On April 21, the City of Austin hosted Texas Folklife’s 12th annual “Big Squeeze” statewide accordion competition. The annual contest, now a tradition among accordion players and aficionados, was started by Texas Folklife in 2007 as a way to help preserve the diverse music and culture found in Texas. Over the years, the contest has featured over 300 musicians seeking to showcase their skills in a variety of styles and genres.
Each year, a total of four “Big Squeeze” champions are crowned, with honors bestowed in the “Polka” (German, Czech, and Polish style players ages 25 and under), “Conjunto” (Norteño, Tejano and Conjunto style players ages 17 and under), “Anthony Ortiz Jr. Conjunto Prize” (Norteño, Tejano, and Conjunto style players between the ages of 18 and 21), and “Cajun & Zydeco” (Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco music ages 21 and under) categories.
This year, as usual, the Rio Grande Valley was well represented; at least 28 of this year’s competitors were Valley residents.
Additionally, Jesus Venegas and Melenie Lissette Gonzalez, two young Rio Grande Valley accordionists, held the Valley’s name up high by winning in the conjunto contest’s two most competitive categories.Peter Gresser,13, of Weatherford, and Steven Williams, 14, of Humble, also won the Polka and Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco contest.
A product of local programs and influences, Venegas and Gonzalez join a long list of Valley residents that have lifted up the Valley’s tradition of skill and excellence in accordion playing and conjunto.
“One reason the cultural ecosystem that supports conjunto accordion is particularly strong in the Valley is in large part because of the efforts of passionate educators like Juan Longoria, Jr., Cecilio ‘Don Chilo’ Garza and others,” Charlie Lockwood, Executive Director of Texas Folklife, acknowledged over email. “Their efforts as leaders of high school conjunto programs have helped ensure that the next generation of young musicians has the opportunity and outlet to learn to play and carry on these musical traditions. Many children in the Valley grow up with conjunto and Tejano music as part of their cultural experience, but it takes passionate educators and teachers like Longoria and Garza to encourage them to be active participants in the music and to develop into tradition bearers themselves.”
Melenie Lissette Gonzalez, 17, currently a student at Roma High School, actually made local history by becoming the first teenage girl from the Rio Grande Valley to win the “Conjunto” grand prize at the “Big Squeeze.” Gonzalez was raised listening to conjunto music and points to Paulino Bernal, Jaime de Anda from Jaime y Los Chamacos, and Ramon Ayala as her favorite accordionists. She credits her older sister, Carmen Gonzalez, nevertheless, as the person who ultimately played the biggest role in her becoming interested in music. “The person that influenced me the most is my oldest sister,” Gonzalez said. “She’s a violinist in mariachi, and her passion towards mariachi inspired me to fall in love with the world of music.”Gonzalez first picked up the accordion at the age of 14 and quickly learned the cumbia “El Tao Tao.” She was taught the accordion by her instructors Jesus Lozano and Jaime Lozano and became a part of the Roma High School’s Conjunto “Los Cardenales.” She credits her instructors for introducing her to the “Big Squeeze” and for motivating her to enter the competition.
At the Big Squeeze, Gonzalez played the Conjunto Bernal classic “Polka Idalia” and Juan Villarreal’s huapango “Picame Tarantula.” When she heard she was announced as the grand prize winner in Austin, she was stunned.
“I just had no words to explain how this felt,” Gonzalez said emotionally. “Part of this was because of my supportive family, friends, and directors that were always there for me.”
For Lockwood, this is what the Big Squeeze is all about.
“One of the main points of this program is to bring people across the state from different cultures and backgrounds together to celebrate the unique accordion music traditions of Texas,” Lockwood said. “We continue to work to make the Big Squeeze more diverse, inclusive, and supportive of the youth contestants, teachers, showcase artists and communities that carry on these music traditions.”
Gonzalez is excited to be the first Valley teenage girl to win at the Big Squeeze and hopes that more will soon follow in her path.
“I feel proud,” Gonzalez said. “It’s something that not too many people see, a girl playing an accordion. Who knows, maybe we can rule the conjunto style later on in the future. I hope to encourage other young girls to get inspired to play the accordion or any kind of conjunto instrument ‘cause anything is possible.’”
On the other side of the Valley, Jesus Venegas, 21, born and raised in Brownsville, also made history by becoming the inaugural recipient of the “Anthony Ortiz Jr. Conjunto Prize,” an award that was named after a former “Big Squeeze” finalist who passed away in 2017. He said he first started playing the accordion when he was in 5th grade, learning little by little by watching videos. Shortly after, he took a break. He wouldn’t start again until he was 15 years old when he met Juan Longoria, Jr.Longoria, a part of Grupo Conteño, was the first person to ever win the “Big Squeeze” competition back in 2007 when there was only one grand prize for all the different accordion styles. Learning from Longoria, Venegas quickly took a liking to the Tony de la Rosa polka “Atotonilco” and various huapangos.
“I’ve always considered Mr. Longoria a big influence,” Venegas said. “A lot of people, to this day, say that we sound very similar on stage.”
Venegas said it was Longoria that pushed him to enter the “Big Squeeze,” with this year marking the third time that he’s participated in the annual competition. Unlike the previous year, he feels he was a lot more prepared this time around.
“I started playing, gigging around here in the Rio Grande Valley with a band. Their name is Grupo Dezatados,” Venegas said. “I think that helped me out a lot. With more experience and it kept me on my toes.”
This year Venegas played “J.V.’s Favorites,” a popurri or collection he worked on that included several songs that he blended together. After all these years, the judges at the “Big Squeeze” finally awarded him with one of the top prizes.
“I felt like all my hard work had paid off,” Venegas said. “It was a very fun weekend, and a very different experience [this time around].”
As winners, Gonzalez, Venegas, Gresser, and Williams all received brand-new Hohner accordions, a cash prize, and will soon have access to a variety of new opportunities with Texas Folklife.
The four champions are all scheduled to perform next on June 2 at the Texas Folklife’s Accordion Kings & Queens Concert, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.