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Coronavirus Corridos: Tales of the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has all the makings of a corrido, the historic narrative ballad of Mexico. The public health crisis has brought fear, death, tragedy, and social conflict – all of which have been subjects of this song form since before the Mexican Revolution.

   Not surprisingly, songs about the global contagion have quickly sprouted and spread among corrido fans like, indeed, a virus. But the viral topic has also jumped genres, cropping up in various styles, including reggaeton, salsa, mariachi, ballads, and folk.

   This musical trend, like the pandemic, has gone global, with videos (predominantly on YouTube) coming from Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and China. Equally diverse is the stature of artists recording virus-oriented songs, from superstars to rising stars to total unknowns.

   In the U.S., a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” became “My Corona,” by Zubin Damania, a Stanford-trained physician and musician, a.k.a. ZDoggMD. And rock star Jon Bon Jovi has created a crowd-sourced composition, “Do What You Can,” with verses submitted by fans as co-writers. Meanwhile in Panama, famed singer-songwriter Ruben Blades posted a new song with a stirring call for social solidarity, featuring video clips of dozens of average people repeating the rhythmic refrain, “Pa-na-má.”

   The phenomenon has been widely documented by media outlets in both languages, including Billboard, the BBC, the Bay Area’s KQED, and Mexican national news outlet Milenio.

   I first learned about the trend from a Facebook post by producer Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Frontera Collection and longtime collector of recorded corridos. Strachwitz had discovered a YouTube video titled “Un Corrido Al Coronavirus,” written and performed by Los Potrillos de Turicato, a group who named themselves after their hometown in Michoacán, southwest of Morelia, the state capital. The town, in turn, gets its name from a parasite, a soft-bodied tick, that plagues primarily hogs and cattle but can cause relapsing fever in people. Perhaps the home turf of Los Potrillos (The Colts) gave them a grassroots feel for the zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans.

   The group posted its video on the YouTube page for Turi Records, which features folk culture of the region, known as Tierra Caliente. The promoters aim “to help new musical talent and help maintain music styles featuring string instruments - violín, tololoche, vihuela, and bajo quinto,” among others.

   There are scores of videos featured on the site, including a jaw-dropping number of songs dealing with the novel coronavirus, warning about its devastating consequences and urging listeners to practice social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

   The Strachwitz post prompted a brief, side discussion about whether the song by Los Potrillos truly qualified as a corrido, a genre that, in its purest form, must contain certain elements. As I described in the first installment of my series on the genre, “The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion,” those elements include: A formal opening, or call to the public, by the corridista; a specific sense of time and place; a tragic conflict involving a protagonist who often faces death; and a formal farewell by the corridista.

   Strachwitz asked his Facebook followers for an English translation of the lyrics, which I provided. Once he read them, he decided the song did not strictly qualify as a corrido, although he still liked it. The truth is, contemporary corrido composers don’t feel obliged to stick religiously to the classic structure. Yet, one element remains at the core of corridos of all epochs: the heroic and often tragic conflict against adversity.

   That’s true for the song by Los Potrillos, as evidenced by the opening verse:

Que duro nos has golpeado, vamos, oh Coronavirus,
Ya son bastantes las vidas que por ti se han destruido.
No distingues sociedades, te llevas pobres y ricos.
How hard you have hit us, vamos, oh Coronavirus
Already you have destroyed too many lives.
You don’t distinguish status; you take rich and poor.

   Natural disasters are natural topics for corridos, highlighting the struggle of humans against uncontrollable, lethal forces.  Scores of corridos have been written over the years about earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and volcanic eruptions, as I explained in my two-part series about “Disaster Songs,” published in 2016 as Part 1 and Part 2. I was surprised to find, however, that songs about fatal epidemics are rare, based on a search of our database for this article, using multiple terms, such as disease, illness, contagion, epidemic, virus, and “gripe,” Spanish for flu.

   I did come across one song, “Tragedia de los Caballos” by Mariachi Conquistadores, about a viral epidemic that swept through horse herds in the early 1970s. Written by prolific composer José A. Morante, the song essentially laments the loss of so many caballos, a beloved animal that figures prominently in Mexican folk music. Released as a single on the San Antonio-based Norteño label, it features the world-renowned Flaco Jimenez on accordion.

   The label includes a cryptic sub-title: “Epidemia VEE.” The initials stand for the formal name of the disease, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, which has a death rate as high as 90 percent. The 1971 outbreak, which spread from Mexico to the U.S., was so serious that 11 states were under quarantine and a congressional hearing was held to explore efforts to contain it.

   All of which I didn’t know until now. My belated awareness underscores another powerful purpose of these story-telling songs: to inform the listener of events, from major political assassinations to small-town killings. Corridos, in particular, were considered oral newspapers for poor people without access to traditional media.

   The mission to inform still plays an important role for songs about the COVID-19 pandemic, be they corridos or other styles. Some have even been commissioned as public service announcements. Following are a few examples of songs in various styles, from Mexico to Panama. These artists are speaking directly to listeners, urging them to follow restrictions, inspiring them to protect their communities, and offering hope for a better day to come.

Canción del Coronavirus by Los Tres Tristes Tigres

   The Three Sad Tigers are a trio from Monterey, Mexico, that specializes in satirical songs and parodies, delivered with both slapstick and deadpan humor.

   Their song about the pandemic had almost 3.5 million views by early April.

   But they have made two other, equally entertaining videos about the stress of having to stay home. “La Cuarentena” (The Quarantine) is a parody of the novelty hit “La Macarena,” with a new chorus, “Heeeeeey, cuarentena.” And their latest light-hearted lament, posted on YouTube April 1, is a take on “La Puerta Negra” by Los Tigres del Norte, in which they compassionately extend their mother-in-law’s quarantine for another year, just to play it safe.

   They deliver their comical ode to COVID-19 in their usual format, wearing tuxedoes with bowties, facing the camera, speaking directly to their 2.16 million subscribers. The lyrics are full of witty and occasionally risqué wordplays and double entendres, with useful advice sprinkled throughout. During the verse about the importance of washing hands, the video shows the burly, bearded accordion player giving a perfect demonstration of hand-washing techniques as recommended by infectious disease experts.

   The last line takes a swipe at all those hoarders of toilet paper, cutting to a clip of frantic shoppers over-loading their shopping carts. People should be informed and stay calm, the singer says, wondering why people make such a stink about bathroom tissue. (“Un rollo” can be a roll of toilet paper or a big brouhaha.) Perhaps they buy so much of it, he surmises, because nowadays whenever one person coughs, everybody gets so panicked they poop.

Hay que esta bien informados, y hay que conservar la calma.
No se pa’ que tanto rollo, pero pues tal vez lo hagan,
Porque cuando alguien tose, ahorita todos se cagan.

   The group’s song got a boost when it was used in an Instagram video posted by Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny. The brief clip shows how the rapper and singer spends time in quarantine with his girlfriend. Among mundane activities, he is seen dancing to the cumbia, although in a clownish way that smacks of mockery.

   Nota Bene: This group – whose members met as engineering students at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León – is not to be confused with the 1960s Venezuelan trio of the same name, or the esteemed novel by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Cuban author and screenwriter (Vanishing Point, 1971, and The Lost City, 2005).

Corrido de Nayarit by Martin y Malena with the Mariachi Tapatío

   This corrido, released as a Peerless 78-rpm disc, was recorded by the duo of Martín Becerra Ochoa and Magdalena “Malena” Pérez Tejada, who were extremely popular in Mexico during the 1940s. Obviously, it’s not a current tune about this year’s pandemic. But it provides a great example how some jurisdictions are turning popular tunes into effective PSA’s about the coronavirus.
   The original corrido, written by Saturnino Galindo, is a paean to the wonders of the state of Nayarit, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. On orders of the state’s governor, the song’s famous refrain was turned into a jingle, urging people to be careful, stay home, and wash their hands.
"Para prevenir contagios del COVID
Tenemos que cuidarnos y hay que prevenir.
En casa siempre estar y dejar de salir,
Lávate bien las manos y gánale al COVID.

   A state official, quoted by a Mexican cable TV network, said the PSA was aimed at people who still don’t take the virus seriously. The creators of the corrido-turned-jingle hope to convince people that “this is real, it’s not fiction, it’s not a lie, it’s a reality that can affect us all.”

El Corrido del Coronavirus by Alan y Roberto

   This duo of brothers, Alan and Roberto Lara Meza, hails from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and is now based in Phoenix, Arizona. They are admirers of Los Tigres del Norte and describe their music as “old school… with a modern touch.”

   You can hear the old school in the high-pitched harmonies that are typical of norteño duet vocals. The tune’s structure and phrasing, however, smacks of the new narco-corridos coming from L.A., although these siblings clearly convey a Christian vibe. Their song delivers a positive message, “a call for calm, community, faith, and brotherhood.”

   But what most drew my attention was the skilled musicianship of the backup trio. The guy in the Ferrari tee-shirt looks cool while killing it on the upright bass. Now watch the bearded player on the left with the white, 12-string guitar. He is plucking the soul out of it, making it sound like the traditional bajo sexto though the instrument is made by Takamine, based in Japan. Unlike the bajo sexto, this guitar is amplified, with its own built-in pre-amp. A modern touch indeed.

   The duo’s coronavirus corrido was featured in two Latino-oriented websites, L.A. Taco in Southern California and Latino Rebels, based in New York and owned by Futuro Media, a nonprofit founded by Mexican-American journalist Maria Hinojosa.

La Cumbia del Coronavirus by Mister Cumbia

   Mister Cumbia has emerged as a master of musical memes in Latin America. His real name is Iván Montemayor, born in Reynosa, México in 1981, living in Virginia since 2012. He’s a composer, arranger and deejay who has a keen antenna for topics with potential to go viral. Three years ago, he had a hit, “Los XV de Rubí,” which capitalized on a social media craze surrounding a shy teen’s quinceañera that drew 30,000 unexpected guests.  He’s also had viral success with songs about the daughter of the late José José, the surprising rise to fame of Oscar-nominated actress Yalitza Aparicio, and the current controversy surrounding the raffle of Mexico’s presidential plane.

   All his themes ride the waves of public interest, earning him the title of el Rey de las Cumbias Virales.  But when he penned his cumbia about the pandemic, Mr. Cumbia hit the jackpot. Released in January, the simple, catchy tune catapulted to the top of Spotify’s Viral 50 in Spain as well as a dozen countries across Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, according to a March 18 article in Rolling Stone. The momentum launched the song into the music streaming service’s Global Viral 50, which has more than 1.6 million followers.

   The song’s popularity was propelled by its frequent use in public service announcements. In one video, a group of doctors and nurses from a hospital in Ecuador, dressed in white and aligned in a safely spaced formation, dance to the coronavirus cumbia while using hand gestures to demonstrate proper hand-washing technique.

