Beatriz Llamas and Blanca Rodríguez, the remaining members of the singing supergroup Las Tesoros de San Antonio, have been busy over the last month or so – and not necessarily with performances.
In September, the octogenarian pair was in Washington, D.C., to receive a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
On Oct. 10, Las Tesoros were back home in San Antonio being recognized, in a ceremony at the Tobin Center, as 2019 Distinction in the Arts Honorees. Presented by the San Antonio Arts Commission and the City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture, the recipients are recognized for providing “enduring and effective cultural leadership” and “exceptional artistic accomplishments” in the San Antonio arts community.
Amelia Valdez, Las Tesoros de San Antonio’s manager and a volunteer coordinator at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said that she “didn’t realize until [she] traveled with them just how incredibly famous these women are.”
Before becoming Las Tesoros, each were prominent mainly in ranchera music during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
“They talk about how they were famous at the wrong time, though,” Valdez said, “with all the racism and sexism that stopped them from being even more successful.”
Las Tesoros de San Antonio, or Treasures of San Antonio, was formed in 2008 by Esperanza Peace and Justice Center director Graciela Sanchez, who wanted the once-famous women to share their music with new audiences and cement their cultural legacies. There were four members, all of whom had been friends or known each other in some capacity for decades prior. The other two Tesoros, Janet Cortez and Rita Vidaurri, are no longer living; Cortez died in 2014 and Vidaurri died this past January.
All four grew up on the West Side of San Antonio, although Llamas was originally from Mexico, having moved here at age 13. By the time they came together as Las Tesoros, each could claim a successful singing career on her own dating back well over half a century. The group’s history is addressed in the 2016 documentary Las Tesoros de San Antonio: A Westside Story.
Rodríguez, 85, is from a family of musicians and started singing in public by age 5. When she was 13, she won a singing contest at the Guadalupe Theater, which afforded her opportunities to perform on more stages and on various radio programs. At the height of her regional and national popularity in the late 1940s and 1950s, she performed with well-known groups like Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Mariachi de Ramón Palomar, and Los Reyes de Jalisco. Known as “Blanquita Rosa,” she also performed alongside ranchera stars such as Amalia Mendoza, Francisco Avitia Tapia, Vicente Fernández, José Alfredo Jiménez, and Juan Mendoza.
Looking for a way to support her family as her career hit something of a lull, Rodríguez enrolled in the nursing program at the old Baptist Hospital downtown. She graduated as a licensed vocational nurse in 1968.
She worked as a nurse, while also seizing every opportunity to perform or record, until her retirement in 2007.
For Llamas and Rodríguez, having to wait until their 80s to be widely recognized for their music was worth it.
“We cannot even explain how good it feels,” Rodríguez said of receiving the two honors.
“It shows us that somebody appreciates all the work we have done through the years, thank God,” she said. “We are so proud to have been chosen to receive these awards. It’s like we are floating on the clouds.”
Said Llamas: “When you are old, it’s hard to get excited, but I thank God for this.”
Llamas, 83, began performing shortly after moving to San Antonio. Known as “La Paloma del Norte,” she found success singing with the groups Mariachi Chapultepec and Conjunto Bernal. In 1967, she earned the distinction of being the first Tejana to perform at Madison Square Garden. She was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Tejano Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1999.
With some few exceptions, Llamas has supported herself and her family with her singing career since the very beginning.
Rodríguez said that she and Llamas, whom she refers to as her “sister-friend,” are grateful for the national and local recognition, but that the local honor is the sweetest.
“The award in Washington, D.C., was important, but the biggest award for us is the one from our people here in San Antonio,” she said.
Rodríguez shared an anecdote from the D.C. trip that illustrates just how powerful singing is for these two women.
She remembers Llamas’ eldest daughter saying, “My mama complains about her health issues, and Blanca too, but give a microphone to these two ladies and get them up on stage, and they’ll forget that they are sick.”
After some needed rest following the accolades, Rodríguez and Llamas are getting back to what they do best, what they’ve spent their entire lives doing: singing for the people.
You can catch Las Tesoros in action at this weekend’s Día de los Muertos celebration at Hemisfair and at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s Día de los Muertos event on Nov. 1 at Rinconcito de Esperanza, located at 816 S. Colorado St.
Early next year, Las Tesoros de San Antonio expect to deliver a new album, and the group also is the subject of an exhibition now on display at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections.
“These are important women,” Valdez said, noting that it ties in with the Esperanza Center’s social justice mission to “give these mujeres the opportunity to finish their careers properly … to let them pass the culture and the music to the next generations.”