Santiago Jimenez Sr and his sons Flaco Jimenez and Santiago Jimenez, Jr. introduced me and my whole neighborhood to Tejano music. Growing up on the Westside I spent most of my days at my dad’s grocery store on Guadalupe Street, one block from El Paso Street. Romo’s Grocery Store was on the most active commercial section of the Westside and music from the area’s many taverns and nightclub permeated the air.
From the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s my dad opened his grocery store on Guadalupe Street seven days a week giving me the opportunity to see Santiago Sr. and his two sons at a local dance hall when I walked home to Monterey Street.
Most evenings in the 1950s it was my duty to close up the store and head home–usually, I walked past my uncle Cruz Saenz’ famed nightclub, El Gaucho, on El Paso Street. El Gaucho was across the street from his brother’s service station and auto-repair garage. Uncle Frank Saenz ran his gas station and also did a weekly show for the Spanish-language KEDA radio station. He knew and loved Mexican and Tejano music.
El Gaucho nightclub was not far my home and it was well known as one of the most popular clubs for the Tejano rhythm sound. While I was not of age to enter the club, on many occasions my uncle let me in the side door to enjoy the great Latino music. I did not realize it at the time, but Santiago Jimenez Sr. and his sons were leaders in creating a new Tex-Mex musical beat– Tejano music.
Music historian Eugene Chadbourne helped me understand the significance of this musical experience. Chadbourne wrote that “one of the most remarkable things about (Santiago Jimenez’) career is that he performed every weekend in the same San Antonio nightclub, El Gaucho, for more than a decade. These shows were almost without exception standing room only.”
The Jimenez family were among the stars of the famed 1976 documentary Chulas Fronteras which writer George Schneiderman described as “a documentary about the music of the Mexican community on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, particularly of migrant farmers.” Many film critics enjoyed the historical treatment of Tejano music, but as Schneiderman observes, the film “ devotes principal attention to the music as a form of social protest against oppression and racism.”
In Chulas Fronteras, Santiago Jimenez, Sr reveals that he learned to play the accordion at age eight from his father, an Eagle Pass musician. In his twenties, Santiago’s music played on the radio on San Antonio’s KEDA station. Jill S. Seeber wrote in the Texas State Historical Association website that Santiago Jiménez, Sr “became known for his inventive use of the tololoche, a Tejano contrabass that became prevalent in the conjunto music of the 1940s. Jiménez later recorded for several recording companies in the United States and Mexico. His polkas “La Piedrera” and “Viva Seguin” (recorded in 1942) became well-known regional hits.
In the 1980s while teaching history at the University of Texas at Austin, I had an occasion to meet Flaco Jimenez at a small political party. There were not many people invited so I had the opportunity to visit with him during his breaks. When I mentioned El Gaucho, his eyes lit up. He knew my uncles and had fond memories of his playing days there.
Flaco Jimenez recalled joining his dad’s band at age nine playing mostly on the weekends. By the 1990s he was one of the most recognized Tejano/Conjunto artists in the world. In the 1990s Flaco played with the well known Texas band the Texas Tornados’ which won a Grammy as Best Mexican-American Performance of 1991. By the end of the decade, Flaco would win a total of five Grammy awards.
Flaco Jimenez has played with many famous bands, including with Mick Jagger and Rolling Stones, and he continues to tour and play across America and abroad. According to Mark Deming, Jimenez has earned the title as “one of the world’s leading ambassadors of Tex-Mex music.”