PALMVIEW — Melenie Gonzalez, 17, clenches her accordion and takes a long breath before beginning her two-song audition. She’s playing a polka first, then a huapango. As she dances audibly in her boots she’s adding another beat to her long-awaited performance.
“This is how I express myself,” she said
Her fingers swiftly maneuver through the accordion’s controls, and she strategically opens and closes the instrument in precise movements. Moving it in the wrong angle will result in the incorrect “tono,” which could cost her points.
Melenie was one of the participants at the 12th annual Texas Folklife the Big Squeeze accordion competition held Saturday at Palmview High School.
Texas Folklife, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving Texas culture, is holding nine Big Squeeze showcases throughout the state. From those, 12 finalists will be chosen to compete in the finals at the Bullock Museum in Austin.
“The Rio Grande Valley is one of the birthplaces and ongoing incubators for conjunto,” Charlie Lockwood, executive director of Texas Folklife, stated in a news release. “Many of our Big Squeeze contestants and winners have hailed from the Valley.”
The high school cafeteria was full of students sporting classic Tejano gear: cowboy hats, studded jeans and boots. The attire paired well with the conjunto music the young musicians played communally while waiting for the showcase to begin.
Though that may be a typical sight in the Rio Grande Valley, some spectators came from out of town specifically to see Valley teenagers perform.
David Dodd, a Houston-based photographer, said he first heard conjunto music at a Big Squeeze competition in Houston 10 years ago. After hearing of the Valley’s reputation for good accordion players, he began coming down for the event.
“You don’t see this (in Houston) at all,” he said, of the high school students playing culturally rich music. “There is Tejano music in Houston, but not as magnificent as this.”
Cecilio Garza, the Conjunto director at La Joya ISD, said the school district has been a leader in mariachi, folklorico and conjunto since the 1960s.
Garza graduated from La Joya High School in 1969 and was a part of the first cohort of the school’s conjunto program, and “the rest is history,” he said.
Garza was one of the founding members of the Big Squeeze, and said every year Valley students end up competing in the finals in Austin.
“We’re pretty proud of that,” he said. “Y a los chavos les encanta.”
Naturally, all the young contestants were nervous before the auditions. However, as soon as the showcase was over, they went back to laughing, dancing and playing their instruments for the fun of it.
“A lot of people here play, but up north not many people do,” Melanie said. “That’s why I want to help keep that tradition.”