Silvia Francisca Rodriguez, owner of Discolandia Records, is retiring after 40 years of service to the Mission and Bay Area Latino communities. She closed the doors of her business on Jan. 16, 2011, laying to rest a historical period of Latin music known as “The Golden Age,” which has captivated generations since the 60’s. Silvia Rodriguez speaks with joy and occasional tears of a life filled with music, tragedy, love and success.
Rodriguez arrived from Cuba with her sister in 1957 when she was 14 years old. Her mother, Hilda Pagan, came in 1955 and arranged for her daughters to come live with her in San Francisco. As she puts it, “I didn’t want to study English or anything. I probably made a mistake, but I went to work in a music house, one of the first and only ones that existed in the 50’s in San Francisco. They had their business in North Beach and came to the Mission between 17th and 18th Streets and called it “La Moderna Poesia,” also known as La Casa Sanchez because the owner and his wife were Paulino and Mariquita Sanchez.” Rodriguez worked there for 5 years and began to learn the trade. She loved to sell and it was there that “God told me this is what you’re going to do with your life.”
Rodriguez opened her own business in 1972 where Tortas Los Picudos is currently located. She was there for 10 years. Her stepfather used to go to Los Angeles to purchase merchandise for her mother’s store where she sold food and Cuban goods. One day Rodriguez accompanied him and at a Cuban wholesaler she bought $500 worth of records and posters, brought them back to San Francisco and on the first day sold $40 of merchandise in her store. That was how she started to love business and learn to treat her customers well. “I was young and being that I’m Cuban, I believe that a love for music flows in my blood,” says Rodriguez. That helped me a lot, as well as my husband. It was amazing for us to work together. Many married couples can’t work together, but we spent 30 years behind the counter.”
In 1982 she had the opportunity to move her business and open what is today known as Discolandia. Her mother had a store next to a place that she noticed was closing and Rodriguez, on her mother’s advice, decided to buy the business from theCosta Rican owner and christened it “Discolandia: La Casa de los Discos.” Now very contented, she began to sell music that the people requested. Little by little, she fell in love with her business.
Rodriguez got married and had two children, a boy and a girl. Her husband, Bill Rodriguez, was a “perfect companion because he was always by my side, always helping me out.” Bill came to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was 4 years old. He worked driving city trucks for MUNI and after 18 years he left to work in the record store. “What I didn’t know, he knew, and what he didn’t know, I knew,” says Rodriguez. We made a fantastic team and the store became very popular because we ran it well. It didn’t matter that we were in a Mexican neighborhood and weren’t Mexican. We were accepted and we could grow our business.”
Silvia and Bill had a love of music in common, which was an important ingredient when it came to buying a product and selling it to the public. At that time there were only three stores in the Mission that sold music: “Musica Latina” on 26th Street, “American Music” on 20th Street and “Discolandia” on 24th Street. Discolandia also rented classic Mexican films starring Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Maria Felix. It was one of the first stores to offer films for rent. Their son opened a store called “Fotolandia” which developed photos by the hour. His business grew and was successful but later had to close when he fell in love and got married. Rodriguez, however, continued with her records, delighting everyone with her huge selection of music from all of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Artists such as Tito Puente, Oscar D’Leon and Jose Jose came to the city and she sold many tickets for all of the concerts. Through selling the tickets in her store, Silvia had no problem going backstage with the artists, always with her husband at her side. They sat together with Celia Cruz, Vicente Fernandez and many of the greats. “(…) that good fortune I had also, that through having the record store, they told us about their upcoming recordings, of the records they were going to record, and they thanked us for helping them,” says Rodriguez.
The store sold many tickets for Los Hermanos Marquez – large dance extravaganzas which were held at Civic Auditorium – and also for Mother’s Day, when it was customary to bring a show from Mexico. Rodriguez remembers, “Vicente Fernandez was very cheerful and affectionate. Whenever he saw me he would say ‘Hey, the Cuban lady!’ Very simple, good people. I also liked Celiz Cruz, who was equally simple, humble and affectionate. For many years she sent me Christmas cards. Others came to be photographed and to talk about all of their things and their music.”
Rodriguez credits her Cuban roots for her passion for Latin music. “Since I was a little girl, the radio stations played a lot of beautiful music and I always listened. I loved what was called cha-cha-cha at that time. I loved to dance, and I danced a lot. And then the pull to live, to make something of
my life, right? I started playing, as they say, and I established a stable, well-known, popular and famous business. We were known not just in San Francisco, but also in Colombia, New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Record companies knew us as Discolandia San Francisco and at that time we bought a lot because we sold a lot and there was not much competition, there was no Internet, no pirating, nothing like what there is today.”
Rodriguez remembers how one day Tito Puente was in the Mission when he saw Celia Cruz go into her business. “I think he thought, ‘Well, if Celia is there then it must be an important place if she’s going in person.’ After that, whenever he was in San Francisco he came to see us. One day he bought us a Colombian flag and drank a Cuban espresso, with the foam. After that Oscar D’Leon also would say, ‘Let’s go to Discolandia, let’s have a coffee.’”
That was how renowned artists came to pass through Discolandia. Mike Lopez, who was in charge of picking up the artists, brought them all. Rodriguez also remembers when the Linda Ronstadt record “Songs from My Father” came out and how one Christmas they sold a lot of her records. “That was the only thing the people requested. I sold many, many of her records.”