   The deejay’s songs are created instantly, sometimes in less than two hours. And they show it. Not surprisingly, many of them sound the same. But Mr. Cumbia knows when he’s on a roll (so to speak) and has produced several songs about the coronavirus. They include: “Se Acabó el Papel” (There’s No More Toilet Paper), in which he pretends to play the sax with a roll of toilet paper around the instrument’s neck; and “Lávate Las Manos” (Wash Your Hands), a fast-talking tune in a rap/reggaeton style.

   Finally, there’s “Quédate en Casa” (Stay at Home), in which Mr. Cumbia cautions people not to complain about their comfortable quarantine, in light of other people’s suffering. He reminds listeners of extreme hardships endured by people trapped involuntarily with absolutely no comforts – the miners in Chile, the children lost while exploring caves in Thailand, and the Uruguayan soccer team stranded in the Alps for weeks after a plane crash.

   Good point, Mister Cumbia.

Dishonorable Mentions

   Not all musical messages are positive. Some are conspiratorial and dangerous. Some don’t take the issue seriously and some take the joke too far.

La Cumbia Del Corona Virus by Jose Torres

   This song stands out for its paranoid, conspiracy theories in the final verses. The coronavirus is a trick by government leaders to control the world, sings Torres, a fashionista who reads the lyrics from a device affixed to the top of his accordion. He claims presidents created this and other epidemics, like Ebola. His proof: They all suspiciously have the same symptoms, which is patently false. He ends with a conspiratorial warning: Don’t be fooled.

El Coronavirus by Marco Flores y La Jerez

   These guys are having way too much fun, with their brassy banda and flashy red suits, to be bothered with social distancing. Their approach to the pandemic: Don’t worry, be happy. Some people say drunks can’t get the virus, the lyrics assert, so grab a drink and some babes and have fun to relieve the stress. The lead singer belts out the cumbia’s chorus: A mi me vale el coronavirus, porque las manos ya me lavé (I don’t care about the coronavirus because I already washed my hands.) Then he proceeds to take his sexy dancers for a spin, hand-in-hand. You could say the song is catchy, in more ways than one.

Canción del Coronavirus Ranchero by Los Chisquiados Del Monte

   This silly music video has some scatological references to what happens to Americans when they run out of toilet paper. The singers, José Luis Ramos and Lety Carrillo, throw toilet paper around with abandon, then boast about a hygiene alternative used by migrants in the fields. Out in the country, they say, people use smooth river rocks instead of paper. That’s true, and they also use dried cobs of corn, minus the kernels, as another song notes. In a funny sight gag, the backup musicians in this video play while wearing ridiculous, improvised protective gear. The bass player uses a plastic water bottle like a helmet, and the guitarist dons a beekeeper’s gear to veil his face. It closes with a notice spoofing the norms of filmmaking: “CLARIFICATION: For this video, only half a roll of hygienic paper was used, and most of it was able to be re-utilized.”

Accentuate the Positive

   Discordant notes are the exception in this new crop of virus videos. Most of the artists promote a spirit of togetherness in time of crisis. In this last example, “Quédate en Casa” (Stay Home), a Cuban artist based in Spain, one of the hardest hit countries in the pandemic, performs an infectious tune with rap verses and a reggaeton chorus. His name is Ariel de Cuba, and he wrote, recorded, and made a video of the song at his home studio near Madrid, with the help of his son and daughter, “all without leaving the house.” He thanks the health workers for risking their lives, and urges all people to come together as one family.

Esto no es pa’ juego, pa’l mundo entero.
Cuida a la abuela, cuida al abuelo.
Si nos unimos, venceremos.
 Somos humanos, demos la mano.
No importa el político que sigas tú,
El planeta necesita de tu actitud.
Ahora es el momento de actuar.
Stop! Coronavirus, te vamos a parar.

   The song was quickly picked up by Lessier Herrera, a Zumba instructor based in Bologna, Italy, another country ravaged by COVID-19. The exercise video shows the instructor and two women in gym clothes, appearing to dance together to the song, perhaps violating the distancing rules they’re promoting. But you quickly see it’s a split screen, and each dancer is in a different location, following the same moves.

   Separate, but together.

--Agustín Gurza




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The Legacy of a Music Lover: Six Decades of Collecting Records and Preserving Culture

There was a warm, cheerful spirit this past November in a San Francisco club called The Chapel during the Second Annual Arhoolie Awards and Benefit Concert, a spirit that was instantly enveloping. I had never attended one of the celebrated events sponsored by the roots-music organization, but I felt immediately at home.

       People didn’t put on a pretense of being cool. They didn’t have that forbidding vibe of being the in-crowd. They were simply enjoying themselves and digging the rollicking blues and gospel performers on stage. The crowd’s shared cultural affinity made it feel like a communal happening.

       For those unfamiliar with the history of Arhoolie, the revered musical brand created by record collector and producer Chris Strachwitz, the title of last month’s event might be a bit misleading. Yes, it was only the second annual benefit concert for the non-profit Arhoolie Foundation, a leading sponsor of the Frontera Collection hosted online at UCLA. But the enterprise has been around a lot longer than that.

       Next year, in fact, will mark the 60th anniversary of Arhoolie Records, the label Strachwitz started on a shoestring and built into an essential archive of American grass-roots musical styles, including blues, jazz, folk, zydeco, bluegrass, and Mexican genres popular along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially norteño, conjunto, and Tejano.

       The benefit featured awards for Bay Area musicians, including Elvin Bishop, the veteran blues guitarist who received the Chris Strachwitz Legacy Award. But when Strachwitz came out on stage to present the honors, with his unassuming but confident demeanor, the cheers of adoring fans left no doubt who they considered the main act.

       Veteran Bay Area writer and deejay Jesse “Chuy” Varela, who emceed the event, underscored Strachwitz’s stature with a glowing introduction in booming announcer tones. Later in an interview, Varela shed some light on the appeal of a man he calls “my uncle Chris.”

       “Chris created a community, bro, of people his age who… hey man, they followed him,” said Varela, a longtime Arhoolie collaborator and frequent customer at Down Home Music, the record shop Strachwitz opened in 1976 in El Cerrito, north of Berkeley “Just hanging around the store you're amazed at all the famous musicians that come rolling through because of the reputation that it has, musicians who are digging for inspiration or looking for music they want to research.”

       Varela ticks off the names of local artists from the 1960s who were denizens of Down Home before they were famous: “Tom Fogerty and all the Creedence guys hung around; Country Joe McDonald went through there. And then you had the guys who moved out here and kind of made it their second home, like Taj Mahal and Charlie Musselwhite. And later, Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, man, those kids went through there.”

       That mingling of music-lovers and music-makers formed bonds that lasted.

        “Dude, it’s a lot of love, man,” says Varela. “All it takes is going to an Arhoolie party or hanging out at Down Home like on a Saturday afternoon, just to see it.”

       That captures what I experienced at the concert, held in the Mission District, the gentrified neighborhood that was once a hotbed of Latino grassroots activism in politics and the arts. I looked around the venue and saw a lot of contemporaries, gray-haired Baby Boomers including some who are now key benefactors of the Arhoolie Foundation. As soon as I walked in, I ran into Jonathan Clark, the mariachi musician and historian who contributed a chapter to my book on the Frontera Collection. We soon became a trio when joined by Tom Diamant, a board member of the Arhoolie Foundation and Strachwitz’s longtime partner.

        It all brought back the spirit of the ’60s, when I was a student at Berkeley and Chris was building his music business. It was a pre-digital time when pop songs provided the social glue that brought people together and expressed common community values – for peace, love, and justice; against war, poverty and racism.

       In light of the current generational antagonism that blames Boomers for causing all manner of social ills, from crushing student debt to global warming, it was reassuring to experience a positive manifestation of that generation’s lofty ideals.

       The joyful evening provided a moment to reflect on the tremendous accomplishments of Strachwitz and Arhoolie, built disc by disc over six decades. He started by gathering and preserving the recorded ethnic music of the working classes, which others considered worthless. In discarded stockpiles of unwanted records, Strachwitz saw musical treasures, like a miner panning for gold in muddy waters.

       Culturally speaking, his major contribution came in giving that music its proper place and respect. That approach was especially important in the case of Mexican folk and country music, which was scorned even by many Mexicans. Strachwitz made no distinction between genres on either side of the cultural gap. So he collected and produced Mexican music on a par with American roots styles, unencumbered by the prejudices of puzzled people who would scratch their heads and wonder, “What do you want that stuff for?”

       In the early years, Arhoolie’s mission synced seamlessly with the era’s desire for authenticity and rejection of commercial artifice. Strachwitz came up at a time when young people were searching out roots music for themselves, sparking revivals in folk, blues, and ethnic music of all types.

       This tall, lanky immigrant found himself in the right place at the right time.

       Strachwitz came to this country as a teenager from an upper-crust German family, seeking a safe haven in the aftermath of WWII. He arrived with a thirst for music other than the folk music of his European homeland, which he found contrived and unfeeling. His listening capacity was wide open.

       “He's a music lover, and he came here at a time when there was really rich music happening,” says Varela, who worked during the ’80s and ’90s at KPFA-FM, the Berkeley-based Pacifica station where Strachwitz also hosted a long-running program. “He was always very much into learning from people, and hearing things.”

       Strachwitz listened and learned, even when he didn’t understand the language musicians were speaking. He didn’t speak Spanish, but responded viscerally to the Mexican regional music of poor, working-class people along the border, with its exquisite vocal harmonies, lively accordions, and peppy polka rhythms.

          “I was always that weird gringo, listening to corridos and banda because I loved what they had to say,” said Strachwitz in an interview last year with El Tecolote, a bilingual newspaper launched in 1970 at San Francisco State as part of a La Raza Studies class. “Mexicans had a very profound way of disclosing their life experiences.”

       Chris was an explorer, but not an exploiter. He was interested in preservation, not profit. He dove into the nomadic culture of migrant workers and, like them, he was always on the move. He searched out norteño and conjunto artists, befriended them, recorded them, wrote liner notes for their albums, and featured them in his documentary films.

        Through that anthropological effort, he taught young Mexican Americans not to discriminate against their own music.

       “We were low-riders,” recalls Varela, 65, who attended high school in Martinez, a historic oil town in the East Bay. “We were cholos, and we looked down on Mexican music. But as time went along, we began to realize you can’t cut off that root.”

       That’s when the art of record collecting synergized with Chicano activism.

       “I was a young Chicano in MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán),” continued Varela, who studied music and mass communications at Cal State Hayward, south of Berkeley. “We were kids getting involved with César Chávez and all this stuff, and we discovered the album The Chicano Experience (Texas-Mexican Border Music Vol. 14, Arhoolie Records, 1978). That album became kind of like our manifesto.”

