- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Manuel Lopez hadn’t sung in front of people for nearly 60 years, since he was a young member of the New Orleans Opera.

That all changed a couple of Tuesdays ago on his 83rd birthday.

Sitting with his wife and some old friends at the back of a humble West Side Mexican restaurant that morning, Lopez decided to sing with the aging guitarists who had just serenaded him with the traditional birthday song “Las Mananitas.”

“I don’t even know the songs, but I love the music,” said Lopez, a Korean War veteran, after his impromptu “El Rey” with the musicians. “They helped me with the words.”

It was a typical Tuesday morning at Flor de Chiapas, owner Andrea Garcia’s down-home spot on Bandera Road near Woodlawn Avenue where the breakfast tacos are cheap, interior walls are painted lime green and DayGlo orange and clear plastic tablecloths sport a kitschy grapes ‘n’ cherries motif.

Tuesdays and Thursdays at the small restaurant, which is always bustling and can seat about 75, have long been known for the casual, unscripted midmorning trio music concerts that get started around 10:30 a.m.

For a dozen years, a handful of graying, guitar-toting semi-retired professional trio musicians led by Albino Alonzo, Ezequiel Martinez and Rogelio Arzola have gathered around the same three small tables pushed together to jam on the romantic songs so associated with Eydie Gorme & the Trio Los Panchos.

The Panchos’ music, which enjoyed its heyday in the late 1940s and throughout the ‘50s, is characterized by nylon string Spanish guitars, soothing major seventh chords, plucked melody lines, lightning-fast flourishes, the pulsing bass of the guitarron and harmonized voices swaddling the lead singer.

Their greatest songs include “Sin Ti,” ”Perfidia,” ”Besame Mucho,” ”Sabor a Mi,” ”La Ultima Noche” and “La Barca” - songs rich with the romantic poetry of love and longing.

It’s not blaring - and it’s free. “Mexican music is not all mariachi,” Carmen Lopez, Manuel’s wife, told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1VFKpAR). But it is as beautifully old-fashioned. Silver-haired Alonzo, for example, plays by ear and still tunes his monstrous 1940s guitarron by sounding out each note - La, Re, Sol, Do, Mi, La.

“I don’t know of any other place that lets you bring your instruments and just start playing,” said Alonzo, 82.

It really began that simply, says Arzola, who leads Trio Los Yaquiz and lives nearby. He started the breakfast tradition at Flor de Chiapas 12 years ago with musician friends because he liked its steak ranchero tacos. Now it’s grown to two days a week.

“The chorizo con huevo and carnita asada tacos are good, too,” said Arzola, who totes a cigar-box-sized amp so his guitar solos cut through the din.

Flor de Chiapas regulars - sweetly coiffed, quad-cane groupies in their 70s, 80s and 90s and passionate about this particular, bygone genre - arrive early to snatch a nearby booth or table to hear musicos whose combined experience adds up to 500 years or so.

Golden-age ranchera singer Rita Vidaurri, who in the early 1950s performed with Gorme and Los Panchos in New York and still recites a mildly risque joke that Gorme taught her, comes every Tuesday to listen and sing a song or two. She knew many of the players when they were younger.

“No quiero huevos rancheros,” jokes Viduarri, 91, with the young waitress pouring her a cup of decaf. “Quiero el ranchero.” (I don’t want the eggs with ranchero sauce; I want the rancher.) Moments later, she’s on her feet and gone from corny comedian to full-throated force of nature, shaking her fists and singing of heartache.

Vidaurri’s favorite is the melancholy breakup song “Sin Ti,” the romantic melody of which belies the anguish of the lyrics, in which the singer confesses “without you, I can never live” and who must mournfully accept the finality of a lover “no longer next to me.”

Emma Hernandez, a big-band singer and dancer who in the early ‘70s was the featured attraction at the Tower of the Americas and appeared in John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” lives nearby and is a regular with her husband, Gilbert.

Cries of “¡otra, otra!” (another, another) go up after she sings. “There is so much talent,” said her beaming husband. “People don’t know.”

A grandfather holding his grandson lingers and listens near the entry after paying. Waitress Laura Garcia says her customers “are happier when they sing.”

Carmen Camacho, who suffered nerve damage to her legs after being shot in the back 15 years ago, rolls through the place in her wheelchair selling peanut butter and oatmeal cookies she bakes. Tuesday mornings are good days because of “the friendly atmosphere.”

It’s not unusual to see Maria Velasquez Miller, a regular, soft-shoe dancing around the joint. There’s more going on than gaiety and gritos. “It’s a little therapy for me. My husband passed away last year,” she said.

Fans Yolanda Cuellar and her husband, Ruperto, make the drive in from Hondo at least twice a month to hear the Tuesday jam session. “It’s like you’re at home singing with your family,” Yolanda said. “It’s a family thing.”

As waitresses squeeze between crowded tables, balancing bowls of caldo and plates of pork chops and eggs to be served, Efren Cavazos shared a story about seeing the legendary Lydia Mendoza when he was a boy at a Mexican-American tent show, La Carpa Cubana.

At 90, he’s the only one in the joint who can say he saw Vidaurri perform when she was a gangly teenager. Seeing her sing again brought back childhood memories. “It’s nostalgia more than anything else,” he said. “If you like music, this is the place to enjoy it.” And maybe rediscover a youthful passion.

For 30 years, Miguel Angel Mendez was a florist. But the Puerto Rican native, fond of Statue of Liberty ties, harbors a poet’s heart. Singing with these musicians is an outlet.

Usually content to sit around the table, one of the guys, shaking maracas and harmonizing, Mendez suddenly rises during the emotional “Sin Ti,” conducting with his hands until he realizes he’s getting maybe a little too serious and breaks into a laugh. “You have to live (the lyric),” he explained.

Retired promoter Mario Fernandez, who often comes and sings with karaoke gusto, agreed. “You can feel the love,” said Fernandez, who was born in Mexico, describing the little place as “un Mexico chiquito.”

It’s true, Spanish is the language mostly heard in the music and at the tables. There’s a small framed replica of the Mexican flag near the kitchen. And green, white and red dulces are sold at the register.

Retired postal worker Reynaldo Campos is a regular patron but wants to keep the place - “where the youngest guy is, like, 75” - a secret.

“I don’t want people to discover it,” Campos said.

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com


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