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Chessboards, stripes and fish: a family of craftsmen unearth their magical guitars

Like rent and wisdom, valuation often increases over time. Many families have a few family heirlooms of sentimental value—a favorite china doll or a dinner pail from days gone by—but they rarely get a stranger to beg for details. It was one of those rare occasions. On the first weekend of December, Silvia Acosta Ramirez and her niece, Lisa Acosta Parker, stood on their family’s old back porch, chatting about handmade family rarities with a casualness that would make some craftsmen and collectors go crazy. Among the dozen instruments made in Acosta behind the two women are: a 1940s striped guitar made from 4,100 pieces of wood; a 1940s checkered guitar assembled from the same or more parts; a 1970s fish-shaped guitar; an eighteen-string bandurria from the 1950s in the shape of a thick arrow; and the 1947 double neck acoustic guitar and bajo sexto, a creation eleven years older than the Gibson double neck electric guitar.

“We just took it for granted that there would be guitars,” Parker said. “We were always in the grandfather’s workshop in the back.”

“We never set dates or anything,” Ramirez said.

“Yeah, it’s just a guitar,” Parker said.

“Nobody did anything special,” Ramirez said.

In the backyard of San Antonio’s West Side, under a papel picado, Acosta’s relatives celebrated a variety of extraordinarily creative tools fanned out like a museum display on the family’s old plank porch. “They are hard to find,” said John Ramirez, a repairman who was mentored by the Acosta family. He nodded at the collection. “I buy every stringed instrument I’ve come across for most of my life – my wife went crazy because I kept buying them – but I couldn’t find any of them.”

Guadalupe Acosta, founder of Acosta Music Company.
Guadalupe Acosta, founder of Acosta Music Company. Contributed by Michael Acosta

The legacy of the San Antonio clan began with Silvia’s grandfather, the women explained: Guadalupe Acosta. A native of Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, the violin-trained pioneer traveled north to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution, eventually settling in San Antonio, where he opened the Acosta Music Company in 1920. Two of his seven children, Luis and Miguel, became major laborers under him, and together the trio became San Antonio’s first institution to make instruments such as double guitars, seventh guitars, and bandolons.

The skill of the masters was noticed by the musicians. As anyone at a cross-generational meeting might have said: Bluesman Lonnie Johnson bought a 1927 Acosta twelve-string; Lydia Mendoza purchased two 1930s sixth bajos custom-made by Acosta and a twelve-string guitar custom-made by Acosta. If you look at any photo of a San Antonio conjunto guitarist from the 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s, there’s a good chance it’s an Acosta guitar. (Q: Wasn’t Martin Macias the main sexto maker in San Antonio? A: Yes, and he worked for Acosta before he opened his own shop in the late twenties.) It’s not just guitars.

Guadalupe then closed the shop in 1971. Louis died in 1975. Guadalupe died in 1979. Miguel’s son Mickey opened a new version of the store in 1974, working as a guitar tech and tuner, and when he retired in 2014, the store closed. (Miguel died in 1998 and Mickey passed away in 2021 from COVID.)

With the Acosta no longer in use, it seemed like a family chapter in the history of guitar lore had quietly ended. Some of the guitars ended up in the trash can of an old family workshop that hadn’t been used since the 1990s, Mickey’s son Michael Acosta said. “We cleaned everything and a lot of it was thrown out of the closet,” he said.

Mike Acosta with a double neck sixth bajo and guitar.
Mike Acosta with a double neck sixth bajo and guitar. Contributed by Michael Acosta/Helen Montoya

Now he is grateful that no one ever took the garbage out of the workshop. For years. In between greeting relatives at the back gate, Michael explained that in 2017, Wisconsin luthier Todd Cambio of the Fraulini Guitar Company was recreating an Acosta version of Lydia Mendoza’s twelve-string guitar, and he was curious about the company. He called Mickey Acosta, the conversation led to a visit, and Cambio eventually pulled the guitars out of the trash, fixing the checkered and striped instruments.

“A lot of it is very painstaking, hard work,” Cambio said as he inspected the tools. I asked which of them showed the most bewildering skill. “Acosta 1947,” he said, pointing to the double neck speaker system. A cursive “Acosta 1947” was engraved between the stand and the sound hole. The perimeter of the hull was outlined in bars of alternating dark and light wood and accentuated with intricate lace carvings. The overall effect was more like working with leather. “It takes an incredibly sharp knife and chisel. And the little loops that surround it? he shook his head in disbelief, raising his eyebrows high. “Aha.”

Most of the instruments the company sold to the public were not as elaborate as those displayed on the porch, although they were as recognizable at the meeting as any uncle or aunt. These were personal instruments used by the family, often performing as part of the trio Mike Acosta and His Troubadours. The instruments gave zest to the bolero and ranchera they performed at shows such as the premiere Treasure of Pancho Villa at the Majestic Theater or the congress of Russian diplomats in La Villita.

Silvia Acosta Ramirez knew more about these shows than most of her siblings. Although she is now 85, she retains the same posture, poise and attractive smile that she had in her days when she performed in the group in the fifties. According to her, one of the band’s best songs was “El Cumbachero”, a number that she didn’t need much prompting to perform: “Cumba-cumba-cumba-cumbachero”. Around the age of 18, she performed in local big bands. She played a soft solo with a full vibrato: “Hug me, my sweet, hugged tyuuu. . . Then her voice began to catch on. “Ugh! I’m too old!”

Looking through black and white photos of Acostas in the family shop, Michael Acosta said he would like to hear from others who have Acostas so he can create something like a catalog. (If you have a guitar with an Acosta label inside, contact Michael on his father’s old email, [email protected]) “But I think the biggest problem is what to do with them after we all leave,” he said. “It’s easier to take them home and put them in the closet.”

He had already heard from a guy in Seattle who found a discarded Acosta harp while walking down the sidewalk. Not one to just leave someone else’s trash alone, the man asked the next door neighbor of a broken instrument some version: “What happened to the harp?” “Apparently the owner’s wife played it for years and then she died and it ended up in the trash can,” Michael said. “The guy who found it in the trash took it out and doesn’t want to give it back yet. But this is the first time we know about a harp for which we were able to find a logo image and all that.”

After talking for a while, Sylvia realized that one of the family guitars was missing from the collection. She sent one of her grandchildren to the small house next door where she stayed during her visits to pick up her own Acosta guitar to show to the band. She explained that her father made her a guitar when she was fourteen. “He said it was a female guitar because it had a thin neck. See?” she said and handed it to her grandson so that he could put his arm around him. According to her, despite her arthritis, she wanted to play more, but she needed to tug the strings. In the spring, she took him to the guitar center, where she now spends a large part of her time, and was disappointed to hear the repairman say he was afraid to break it if he touched it.“He said it was too old!” she said, offended. , immediately offered to do it, saying that they had no such fear. She winked. “My dad made them good,” she said.

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