CONJUNTO ACCORDION legend Santiago Jiménez Jr. said he jumped “like a little kid” when he heard the news, “like they were going to make me a piñata.”
Jiménez was among 12 recipients of the National Medals of Arts at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Sept. 22. This year’s other recipients included Hollywood legends Mel Brooks and Morgan Freeman, cutting-edge composer Philip Glass and novelist Sandra Cisneros from San Antonio. Previous Texas music winners include San Antonio’s Lydia Mendoza, known as “La Alondra de la Frontera” (or “The Lark of the Border”), pianist Van Cliburn and George Strait.
Jiménez, brother of Flaco Jiménez, was praised “for expanding the horizon of American music. He has helped spread traditional conjunto music, blending the sounds and cultures of south Texas and Mexico. His lively melodies performed on the two-row button accordion have captivated audiences around the world.”
Jiménez, 73, known as “El Chief,” is a revered and respected musician in the conjunto, norteño and Tex-Mex music world. Because he plays two-row button accordion, like his father, Don Santiago Jiménez, and performs his father’s working-class polkas and corridos, he is considered the keeper of a musical legacy that dates to the late 1920s, when his father was making his earliest recordings. “I stayed with the old-school style of my dad,” says Jimenez, whose father died in 1984. “I told him, ‘If you ever pass away, I’m going to keep your music alive.’”
Jiménez learned of the prestigious award earlier this month when he received a phone call at home. “I was drinking coffee with my wife, and all of a sudden the phone rang and some guy told me, ‘You want to hear the good news? I’m calling from Washington. You’re going to be at the White House with the First Lady and the President of the United States,’” Jiménez recalls.
This isn’t Jiménez’s first prestigious honor. He is a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship recipient, considered the highest honor for a folk musician, as well as a Texas Medal of Arts Award winner. He dropped out of school after seventh grade when he was 15. He worked with his father as a custodian at the Good Samaritan Center but was determined to make it as a musician. He got his chance when he was 18. Jiménez recorded his first album in late 1961. Featuring Flaco Jiménez on bajo sexto and recorded at a tiny garage studio on San Antonio’s West Side, El Rey y El Principe de la Musica Norteña was released on the Lira label. Jiménez considers himself and his family blessed. “We are lucky to be musicians,” he says. “We’ve hit the jackpot many times with the response of the people everywhere. We’re still kicking. It’s a very proud moment.”
— HECTOR SALDANA
Originally published in Winter 2017, No. 69