Known for perfecting the art of the Mexican ranchera, a genre akin to American country-and-western music, Lola Beltrán was perhaps Mexico's best-loved singer. Upon her death in 1996, the entire country went into mourning, with her body lying in state in Mexico City, her songs played endlessly on the radio, and her musical films shown back-to-back on television.
Beltrán, born Maria Lucia Beltrán Alcayaga, was raised in the rural town of Rosario, one of seven children of Maria de Los Angeles Ruíz del Beltrán, a homemaker, and Pedro Beltrán Felix, a miner. As a child she sang at mass and in the church choir, where her director introduced her to the romantic ballads of Pedro Infante and Agustin Lara. In 1953, after graduating from secretarial school, Beltrán and her mother left Rosario for Mexico City, seeking to make a name for herself singing in the tradition of the balladeers she admired.
Accounts vary as to how Beltrán secured a recording contract in Mexico City, although it is clear that radio station XEW played a crucial role. According to The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music, Beltrán visited the radio station and pleaded for a chance to sing on the air. Rudely dismissed by the station executives, Tomás Méndez, a songwriter and singer with the group Los Diamentes, secured her an audition with the station manager, Amado C. Guzmán. While Guzmán did not immediately offer Beltrán her shot at stardom, he did hire her as his secretary. A year later she won a contest to sing with Miguel Aceves Mejía on a weekly radio program at XEW, an opportunity that landed her a recording contract and saw her dubbed Lola Beltrán. Soon thereafter, the Discos Peerless label released her first single, containing two songs popularized by singer José Alfredo Jiménez, "Cuando el Destino" and "Por un Beso."
According to the New York Times, however, Beltrán pestered XEW regulars the Mariachi Vargas to let her perform with them on air. Once they relented, she so impressed station executives that she was awarded her own show. Either way, XEW was central in launching Beltrán's career, and she told the Times in a 1988 interview, "Even now, every time I go by the station, I make the sign of the cross."
Beltrán's impassioned vocal tales of down-and-out, yet ultimately redeemed, characters immediately captured the hearts of Mexican listeners poor and rich, unknown and influential. Songwriters whose work helped make her famous included Méndez, Lara, Jiménez and Rubén Fuentes. "She had an impeccable sense for choosing material that was best suited to her voice and style and in which she could capture life's melancholy essence," the Billboard Guide noted. Over the course of five decades, Beltrán released over 100 albums and starred in more than 50 films. Her most popular singles included "Cucurrucucu Paloma," "Cielito Lindo," "Paloma Negra," "Si Nos Dejan," and "No Volveré." She became known colloquially as Lola la Grande, or Lola the Great. Beltrán told the New York Times she saw no difference between singing and acting. "Any good singer is already an actress. If you're doing things properly, you are projecting, and as you project, people are feeling the drama and emotion that pours out of you."
Despite her diva-like demeanor—Beltrán became known for her extravagant dresses and shawls, her fondness for furs and jewelry, and a regal demeanor that earned her a second nickname, "the Queen"—her tales of hardship and redemption resonated with Mexico's poor and working-class residents. Beltrán also captivated upper-class listeners around of the world, becoming the first ranchera singer to perform at the staid El Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, a venue that had previously hosted only classical music events. She performed for numerous dignitaries and heads of state, and Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar featured her rendition of "Soy infeliz" ("I am unhappy") in his film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Despite her widespread appeal, Beltrán performed in the same manner for every audience. "My lot in life has been to sing, and I have been fortunate enough to sing for Eisenhower, Nixon, de Gaulle, the King of Spain and the United Nations," she told the New York Times in 1988. "But I sing no differently for them than for that great public whose affection for me is like a fountain that never dries up."
Beltrán's sudden death on March 25, 1996, following what has been called both a stroke and a heart attack, shocked and saddened an entire nation. As testament to her popularity, thousands flocked to pay their respects both in Mexico City, where her body lay in state at the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, and in her hometown of Rosario. Radio stations played her songs all week and her movies became fixtures on Mexican television. Television shows were repeatedly interrupted with news of Beltrán's funeral proceedings.
Beltrán's New York Times obituary described the singer in the words of Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: "passion and desire, joy and risk, tenderness and the cry for existence are the wings of this dove that is the voice of our lady Lola Beltrán." American singer Linda Ronstadt, who recorded several of Beltrán's songs for her 1988 Spanish-language album Canciones de mi Padre, was quoted in the same article, saying, "Singers don't come any more real than Lola Beltrán. She's a world-class singer, up there rubbing shoulders with Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf."
In a 1988 New York Times interview Beltrán shed light on the way she connected so deeply with so many. "When I hear a song, I want it to tell me something," she said. "I want it to be well structured and well proportioned. It can tell the story of a great love or of a tremendous sadness, but it has to have emotion and truth. The song has to make it worth my while to sing it."
For the Record …
Born Maria Lucia Beltrán Alcayaga on March 7, 1932, in Rosario, Sinaloa, Mexico; died on March 25, 1996, in Mexico City; married Alfredo Leal; children: one daughter, María Elena Leal. Education: Secretarial degree, 1950s.
Secretary at radio station XEW (Mexico City), 1953; made her singing debut and soon changed her name; became popular both in Mexico and internationally; recorded over 100 albums and starred in more than 50 films; celebrated her fortieth anniversary as a singer at the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, 1994.
Awards: Received the Virginia Fabregas medal for 25 years of performing; Medalla del Artistica del Extranjero for representing Mexico, 1982.
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Ay Jalisco no te Rajes, Warner Music, 1995.
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Me Acordare de Ti, Peerless, 1995.
Reina de ca Cancion Ranchera, WEA, 1995.
Mi Amigo Juan Gabriel, Sony, 1995.
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Por Siempre Juntos, Peerless, 1996.
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Emociones, Musart, 1997.
En el Olimpia de Paris, Orfeon, 1997.
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Tu Tierra Te Llora, Orfeon, 1997.
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