       During the phone interview, Varela suddenly breaks out into song with a muted shout: “Soy Chicano, ‘cuz I’m brown and I’m proud.” It’s a line he remembers from another Arhoolie release, Corridos of the Chicano Movement, by the late Rumel Fuentes, a Chicano activist and songwriter from Eagle Pass, Texas.

       “We used to sing that like it was our anthem,” Varela continued, the excited memory still animating his voice. “We knew this had a lot of corazón, but it also had a lot of political fire to it as well.”

       For Strachwitz – and others like Ry Cooder who collaborated with Flaco Jimenez, the renowned accordionist from San Antonio – being outsiders looking in on Latino culture proved to be an advantage.

       “The irony is that it took guys who were not  Mexicans who fell in love with this music, and really knew the wealth and depth of it,” says Varela. “As a result, it kind of brought it all back full circle, back to the people who said, ‘Oh yeah, maybe we need to go back and re-examine this.’ ”

       Other white figures delving into ethnic music have been accused of cultural appropriation, including Paul Simon with his South African foray. I don’t think Strachwitz can be faulted for that because he always tries to keep the spotlight on the music itself, in its purest, most natural form. I have previously argued, at the risk of portraying Strachwitz as a white savior, that his obsessive record-hunting helped rescue a large chunk of our musical culture from oblivion. Without the Frontera Collection, much of its music would be long forgotten.

       But Varela doesn’t quite see it that way.

       “No, what I think he did is that he opened it up to the outside world,” says Varela. “One of things about Mexican folks, bro, they never get rid of their records. You can go to any Mexican home and there’s gonna be a little stack of records, and they pass them on. It's like that; it's insular. What Chris helped to do is to open it up, so that outside societies could have a look into what we do. And I think that's something he deserves a lot of credit for.”

       Which brings me to my final thought as I surveyed the aging audience at the Arhoolie concert. What will become of this cultural movement once this generation passes on? Who will carry the torch of historic preservation into the future?

       The 1960s are history. Tastes changed, and people moved on. Technology blew to bits the very concept of collecting records, with songs now instantly accessible as discreet files, untethered to the release of an album.

       As Strachwitz puts it simply: “Records are no longer really an item.”

       You can think of Strachwitz as a musical curator, who selects the records he likes and presents them for others to appreciate. Today, however, the role of cultural gatekeeper has gone the way of the LP, Top 40 radio, and the record label A&R guy. Now, people are awash in an avalanche of available music, with nobody to help them sort through it.

       “It’s like a total tower of babel out there,” says Strachwitz. “In the old days you had good deejays, good reviewers in newspapers and magazines. There’s so much stuff out there, and young people really do need guidance.”

       Despite the changes and the challenges, Strachwitz casually deflects a question about his legacy with a soft-spoken response: “I’m really not all that concerned.”

       Perhaps his mind rests easy because he’s been carefully planning for the future over the past 20 years. In 2016, Arhoolie Records, with its catalog of some 650 albums, was sold to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the nonprofit label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. Meanwhile, Arhoolie has undertaken the Herculean task of digitizing some 160,000 tracks from the Strachwitz collection of Mexican, Mexican-American, Spanish, Caribbean, and Latin American music, creating the digital archive that comprises the Frontera Collection at UCLA.

       Through Frontera and Folkways, this record trove will be available as a resource worldwide for generations to come, delighting music lovers and informing ethnomusicologists.

       That is legacy enough for one man.


– Agustín Gurza



The Kennedy Corridos: Tragedy Revives a Genre

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The slain presidential candidate was especially admired by the Mexican-American community, as was his martyred brother before him, President John F. Kennedy. That admiration was expressed poetically and emotionally in many songs written as tributes to the fallen leaders.

            Most of those songs were written spontaneously immediately following the assassinations, which took place five years apart; first the president in Dallas, followed by the killing in Los Angeles of the senator, his younger brother and former U.S. Attorney General. Many of the compositions were crafted in the traditional style of Mexican corridos, or narrative ballads that recount historical events in a quasi-journalistic fashion, specifying time, place and other historical facts. But these songs – which have become known collectively as “the Kennedy Corridos” – also express in passionate terms the powerful cultural affinity that Mexican-Americans felt for the Kennedys, and the deep sense of loss the community experienced when they were taken so young and at the peak of their political careers.

            The Frontera Collection contains an ample sample of corridos written for both John and Robert Kennedy, although it’s by no means definitive. The archive has a much more comprehensive collection of older corridos on 78s, representing the golden era of the recorded genre during the first half of the 20th century. Previously, I gave a detailed analysis of the corrido and its history in a four-part post, starting with the definition of the genre and its traditional elements, such as the role of a narrator, the establishment of time and place, and the farewell verse.

            The Kennedy Corridos come much later in time, obviously, during the 1960s and early 1970s. They are all on modern recording formats, mostly 45-rpm singles, as well as 33-rpm albums. And they do not strictly follow established corrido conventions; in fact, a few are not corridos at all, but rather tribute songs in other styles.

            The Kennedy Corridos emerged at a time when the genre itself had begun to wane. The commercially recorded corridos of the mid-1900s often lacked the integrity and purpose of their predecessors. In the words of respected corrido expert Américo Paredes, “the corrido in the hands of professional imitators had become self-conscious and fake.”

            Songwriters no longer championed the epic heroes of the original border corridos, those larger-than-life folk figures locked in life-and-death cultural conflicts, whose stories were kept alive via this oral tradition with ancient roots. They also lacked the urgency of early recorded corridos that served as audio newspapers, recounting events for poor people who had no other access to media.

            So, by the 1960s, the corrido was in a slump. Nobody needed ballads any longer to get the news. And the stories the songs used to tell – about the oppressed border hero fighting the dominant Anglo culture – had become like old tales about the Wild West. By the 1960s, most of the Mexican-American population had moved from rural to urban settings, fighting for social equality and going off to Vietnam to fight alongside their fellow American soldiers.

            The Kennedy Corridos began to change all that.

            “Not until the Kennedy assassination did Texas-Mexican corridos have a subject that would reinvigorate the genre,” writes ethnomusicologist Dan W. Dickey in a section about the corrido in the The Handbook of Texas Music. “During the months following John Kennedy's death, dozens of Kennedy corridos were composed, recorded, and broadcast on Spanish language radio stations in Texas and across the Southwest.”

            The intrinsic tragedy of the Kennedy stories – charismatic young leaders, champions of civil rights, defenders of the underdog, victims of violence in their prime - was the very stuff of corrido legends. They were an inspiration for young corridistas, who suddenly found new heroes to herald, as Dickey explains in his 1978 book, The Kennedy Corridos: A Study of the Ballads of a Mexican American Hero.

            “The corridos and songs about John Kennedy, written and recorded in and around 1963, were an exception to the entertaining, commercially recorded corridos of the time,” writes Dickey. “Instead of being trite or vulgar ballads about local barroom shootings, the corridos about Kennedy in many cases show, in their character, a return to the older corrido of an epic-heroic cast. They are the heartfelt expression or sentiment of Mexican-Americans who saw their own struggles in Kennedy’s, and who were uplifted and inspired by his ideals.”

            Dickey’s book was originally written as his master’s thesis at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied folklore and ethnomusicology. The expanded work was partly funded by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, according to a review by famed ethnomusicologist Philip Sonnichsen, published in Western Folklore in July of 1981. Sonnichsen praised Dickey’s book, calling it “one of which Américo Paredes can be proud.”

            The book covers only those corridos written about President Kennedy, in the immediate aftermath of his assassination on November 22, 1963. But his analysis applies equally to the corridos written five years later after the death of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was shot June 5, 1968 in Los Angeles, after winning the California presidential primary.

            Dickey identifies three themes common to the JFK corridos he studied:

             First, the elder Kennedy is hailed as a “champion of equal rights,” compared to even the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ.

            Second, he is hailed as a friend of Mexico and Latin America, a man who made speeches in Spanish, launched the Alliance for Progress to aid the continent, and returned to Mexico a parcel of disputed land on the Texas border called El Chamizal.

            Third, he is lionized as a hero and martyr who gave his life for his country, and who struggled for acceptance as a member of an ethnic and religious minority.

            “As evidenced by these corridos, Kennedy was in many ways a symbol of the Mexican-Americans’ aspirations for full rights and citizenship in the United States which they had been long denied due to racial and cultural prejudice and economic exploitation,” writes Dickey. “Mexican Americans in many ways could identify with Kennedy’s own struggle as a member of an ethnic minority – Irish Catholic – and his strivings for acceptance. And that identification, the bond of religion, and Kennedy’s tragic death itself seemed to crystallize Mexican American sentiment towards him which was visibly expressed by the writing, recording, and circulation of the corridos.”

            Many Mexican Americans enshrined their love for Kennedy through the prominent display of his image on framed portraits and wall tapestries, ubiquitous in barrio living rooms throughout the Southwest. In one corrido, “Recuerdo Eterno” by Conjunto Florida, composer Willie Lopez ties the presidential portrait in his own home to Kennedy’s national fight for equal rights, rhyming the Spanish word for “picture” (retrato) with the term for “better treatment” (mejor trato).


            Siempre guardo en la sala de mi casa,

            A la vista tengo puesto tu retrato.

            Tu pediste que al humano de otra raza,

            Lo quisieran y le dieran mejor trato.


            Interestingly, Lopez wrote this song to mark the first anniversary of Kennedy’s death in November 1964, the same month when Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected president. The song casts the election as an affirmation of the Kennedy legacy. Speaking for Mexican Americans, Lopez writes, “we all went joyfully to vote, remembering your greatness and your deeds.”


            Sigue el mundo su marcha sin parar,

            Gana  Johnson también las elecciones,

             Todos fuimos gustosos a votar,

            Recordando tu grandeza y tus acciones.


            The song closes with a pledge reflected in its title, “Eternal Memory.”


            Un año que va pasando,

            Y cien se pueden pasar,

            Y los buenos mexicanos

            No te vamos a olvidar.


            The Frontera Collection has a total of 54 recordings about the Kennedys, almost twice as many for JFK (33) as for RFK (18), with another three dedicated to both brothers. Searching the Kennedy surname yields a total of 76 tracks, though the result is misleading. For example, the search includes songs on a label located in Kenedy, Texas, a city spelled with only one “n” but which is misspelled in the database with the double “n” of the family surname. Another tiny label is located on Kennedy Avenue in McAllen, Texas. And there are a couple of Tex-Mex numbers by popular country singer Johnny Rodriguez, produced by someone named Jerry Kennedy.

            There are several Kennedy Corridos in the collection that might be overlooked because the famous name is not in the title. One song salutes the slain president as a soldier of peace (“Soldado de Paz”); one simply invokes the president’s memory (“Recordando al Presidente”); and another expresses sadness for the city made infamous by the assassination (“Triste Dallas”).

