Tejano outsiders define what's in

"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.

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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.

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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