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Blog: Your source for topics related to the Frontera Collection

No country has a canon of Christmas carols to rival the United States. Seasonal chestnuts such as “White Christmas,” written in 1942 by Irving Berlin, and “Jingle Bells,” penned by James Pierpont in a Massachusetts tavern in 1850, are among the most popular Christmas songs on the planet.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910, with its epic heroes facing life-and death struggles, ushered in a golden age of the corrido. In the introduction to his 1954 anthology, “El Corrido Mexicano,” corrido historian Vicente T. Mendoza asserts that the narrative ballad achieved its “definitive character” during Mexico’s decade of Civil War, acquiring “its true independence, fullness and epic character in the heat of combat.”

During the first half of the 20th century, the corrido went from an oral tradition to a recorded, commercial art form. But in making that transition, corrido artists had to adapt their long narrative ballads to the recording technology of the day, primarily the old 78-rpm shellac discs.

As we saw in Part 1, the corrido developed as an oral tradition in the last half of the 19th century. The narrative ballad was cultivated along the border, fueled by the cultural conflict left in the wake of the U.S. War with Mexico. These early border ballads, which reached their peak between 1860 and 1910, depicted the exploits of protagonists caught up in these culture wars, often through no desire of their own.

The corrido is often described as a narrative ballad, which is an accurate though insufficient definition. Narrative ballads exist in many countries, including the United States. But the form that developed in Mexico in the late 1800s is deeply rooted in that country’s specific cultural history, and especially the inequitable relationship with its conquering neighbor to the North.

Los Alegres de Terán, a vocal duet founded by a pair of humble migrant workers from northern Mexico, stands as one of the most influential, long-lived and commercially successful regional music acts from the last half of the 20th century. The duo of Tomás Ortiz and Eugenio Ábrego are today remembered as the fathers of modern norteño music, the accordion-based country style that traversed borders as fluidly as its immigrant fans.

When we consider where Latinos live in the U.S., we don’t usually think of states in the Deep South. We think of California, Texas, and New York; not Mississippi, Georgia, or Alabama. Census reports, as of 2012, show that the states with the highest percentage of Latino residents are all in the West and Southwest, followed by Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois to round out the Top 10. But if you rank states where the Latino population is growing the fastest, 8 of the top 10 spots are taken by Southern states. And each of those states has at least doubled its Latino demographic between 2000 and 2010.

The corrido is a traditional Mexican ballad that tells true stories of heroes and villains in verse. It was once considered a reliable news source, in the era when the poor had limited access to other forms of media. Today, corridos are still written about current events, from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the battles over immigration and the election of Donald Trump.

Mexican-Americans have always felt a patriotic pride in performing military service to their adopted homeland.  But they’ve had to fight on another front, too: getting due credit for doing their duty. Ten years ago, filmmaker Ken Burns came under fire for ignoring the contributions of Latino soldiers in his World War II documentary, The War. After activists intensely lobbied PBS, which aired the documentary, the filmmaker begrudgingly amended his film to represent the 300,000 Latinos who fought in that war.

Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) was one the most enduring and highly honored female artists to hail from the immigrant Mexican-American communities of the Southwest United States. Nicknamed “La Alondra De La Frontera” (The Meadowlark of the Borderlands) and “La Cancionera De Los Pobres” (The Songstress of the Poor), the singer-guitarist enjoyed a career that spanned well over half a century, hundreds of recordings, and thousands of personal appearances.

There are only a handful of musicians whose careers have encompassed a half century in the evolution of recorded sound, from 78-rpm discs to digital streaming and downloads. One of them is Tito Puente, the versatile bandleader, percussionist, composer, arranger, and vibraphonist. Born in New York of blue-collar Puerto Rican parents, Puente debuted as bandleader during the thrilling mambo era of the 1950s and was actively touring and recording fifty years later, still a star in the new millennium.

Los Tremendos Gavilanes, the duo of Salomón Prado and Juan Torres, was founded in 1962 at the dawn of the modern age of norteño music. In the 1960s and ’70s, they achieved enormous popularity on both sides of the border and had many imitators, some of whom even usurped their name to try to ride on their coattails. But none could duplicate the magic of these two uniquely compatible musicians and their appealing vocal harmonies.  

The Arhoolie Foundations’ Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, by Agustín Gurza, volume 6 in the Chicano Archives book series from the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, was released in 2012. The award-winning book is based on an archival project initiated by then CSRC Director Guillermo E. Hernandez: In October 2001, Hernandez started the process to digitally preserve the Arhoolie Foundations’ Strachwitz Frontera Collection, the largest repository of Mexican and Mexican America popular and vernacular recording in existence.

The Argentine tango is one of a handful of song-and-dance styles – along with Spanish flamenco and the Cuban mambo – that emerged from cultural fusions in the Spanish-speaking world and gained global popularity in the 20th century. The tango craze that swept Europe and the U.S. during the first half of the last century may have faded. But the tango as an art form still thrives, in both traditional and contemporary forms.

Fred Zimmerle (1931-1998) was born in San Antonio of German and Mexican ancestry, a heritage that embodied the cultural fusion of the border region of South Texas. He became one of the most popular and influential acts in the highly competitive conjunto scene in post-war San Antonio, beloved by fans and respected by peers as a historic figure.

        

The Frontera Collection specializes in Mexican American music, especially the early, rural formats of norteño and conjunto groups from the first half of the 20th century. But beginning in the 1970s, new styles produced by young Mexican Americans in large urban centers emerged, fusing traditional and modern genres. In Los Angeles the most influential and critically acclaimed band from that era was Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles.

It’s been almost four decades since the Los Angeles debut of Zoot Suit, the groundbreaking musical about overt racial hostility facing Mexican Americans in Los Angeles during the 1940s. The Luis Valdez play opened at the Mark Taper Forum on July 28, 1978, and a year later had a short run on Broadway. Unless you experienced it at the time, it’s hard to appreciate just how much this cultural milestone meant to Mexican Americans, striving for a more respectable place in American society. The first professionally produced play by and about Mexican-Americans, Zoot Suit shattered cultural and social barriers

Santiago Almeida was an exceptional bajo sexto player who gained a historic place in the pantheon of Mexican-American music as the pioneering partner of famed accordionist Narciso Martinez. Together, the duo would shape the style we know today as conjunto music, with the accordion and 12-string guitar as its instrumental core.

In the late 1970s, in between journalism jobs, I worked in the music industry, on the selling, not the producing, side. With absolutely no direct experience in the market, I took a job as Latin-music buyer for Pickwick International, a major record distributer on a national level. With a gargantuan warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, the company operated its own chain of record stores, Musicland, and supplied hundreds of record departments in national retail chains, including Sears, Woolworths, Montgomery Ward, and Kmart.

Los Cadetes de Linares was a popular norteño duo composed in its prime by Homero Guerrero and Lupe Tijerina, both from the town of Linares, Nuevo Leon, south east of Monterrey, Mexico. They were particularly well known for their popular corridos, starting with their first single, “Los Dos Amigos” (The Two Friends), written by Tijerina. Their career together lasted a short eight years, until Guerrero’s untimely death. Yet, they left a lasting legacy through scores of recordings as well as appearances in films that carried the titles of their best-known ballads of outlaw bravado and tragedy, including “Las Tres Tumbas” (The Three Graves), “Cazador de Asesinos” (Hunter of Assassins) and “Pistoleros Famosos” (Famous Gunslingers).

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