            Not all of these compositions pretend to be corridos. The genres are not always listed on the labels, but those that identify a style include “Memoria Al Senator Kennedy,” listed as a vals (waltz), which is the only instrumental in the lot, featuring the mournful accordion of Pedro Ayala, with a traditional Tex-Mex conjunto.  The Trio Internacional performs a celebratory huapango in homage to a living president, “A Kennedy En Vida,” in the lively folk style from the huasteca region along Mexico's Gulf Coast. On the other hand, Salvador S. Najera wrote and recorded a tribute to Robert F. Kennedy that is identified simply as a “canción,” or song, backed with a guitar trio, but which includes many factual details about the assassination, including a reference to his midnight victory speech just before he was killed. His song, “En Memoria a Kennedy,” was released on a small label based locally in Gardena, California.

            One song, listed as a “lamento,” simply bids farewell to “our great president” (“Adios a Nuestro Gran Presidente”).  It is one of the only Kennedy songs in the collection that is not performed by a Mexican or Mexican-American artist; it features legendary Puerto Rican cuatro player Yomo Toro and singer Luis Garcia from Ponce, Puerto Rico.

            A few other songs stand out, for their unique perspective or poetry.

            One song, for example, looks at the Kennedy tragedy from the vantage point of his widow, the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. It’s appropriately titled “La Viuda De Kennedy,” by Panchita Mendoza, who also sings it with the backing of the Mariachi Casino. It is one of the rare, if not the only, composition about Kennedy written by a woman, and Mendoza makes the audacious decision of writing the lyric in Jackie’s own voice. “I am the widow of Kennedy,” the song starts. She goes on to describe herself as the dutiful and loving wife of a great leader (“cumplí sus deseos porque yo lo amaba”), who died in her arms. The mix on the recording – released by the Los Angeles-based Music Records – makes the lyric hard to distinguish because the singer’s high-pitched voice is masked by the over-powering mariachi.

            In his tribute to the slain senator, “Homenaje A Roberto Kennedy,” famed Mexican-American composer Lalo Guerrero makes a startling reference to the widow Ethel Kennedy, who was expecting the couple’s 11th child at the time of her husband’s death.


            Bobby Kennedy, tus hjos te lloran.

            Tu noble señora, ay! como te siente.

            Con tu hijo en su vientre, no encuentra consuelo,

            Y le pide al cielo, paciencia y valor.


            A more traditional tribute to Jackie Kennedy was penned by the prolific composer José A. Morante, "Antorcha Eterna” (A la Viuda del Martir), performed by Rosita Fernández with the Mariachi Chapultepec.

            Morante wrote another corrido, “Homenaje a J. F. Kennedy,” with a lyric that traces the arc of Kennedy’s career, from his military service, to his famous speech in Berlin and his outreach to Mexico. One verse makes specific reference to that disputed border territory.


México le abrió sus brazos, como a ninguno jamás.

Kennedy hizo justicia, regresando el Chamizal


            The song, recorded on the San Antonio-based Norteño label by Los Conquistadores with backing by Los Arcos, is included in an Arhoolie compilation which encompasses relatively modern corridos, Ballads & Corridos 1949-1975.

Several tracks are dedicated to other historic figures of the period, both famous and infamous, including Martin Luther King, kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, and even convicted kidnapper and rapist Caryl Chessman, whose execution in 1960 at San Quentin became a cause célèbre for opponents of the death penalty.

            The Kennedy Corridos are also the subject of a radio program in a series entitled The Mexican American Experience, archived by the University of Texas at Austin. Author Dickey contributed to the report, which includes quotes from interviews with some of the corrido composers. One of them is Dr. Jesús San Roman, a chiropractor from San Antonio, Texas, whose 45-rpm single on his own label offers a two-sided tribute to President Kennedy: a corrido with trio on Side A and a dramatic historical narration on the flip side, recited with a background of military marching music. Both are simply titled “El Asesinato del Presidente John F. Kennedy.”

            In his interview, San Roman vividly relates his emotional reaction to the assassination, a feeling of shock and loss that infuses the works of many of his fellow corridistas.

             “I went into the kitchen, I sat down on a chair, I put my head on my arm, and tears just started running down my face,” the composer says. “It was really a shock, and I don’t know why I felt it so much. I presume many, many people in the United States and around the world felt the way I did. But it really, really hurt me.”


– Agustín Gurza



The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 4: Corridos of the Mexican Revolution

Part 4: Corridos of the Mexican Revolution

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.”

American adventurer and historian Edward Larocque Tinker had a front-row seat to the creation of a corrido on that revolutionary battlefield. In 1915, Tinker was a civilian observer with Pancho Villa’s troops during the fabled Battle of Celaya, a major defeat for Villa that signaled a turning point in the revolution. On the evening after the battle, Tinker describes hearing voices and guitars as he wandered along the boxcars where Villa’s tired, bedraggled troops were quartered. Looking for the source of the music, he came upon a group of men and women around a campfire, “listening in the moonlight like fascinated children to the singing of three men.” He gives the following account: 

“I too was fascinated and thought they sang some old folk tale. As verse after verse, however, took the same melodic pattern I suddenly realized that this was no ancient epic, but a freshly minted account of the battle of the day before.... It was a corrido – hot from the oven of their vivid memory of the struggle between Villa and Obregon – the first one I had ever heard.”

The battle of Celaya is well documented in corridos, with at least a dozen renditions in the Frontera Collection, including three, two-part recordings on 78s. Several of these ballads about the battle are also included in a compilation issued by Arhoolie Records in 1996 as a box set: The Mexican Revolution: Corridos about the Heroes and Events 1910-1920 and Beyond! The collection features corridos about other important battles, typically titled after the city that is taken in battle, such as “La Toma de Torreón” (my hometown and one of Villa’s center of operations), as well as the taking of Zacatecas, Guadalajara, and Matamoros.  There are also many corridos written about revolutionary figures, major and minor, on both sides of the civil war, including Emiliano Zapata, the iconic agrarian reformer, and Porfirio Diaz, the overthrown dictator.

As we have seen in previous parts of my series on the genre (linked below), corridos as an oral tradition pre-date the invention of recorded sound. And the earliest recorded corridos also pre-date the 1910 uprising. Those seminal recordings, made in Mexico City, include two famous corridos, “Heraclio Bernal” and “Ignacio Parra,” about rebels active in the late 1880s during the Diaz dictatorship. Both were recorded by singer Rafael Herrera Robinson in 1904, on cylinders for the Edison recording company.

A few years later, Herrera re-recorded many of his early cylinder tracks for the Victor and Columbia labels, which had also set up subsidiaries in the Mexican capital. However, the singer did not reprise his original recordings about the two rebels, who the government discredited as common criminals (“bandidos vulagres”). Why the omission? The late James Nicolopulos, one of the leading corrido experts in the U.S., argued that political pressure had forced the artist to abandon these rebel ballads due to their “seditious undercurrent.” In other words, corridos were censored as a voice of dissent.

In those days, Nicolopulos explains, the nascent recording industry based in Mexico City was “geared to the tastes of the ruling classes.” The industry and the social elites shunned the corrido as subversive, not to mention aesthetically unworthy. This entrenched social prejudice, combined with the high cost of discs and record-playing equipment, largely excluded the genre from recording studio rosters because it was considered inferior music for the country’s marginalized classes.

Two factors, one historical and one technological, converged to stimulate the commercial recording of corridos, and in the process, turn the American Southwest into a mecca for the folk art form.

First, the Mexican Revolution had led to a mass migration of the country’s poor north into the United Sates, as people fled the chronic violence and sought some social stability. During the same period, meanwhile, a technological revolution transformed the old mechanical methods of sound recording. With the advent of the electrical recording process in the 1920s, recording equipment became less expensive and much more mobile. As a result, record labels could more readily take their recording equipment to where their artists and audiences were located.

These social and technological developments led to a boom era for corrido recordings, between 1928 and the 1940s. Cities all along the Sunbelt -- El Paso, San Antonio, Los Angeles -- became the new capitals of the corrido recording industry. One side effect of this cross-border shift was the creation of a market for the corrido that was immune to the upper-class sensibilities and censorship of Mexico City’s centralized music business.

These changes gave corrido composers and performers on the U.S. side of the border a creative advantage they did not have in their native country – freedom of expression. “The shift of technology across the border had created the discursive space necessary for the expression of sentiments that could not have been undertaken in Mexico,” writes Nicolopulos,  who was a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Songs about the exploits of Pancho Villa, the revolutionary leader operating in northern Mexico, constitute an entire sub-set of the genre known as “corridos villistas.” According to Nicolopulos, the earliest of these was made in New York in 1918; as such, it was also one of the first revolutionary corridos recorded in the United States. The seminal Villa ballad came two years after the revolutionary leader mounted his daring raid on Columbus, New Mexico, prompting the U.S. to send 10,000 troops across the border to capture him. The song lionized Villa’s Zorro-like ability to elude the American force, led by Gen. John J. "Black JackPershing, who was mocked for his failure despite his superior military strength.

Villa ballads cover a wide range of subjects. They herald his favorite horse (“El Siete Leguas”), his elite cavalry (“Los Dorados de Villa”), his strategic use of trains to move troops ("Ahí viene el tren"), his wily guerilla tactics (“La Persecución de Villa”), and of course, his ambush and assassination in 1923 (“La Muerte de Pancho Villa” and “La Tumba de Villa”).

The Frontera Collection also has a two-part corrido entitled “Pancho Villa and Carranza,” by the duo Genaro Rodriguez y Juan Chavez, a clear precursor of subsequent songs about the Pershing expedition. Like other two-part ballads of the era, this 78-rpm recording on the Okeh label includes a few additional verses that don’t appear in later versions.

By far, the most popular song about Villa is the iconic “La Cucaracha,” which became a revolutionary anthem, “the Mexican equivalent of America’s Yankee Doodle,” as one blogger puts it. The catchy tune is filled with metaphors alluding to rivalries between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary camps. Though it has roots in medieval Spain, its adaptation during the revolution added most of the stanzas familiar today. In the pro-Villa versions, according to one common interpretation, the cockroach represents President Victoriano Huerta, a traitor who helped plot the assassination of Francisco Madero, the country’s first revolutionary president. An alternative, though rare, interpretation holds that the cockroach (which “can no longer walk”) represents Villa’s car, which his men had to push when it ran out of gas. In still other versions, lyrics were re-written to favor Huerta, or some other faction.

One of the earliest recordings of the song in the Frontera Collection is performed by the Mexican Bluebird Orchestra, a scratchy 78 on the Bluebird label. The lyrics, sung by a chorus, include the famous opening stanza about the cucaracha being unable to walk because it ran out of marijuana (“porque no tiene, porque le falta, marihuana que fumar”). With a refined orchestral arrangement, the song mocks the forces of Venustiano Carranza, a revolutionary leader who broke with Villa and was a common target of the song’s satirical rhymes.

Today, there are scores of recordings of the perennial ditty, with both political and non-political messages, and some instrumentals with no lyrics at all.

