Tejano outsiders define what's in

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

By the early 1990s, 10 years of hard work began to pay off. La Mafia's album Esta Tocando Fuego ("You're Playing With Fire") became the first Tejano album to sell a million records, half of the sales coming in Mexico, where no young Tejano group had broken through before. The group's next album yielded an international hit with the song "Estoy Enamorando" ("I'm Falling In Love"), which spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Latin chart.

But even with all its groundbreaking achievements, La Mafia feels at times like the Rodney Dangerfield of Tejano--it don't get no respect. The group abandoned the San Antonio recording scene--the city known as the Nashville of Tejano--after its producer insisted that de la Rosa couldn't sing and would never make it. La Mafia felt it had been snubbed by the Tejano Music Awards one too many times, and no longer attends Tex-Mex music's annual senior prom.

"We were ignored a lot. You know how it is. You don't get any respect, so you feel, Hey, I shouldn't be there," de la Rosa laments. "I've put a lot of hard work into this, so I deserve a little respect. If they wanna play the politics, fine--let them. I don't have to be there. So we decided we weren't gonna go anymore."

Another issue that irks de la Rosa is how the Selena mythology now implies that she brought Tejano music to Mexico. "There was credit taken away from us. It was taken away in the wrong way. We were the first to open the doors for all the groups here in the U.S., and the first and still the most successful group there."

So La Mafia just continues to hoe its own row in the Tejano music world, bolstered by a busy national and Latin American tour schedule that's the fruit of both its hard work and the inroads that Tejano music and Latino consciousness have made in most every corner of America. Even though to Anglo ears some Tejano acts might sound like lightweight pop, in concert La Mafia barrels out heavy, dense rhythms as bone-shaking as many rock bands.

Earlier this fall, at San Antonio's sprawling Tejano Rodeo Club, the group took the stage one by one with smoke, flashing lights, and a big dance sound whose opening flourishes might more readily be expected at, say, a Prince show.

But where band and audience dynamics at big rock and pop shows are far more manic, La Mafia enjoys a more congenial relationship with its fans. A few songs into the set, the women hop onstage, amble over to Latino sex symbol de la Rosa, and plant a kiss on his cheek, maybe give him a small hug, and then saunter off. Up they come, one after another, never grabbing de la Rosa, or hogging the spotlight, without needing a bouncer to escort them off. It's sexy and exciting, yet warm and wholesome.

Onstage, band members toss their hats to the crowd who return the gesture with their own headgear. Although de la Rosa abandoned his trademark black gaucho hat last year, he has recently started wearing it again. Draping the obligatory bra that gets tossed up across a mike stand, La Mafia mugs at its fans, smiling and clearly having as much fun as its audience is. And all the while, the group delivers grand, bottom-heavy Mexican-American pop music that's clearly infectious to ears that may not even understand most of the Spanish-language lyrics.

Which brings us to the million-dollar Tejano music question: When will La Mafia do the big English-language crossover album, a la Selena and Emilio? De la Rosa says his band is in no hurry and has other projects it would like to do first. If and when it makes a stab at the mainstream, it may be with an album of classic pop and soul songs, done La Mafia style. But don't hold your breath waiting for the band to pursue that tack when there are still worlds to be conquered in the Latin music arena.

When Lichtenberger is asked if he ever thought La Mafia would go this far, he pauses. "No. Never. But La Mafia, as a group, we're survivors. We love the challenge. We've been successful since 1982, so there's been a lot of changes in Tejano music since then. And that's been La Mafia's secret, being able to adapt. We're always keeping current on what's coming in the mainstream, and we always have those influences in our recordings. And we're going to continue to try to push the edge."

De la Rosa remains confident yet somewhat guarded. "We've managed to stick around this long. I think we'll complete 20 years, and hopefully, after we complete 20 years, we'll decide whether we're gonna keep going, or whether we should stop. There's been talk about it, but we're really happy with everything. But sometimes you just have to get away from everything for a little while. So maybe we'll then take some time off, maybe a year or two. We haven't really decided yet.

"But 17 years is a long time, and I just thank God that we've managed to be here this long and managed to stay on top this long," de la Rosa concludes. "God's been very good to us."

La Mafia plays Guys & Dolls in Fort Worth on Friday, December 26, and the International Ballroom in Dallas on Saturday, December 27.

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