By: By Richard C. Dávila

As COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect across
the United States in the spring of 2020, one of
many industries disrupted was the live music
industry. Tours and festivals were postponed
or canceled and many performance venues, forced to
close their doors, did not recover from the lost revenue.
Performers and fans alike had to adapt to experiencing
live music through streaming services, performers
separated from audiences and audience members
separated from one another,
inhibiting the communal spirit
that often marks
the live musical
experience. These
and communal impacts of the pandemic have been
deeply felt by the Tejano music industry, both in its
native Texas and in Tejano diasporic communities in
places such as the Midwest. This article focuses on the
impact of COVID-19 on Tejano musical communities
in the Midwest, where Texas-Mexican music has
historically played a key role in Tejano placemaking
and community cohesion and sustainability.
On March 5th, 2020, as the novel coronavirus was in
the earliest stages of community spread in the United
States, the Texas Talent Musicians Association
(TTMA), the organization behind the annual Tejano
Music Awards FanFair festival, announced that the
2020 festival would go on as planned from March
12th-15th in San Antonio’s Market Square. By March 11th, the same day that the World Health Organization declared
COVID-19 a pandemic, around 30 acts scheduled to perform or
appear at Fan Fair had canceled their appearances due to COVID
concerns. The festival still began on March 12th as planned,
but on March 13th, the same day the U.S. government declared
a national emergency, San Antonio city officials declared a
health emergency that prohibited gatherings of over 500 people,
forcing TTMA to cancel the remainder of the festival. In 2021,
the event, which typically draws crowds of over 100,000 people
from across the U.S. each year, was postponed from March to
July of that year, and finally returned to its regular March dates
in 2022. One of the largest celebrations of Tejano music, a Texas-
Mexican regional style that traces its origins to the early 1900s,
these disruptions were a major economic setback for vendors
and others who rely on the festival for a significant portion of
their annual income, as well as a cultural loss for Tejana/os
across the nation who flock to the festival each year to celebrate
through music a shared sense of identity and community.
Searches for “coronavirus” and “COVID” on the Tejano-focused
entertainment news website Tejano Nation further detail losses
experienced within the Tejano music industry over the course
of the pandemic. These include many canceled or postponed
concerts, tours, festivals, and awards shows due to coronavirus
concerns and public health orders, as well as in some cases
performers testing positive for COVID-19. The website has also
reported on multiple hospitalizations of Tejano musicians due to
COVID infections, and, sadly, on numerous deaths from COVID
or COVID-related complications. The first of twelve such notices,
posted to Tejano Nation on July 3rd, 2020, reported the passing
of Joe Gonzalez, lead vocalist of El Dorado Band and veteran
of multiple other San Antonio-based groups. Most recently,
on January 22nd, 2022, the site reported the passing of Chris
Gonzalez, founder, vocalist, and guitarist of the San Antonio
band Grupo Cielo, who was only 38 years old at the time of his
passing. These reports demonstrate the enormous economic
and human cost of the pandemic within Tejano communities.
More locally, Tejano communities and the Tejano music industry
in the Midwest have also been deeply impacted by the pandemic
in a variety of ways. Though the happenings of the industry in
the Midwest rarely make it onto Texas-centric Tejano Nation,
in my own ongoing research on Texas-Mexican music in the
Midwest numerous interviewees have spoken about the impact
of COVID on the community and, in multiple cases, their own
experiences of COVID infections. While I am not aware of any
musicians active before the start of the pandemic who have since
died of COVID, infections have been common. For instance, a
vocalist from Northwest Ohio noted that the symptoms of her
COVID infection was both severe and long-lasting. Though her
infection has now passed, the severity of her illness has left her
unable to sing for extended periods of time, which significantly
delayed completion of several songs she was in the process of
recording prior to her infection. Before the pandemic, she had
been building a name for herself through the release of a string
of well received digital singles. This momentum was brought to a
halt by her illness, which is a major setback in an industry with a
short attention span, especially for a Midwestern artist trying to
both build a local following and break into the market in Texas.
Beyond the prevalence of infections, many of the COVIDrelated
disruptions in Midwest Tejano music mirror those in
Texas. For example, on March 13th, 2020, the same day that the
City of San Antonio banned gatherings of over 500 people and
TTMA was forced to cancel the remainder of FanFair, Governor
Gretchen Whitmer banned gatherings of over 250 people and,
on March 17th, further restricted gatherings to 50 people or
fewer. As in Texas, this inevitably led Tejano promoters and
bands to cancel or postpone concerts, tours, and festivals.
Likewise, the few remaining Tejano clubs in the Midwest, such
as the Blue Diamond in Southwest Detroit, which hosts live
bands every Saturday, were hard hit by COVID lockdowns and
have struggled to return to pre-pandemic attendance levels.
Producer and promoter Rudy Peña attributes this partially to
the fact that these venues tend to attract older crowds and many
older people have been reluctant to resume certain activities
out of ongoing COVID concerns. Peña notes that the dances he
promotes have also not returned to pre-pandemic attendance
levels. While he is certain that this shift is in part COVID-related,
he is uncertain if it is also related to moving his events from
Saginaw, Michigan, where he says pre-pandemic dances were
packed, to Flint, where attendance has been more limited.
Compared to Texas, though, disruptions caused by COVID
present unique challenges for the Tejano music industry and
Tejano communities in the Midwest. Whereas the industry in
Texas has remained vibrant into the 21st Century, economic
shifts and changing migration patterns have led to a precipitous
decline in musical activity in the Midwest since the 1990s.
Thus, the economic and cultural impacts of the pandemic have
only exacerbated existing challenges to the sustainability of
Tejano musical community in the Midwest. In Saginaw, for
instance, the annual Midwest Tejano Music Festival, organized
by Louie Garcia of Midwest Tejano Radio, was canceled in 2020
due to COVID concerns and has yet to resume. In 2019, the
sixth year of the festival, a crowd of around 200 gathered at
the Huntington Event Park in downtown Saginaw to dance to
acts from Saginaw, Lansing, and Adrian, Michigan, as well as a
homecoming performance from Miguel Hernandez, a Detroit
native who relocated to Texas to be closer to the heart of the
Tejano industry. The loss of events such as the Midwest Tejano
Music Festival are significant because, unlike many Tejano
dances held in clubs or rented halls across the Midwest that
tend to draw older crowds, festivals, many of which are free to
attend, tend to draw more mixed crowds. These events are one
of increasingly few opportunities for younger generations of
Tejanos in the Midwest, many of whom have largely assimilated
into the dominant culture, to be exposed to the cultural traditions
that have historically held Midwestern Tejano communities
together. Though it is too early to understand the long-term
impacts of the pandemic on the economic and cultural vitality
of these communities, they will no doubt be significant. ⏹