Another revolutionary classic, equally familiar to most Mexicans, is “La Adelita,” a corrido about the women warriors who went to battle alongside the men, also known as soldaderas. There are various versions of the Adelita theme, but the most famous has a peppy, polka-type melody suitable for instrumentals and fun for dancing. The famous lyrics to the song – as performed in this nicely arranged version by Los Hermanos Zaizar with Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa – reduces the female fighter to an object of desire for the male troops. The catchy chorus would today be considered a stalker’s anthem, as her besotted sergeant vows to follow her “por tierra y por mar” (by land and sea) if she were to leave with another man. The song appears in a collection of revolutionary tunes, “Cantares de la Revolución” on Mexico’s Peerless label, with a cover that highlights the woman’s sexuality, not her bravery in battle.

One notable exception is a more recent corrido titled “El Rebozo Balaceado” (The Bullet-Riddled Rebozo), about a soldadera who gives her life in Villa’s battle for Torreón, felled on the battlefield with her rifle and her bloody Mexican shawl. It’s sung as a male-female duet by composer Victor Cordero “y su Soldadera.”

The Frontera Collection contains corridos about other revolutionary figures, such as Emiliano Zapata, Benjamin Argumedo, and Valente Quintero. In a previous blog, I wrote about the fascinating Frontera recordings related to the rise and tragically quick fall of Madero.  Some are historic re-enactments of actual events, such as Madero’s triumphant entrance to Mexico City. But there are also two corridos about Madero worth highlighting.

In “El Nuevo Corrido de Madero,” by the duo Camacho y Pérez, Mexico’s first revolutionary president is depicted as a courageous man who, among his first official acts, went immediately to the prisons and released the inmates, presumably held unjustly by the overthrown dictatorship. The bold act establishes Madero’s character in the second verse, and the corrido goes on to tell of the political betrayals and intrigue that eventually cost him his life. In his essay defining the genre, corrido expert and UCLA Spanish professor Guillermo Hernández used this song to illustrate the character of the corrido protagonist, “who generally serves as a model of conduct under extraordinary circumstances.”

The archives contain three recordings of the song, Okeh 16696, Columbia 4863, and Vocalion 8696. They are essentially the same recording made by the duo in Los Angeles around 1930. Manuel Camacho, half of the team, is credited as the author. As with many early corridos, the accompaniment is simply two guitars.

Madero’s heroic death is recounted in another corrido, “El Cuartelazo,” or coup d’état. All three versions in the archives – by Hermanos Chavarría, Dúo Atasoseno, and the duet of María y Juanita Mendoza – tell the same general story, with more or less detail. All of them include the verse in which an opposing army officer, the nephew of deposed dictator Porfirio Díaz, orders Madero to resign or face execution. Madero defiantly refuses, setting up his tragic downfall. Additional verses expanding on Madero’s principled resistance are offered only in the version by Hermanos Chavarría, a longer, two-part corrido on a Columbia 78-rpm disc. This version adds two verses that heighten Madero’s heroism.

                        Madero les contestó,

                        “No presento mi retiro.

                        Yo no me hice presidente,

                        Fuí por el pueblo elegido.”


                        Madero answered them,

                        “I will not resign.

                        I did not make myself president,

                        I was elected by the people.”

All versions recount the horror of the ten-day siege to depose the doomed leader, describing fear that gripped the city with scenes of dead and injured on the streets. Curiously, there are variations in the description of which part of the populace reacts with tears. When government forces start bombing the Citadel (La Ciudadela), the Dúo Atasoseno notes that people were crying (“estaba gente llorando”). But the rendition by sisters Juanita and María Mendoza notes only that “the women were crying” in reaction to the same assault: “Otro día por la mañana / las mujeres llorando / de ver la ciudadela / Que la estaban bombardeando.”

Corridos of the revolution remained popular for decades after the civil war subsided. And the topical song continued to capture the Mexican imagination. In 1956, Mendoza, the corrido scholar, devoted an entire book to the ballads of that violent era: El Corrido de la Revolución Mexicana, published by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Top Mexican artists, including Antonio Aguilar and Los Alegres de Terán, continued to record albums of corridos well into the 1970s and ’80s, more than half a century after the events. The Mexican actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso became known for his spoken narrations of Mexican revolutionary corridos, recorded in the 1970s with musical accompaniment behind his emotive, baritone delivery.

The Tarso recordings are now available on the streaming service Spotify, a digital development which represents a revolution of another kind.

--Agustín Gurza

Additional reading:

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 1: Defining the Genre

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 2: Border Bandits or Folk Heroes

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 3: Two-Part Corridos

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The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 3: Two-Part Corridos

Part 3: Two-Part Corridos

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.

In those early years of the recording industry, before the introduction of the long-playing (LP) record in the 1950s, it was common practice to record corridos in two parts. That’s because only a limited amount of music could fit on one side of a 78-rpm record, which was essentially a single. To tell the whole story, and get to the all-important climax where the protagonist often dies heroically, corridistas had to use both sides of the record. The listener would play side A, which sometimes ended in a cliff-hanger, then flip the record over for the climax on side B.

These double-sided ballads became a special focus of Frontera’s founder Chris Strachwitz. On his record hunts through­out the years, the assiduous collector picked up every two-part corrido he could get his hands on. As a result, the Frontera Collection boasts 183 two-part corridos, one of the largest such collections in the world. In many cases, they are one-of-a-kind items, the only surviving copies of certain songs. (For a complete list of the collection’s two-part corridos, see Appendix I of The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, a guide to collection I co-authored with Strachwitz and Jonathan Clark.)

The discs from this era, especially from the 1920s through the 1940s, represent the golden era of the corrido, which first emerged along the border following the U.S. war with Mexico.

Many of the early oral ballads from the late 1800s – which, as we saw in my last installment, celebrated border bandits and folk heroes – were later recorded as two-part corridos. They include, for example, the “Corrido of Joaquín Murrieta,” a real-life rebel who was captured and beheaded in Northern California during the Gold Rush years.

Often, however, the historical facts of a specific corrido, especially those about ordinary people, remain unknown or unverified. In one rare case, recent research unearthed additional details about events described in a corrido, and even identified the likely composer, who remains uncredited on the record labels.

The case involves "Contrabando de El Paso," one of the most notable of the two-part ballads in the collection, considered a precursor to the popular narcocorridos of today. The song is written as the first-person account of a prisoner who describes being transported from El Paso to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was to serve a sentence for smuggling. The exact type of contraband is not specified, but the song was written at the height of Prohibition (1920–33), when smuggling liquor from Mexico was a booming underground trade. It was first recorded in 1928 by the duo of Leonardo Sifuentes and Luis Hernández, pioneer corridistas from El Paso, Texas.

In a paper published in 2005, the late corrido expert Guillermo Hernandez documented the historical events surrounding the anonymous smuggler on that prison train. Hernandez, a Spanish professor who helped bring the Frontera Collection to UCLA, identified the likely composer as Gabriel Jara Franco, a Leavenworth inmate. Hernandez found records showing that the prisoner had corresponded with Sifuentes, half of the musical duo that recorded the ballad for the New Jersey-based Victor label. Relying on sketchy information in the lyrics, Hernandez even recreated the likely itinerary of the prisoner train, stop by stop. (A short video about Hernandez and his corrido research, produced by the Arhoolie Foundation, is viewable online.)

The Frontera Collection lists dozens of versions of the song, including relatively recent renditions by Los Alegres de Terán (1970) and Lorenzo de Monteclaro (1976), the latter on the Los Angeles-based Fono Rex label. Some use an alternate spelling of the original title, “Contrabando del Paso,” substituting a contraction for the proper name of the Texas border city.

The most significant versions continue to be the early ones, recorded as two-part corridos on 78-rpm discs. The archive lists five such versions on different labels, including the origi­nal by Hernández y Sifuentes on the old Victor label with the scroll design and the logo of the gramophone and the dog above the slogan “His Master’s Voice.”

Not all long corridos, however, took advantage of both sides of a disc to tell the full story. In some cases, inexplicably, extended narratives were restricted to one side, truncating the story or eliminating the climax altogether. Such was the case with a recording of the tragic story of “La Delgadina,” a heart-wrenching tale of father-daughter incest. This historic corrido, with direct roots in the romances of medieval Spain, is about a lovely and noble young woman who pays the ultimate price after refusing her father’s sexual advances.

In the version by the Cuarteto Carta Blanca (Vocalion 8677), however, the story ends on one side of the record with the father ordering servants to imprison his daughter for her refusal. Strangely, it ends without ever reaching its tragic conclusion. Instead, side B features the unrelated track, “En el Rancho Grande.”

Today, new versions and interpretations of “Delgadina” appear on the Internet, a mod­ern-day amplifier of the ancient oral tradition that gave rise to corridos. Several versions are now posted on YouTube, including some by contemporary record­ing artists such as Irma Serrano and the San Jose–based group Los Humildes.

Ironically, the evolution of technology forced the corrido to get shorter in the last half of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, new versions of old corridos were released as 45-rpm singles, the format that replaced the 78s. But 45s were used primarily to promote hit tracks from LPs. The singles had to be kept short, usually less than three minutes, for radio play. So the old epic tales had to be edited to fit the new medium. Lost were the detail and the drama of the narratives. In other words, the shorter versions don’t tell the whole story

A good example is the corrido of Los Tequileros, one of many ballads about tequila smugglers who thrived along the border during Prohibition, which outlawed alcoholic beverages in the United States during the 1920s. This song, another precursor to the modern narco-corrido, is a simple story about a trio of tequileros who are ambushed and killed by Texas Rangers, pronounced “rinches” in the local vernacular. The confrontation between the smugglers and the Rangers sets up the song’s central drama; the denouement allows the smugglers to die as heroes at the hands of the merciless “rinches.”

In the longer, two-part version by Los Hermanos Chavarria, we learn that a snitch had betrayed the Mexicans, so the Rangers were lying in wait and “spying on them.” (Como estabn denunciados, ya los estaban espiando.)  A more recent, shorter version by Los Alegres de Terán, simply says the Rangers “must have known” that the smugglers were coming, with no mention of the snitch that tipped them off.

More importantly, the shorter version eliminates some of the crucial dialog considered one of those unique characteristics of the classic corrido. In the long version, the lead Ranger approaches the last smuggler, gravely wounded, and starts interrogating him. The agent asks for his name, and where he’s from.  

             "Me llamo Silvano García, soy de China, Nuevo León.”

The answer resonates with that defiance and sense of national pride. Though his two partners have been killed and he lies close to death, the last smuggler is still asserting his identity, and bravely accepting his fate.

             Silvano con tres balazos, todavía seguía hablando 
             "Mátenme rinches cobardes, ya no me estén preguntando." 

             (Kill me, cowardly Rangers, just stop asking me questions.)

