by Roel Flores, 2004
Photo: Texas Folklife
In California they picked lettuce and plums, in the Upper Midwest cherries, back in Texas it was mainly cotton. “Potatoes was hardest,” says Roel Flores, age 65. He and his family, like many, many others from the Rio Grande Valley, followed the ripening crops, and the music called “conjunto” came with them.
Conjunto is the dance music of the Texas-Mexico border. It combines the accordion‘s squeaky chugging with velvet chords of the bajo sexto, a big bodied 12-string guitar. To this twosome, most conjunto bands these days add drums, an electric bass, and other instruments, but the marriage of accordion and bajo sexto (which was Roel’s specialty) is where it all began.
Now retired from fieldwork and his later occupation as a repairman for Southern Union Gas Company, Roel Flores works in a new medium and a more reflective mode. Since 1995 he’s been painting, his artworks bringing together the labor and the music that have been his life. An exhibit of his paintings La Labor opened September 9 at Texas Folklife in Austin, and will travel next year to Talento Bilingue in Houston and the Brownsville (TX) Heritage Museum.
On one wall hang his portraits of conjunto’s pioneers: Flaco Jimenez, Gilberto Perez, Don Antonio de la Rosa and Valerio Longoria. Roel explains that Longoria “was the first to put straps on an accordion and play standing up,ï¿½? taking that giant step from private backyard jam-band music to full blown performance. They were all Flores’s heroes, “and most of them worked in the fields also,” he says.
In the works in La Labor, diversion and oppression, strain and release are braided “I want to show the good side of hard times,” says Flores.
Furrows that bleach in the sun also sprout tiny accordions and guitars in Sin Sombra (Without Shade). An untitled painting twines the prickly cotton boll with Texas’s yellow rose, and from the roots of both hang a red heart and conjunto’s instruments. “We were always trying to get out of the field work with the music,” Flores says, but in truth he like most other conjunto musicians managed both. After long days in the fields, he would perform with Los Originales, Los Supremos and other bands around his hometown of Westlaco, Texas.
“They used to call it poor man’s music,” says Flores. “The people with the stores would hire orchestras imitating Glenn Miller, but the campesinos would hire us. I played a lot of dances with the lights hanging under the trees.”
Flores says that when he first picked cotton, at age 6, “I was expecting to see cotton candy in the field.ï¿½? But in his paintings like “La Ultima Pesada” (The Last Weight) the long cotton sack hangs at dusk from a tree, dwarfing a spindly silhouette. In “Libres” (Free) open shackles are scattered in a yard among accordions and guitars. “I painted a lot of sunsets and sunrises,” he told researcher Linda Ho Peché, “‘because sometimes that was the only good thing you would see in a whole day.”
Don Antonio de la Rosa
by Roel Flores, n.d.
Photo: Texas Folklife
Through Texas Folklife, Roel Flores and his wife Epifania have been visiting the schools of Hidalgo County to recount their experiences ““ hard and happy ” with young people. “In 7th grade I quit,” Roel says, “and regretted it the rest of my life,” a message he carries to the classroom. Roel and Epifania also hope to revive and honor memories of the Rio Grande Valley’s migrant-worker families, the students’ own parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. “The kids forget where their parents came from,” says Flores. “A lot of people want to forget about hard times.” But why? In his eyes, having ridden across the country in an open truck or thrown a cotton sack over your shoulder is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Whoever thinks so never saw a purple sunrise or danced to Tony de la Rosa.