La Reina Del Acordeón
A sonic portrait of working-class Mexican identity began forming in the late 19th century. The accordion is the melodic centerpiece. From its early years, the bajo sexto would be paired rhythmically with the accordion to round out the signature sound. The result is a treasured folk music genre that came to be known as conjunto. The land, which fostered the birth of the music, spans South Texas to Northern Mexico.
Much like conjunto, Ybarra’s origins also reside in South Texas. Eva’s life began in San Antonio’s Circle 81 neighborhood on Brighton Avenue. The fifth of nine children, Eva grew up in a musical family. Her father, Pedro Ybarra (†), hails from neighboring Graytown, Texas. He was a guitarist and vocalist when he wasn’t earning a living as a truck driver and farm worker. Ybarra’s mother, María Eloisa Araiza (†), grew up in Leesville, Texas. When she wasn’t fulfilling her duties as a dedicated housewife, María Eloisa honed her skills as a vocalist and songwriter. All of her siblings pursued music to some degree as well. Eva’s eldest brother, Pedro Jr., played accordion and bajo sexto. He performed with several groups in his youth including Los Chamacónes (The Kids) and Conjunto Colombia. Lily and Gloria (†) formed a duo act as young girls by the name of Las Hermanitas Ybarra (The Ybarra Sisters). In Las Hermanitas Ybarra, Lily played the bajo sexto and sang. Gloria was also a vocalist. Delia and Yolanda dabbled in singing and songwriting. David (†) started his career playing bass with Eva Ybarra Y Su Conjunto and went on to perform with other groups, including Valerio Longoria, Esteban Jordán and Santiago Jímenez Jr. Ray sang in his youth and played bass. The youngest sibling, Ruby, picked up singing, songwriting, and poetry. The Ybarra musical tree further branches into the extended family. Surrounded by her own family’s artistic pursuits, Ybarra’s musical odyssey was inevitable.
Eva became enamored with the sound of the accordion at a very young age. One of Eva’s earliest memories is of her mother tucking her in for the night and being unable to sleep as the musical sounds coming from the living room captivated her so. She followed the sounds to the living room as if the melodious accordion were calling her name. She only briefly took in the sights and sounds of her family’s nightly jam session before she was discovered and promptly directed back to her room. She was too young to stay up that late into the night. Little did her family know that Eva feigned going to bed and stood behind the door listening and peeking through the keyhole at what would be her hereafter. Ybarra eventually campaigned to her parents for her own accordion. At the age of four, Eva received her first “squeezebox.” A two-row Hohner that she would take with her everywhere. She took learning the accordion with such gravity not normally seen in a young aspiring musician. Ybarra is a self-taught accordionist. Many of the early songs she learned were picked up from the radio. Eva would ask her mother to turn on the radio and she would oblige. While sitting on a little stool her mother set up by the radio, Eva would listen to the melodies emanating from the radio waves and would try to transpose the arrangement for the accordion. One of the earliest songs she learned was “Don’t Let The Stars Get in Your Eyes.” Already exhibiting a knack for picking up music by ear as a young child, Ybarra’s mother eventually enrolled her in formal piano lessons at Alamo Music with local concert pianist, Dolores LeBlanc, around the age of nine.
LeBlanc was impressed with her ability to pick up the piano so quickly at her age and attributed it to Eva’s prior experience playing the accordion. Over the years, Eva became a proficient multi-instrumentalist having mastered the accordion, piano, bajo sexto, guitarrón, vihuela, bass, and guitar to name a few. María Eloisa was not always in favor of the accordion as she wasn’t comfortable with young Eva playing the instrument. Given conjunto’s association with the cantina (bar) scene at the time, she was also very wary of the seedy underbelly of the music industry as the future queen of accordion eyed a career as a professional artist. The piano lessons were a way to steer Eva to an instrument her mother found better suited for her. Pedro Sr. on the other hand always encouraged her daughter to continue to pursue the accordion as he viewed her natural ability to play the instrument as her key to future success. His encouragement and belief in his daughter’s talent eventually led him to become a guiding hand in her career. He managed Eva Ybarra Y Su Conjunto for many years. Ultimately, those formal piano lessons are paying dividends today. Eva still uses the formal music theory she picked up to reimagine classic conjunto repertoire and in composing the progressive originals she is known for today. Before she became accordion royalty, Ybarra’s early years were packed with travels across Texas and beyond.