In the shorter version, we are told the Ranger walks up to the wounded smuggler, and “seconds later” he’s dead. The interrogation isn’t mentioned, so the response loses its context, and its punch. At almost twice the length, the older two-part version has room for the expanded dialog, thus enhancing the heroic qualities of the smugglers and turning their deaths into a brave act of nationalism and defiance.

Los Tequileros has yet another classic corrido element – the farewell, or despedida. Before saying goodbye, the narrator addresses the Rangers directly, trying to deny them credit for the kill.


            No se las recarguen, rinches, por haberles dado muerte 

            No digan que los mataron. Los mató su mala suerte.


            Don’t go bragging, rinches, for having brought them death 

            Don’t say you killed them. What killed them was their bad luck. 

The lasting legacy of these narrative ballads, from oral tradition to YouTube videos, highlights the multi-generational appeal of the Mexican corrido as a genre, now well into its second century. These timeless songs endure because, as Hernandez states in his essay, they “touch the most sensitive chords in lovers of the genre.” And he gives credit to the often anonymous corrido composers, such as the author of “El Contrabando de El Paso,” whom he managed to name after more than half a century.

“Gabriel Jara, although unknown and forgotten, recovers for the rest of us a touch of human existence and sensibility,” Hernandez wrote. “That is, perhaps, all we can ask of art in any time or place.”

--Agustín Gurza

Additional reading:

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 1: Defining the Genre

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 2: Border Bandits or Folk Heroes

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 4: Corridos of the Mexican Revolution

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The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 2: Border Bandits or Folk Heroes

Part 2: Border Bandits or Folk Heroes

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.

Cultural differences also defined the ways the protagonists were depicted, as heroes or villains, depending on the point of view. To Anglos, they were bandits and outlaws who deserved to be tracked down and imprisoned or killed. To corrido fans, however, they were folk heroes locked in a heroic struggle against the prejudice and brutality of Anglo society. For many Mexicans, the corrido became the expression of cultural resistance against the advancing dominant Anglo culture driven by Manifest Destiny.

Up until the time of the Mexican Revolution, the early corridos were populated by these modern-day Robin Hoods. One such corrido spread the news of daring actions by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a Mexican politician and military leader who led guerilla raids along the Texas border to avenge the mistreatment of his countrymen. Corrido scholar Américo Paredes called Cortina “the first corrido hero” to emerge from the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The Frontera Collection has multiple recordings of corridos inspired by these border rebels who became legends throughout the Southwest. Among the most notorious of these heroic outlaws is Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican-American tenant corn farmer who shot and killed a Texas Ranger in what he considered self-defense.

The incident took place in 1901 in Gonzales, Texas, when Texas Rangers, who were investigating a horse theft, came to question Cortez and his brother, Romaldo, at the ranch where they worked. The investigation took a violent turn as a result of a linguistic misunderstanding between Cortez and a translator for the Rangers, referred to as “rinches” in the phonetic vernacular of border language. In the confusion, a Ranger shot the brother, and Cortez returned fire, killing the Ranger before escaping. This deadly failure to communicate underscored the tension between the increasingly marginalized Mexican-American population and the overtly racist Anglo power structure along the border's cultural hot zone.

Though hated by Anglos in South Texas, corridos depict Cortez as an innocent farmer goaded into fighting “outsiders” and defending the honor of his countrymen. He is lionized for his ability to repeatedly elude capture, covering more than 500 miles as a fugitive, on foot and on horseback. At one point, he was pursued by a posse of 300 men, one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history.


Yo no soy Americano pero comprendo el inglés.

Yo lo aprendí con mi hermano al derecho y al revés.

A cualquier Americano hago temblar a mis pies.


Por cantinas me metí castigando americanos.

"Tú serás el capitán que mataste a mi hermano.

Lo agarraste indefenso, orgulloso americano."


I am not an American but I understand English.

I learned it with my brother, backwards and forwards.

And any American I make tremble at my feet.


Through cantinas I went punishing Americans.

"You must be the captain who killed my brother.

You took him defenseless, you boastful American."


The story of Gregorio Cortez, documented on the front pages of newspapers in both languages, is recounted in detail by Paredes in his 1958 book, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and its Hero “Gregorio Cortez.”  It was also turned into a television movie in 1982, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring Edward James Olmos.

The corrido ends with the hero’s capture, but there’s much more to the story after that. Cortez was almost lynched while in jail, and his case provoked mob attacks on the Mexican population of the Rio Grande Valley. The racial tensions were inflamed by a sensationalist Anglo press that called Cortez an “arch fiend” and lamented the fact that he had been spared from being lynched. Decades later, the animosity was still so intense that a Texas Ranger threatened to shoot author Paredes after the publication of his book on the outlaw.

Cortez was convicted, exonerated on appeal, tried again and eventually sentenced to life. Amazingly, he was pardoned by the Texas governor after an appeal for clemency from a most unlikely source, Abraham Lincoln’s daughter. He was released and then remarried for the fourth and final time shortly before dying in 1916. The official cause of death was pneumonia, though his family always believed Cortez was poisoned.

Another famous corrido from this era tells the story of Joaquín Murrieta, a 19th century Mexican immigrant whose severed head was put on public display in mining towns throughout the state. The daring outlaw, often pictured with long dark hair blowing in the wind, was also the subject of alarmist newspaper articles, dime-store novels and a book that became a Hollywood movie, “The Robin Hood of El Dorado,” released in 1936.

Historically, not much is known about Murrieta, who came from Sonora as a young man to join the California Gold Rush. The corrido chronicles his transformation from an immigrant seeking his fortune to an outlaw seeking revenge on “vain Anglos” for killing his wife and his defenseless brother in cold blood. For author Manuel Peña,[1] this corrido perfectly exemplifies the genre as vehicle for expressing the Mexican side of the inter-ethnic clash. And it shows that heroic corridos of the era were not limited to the border region.

“It depicts a larger-than-life hero who either defeats the Anglos or goes down before overwhelming odds,” wrote Peña in the October 1992 issue of Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies. “This corrido, if its origin can ever be pinpointed, may yield proof that the Californios—themselves experiencing pressure from the Anglos—were in the vanguard in realizing this important folk music genre.”

In these heroic corridos, the inter-cultural conflict is often dramatically played out in the dialogue between the protagonist and his enemies, especially the hated “Rinches.”  In the Murrieta ballad, the protagonist admits killing thousands in revenge, but he explicitly decries the “unjust” laws that label him a bandido. Instead, he sees himself as the prototypical Robin Hood, robbing from the “avaricious rich” and “fiercely defending the poor and simple Indian.”


A los ricos avarientos, yo les quité su dinero.

Con los humildes y pobres, yo me quité mi sombrero.

Ay, que leyes tan injustas por llamarme bandolero.


                        From the avaricious rich, I took their money.

                        With the humble and the poor, I take off my hat.

                        Oh, what unjust laws for labeling me bandolero.


The Frontera Collection has three versions of the corrido of Joaquín Murrieta recorded in two parts on 78-rpm records, all by some incarnation of Los Madrugadores, or The Early Risers. The 1934 recording on the Vocalion label was also released on Columbia with somewhat better fidelity. A slightly different version (same lyrics, different arrangement) was released on Decca by Los Hermanos Sánchez y Linares, composed of the two original members of Los Madrugadores, the brothers Jesús and Víctor Sánchez, along with Fernando Linares. The group has its own compilation CD on Arhoolie, Pedro J. González and Los Madrugadores, 1931–1937 (Arhoolie 7035), which features the two-part Murrieta corrido.

As if to extend the Murrieta narrative, a second drama unfolded related to Pedro Gonzalez, the leader of Los Madrugadores. The group had a popular predawn radio show in Southern California, which served as an alarm clock for Mexican field workers during the Great Depression. The show also featured commentary by González, who spoke out against the mass deportations of Mexicans at that time. In a case of life imitating art, the corrido’s message of injustice was reinforced when González was himself sent to San Quentin prison on trumped-up rape charges. That was in 1934, the very year Los Madrugadores recorded the song.

The musician/activist was released in the early 1940s after appeals by two Mexican presidents and huge public protests organized principally by his wife, Maria. He was deported to Mexico and settled in Tijuana, where he immediately reassembled a band and took again to the airwaves. Undaunted, González continued to use his radio show to speak out against injustice, blasting broadcasts across the border for the next 30 years.

Eventually, González was permitted to return to the United States. In 1985, when he was 90, PBS aired a documentary on his life and career, ''Ballad of an Unsung Hero,'' which was later turned into a TV movie, "Break of Dawn" (1988), starring Mexican folk singer Oscar Chavez. Ten years later, González passed away at a convalescent home in Lodi, California. The headline of his obituary, which ran in the New York Times on March 24, 1995, called him, appropriately, a “folk hero.” He was 99.

It’s not hard to see how such harrowing stories would become the stuff of legend and how ballads about them would be passed down through generations. Peña notes that Joaquín Murrieta “actually came to the attention of modern scholarship in the 1970s” after Strachwitz included a version of the song in a corrido compilation (Arhoolie LP-9004, 1974).

The revival of interest in the defiant Murrieta was also fueled by the surging political and cultural awakening of the Chicano Movement, which embraced him as a symbol of resistance and rebellion against the Anglo establishment. At UC Berkeley in the early 1970s, for example, a Chicano student organization, Frente de Liberación del Pueblo, established a unique Chicano student dorm named Casa Joaquín Murrieta. The rebel’s famous image was emblazoned on the building, which also served as the activist group’s base of operation. (Disclosure: I was a member of Frente and edited the group’s newspaper at the time.)

“Corridos have an amazing life,” says Strachwitz. “They are written about events that took place decades ago, but they still resonate with people as if they were hearing them for the first time.”

In the next installment: Historic two-part corridos.


--Agustín Gurza


Additional reading:

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 1: Defining the Genre

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 3: Two-Part Corridos

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 4: Corridos of the Mexican Revolution

[1]Música fronteriza / Border Music” by Manuel Peña. Reprinted with permission of The Regents of the University of California from Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, vol. 21, nos. 1-2, pp. 191-225, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

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The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 1: Defining the Genre

Part 1: Defining the Genre

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.

The corrido is considered one of the foremost folk expressions of Mexico’s rural, working-class culture. These historical ballads were shared at first as an oral tradition then propagated as part of the record industry on both sides of the border. Since the late 19th century through the present day, corridos have documented the actions and exploits of the famous, the infamous and the anonymous everyman. These dramatic ballads have served as newspapers for society’s oppressed and dispossessed, a first draft of history told from the perspective of the poor.

Emerging as an art form during a tumultuous century marked by war and revolution, corridos often provided an eyewitness to historic events in Mexico and helped define its modern, national identity. The corrido captures Mexican values and ideals through the actions of the genre’s epic protagonists: bandits and folk heroes, traitors and patriots, iconic revolutionaries and lowly recruits.