Rodriguez explains how in those days, unlike today, the artists would come to the music stores to promote their music themselves. “Jose Jose came to the store to promote his records.” Also, the artists who came spent the day enjoying themselves, playing music spontaneously. “Napoleon and musicians from El Gran Combo stayed here and played until it was time to leave. They had a Panamanian friend who brought them, and we set the key and the bell and the music…it was tremendous, really wonderful times.”
Rodriguez has a beautiful collection of photos of her family with famous artists such as Hector Lavoe, Los Poetas de Mexico, Los Angeles Negros—who came to the Centro Obrero Social, a dance establishment in the Mission—Lupita de Alecio, Tito Nieves, La India, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Willie Colón, Chocolate and many salsa composers such as Luís Ramírez y Rey de La Paz, Lalo Rodríguez, Niche, Eddie Santiago, Pedrito Fernández, Tony Vega, Willie Rosario, Oro Sólido, Lisa López, Tony Cartagena from Perú, Sergio Vargas, Vicente Fernández, Celia Cruz, Los Hermanos Rosarios, Francisco Aguabella, one of Santana’s musicians, Juan Gabriel and Isabel Pantoja to name a few.
Rodriguez explained how one day Juan Gabriel came and rented classic Mexican films to show to Isabel Pantoja on her United States tour. Later, they sent them back to her when they got to Los Angeles. This feeling of friendship and trust that Rodriguez brought to artists made them consider Discolandia their home.
Rodriguez also talks about the ‘70s in San Francisco, when the Mission and Fillmore neighborhoods were music meccas where many local groups were born including Azteca, Sapo, Tower of Power, Ritmo 76, Benny Velardes y Su Combo and those who made it big such as Santana and Malo. The local groups also played at the Cow Palace, hotel ballrooms, Civic Auditorium and the Centro Social Obrero.
Then tragedy came to Rodriguez’s life. With a lot of feeling and tears in her eyes, she explains tenderly that her husband passed away in 1999. “Because we got along well we could make it so that [the business] was something beautiful, well done and carried out with respect. We never discriminated against anyone. All kinds of people came here and left happy. He had a lot of patience and always cared for me a lot.”
In 2000 tragedy struck again when she lost her beautiful daughter Arlene to breast cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind her husband, two daughters and a son. An employee who had worked with Rodriguez for many years also passed away from a heart attack. She was left, as she says, alone, with the store on her shoulders and the company of her mother.
With the passage of time, Discolandia has adapted to technological changes, like when the record labels started transferring music from 8-track to cassette and later to CD. But after some years the problem was that people no longer went to the store to buy music because they wanted to download it from the Internet. “The popular iPods can fit so much music, the low price of $0.99 per song without having to buy the whole album, being able to get the song that you like. All of this affected us. In the last five or 10 years sales have considerably dropped and the economy is affected. Before buying an album, people have to pay rent and food, and here in this area there’s not a lot of money.”
That was how CD sales began to decline at her business. “It’s sad to say, but right now stores have closed because people no longer come like they did before. There are no longer vendors or dealers who will sell to small stores because now they won’t just sell you one album. You have to buy many, and eventually you get stuck because sometimes you don’t sell everything. Since you can download music and buy it through the Internet, it’s not worth it right now to open a store that sells albums. I don’t know what will happen in the future. Maybe the people who sell albums won’t sell them in stores, but will sell them on the Internet.”
Rodriguez speaks about the changes she has seen in the Mission. “I would love it if the Mission had been like a Chinatown: many Latinos, all on their own and growing and opening all types of businesses, for example La Gallinita, Los Casa Lucas, Los Chicos, the tortas that are businesses that have grown and prospered and are for their race and their people. [nonetheless] I don’t think they [Latinos in the Mission] are all going to leave, those who want to open up a business look around, and sell here anyways, so many years around and [Latino businesses] have not disappeared.”
This is the testimony of Silvia Rodriguez, a woman who had great success with her business in a Latino market, something which many in the United States haven’t managed to achieve without knowing English. This says a lot about the Mission, where it is possible as a community to achieve great things in business with the power and support of Latin dollars, if you have what the people want.
Regarding her 40 years in business, “I never, thank God, felt the risk of anyone coming in to rob us or do us any harm. Everything was lovely and wonderful, but my time has come. I’m a senior citizen and I need my retirement.” When asked about her future plans, she says, “I’ll go to the club or a good concert. I like to be with people. I feel strong. It’s going to be a change in my life.”
And so we say goodbye to Silvia Rodriguez and to Discolandia. More than a business, it’s a symbol of the Mission, with its famous sign recognized by all. “DISCOLANDIA RECORDS” full of history, sentiment and vigor for Latin music that the Rodriguez family was able to share with such a diverse community like the Mission. She brought artists to the neighborhood and their music to our homes. In her own words, she says farewell with great humility:
“First, I give thanks with all my heart for having the store, Discolandia, along with the customers, the Latin people. Despite the fact that I never sold music in English, this store was 100 percent Hispanic, Latin and Latin American, from everywhere and for everyone. I never sold just salsa or pure Mexican music. No, it was from everywhere, from Peru, Mexico, all that is South and Central American, Spanish and Caribbean. Everything. I am thankful for being accepted as a Cuban, not from Mexico like many people who settle here. They came to me and brought me a lot of business. Thank you, thank you so much.”
—Translation Damon Bennett