On June 2 the Mexicano community in South Texas – not to mention the entire nation – lost a cultural treasure when Tony de la Rosa, a Conjunto music pioneer, died during heart surgery in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was 72.

De la Rosa became a trailblazer in the Conjunto music genre in the 1950s and ’60s with an innovative pyrotechnic accordion style and the first use of amplified instruments.

Conjunto is a blend of Spanish and Mexican folk music, the accordion music of 19th-century German immigrants, and Anglo American country music.

De la Rosa’s innovations allowed the transition of the genre from the cantinas to the dance halls throughout the underground communities of migrant and immigrant workers across the United States. De la Rosa honed his skills while performing for the hidden army of farm workers that built the economy of the Southwest and still keep the supermarkets full of produce.

He provided the music that was often the only moments of joy for migrant workers that were forced to live in subhuman conditions and often found whole families working dawn to dusk picking the fruits of the factory farms.

The dance halls where he performed were islands of humanness that reminded the migrants of their culture and home. It was a ritual of identification that resisted assimilation into a world that accepted them as workers, but created an “otherness” that justified (and continues to justify)their exploitation.

Today his music still fills the migrant camps thought the agricultural belt of the United States. His music mixes in with the Banda music and Cumbias that provide the soundtrack for a workforce that is often forgotten but crucial to the American economy.

In the thousand of dance halls in Texas and throughout the U.S., working-class couples still fill the dance floors when the first notes of “Atotonilco” by Tony de la Rosa is played. With the smoothness of skaters on ice, they dance the unique shuffle style of the taquachito into the wee hours of the night. This is where Tony de la Rosa’s legacy was born and, ultimately, where it will live on.

De la Rosa was the classic organic intellectual that defines a working-class culture that is well aware of the nature of its exploitation. He was a cultural “guerillero” whose weapon was the accordion.

– Raul Cano