Today, the corrido is a trans-national art form. Composers, known as corridistas, touch on topics from the War with Mexico to the Gulf War in Iraq, from the assassination of Pancho Villa to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, from the spurned lover who shoots down his rival to the local hero who dies attempting to save his town.

The Frontera Collection is one of the world’s most comprehensive repositories of this essential Mexican folk art. The archive encompasses virtually the entire 100-year lifespan of the recorded genre itself.  A search of the archives yields almost 10,000 items identified as corridos, or one of its subgenres. (Some of the tracks are duplicates of the same song on different labels or different media.) But the most valuable part of Frontera’s corrido collection lies in its extensive selection on 78-rpm discs recorded during the genre’s golden era, the first half of the 20th century.

These tales of tragedy and daring-do have been passed down through generations, with verses added and subtracted as tradition and technology dictated. Different versions of the same song have been released, sometimes by the same artists, on old 78-rpm discs, then on 45s, LPs, cassettes, and finally on modern digital media. Fans can’t get enough of the corrido stories and their moral lessons.

“Corridos have an amazing life,” says Chris Strachwitz, record producer and founder of The Frontera Collection. “They are written about events that took place decades ago, but they still resonate with people as if they were hearing them for the first time.”

Top 40 charts in the United States have seen a fair share of hits in the story-telling ballad tradition. In 1959, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” started with the line: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.” The cowboy’s romantic obsession, over a woman named Faleena who danced in a cantina, would lead to his demise. And in 1967, Bobbie Gentry sang the “Ode to Billie Joe,” a tragic tale of young love, suicide and a secret never revealed.

Broadly speaking, such folk ballads could be described as English-language counterparts to the corrido. They already fit important elements of the Mexican genre: a strong, specific sense of time and place, and a tragic conflict at the core. In both songs, as in many corridos, someone dies.

However, while all corridos are narrative ballads, not all ballads are corridos. What is missing is that crucial cultural context that makes corridos uniquely Mexican.

Strachwitz, an avid collector of U.S. blues, country, Cajun, and folk music recordings, is in a unique position to compare the corrido with what is known as American roots music. He finds nothing comparable to the corrido’s distinct combination of elements: the journalistic style, the direct dialog between protagonists, the clash of opposing forces, and the lasting impact and relevance over generations.

“I haven’t encountered anything close to the Mexican corrido,” Strachwitz says.

Experts agree the corrido has its roots in the narrative poetry of Europe, transplanted to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors through the romance español. The oldest known corridos in the Americas are from Argentina and Chile, predating those in Mexico, according to the late Guillermo Hernandez, a Spanish professor and corrido expert who was instrumental in bringing the Frontera Collection to UCLA.

“It was probably a continental phenomenon, but in Mexico it really exploded as a genre,” said Hernandez.

Mexico’s unique corrido style evolved during the 100-year period between two major internal upheavals: the War of Independence of 1810 and the Mexican Revolution of 1910. In between, there was the U.S.–Mexico War of 1846-1848, a defining historic event, both for the country and the corrido.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 ended the war and established the current border. Mexico surrendered half its territory in the bargain. The United States, with its resounding victory, could claim vindication for its racist rationale for war: that Manifest Destiny preordained white Americans to claim the continent from coast to coast and that Mexicans, viewed as a barbaric and inferior breed, were just in the way.

The corrido was created in the crucible of this violent inter-cultural conflict, according to Américo Paredes, one of the leading corrido scholars in the United States. Paredes saw the border region as a cultural flashpoint, a geographic scar that painfully underscored the vast disparities of wealth, power, and customs between the two countries. The corrido emerged as an expression of cultural resistance against the advancing dominant Anglo culture. It was a musical response to hostile conditions: the foreign invasion, the loss and occupation of territory, the treatment of Mexicans as second-class citizens.

As Paredes puts it, the Mexicans’ "slow, dogged struggle against economic enslavement and the loss of their own identity was the most important factor in the development of a distinct local balladry."

A seminal book on the genre is the 1939 study by Mexican musicologist Vicente T. Mendoza (1894-1964), entitled El Romance Español y el Corrido Mexicano. Mendoza, who spent his life exploring the song form, identifies six formal ballad conventions that define the corrido. They are:

            1. The initial call to the public by the corridista, sometimes called the

                 formal opening

            2. The setting of time and place and naming of the protagonist

            3. The arguments of the protagonist

            4. The message

            5. The farewell of the protagonist

            6. The farewell of the corridista

Nowadays, corridos no longer hew to this formal structure. Even in the old days, not every corrido contained every defined element. But, as noted by the Handbook of Texas Online, every corrido must tell a story of either local or national interest: “a hero's deeds, a bandit's exploits, a barroom shootout, or a natural disaster.”

In his introduction to another important Paredes study, Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border, Richard Bauman writes, “For Paredes, the true corrido tradition centers around a spirit of heroic bravado, of defiant manly self-confidence, and this spirit is rooted in the emergent sense of Mexican nationalism…”

The bravado and “manly self-confidence” were evident from the very first corrido on record, “El Corrido de Kiansis,” about the early cattle drives across Texas to Kansas. In this case, the conflict is not violent but professional, depicting the Mexicans as better cowboys than the hapless Gringos. Paredes calls this cowboy ballad “the oldest Texas-Mexican corrido preserved in a complete form,” dating from the 1860s or early 1870s.[1]

Quinientos novillos eran, todos grandes y livianos,
y entre treinta Americanos no los podían embalar.

Llegan cinco mexicanos, todos bien enchivarrados,
y en menos de un cuarto de hora los tenían encerrados.

Esos cinco mexicanos al momento los echaron,
y los treinta Americanos se quedaron azorados.

Five hundred steers there were, all big and quick;
Thirty American boys could not keep them bunched together.

Then five Mexicans arrive, all of them wearing good chaps;
And in less than a quarter-hour, they had the steers penned up.

Those five Mexicans penned up the steers in a moment,
And the thirty Americans were left staring in amazement.


In the next installment: Early corridos about Mexican folk heroes considered border bandits by the Anglo public.

                                                                                                                                                                                       -- Agustín Gurza

Additional reading:

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 2: Border Bandits or Folk Heroes

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 3: Two-Part Corridos

The Mexican Corrido: Ballads of Adversity and Rebellion, Part 4: Corridos of the Mexican Revolution

[1] “The Mexican Corrido: Its Rise and Fall in Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border.” Austin, TX: CMAS, Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1995. 140

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Artist Biography: Los Alegres de Terán

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.

            Founded in 1948 in the town of General Terán, Nuevo Leon, about 130 miles from the border with Texas, Los Alegres became the first norteño act to break out of the genre’s regional boundaries in northern Mexico, gaining wide popularity on both sides of the border, from McAllen to Mexico City. The prolific duo wrote scores of songs and recorded over 100 albums, backing themselves on bajo sexto and accordion, while delivering emotional vocals that blended in a warm, natural unison.

            Although Ortiz and Ábrego followed in the tradition of popular vocal duets from the 1920s and ’30s, they were the first to combine their harmonizing with the accordion. Until they came along, accordion music was mostly instrumental and vocal duets were primarily backed by guitar accompaniment.

            Beyond their singing and playing style, Los Alegres were able to tap into the massive migrant market because they were a part of it. They modernized the themes of the traditional corrido, or narrative ballad, making the music more relevant to migrant workers who were not only moving north across the border into the US but were also flooding urban centers such as Mexico City in the mid-20th century.        

             “As the first popular norteña ensemble, Los Alegres made an impact that was greatly aided by their ability to tap into the feelings and experiences of the growing Mexican migrant population of the late 1940s and 1950s,” wrote Cathy Ragland in her book, Música Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation Between Nations. “The working class community in Mexico embraced (them) because of the group’s ability to merge sophisticated vocal harmonies and arrangements with an updated corrido narrative form that, in addition to love songs, included themes of travel, alienation, and nostalgic images of rural and ranchero life.”

            Eugenio Ábrego García was born May 2, 1922, in Rancho de La Soledad, within the municipality of General Terán, a town named for a military hero of Mexico’s War of Independence. Tomás Ortiz del Valle was born two years and one month later, on June 2, 1924, in Terán’s Rancho San Rafael community.

            Their full names and birth information are cited on the city’s Facebook page, which includes the most complete profile of the duo available on the web. Other sources, such as Wikipedia, provide scant biographical details. In fact, the group’s Wikipedia page is only a stub (a short article deemed encyclopedically insufficient), which links to a defunct website for the duet. A book-length biography of the band, Alegres de Terán: Vida y Canciones by Francisco Ramos Aguirre, is available only in Spanish and somewhat hard to find. (The book does not appear prominently in Google searches by the band’s name.) This article was compiled from multiple sources, including album liner notes, in both English and Spanish.

            Aside from its musical native sons, Terán is considered the birthplace of Mexico’s once dominant political party, the PRI, and was once home to the party’s controversial founder, President Plutarco Elías Calles. From there, it’s approximately a 90-minute drive to the state capital of Monterrey, and approximately 2.5 hours to the U.S. border at McAllen, Texas. That geographic triangle – Terán to Monterrey to McAllen – would be the original base of operations for the two migrant musicians who were destined to make history in their field.

            Both Ortiz and Ábrego picked up their instruments at a young age, and started performing around town independently.  Depending on the source, the two men met either playing at a bar or at a gathering in a private home. Be that as it may, sources agree they hit it off right away.

            “When they improvised a duet at a family fiesta, they felt a certain chemistry,” states a profile at Sabados Rancheros, the website for a Chicago radio program featuring Mexican music. “They were pleased with the ensemble, and thus was born the duet which was named Ábrego y Ortiz.”

            In 1948, the newly minted duo started making the rounds of clubs and cantinas in their hometown’s red-light district (zone de tolerancia). Their crowd-pleasing performances spurred them to travel to nearby Monterrey to pursue their careers. The following year, they made their first recording on the Orfeo label, a 78-rpm single titled “El Corrido de Pepito,” backed by “La Matrera,” a polka composed by Ábrego.     

            Today, Orfeo discs are extremely rare. The Frontera Collection contains 145 recordings on the label, all 78s, including 25 original tracks by Los Alegres de Terán. In addition, there are works attributed to other incarnations of the duo, such as Ortiz with other partners, as well as one song by Dueto Ábrego, though its members are not identified individually.

            Although tales about how bands got their names are often apocryphal, the Facebook bio tells a plausible story about how Dueto Ábrego y Ortiz became The Happy Ones from Terán.

            The duo was making an appearance on a radio program called “El Pregonero del Norte,” broadcast on XET, a Monterrey radio station that was key to their early success, with a signal reaching the border and beyond. While on the air, the two artists broke out in laughter, prompting popular deejay Juan Cejudo to ask what was so funny. The answer: “That’s just the way we are, the people from Terán, very happy. (Es que así somos los de Terán, muy alegres).” From that moment, the deejay christened them Los Alegres de Terán.

