Amalia Mendoza; Popular Mexican Singer Won Hearts With Her Tears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amalia Mendoza, one of Mexico's best-known singers of mariachi and ranchera music, popular for her recordings and concerts on both sides of the border, has died. She was 78.

Mendoza, known for the tears in her voice that brought sweet sadness to listeners' hearts, died Monday in Mexico City of a disease that caused progressive paralysis of her lungs.

Among the singer's recordings were "Echame a Mi la Culpa" (Put the Blame on Me), "Amarga Navidad" (Bitter Christmas) and "Punalada Trapera" (Backstab).

She officially retired in 1985 but made one final and very well received tribute album in 1996--"Las Tres Senoras" with two other famous singers, Lola Beltran, who died shortly after completing the album, and Lucha Villa.

Billboard magazine praised the album: "Whether singing in majestic unison or as passionate solo performers, this distinguished trio of senior citizens glides effortlessly over an array of Mexico's beloved musical strains."

One of a family of noted musicians from the Michoacan town of San Juan Huetamo, Mendoza became known as "La Tariacuri," a word the Purepecha Indians used for their king or to designate their tribe. Her three brothers, Norberto, Eligio and Juan, performed as the trio Tariacuri, and Mendoza and her sister Perla at one time performed as a duo known as Las Taricuristas.

Mendoza launched her solo career in 1954 with her recording of "Punalada Trapera" and gained increasing fame later that year when she began broadcasting over Mexico's leading radio station, XEW.

In addition to making 36 recordings, Mendoza performed widely throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States, where she had many Latino fans.

"I want to be near them," she said of her many visits to the American Southwest, "to offer them my heart."

A favorite headliner when the fabled Million Dollar Theater at 3rd Street and Broadway in Los Angeles showcased Mexican entertainers, Mendoza performed to rave reviews there in 1965.

"Backed by the potent mariachi Los Camperos, Miss Mendoza elegantly sobs her way through 'Que Bonito Es Llorar,' 'Mi Paloma Blanca' and 'Entre Tus Brazos,' " wrote Pepe Arciga for The Times. "Her style, not unlike that of Peggy Lee, is quietly spectacular. She tackles lyrics with special relish and soon you're in the palm of her hand. Consequently, you're ready to applaud rabidly on completion of the last bar."

Enchanted fans speculated that Mendoza's emotional delivery of songs about love lost, love regained and love betrayed may have reflected sadness in her own life. She punctuated her singing with real tears, arms reaching out in anguish to her audience.

Mendoza confirmed the speculation in her news conference announcing her retirement in 1985: "I cry when I sing because I have known sadness in my life. I live what I sing. I tell a story and I become that person in it."

Two days later she drew 4,000 people to a concert at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena. She was carried into the arena by two charros, with adoring fans pelting her with roses and requests for autographs.

In 1998, the Los Angeles Latino entertainment group Nosotros gave Mendoza the inaugural Lucha Reyes Award for her role in perpetuating Mexican music.

Mendoza said she retired at the peak of her popularity because she wanted to do it "while I can still sing, so that I will be remembered that way."

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