The household would travel for work in the agricultural fields. Arizona and Minnesota were among the states that the Ybarras would travel to for work. Within the state of Texas, the family would travel to predominantly agricultural areas, such as Alice. While in Arizona, Eva put her accordion-playing chops to work. Too young to pick cotton at five-years-old, Eva would work in la limpia, clearing weeds from the fields. That work was short-lived, as a local rancher took notice of her musical talent and convinced her father to allow Ybarra to perform around town. With her brother, Pedro Jr., on bajo sexto and her on accordion, the duo’s performances became lucrative enough that the family left the field work on this trip. At one performance, the audience became so moved that some wept. Eva asked her mother if the weeping audience didn’t like her music but was reassured that it was quite the opposite. Eventually, Eva began to play the accordion professionally at the age of six. In San Antonio, she would play all over town including down the street from her childhood home at Medrano’s and La Estrellita on Castroville Road. Early on, she was afforded the opportunity to perform some around Texas. Before she even hit double digits, Ybarra was already appearing on television for interviews and on-camera performances as well.
Her maternal grandmother, Josefa Gonzales Araiza, custom-made a dress for one of Eva’s first television appearances. Ybarra appeared on San Antonio’s local Univision station, KWEX, wearing the outfit. She posed for one of her first promotional photographs that day. One of many more to come. Ybarra also made appearances on local stations in Crystal City and Lubbock accompanying her sisters’ duo, Las Hermanitas Ybarra. An opportunity to record for a record label presented itself when Ybarra was still a young teen.
At fourteen, Eva was discovered by Ruben Ruiz, the owner of Rosina Records then based out of San Marcos, Texas. While performing at a dance, Ruiz took notice of Eva’s talent and took a gamble on the young prodigy. At that time, Ruiz customarily recruited Tejano Orquesta acts but made an exception for the promising accordionist. Under Rosina, she released a number of 45s that proved to be a commercial success. Singles such as, “Cuando Vivas Conmigo” (“When You Live with Me”) and “La Noche De Mi Mal” (“The Night of My Misfortune”) rose the profile of the future Hall-of-Famer. After Rosina, Ybarra went on to have a prolific recording career. Other record labels that Eva recorded for include Omega, Grinsa, Accordion Discs, Custom Sound Recordings, Discos Magda, Dina, Hacienda Records, and Reloj. Ybarra’s most notable recordings were released under Rounder Records. Founded in 1970, Rounder Records is a leading roots label and preserver of historical recordings. This is the label that brought new life to the music of the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton, and Woody Guthrie. They also happen to have two albums in their catalog of one of the paramount female musicians in conjunto music history. A Mi San Antonio (For My San Antonio) was released in 1994 and Romance Inolvidable (Unforgettable Romance) in 1996. Conjunto’s grand dame may be known for her strong ties to the genre, but she is as limitless as her talent.
