The chart-topping, Grammy-winning Tejano band La Mafia from Houston, Texas are among the most enduring, successful, and versatile bands to emerge from the city's music scene. As Texas Monthly put it back in the late '90s, "They are to Latin music what Willie Nelson and ZZ Top are to country and rock." For 40-plus years, La Mafia have changed members with almost alarming regularity, yet with each change they have evolved, wedding their Tejano roots to cumbia, Latin soul, tropical rhythms, electronic funk, R&B, and stadium rock while remaining close to the vintage polkas, corridos, romanticas, and boleros of their youth. They are a rarity among Latin bands: Instead of trying to become successful in El Norte first, they started in Texas and went south and east before reaching back into their native United States.
In the 2000s and 2010s, La Mafia became synonymous with power pop ballads, rife with electric guitars, synths, samples, and doo wop- and soul-inflected backing vocals. They have placed most of their dozens of albums and countless singles and compilations on no less than a dozen different charts, from Tropical Songs to Mexican Regional and Latin Pop Albums. In 1991, 11 years after they almost singlehandedly created a resurgence of the norteno sound, they packed the Houston Astrodome for the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with a crowd of 55,000 -- only Selena would surpass that number during that decade. That same year, they issued Estas Tocando Fuego, their 16th album and their first to register platinum. (They did it again in 1992 with Ahora y Siempre.) Since that time, they've continued to perform and record, aside from a very brief and bitter break at the end of the '90s. In 2000 they were named one of the Billboard's Top Ten Latin artists from the entire preceding decade. They took a longer break from recording, between 2008 and 2014. In 2014, they placed an album in the Top Ten on both the Mexican Regional and Top Latin Albums with Amor y Sexo. They continue to tour on both sides of the border, playing shows from the nationally televised Señorita Mexico pageant to soccer stadiums in Central and South America. They have been awarded eight Premio Lo Nuestro Awards and a dozen Tejano Music Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement) in addition to a pair of Grammy awards for the albums Un Millón de Rosas (1996) and En Tus Manos (1997), and Latin Grammys for Para El Pueblo (2004) and Nuevamente (2006), and a nomination from the latter for 2008's Eternamente Romanticos.
The group was founded by brothers Oscar (a vocalist now called Oscar De La Rosa) and Leonard Gonzalez, from the north end of Houston, and keyboard player Armando Lichtenberger, Jr. (who also plays accordion). They started playing music together when they were ten years old, at weddings, quinceañeras, and the yard party scene like most bands. They issued their self-titled debut for the independent Discos Diana label from Baytown, Texas in 1980. Two more albums followed on the label over the next year before La Mafia shifted allegiance and signed to San Antonio's Cara label, where they remained until 1986. On Cara they issued albums that would spread word of their sound throughout Texas and into northern Mexico: Honey (Cariño), Electrifying, Mafia Mania, Hot Stuff, and Neon Mania. In 1986 they left the label and signed to CBS Discos (now Sony). Even during these early days, La Mafia was releasing albums and singles that would inform their later sound and become treasures among fans, especially 1986 and 1988's Explosivo. While the group's Spanish-language skills weren't great (their first language is English), the music they played, whether the old standards learned from their parents or songs by the Beatles, registered with audiences because of the band's dynamic stage show. David De La Garza III joined La Mafia in 1989 as second vocalist and keyboardist. His presence in the outfit helped mightily, both on-stage and in the studio. 1991's Estas Tocando Fuego initially sold half a million copies in the U.S., but eventually moved over four million. 1992's Vida spent 47 weeks on the Top Latin Albums charts and peaked at number two. 1993's Ahora y Siempre went triple platinum and hit the top spot on the Mexican Regional Albums chart. The band became a radio staple and placed singles on the charts as often as albums. 1996's Un Millón de Rosas peaked at number one on the Regional Mexican Albums chart and its single also reached Top Ten on the Top Latin Songs chart. The album earned them a Grammy for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album.
In 1999, after nearly two decades of non-stop touring and recording, La Mafia split, shocking fans, as they were at the top of their game critically and commercially. Initally stating "retirement" as the reason, the truth proved to be a split between the Gonzalez brothers, who cited differences. In truth, vocalist De La Rosa had become, for all intent and purposes, the face and creative force behind La Mafia. Leonardo sued for the band's name, but lost in court.
La Mafia began the new century as a very different, more polished band, with Contigo. The album was nominated for a Grammy for Best Mexican-American album. It peaked at five on both the Mexican Regional and Top Latin Albums charts. The group issued a pair of albums in 2004, Para El Pueblo (Latin Grammy nominee), and the charting Inconfundible. Incessant touring over the next two years rewarded La Mafia with an extended break. They returned in 2008 with the Latin Grammy nominated Eternamente Romanticos, their last studio recording for six years. It only hit 67 on the Top Latin Albums chart. Over the intervening years, La Mafia's various labels filled the gaps with hits compilations and live albums. After spending time with family and on various solo recordings and production projects, the band reconvened in late 2012 and began rehearsing and touring again. They re-emerged with Amor y Sexo in 2014, which landed inside the Top Ten at Mexican Regional, Latin Pop, and Top Latin Albums lists. The band's personnel still changed repeatedly and its 2010s incarnation included De La Rosa, Lichtenberger, Jr., and De La Garza III. Guitarist Marion Aquilina -- a group member from 2000-2006 -- longtime bassist Tim Ruiz, percussionist and bajo sexto player Robbie Longoria, and drummer Eduardo Torres. A years-long worldwide tour was undertaken and afterwards, another long break. In early 2018, De La Rosa announced the imminent release of Vozes, a collection of newly recorded duets. De La Rosa's singing partners on the 13-track album included Sebastián Yatra, Ana Bárbara, Ricky Muñoz, Andy Vargas, Pedro Fernandez, Cristian Castro, and more. Vozes was released in May on Fonovisia. ~ Thom Jurek