Tejano outsiders define what's in

La Mafia continue to break barriers even as their industry ignores them

"I would say we're probably the Rolling Stones of our music, because we've been around a long time," says Oscar de la Rosa, lead singer of La Mafia, one of Tejano music's biggest acts. It's an awfully grand comparison to make, but de la Rosa has never been one to shrink from strong statements, as a band name like La Mafia might indicate.

Sure, La Mafia sounds nothing like the Stones, and if the evening I spent hanging with the band gives any clues, there's hardly any Stones-style decadence or heavy drinking and drugging in its camp. In fact, it's quite the opposite--La Mafia appears to be one of the most wholesome groups of touring musicians on any popular circuit.

But after 17 years--a long time for any musical act to survive--La Mafia is one of the tireless giants of the modern Tejano sound. And like the Stones once were, they still remain rebels, the bad boys of the Tejano scene whose fierce independence puts them at odds with the ruling Tejano business establishment. Even after the recent boom in Tejano music, as well as the Anglo attention focused on it following Selena's murder, they continue to push and prod the envelope of Tex-Mex music.

Along the way, the rewards have been plenty: million-selling albums, a Grammy, a lucrative tour calendar, and even a hard-won success south of the border in Mexico that not long ago found La Mafia drawing 50,000 fans to a stadium in Monterrey. Self-managed, the band has its own high-tech recording facility (Houston Sound Studios), an agency that books it and other acts like Los Palominos (Hot Latin Agency), a custom tour bus, and a tractor-trailer full of expensive and sophisticated sound and lighting rigs. And it's all based in Houston's North Side barrio, not far from where the group's members grew up.

They came up the hard way, starting out as teens playing parties, dances, weddings, and cantinas; "I mean everything--you name it, we were there," recalls de la Rosa. He and his brother, La Mafia guitarist Leonard Gonzales (Oscar took his mother's last name, a traditional Latino honorific), had already been working since they were kids: shining shoes, loading trucks, and sweeping floors in the two nightclubs owned by their musician father.

In 1980, they met accordionist Armando "Mando" Lichtenberger, who also came from a musical family and is today the group's producer and musical foreman. "Him and another guy in the band, they both had long hair, and they had their own little look, their own little style," remembers de la Rosa. "And me and Leonard, we had our own look and our own style. So we said, 'Hey, maybe we can really make it happen if we get together.' So he left his group, and we left our group ."

They took the name La Mafia to symbolize "family and unity," de la Rosa explains. He says they have yet to encounter any flak from Italian-Americans for the name, though it did cause them some professional setbacks in the early days.

"At the beginning we had problems getting endorsements because of the name, so we had a lot of people turn us down," de la Rosa explains. "But we didn't want to change the name. And the group became so popular, they had no choice. If they wanted the group, it was gonna be La Mafia. We weren't gonna ask them to change the name of their products, so we remained La Mafia."

They were already bringing a tough, young approach to Tex-Mex music, which back when the band started was dominated by the older norteno sound. "We did explosions on stage, pyrotechnics. The way we would dress was real funky. We would look up to Kiss and some of the rock groups. We brought some of the American way into our music," says de la Rosa. "We were the group that came in and decided, it's time to give the people their money's worth. It's time to entertain the people."

Lichtenberger looks back on it all with a certain irony. "Especially in the early years, we used a lot of rock influences on our albums and our album covers and in our stage performances. If you'd see our covers from the early '80s, now they don't look that wild or out there, but back then they were. It's weird, because when you look back, it makes you understand how our industry was just not up to date.

"The kids are always who you have to try and get involved. But at the same time, you have to play to the audience that's there. And Tejano has always been more of an adult-oriented industry--it's 20s to 40s--and I think La Mafia helped bring in the younger generation."

La Mafia has long been adept at straddling musical worlds. Though best known for what might be called the Tejano power ballad, it has recorded everything from more Latin American dance rhythms such as cumbias to the Mexican grupo sound, and even reprised the traditional Tex-Mex sound on its latest album, its 25th, En Tus Manos ("In Your Hands"), with a tribute to Tejano pioneer Cornelio Reyna.

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