Saturday wasn’t the first time that “Queen of the Accordion” Eva Ybarra played her music inside UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures. However, it was her first time playing at the venue as a National Heritage Fellow.
The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Ybarra her title this month during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The San Antonio native is now the second female Conjunto musician to hold the nation’s highest honor for folk music.
“This is the award that honors the best traditional folk artists throughout the United States,” said Juan Tejeda, co-founder of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s annual Conjunto Festival. He spoke of her elite achievement during his introduction to her performance.
“It’s the highest award and the highest honor that the United States, the Federal government, the National Endowment for the Arts, gives to its best and worthy folk artists,” Tejeda said to applause.
Ybarra began her career as a child performer in the 1950s. She was playing her accordion around San Antonio venues by the time she was 6. Her career has now spanned over nearly 70 years.
The institute opened its doors free of charge Saturday afternoon, participating in the Smithsonian’s Museum Day Live! initiative. Over 100 people sat for both the performance and a preceding debut screening of Manuel Medrano’s documentary Eva Ybarra: Siempre la Reina.
Ybarra took the floor alongside singer Sandy Rodriguez, guitarist Rick Perez, bassist Joe Perez, and long time drummer Pete Lopez. Together they make up Eva Ybarra y Su Conjunto. Before beginning her set, she walked through the front row and aisles shaking hands and giving hugs.
Her set of roughly half a dozen songs was full of energy and variance. When Ybarra played long, slow notes, she would stretch her accordion out above her shoulder and below her waist. Speeding up the tempo, Ybarra collapsed the bellows and rapidly tapped across her keyboard and buttons. Her clothes and cowboy hat were black, accentuating the smile that would stretch across her face from time to time while she played.
Some audience members stood up and walked around the dome theatre examining the exhibitions and items set up on display. Children busied themselves at craft tables situated at the back of the room near the Los Tejanos culture section.
After her performance, Ybarra shook more hands, gave more hugs, and shared more smiles with fans. She took pictures with families, children, and adults alike, occasionally dabbing a blue Lone Star Beer bandana underneath the brim of her hat.
Despite the fellowship and the heaps of congratulations that came with it, Ybarra said nothing had changed in her performances.
“There isn’t any difference because I’m the same,” Ybarra said. “I can play in my backyard and for me it’s the same as playing in Washington. I appreciate everywhere. I enjoy myself.”
She still says she appreciates the award with all of her heart and soul, but that its as much for her people as it is for herself. Tejeda made note of her humility in one of his final remarks before the music started.
“I know that Eva doesn’t like for me to say that she’s the best female accordionist in the history of Conjunto music, so I’m not going to say it today,” Tejeda said. “What I’m going to say is that Eva Ybarra is one of the best accordionists and musicians in the history of Conjunto music.“