Eva is predominantly known as a pioneering female conjunto accordionist and band leader, but she is no stranger to expanding her artistry to other genres. Ybarra has had dalliances with the world of Regional Mexican music having founded her own mariachi ensembles and sat in with others over the years. Eva even released a rare mariachi record where she sings “No Maldigo Tu Amor” (“I Don’t Curse Your Love”) and “El Sentir De La Paloma” (“The Dove’s Feelings”) accompanied by Los Caporales de Nacho Lopez. She has shared the stage and formed groups with a diversity of artists. The acts Ybarra has shared the stage with are as wide-ranging as the genre-bending tinges in her music. She has played with such artists as the Ethel Quartet, Sunny and The Sunliners, Shelly Lares, Leo Guerrero, Tish Hinojosa, Rosie Flores, Las Madrugadoras, Las Tesoros de San Antonio, and Lourdes Pérez. Live performances aside, Pérez and Ybarra collaborated on several projects. Eva contributed to the soundtrack for A Donde Fue Juan José?, an independent film released in 2003. Pérez oversaw the entire soundtrack for the film. Released in 2016, the duo recorded an EP titled Al Caer La Tarde. Los Navigators de Jet Martinez and Eva Ybarra was a short-lived group that recorded two records. Ybarra provided the arrangements for Jet’s songs. The arrangements were of the progressive Norteño variety, another instance of her stepping outside of her conjunto roots. A little-known history of Eva’s career is her performances in Mexico where she performed alongside some of the country’s most popular acts. Eva was invited to perform at expositions in Mexíco on several occasions. She performed with both, mariachis and conjunto. At these expositions, she was showcased with some of Mexico’s top artists including Imelda Miller, Jaime Moreno, and a promising young upstart by the name of Pedrito Fernández. At one exposition, La Reina del Acordeón performed a set just before “La Alondra de México” (“The Lark of Mexico”), Chayito Valdez. Eva just so happens to have had the honor of performing for another Alondra. She was tapped to perform for “La Alondra de la Frontera” (“The Lark of the Border”), Lydia Mendoza, at an event in downtown San Antonio honoring the legend. Later, Ybarra performed a powerful rendition of one of Mendoza’s hits, “Celosa” (“Jealous”), at the First Day of Issue Ceremony honoring the release of Mendoza’s USPS stamp. The cities and hallowed venues that have hosted the venerated veteran are equally as diverse.
Eva’s career trajectory has taken her to perform in many notable places and festivals across the USA and abroad. She has performed at notable festivals such as Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival, the Texas Folklife Festival, and the 19th annual Roots of American Music Festival. Prestigious venues such as Smithsonian Affiliate, UTSA (University of Texas – San Antonio) Institute of Texan Cultures, Majestic Theatre, Paramount Theatre, The Lincoln Center, Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington D.C., Lisner Auditorium at The George Washington University, and the Library of Congress have hosted Ybarra. She has performed all over the United States including New York City, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C. Ybarra has also traveled abroad to perform in several countries including Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Germany. Not only has Eva been invited to perform outside of Texas, but she has also been invited to impart her knowledge of conjunto as well.
She has been invited to speak at numerous colleges, universities, and conferences. For instance, in 2013, Ybarra attended the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco conference. She headlined the Tejas Foco Noche Cultural (Cultural Night) and was the main speaker at a panel/workshop where she spoke about her career as a female artist in conjunto music. Her career as a professional musician aside, Eva has been a dedicated music educator for many years. She started teaching at a young age. Her first music student was her brother, David. When she was around fourteen years old, she began to teach him how to play bass. In 1997, Ybarra was an Artist-in-Residence at the University of Washington (UW) Ethnomusicology Department. She was the first-ever US-based Artist-in-Residence in the history of the prestigious UW program. Before, the residency had only been extended to international artists. While based in Seattle, Eva taught accordion, bajo sexto, bass, and guitarrón. Initially, the residency was supposed to last six months but she was such a popular instructor that the residency was extended to a full year. While there, Ybarra taught over 37 students including famed Seattle artist, Carl Chew. Eva’s contributions to the San Antonio music scene are immeasurable.
Ybarra briefly taught accordion at Christa McAuliffe Middle School as well as Our Lady of The Lake University. Eva served as adjunct faculty at the Palo Alto College conjunto program and accordion instructor at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Traditional Music Academy for many years. In 2016, Eva assumed the duty of Master Artist while participating in Austin-based Texas Folklife’s Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts Program teaching conjunto accordion. In 2021, she participated in the apprenticeship program once more. This time Ybarra assumed the mantle of Master Artist in the art of conjunto bajo sexto. On May 31, 2021, the Texas House of Representatives adopted House Resolution No. 1034 honoring Ybarra and the rest of the 2021 Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts Program cohort. House Resolution No. 1034 is one of many honors Eva has amassed over the years.
