In 1998, Lupe Saenz noticed that regional Conjunto music from South Texas was slowly disappearing from the radio airwaves. At the time the post-orchesta, keyboard-heavy Tejano music that artists like Selena and La Mafia produced, were dominating the decade at Rio Grande Valley radio stations. Soon mainstream Norteño would make its presence felt on the airwaves as well.

Despite the lack of radio airplay in the 1990s, conjuntos didn’t miss a beat. They played weekly at dance halls, at quinceañeras, weddings, and every year at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio and the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival in San Benito.

Later that year, Saenz’s brother, Fred Saenz, moved back to the Rio Grande Valley and shared how he started a Tejano Music Club in California. Lupe Saenz was inspired by his brother’s effort and launched an organization for Valley conjuntos. He originally dubbed it the Rio Grande Valley Conjunto Association, before settling on South Texas Conjunto Association (STCA).

“That’s what it became,” Saenz, President of the STCA, said. “The purpose of it was to organize the conjuntos here in the Rio Grande Valley, and to teach them the need to be united so that we could have a force.”

Los Angeles del Sur. Courtesy of Lupe Saenz

Within a few months, the STCA presented “Acordeones de Texas” (later spelled “Acordeones de Tejas”), a television show that aired on KMBH public television until 2014. STCA also started a radio program, which continues to air to this day.

The following year saw the debut of STCA’s annual showcase event― the “Conjunto of the Year” award show. The winner of the inaugural “Conjunto of the Year” title was Gilberto Perez y Sus Compadres, a Mercedes-based conjunto that has been around since the 1950s.

2018 marks not only 20 years of the STCA, but also the celebration of the 20th annual “Conjunto of the Year” award show. The annual event has been held in cities across the Valley including Mercedes, Brownsville, Harlingen, and Pharr.

This year the STCA returned to Elsa on July 14, making it’s second consecutive year that the “Conjunto of the Year” award show has been hosted in the Delta area.

“We had a very successful event last year and the support of the City of Elsa and the Full Court Dance Hall helped out,” Saenz said. “There is lots of conjunto pride in our Delta area, beginning in our school district. We even have a conjunto class in our school.”

The Delta area has been a hotbed for Conjunto for generations. Saenz’s father, Lupe Saenz, Sr., would book shows there throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Accordionist Esteban Jordan, locutor Hugo de la Cruz, and the conjunto Los Laytons emerged from that same space and era. These musicians would influence legions of musicians, some of which were in attendance at the award show.

It’s always a balance between the past, the present, and the future at the annual conjunto extravaganza. The “Lifetime Recognitions” were created to preserve the stories of legendary conjunto figures. This year they were awarded to Juan Antonio Tapia, Freddy Gonzalez, Los Halcones de Brownsville, and David de la Cruz, Jr. The winner of the first “Conjunto of the Year” award, Gilberto Perez, Sr., was in attendance as per usual.

In competitive awards (the full list can be found here), Linda Escobar, a legendary conjunto singer from Alice that is best known for her 1960s hit “Frijolitos Pintos,” walked away with the “Female Vocalist of the Year” award.

Juan Antonio Tapia receiving Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo courtesy of James Oates

“I felt ecstatic and surprised at the same time,” Escobar, 60, said. “Also, a feeling of accomplishment in representing Tejano Conjunto music, and that the hard work, dedication, and money one puts forth in producing a CD pays off with such a prestigious recognition.”

The CD referenced is Vi Una Nube, an album dedicated to Jesusita Escobar, her mother who passed away in Feb. 2017.

“I am deeply grateful for your votes,” Escobar told fans. “Which means to me that you all enjoy my style of interpreting Conjunto music and that makes my heart and soul very happy.”

While the legends had their time in the spotlight at the Full Court Dance Hall, the makeup of the musicians in attendance is getting younger.

“El ánimo is lots better,” Saenz responded when asked what has been the biggest change since the first award show in 1999. “Many more young conjuntos are now involved too.”

Thanks to Conjunto programs at various schools across the Valley, like Edcouch-Elsa, Los Fresnos, San Benito, La Joya, and Rio Grande City, along with grandchildren of Conjunto pioneers picking up where their family conjuntos have left off, we’ve seen a new crop of Conjunto musicians emerge in recent years.

A previously discontinued award was reintroduced at this year’s awards. The award was dubbed the “Upcoming Conjunto of the Year”, this prize is meant to honor young conjuntos that are creating a positive buzz in the Valley. The first recipient is Los Cucuys de Rodney Rodriguez. Rodriguez, 34-year-old from Rio Grande City, has been playing the accordion professionally for more than 20 years, but just recently branched out on his own last year after a long tenure with Los Fantasmas del Valle.

For “Accordionist of the Year”, Ricky Guzman III of Edinburg took home the honorable title. He has followed his grandfather and father’s footsteps in leading a conjunto as an accordionist.

“It felt so good knowing that finally, I had received the award for ‘Accordionist of The Year’ after a long time wishing I would win,” Guzman III, 32, told Neta. “My dad Ricardo Guzman, Jr. would always tell me, ‘Don’t worry mijo. The time will come and when you get it— the award, it will be very well deserved!’”

Ricky Guzman III performing. Courtesy of Eduardo Martinez

The top honor, the “Conjunto of the Year” title, was awarded once again to Ricky Naranjo y Los Gamblers of Alice. They have previously won the titular prize in 2010 and 2016, making this their third major win.

“Their showmanship and stage presence,” Saenz responded when asked what impressed him the most about Ricky Naranjo y Los Gamblers. “They also cater to their audience and know how to perform on the stage. I recently videotaped their show in San Antonio— where the people loved their show and music like no other conjunto.”

Some years weren’t easy for the STCA. Several years ago, the STCA seriously considered moving the annual “Conjunto of the Year” show to San Antonio or Houston after they felt a dip in attendance. They hoped to test how they would do in a bigger city.

Momentum has picked up since then, as younger musicians and conjuntos have started filling the roles that were previously held by the established musical legends in our community. For decades, Saenz has had a concern about Conjunto one day vanishing. Seeing the next generation of accordionists and bajo-sexto players has given him hope that Conjunto is here to stay.

“I think that Conjunto music is at a threshold for change,” Saenz told Neta. “Conjuntos like Los Cucuys de Rodney Rodriguez, Lino Solis y Los Bullits, and several other young conjuntos are beginning to make their mark. If these bands stay the course, Conjunto has a good chance of survival.”