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South Bend music lover inducted into Tejano Music Hall of Fame

Rene Saenz shows a reporter some of the posters in his garage from Tejano concerts he promoted in South Bend from the 1970s to early 2000s.
Jeff Parrott/WVPE
Rene Saenz shows a reporter some of the posters in his garage from Tejano concerts he promoted in South Bend from the 1970s to early 2000s.

At age 71, South Bend’s Rene Saenz leads a slower, more quiet life these days, working as a custodian at an apartment complex.

But Rene got quite a thrill recently when he learned he’s being inducted into the Tejano ROOTS Music Hall of Fame in Alice, Texas, near his hometown. It wasn’t for his musical talent. Rene can’t read a note or play a lick.

But he loves music, and he’s being honored for the barriers he broke through to share it with other Hispanic immigrants in Michiana.

The year was 1967 and times were hard for 16-year-old Rene Saenz and his family in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas.

Saenz’ parents decided to join some relatives and try migrant farm work in southwest Michigan. After that first summer, his mother and brothers returned home, but Rene loved the U.S. He used his earnings, about $450, to buy a red ’64 Chevy Nova convertible.

That first winter, he and his father rented a room in a South Bend house for $25 a month. Rene recalls having to go to the bathroom in a bucket.

Weekend fun

But things would improve for the outgoing kid with a strong work ethic. By age 18, he had started working at South Bend Stamping, formerly called Allied Products. He’d work there another 30 years.

But on the weekends in those first few years in South Bend, Rene missed the Tex-Mex music of his childhood. When it was time for some fun on the weekends, he’d go up to migrant worker camps in Michigan, where the growers would allow concerts featuring bands from the south playing Tejano music.

Tejano music started in northern Mexico and south Texas in the mid-1800s, fusing the horns and tempo of Mexican music with the accordion that was introduced by Polish, German and Czech immigrants. It sometimes resembles polka music.

It was at those migrant camp weekend shows, Rene recalls, that a concert promoter from Detroit encouraged him to start promoting Tejano shows in South Bend. They would draw fans from the growing Hispanic communities in the city and surrounding region.

Rene knew there was a market. He was already seeing friends in South Bend drive to Chicago for the shows on weekends. The musical acts were willing to travel up north.

“I want to bring the big bands here because why do my people have to go to Chicago?” he said. “They work all weekend, they want some entertainment. So that’s how I started to get involved with music.

You pay more

But Rene soon encountered a problem.

“At that time, in the early ‘70s, there was a lot of prejudice,” he said. “The guys that had the nice clubs, they didn’t want to rent to the Mexicans because they thought they were going to go in there and destroy it. So when I became a promoter, I said, look man, I live in South Bend, I protect the place, I’m going to have insurance and security, I’m going to take care of it because I want to come back. I don’t just want to rent it for one night. I want to come back and back and back.”

Rene says one such hall was the now-closed William Penn Club, at the corner of Prairie and Indiana avenues in South Bend.

“They didn’t want to rent it. So they say, can you pay a little bit more? I said I was working, I had a good job, so I said I’ll give you double what you need. I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for people to entertain themselves. Because I had a job. I was making good money at Allied at that time. So they said, New Year’s you want it? It’s going to cost you double. So I paid double. I made the dance but didn’t make no money.”

Soon he was booking professional bands out of south Texas, shows that were too big for the 300-seat William Penn Club. So he started booking shows at the Century Center, the Armory, St. Hedwig Memorial Center, and the Jefferson Ballroom.

Big score

Rene promoted his biggest show in 1984 at the Hedwig Center. He landed The Mafia, a Houston-based Tejano group that was the hottest in the country at that time. St. Hedwig’s pastor was skeptical that Rene could draw enough fans to pay the group’s fee and turn a profit.

“I’ll never forget his words. He said, Rene, where will the Mexicans come from? I said, like the movie. If you build it, they come. They were from Holland, Michigan, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo. They came to see the Mafia because at the time The Mafia were the hottest group. I think I had close to 1,000 packed. Father said, you can’t have any more people because it’s packed.”

Benito Salazar met Rene at the farm camp that first summer. He would later play drums in a band that would sometimes be the local opening act when Rene brought in professional bands from around the country.

Salazar remembers the higher fees that local halls would charge Rene, who tried to change the locations for the shows as often as possible.

“He moved around and he paid,” Salazar said. “I always thought that he bit more than he could chew. There was times that I didn’t think he would make it, that he would lose money, but he didn’t care. He was the type of guy, OK, fine, I’m working during the week and I’ll make it up.”

Celebration reunion

On Saturday in South Bend, friends held a party to celebrate Rene’s Hall of Fame induction. Mayor James Mueller came and spoke, along with many people from his promoting days.

“People that worked at the door collecting the tickets were there,” Salazar said. “People that were distributing posters were there. It was a great honor to have Rene be the first in the Midwest, Latino, to be inducted into the Texas Tejano ROOTS Hall of Fame.

Making the trip to Texas for the ceremony with Rene Jan. 6 will be his nephew, Roy Saenz of South Bend.

“I’m really excited for him,” Roy said. “He’s put a lot of work into bringing the Tex-Mex/Tejano music culture to Michiana. It’s just really kind of neat to think about how music has played such an important part of culture in this country over the years, whether it be German music or Polish music or Irish music, and Tex-Mex/Tejano music is no different. It’s a way to bring people together and celebrate the common culture.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).