Awards & Honors
Eva has been the recipient of numerous recognitions over her storied career in the form of long-form write-ups, feature articles, radio segments, documentary spotlights, television interviews, art depictions, and inclusion in museum exhibitions and collections. Even a sold-out play based on her life. Ybarra’s life has been written about numerous times. Due to Eva’s position as a prominent female instrumentalist and bandleader in this male-dominated genre, Ybarra’s life has been written about and dissected in a multitude of academic scholarship. Prominent state publications such as Texas Observer, Texas Highways, and Texas Monthly have written about her. Local media that have written about the San Antonio native include MySA, San Antonio Report, San Antonio Current, and San Antonio Express-News. International radio programs such as Mundofonías have played the Queen of the Accordion’s music. National Radio programs such as Radio Bilingüe and American Routes have featured the conjunto virtuosa. State radio programs, such as Texas Public Radio and Texas Standard, have hosted Eva in their studios. In addition, Ybarra has made several cameos in documentary films.
Eva is one of several conjunto musicians featured in documentary filmmaker, Hector Galán’s Accordion Dreams. Published by the BBC, Songs of the Border is a documentary that features Ybarra alongside other artists such as Los Tucanes De Tijuana, Asleep at the Wheel, and Carrie Rodriguez. She is no stranger to making appearances on television either. San Antonio news outlets, KSAT and KENS 5, have run news segments on Ybarra. San Antonio’s local PBS station, KLRN, ran an interview segment of its own. Switching mediums, Eva has been immortalized in art on many occasions.
Several murals and portraits have featured Ybarra. Art depicting the veteran conjunto musician has adorned the walls of the San Antonio International Airport and San Antonio City Hall. In 2023, Ybarra was yet again featured in a work of art. A mural commissioned by the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame & Museum depicts the legendary accordionist amongst other prominent musical figures and landmarks. In keeping with the topic of museums, Eva has been featured in several exhibitions over the years.
The Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame & Museum happens to have a stage-worn outfit on display. Exhibitions at the Witte Museum in San Antonio and Texas Folklife have featured Ybarra. American Sabor: Latinos in US Popular Music was a Smithsonian traveling exhibition from 2011 to 2015. Developed by the Experience Music Project with scholars from the University of Washington, American Sabor was meant to highlight the Latino musicians that helped shape many traditional music genres in the United States. One of Eva’s accordions toured with this Smithsonian exposition. She was even mentioned in a Smithsonian article about the rebirth of the button accordion. Aside from museum exhibitions, archives all over the nation hold several interviews, field recordings, rare recordings preserved in vinyl, and a rather unique artist book commission featuring Ybarra.
The Smithsonian Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections happen to house several field recordings of her live performances. The Strachwitz Frontera Collection, which is housed at UCLA, possesses a number of 45s from Eva’s early days with Rosina Records as well as other notable labels. Copies of A Mi San Antonio and Romance Inolvidable are housed in the Recorded Sound Research Center part of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress. Several state universities have interviewed Ybarra for their collections and archives as well.
Eva has been interviewed for the University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) Los del Valle Oral History Project and Border Studies Archive. In 2022, two professors from The University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies launched the “West Side Sound Oral History Project.” The project is meant to document the musical figures integral to the formation of what is known in San Antonio as the West Side Sound. Ybarra was interviewed for the project and the oral histories will be housed in the UTSA archives. In 2023, the UTSA Special Collections unveiled a rather unique artist book commission titled The Real Tejano Conjunto Accordion Book. This unique book features Ybarra amongst a line-up of iconic San Antonio conjunto musicians. In keeping with the theme of unique projects, a special production took place centering around Eva’s life story.
In 2015, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center produced a sold-out play titled “La Reina del Acordeón: Eva Ybarra’s Life on Stage” (“The Queen of Accordion: Eva Ybarra’s Life on Stage”) based on Ybarra’s life story. Very few plays have ever been produced with conjunto as either a component of the production or the all-encompassing theme. “La Reina del Acordeón” was one of the first conjunto plays to center the story of a woman within the genre. Over the years, Eva has been recognized and honored in conventional ways as well. Several organizations have recognized Eva for her trailblazing career by presenting her with lifetime achievement awards, Hall of Fame inductions, and national and state designations.
