Rey Avila looks at rows of portraits depicting the legends of conjunto music that fill his small but robust museum in the heart of San Benito – which once served as a hub for a distinctly American music that was born from the marriage of sounds of Northern Mexico and the polka of German immigrants.
“These are the pioneers of the music,” he said, pointing to portraits of Narciso Martinez, Santiago Almeida, Ruben Naranjo and Valerio Longoria.
There are many more photos of legendary musicians close by, including San Benito native son Freddy Fender and San Antonio’s Flaco Jimenez. Avila, as the president of the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame & Museum, seems to have stories about all of them.
The wealth of information about conjunto music is just one of three branches of history jammed into a small community building that also houses the San Benito History Museum and the Freddy Fender Museum. Each of the three mini-museums has only 400 square feet to display its exhibits, a space so small that many items are housed in storage.
Help is on the way in the way, though. A new San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum is now under construction and should be completed in August. The three museums will move into the new facility and have over three times as much space as they currently occupy. A $1.2 million grant from the federal government combined with $800,000 from the city’s economic development corporation is funding the construction of the new heritage museum.
“It’s going to be a much more modern showcase of what San Benito has to offer in its cultural heritage,” said Martha McClain, the city’s public relations director.
The new heritage museum, along with the next door Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center, will highlight not only the city’s 100-plus-year history, but also better tell the story of conjunto music and the man considered one of the fathers of the music – Narciso Martinez, whose style of accordion playing was so distinctive that he was nicknamed “El Huracan del Valle.”
Martinez is one important piece of this story, as are Paco Betancourt and his Rio Grande Music Co. and the Ideal record label that featured the music of Martinez, a young Freddy Fender getting his start, Tony De La Rosa, El Conjunto Bernal and many others. Martinez’s record company was based in San Benito. During its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, buyers came from all over Texas and the United States to buy the records mass produced at Rio Grande Music.
Now that story and the long history of San Benito will be told like never before in a 4,000-square foot multi-use facility in the city’s downtown on Heywood Street.
“We’re all excited this is finally going to happen,” Avila said. “We’ve been waiting for this day to come.”
By Ricardo Cavazos