their mother, Maria, whom they had brought to live in San Antonio, flew to Chicago to identify their bodies and accompany them home. When their plane landed at San Antonio International Airport, they were moved to tears when they were met with a crowd of more than 300 people — friends, family and fans.
“Everyone who knew them went to their funeral,” says Cortez. “It seemed like the whole city; everyone who knew them showed up.” The brothers were buried at San Fernando Cemetery under a joint headstone from Rodriguez Bros. Memorials, with a carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe, their names, inset photographs and engravings of the instruments they played.
Over the next two years, there were benefit performances, tribute concerts and even a benefit wrestling card. Well before their untimely death, the Lopez brothers had been working on citizenship and had been paying into Social Security — a godsend to the two widows, children and dependent mother they left behind.
As Mariachi Chapultepec, they were inducted posthumously into the Mariachi Hall of Fame in 2003.
Un millón de gracias y credit to:
Paula Allen, Columinst
Updated: Oct. 18, 2017 11:59 a.m.
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