Founded in 1982, La Peña is an interdisciplinary arts organization that has become central to Latino arts expression in Austin, Texas. In 1995, La Peña honored Ybarra with special recognition. In 2015, the South Texas Conjunto Association honored Eva with a lifetime achievement award for her contributions to the genre. Austin-based non-profit, Rancho Alegre, has dedicated itself to the preservation and promotion of conjunto music since 2008. On April 29, 2022, Eva headlined night one of the 7th Annual Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival where she was presented with a rather unique lifetime achievement award. A custom championship belt was presented to Ybarra by Ranch Alegre Executive Director Baldomero Cuellar and Communications Director Piper LeMoine. On the topic of achievements, Eva is one of only a few women in conjunto to secure multi-time Hall-of-Famer status.
Ybarra was inducted into the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Hall of Fame in 2003. Based in Alice, Texas, the Tejano R.O.O.T.S Hall of Fame inducted her in 2008. That same year, the Univision: Salon de Fama inducted La Reina del Acordeón at the Majestic Theatre in her native San Antonio. The Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame & Museum, based in San Benito, Texas, inducted Eva in 2009. In 2017, Eva received her first national recognition.
Every year The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) names an elite group of folk and traditional artists as National Heritage Fellows. The National Heritage Fellowship is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. When Ybarra was named a National Heritage Fellow, she joined the who’s who of conjunto who have accomplished the feat. Some were the very foundation. Others are the greatest of pillars. Eva joined a class of nationally recognized compeers such as “The Father of Conjunto” himself, Narciso Martínez (1983). Other conjunto musicians that have been named National Heritage Fellows include Valerio Longoria (1986), Pedro Ayala (1988), Santiago Almeida (1993), Tony De La Rosa (1998), Santiago Jiménez Jr. (2000), Mingo Saldivar (2002), and Flaco Jiménez (2012). Ybarra is the first ever female conjunto musician to be named a National Heritage Fellow. On May 18, 2021, the Texas State Legislature in conjunction with the Texas Commission on the Arts announced Eva was appointed the 2022 Texas State Musician.
The Texas State Musician serves a one-year term. They represent the artistic legacy of Texas. Texas State Musicians are established artists with a statewide, national or international reputation. They reflect Texas’ diversity, high-quality artistic offerings, are widely recognized for their contributions to the state, and are the advancement of their respective art forms. Ybarra joined a star-studded list of musical peers that include Willie Nelson, Billie F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, Shelly King, Jimmie Vaughn, Marcia Ball, and George Strait. She is on a short list of conjunto musicians that were named Texas State Musicians. Flaco Jiménez and Eva are the only two to receive this state honor. Ybarra is the first female conjunto musician ever to be named a Texas State Musician. She holds the distinction of being the first-ever female conjunto musician to be named a National Heritage Fellow and Texas State Musician. On August 24, 2021, the city of San Antonio presented Eva with a citation in honor of receiving the designation of 2022 Texas State Musician. None of the ups of life as a musician would be possible without the downs.
As a female in the music industry, Ybarra has encountered a litany of resistance over the years. Yet she has persisted and lived out a history-making career. Eva is still squeezing out those progressive, jazzy melodies and belting those powerful vocals she’s known for with her band, Eva Ybarra Y Su Conjunto Siempre. Ybarra’s band name got a minor refresh with the addition of Siempre. Taken from the phrase “Siempre para ustedes” (“Always for you”), the addition was a suggestion by the vocalist for the ensemble, Sandy Rodriguez. It is a nod to Eva’s style of performance as she is known for bearing her heart out on stage. Eva Ybarra Y Su Conjunto Siempre is a 5-piece ensemble cemented by longtime band members Sandy Rodriguez (vocalist), Pete Lopez (drums), and Eva Ybarra (bandleader, accordion, and lead vocals).