            Los Alegres were no overnight sensation. It would take years for them to score a major hit and their popularity rose “at a desperately slow rate” (con desesperante lentitud), as another radio website put it. Meanwhile, on bus rides from Terán to Monterrey for radio appearances, they would still play for fellow passengers and pass the hat for tips.

            In 1950, Los Alegres moved to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a border town directly across from McAllen, a Texas town that was then emerging as a focal point for the border music industry. In 1948, the same year Los Alegres came together, Arnaldo Ramírez had founded Falcon Records, the McAllen-based label that would become a major player in the field. It didn’t take long for the label and the duo to join forces, setting Los Alegres on the path to stardom.

            Los Alegres had their first major hit on Falcon in 1953 with “Carta Jugada,” about a spurned man who discovers that the object of his hopeless love was, as the titles suggests, like a card that had already been played. Their early Falcon albums, Los Ojos de Pancha and Más y Más Corridos, are considered classics of the genre.

            “ ‘Carta Jugada’ reveals some of the stylistic nuances employed by the group to update the traditional border corrido form, rendering it more musically expressive,” writes Ragland, associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of North Texas. “Ortiz and Ábrego sing in parallel thirds, but with the second voice sung in a high register that produces a vocal strain, thus bringing more emotion to the song and its subject matter.”

            The regional success of Los Alegres coincided with the growth of the Mexican record industry in Mexico City. The duo ­– with its blend of country and romantic styles showcased in polished arrangements – drew the attention of producers in the capital, who historically had looked down on the working-class music of the border regions. In 1956, according to the Facebook biography, famed composer and producer Felipe Valdez Leal signed Ortiz and Ábrego to a contract with Discos Columbia, the Mexican CBS affiliate and a Mexican music powerhouse.

            Musical trends in the capital were driven at the time by wider cultural forces in a country rapidly developing within a proud, post-revolutionary climate. Record executives sought out acts that reflected a modern, nationalistic, urban ethos. Los Alegres, who had already modernized the rustic, rural sound of norteño music, fit the bill.

            At Columbia, Los Alegres had graduated to the big leagues, marketed nationally as “the first stars of norteña music.”

            “Los Alegres knew how to connect with their local audiences,” writes Ragland, “but they were also aware of their role as representatives of a regional genre that was compelled to compete with the urban popular music singers” marketed by major labels and movies in mid-century Mexico.

            In the country’s highly centralized capital, the duo became beneficiaries of the industry’s powerful promotional machine, which vastly enhanced their international profile. They joined the famous “caravanas artísticas”—a caravan of stars composed of a rotating bill of major acts that hit the road as a touring attraction. The lowly country musicians found themselves rubbing shoulders and sharing stages with first-rate luminaries such as José Alfredo Jiménez, Miguel Aceves Mejía, Las Hermanas Huerta, Chelo Silva, Lola Beltrán, and others.

            Traveling with the caravans throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, Los Alegres appeared at premiere venues, from the capital’s Teatro Blanquita to The Millon Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles. They also made cross-genre inroads, invited as guests at the first international polka festival held in Chicago in the early 1960s, where they shared the ethnic bill with other immigrant musicians from Eastern Europe, Germany, and elsewhere.

            At the same time, Los Alegres made their first forays into film. They appeared in 1962’s “Pueblito” (Little Village), by famed director Emilio Fernandez, though they are uncredited on the International Movie Database.  They also appeared as musical performers in “El Contrabando del Paso” (1980), and later in “El Güero Estrada,” based on a corrido about a “fearsome” criminal who robbed and killed innocent immigrants as they crossed the border, then threw their bodies in the river.

            Over a career that spanned four decades, Los Alegres recorded more than 100 albums, according to conservative estimates. They scored a long line of hits, including "El Ojo de Vidrio," “El Golpe Traidor,” “Moneda Sin Valor,” “Dos Gotas De Agua,” “La Mesera,“Alma Enamorada,” and “Entre Copa Y Copa,” to name just a few.

            The duo split up for two years in mid-career, but they happily reconciled. They continued recording and touring, pushing norteño music to global heights with fans as far away as Japan, Iraq, Spain, and even parts of Africa. 

            They received many honors as ambassadors of their proletariat folk style. Their hometown was especially appreciative that the duo carried its name proudly around the world.  And to show its own appreciation, beginning in 1964, Los Alegres performed an annual free concert on Mexican Independence Day in the central plaza of General Terán, with proceeds going to the city for social works.

            Los Alegres marked their 25th anniversary with fanfare in 1974. They were the guests of honor at a state banquet held by the governor of Nuevo Leon. To mark the occasion, Falcon Records released a comprehensive, three-record set entitled “Bodas de Plata,” using the Spanish term for silver wedding anniversaries, befitting this long musical marriage.

            The duo was also feted that year back in Terán. Their hometown established a symbolic sister-city relationship with Mission, Texas, where the mayor at the time was none other than Falcon founder Arnaldo Ramírez.

            In 1980, a street was named in their honor, Avenida Los Alegres de Terán, in their hometown. Today, an entire neighborhood also carries their name, Colonia Alegres de Terán, with its own zip code (64700). And in 2011, the city fathers erected full-size statues of the duo playing their accordion and 12-string guitar and elevated on a stone pedestal in the city’s Plaza Juarez.

            Three years later, on the duo’s 35th anniversary, Falcon Records organized a major tribute held at the landmark Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. That same year, 1983, Los Alegres de Terán were inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in Texas.

            Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Frontera Collection, also documented the cultural importance of Los Alegres over the years, as record collector, music executive, and film producer. The duo was prominently featured in Strachwitz’s 1976 documentary about border music, Chulas Fronteras, directed by Les Blank. Twenty-eight years later, his label, Arhoolie Records, released a compilation of the duo’s earliest recordings on the Falcon label, Los Alegres De Terán, Grabaciones Originales: 1952–1954, introducing the band and its music to a new generation. Those tracks were culled from Strachwitz’s own archives, where he had amassed hundreds of recordings by Los Alegres, now accessible to the public through the Frontera Collection website.

            The duo’s remarkable run came to an end with the death of Ábrego in 1988. Ortiz survived him by 19 years, continuing to perform with another partner, Leobardo Pérez, on accordion and vocal harmonies. Ortiz died in 2007, in Edinburg, Texas.

            Even today, almost 40 years after the duo’s demise, Los Alegres remain revered and beloved by fans. With feet firmly planted on both sides of the border, they became working-class heroes for fans who, like them, were always on the move.

            “As migrant workers and folk musicians, Los Alegres represented norteño culture and peasant life on many levels,” writes Ragland. “Their music reflected the nomadic lives of working-class Mexicans, and they were viewed as traveling workers, crossing to the other side when necessary in an effort to take care of their families.”


– Agustín Gurza


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The Ballads of Vietnam: Patriotism and Protest

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 also used the corrido to tell stories about their experiences as United States soldiers. The wartime corrido is a tradition that can be traced from the Mexican Revolution to the Vietnam War and, more recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these songs perform the customary purpose of honoring specific war heroes, often from poor immigrant neighborhoods, whose stories and sacrifices may not otherwise be publicly recognized. The songs also express a range of sentiments about the sons of immigrants giving their lives for their adopted country, ranging from patriotism to protest.

As I wrote last week, the Frontera Collection contains scores of songs written by and about Mexican-Americans being called to defend the country and perhaps die in far-off lands. They are not all corridos. But they are almost always heartbreaking stories of young men accepting their destiny, hoping to survive but resigned to whatever may come.

The values expressed in many of these songs strike common themes: bravery, duty, honor, loyalty. Some verge on the jingoistic, condemning communists and Asians in the same breath. But most reveal the feelings of the common recruit, el soldado razo. He is the drafted soldier who has no choice but to fight, yet wraps his service in a patriotic rationale.

There is often a duality to the patriotism, a split loyalty between two countries. Oddly, war helps merge those two loyalties in songs that often invoke the soldier’s ethnic heritage. They vow to prove in battle that Mexican Americans are courageous defenders of the United States, regardless of the reasons for war.

Many songs also refer to mothers and to Mother Mary. Soldiers worry about leaving their madrecitas alone, and they pray to the Virgin de Guadalupe to bring them home safely so they can be reunited, or meet their mothers again in heaven if they die.

Fathers are also represented in these songs, such as the World War II veteran who must see off his son to Vietnam, or the ghost of a dead soldier who, from his own coffin, sees his son crying for the loss of his father.

We start this week with the “Corrido of Ricardo Campos,” the tragic true story of the orphan kid from California whose body was shipped back from the battlefield with nobody to claim it.

“Richard Campos” by Daniel Valdez (Cucaracha 1447-RC)

Singer-songwriter Daniel Valdez, a veteran of the Teatro Campesino and a star of the play Zoot Suit, penned this powerful anti-war protest based on the Campos case, which got a lot of coverage at the time.

According to the UPI, Sgt. Richard F. Campos was 26 when he was killed in Vietnam by an enemy sniper on December 6, 1966. His body was shipped back to the States, but at first nobody came forward to claim it. His remains were stored at the Oakland Army Terminal for more than two weeks, the article states, “while the Army searched for a living relative.”

Campos had enlisted in 1958 when he was just 17. At the time, he was an orphan and a ward of the state of California. The details of his tragic childhood are wrenching, as described in a short bio from Remembering our Own, by Robert L Nelson.

Richard Frederick Campos was born on September 15, 1940, in Carbondale, California, near Sacramento. His mother was an unwed teenager; he never knew his father. When he was barely two, as his mother lay dying of tuberculosis, he was sent to live with an aunt in San Francisco. Five years later, she also died.  The boy was then sent to a foster home, but four years later his foster mother had to give him up due to her failing health. By the age of 12, he had lost three mothers and three homes. He was then taken in by Salesian priests at St. Francis School in Watsonville, where he was remembered as a handsome, friendly boy who played on the championship basketball team and took a top trophy in a citywide marble competition.

The Nelson biography and other tributes can be found on a website honoring Vietnam veterans. But few knew the full story as his body lay at the terminal in a gray metal coffin, virtually an unknown soldier. Eventually, as a result of widespread publicity, the Army located a long-lost uncle, a 57-year-old farmworker named James Diego Campos, allowing the soldier to be laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. The funeral was held on News Year’s Eve 1966, almost a month after his death.

At the end of the bio, Nelson incorrectly notes that the song in the soldier’s honor was written by Barbara Dane, a folksinger and peace activist. Dane did record a version of the Valdez song entitled “The Ballad of Richard Campos,” available on the compilation FTA! Songs of the GI Resistance, released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. But she didn’t write it.

To Nelson, turning Campos into an anti-war cause célèbre seemed like “an ironic ending for this professional soldier.” The Valdez lyrics go further: they turn his death into a Chicano civil rights cry.


In a terminal in Oakland lies a brown body of a man,

Dead at 27, dead and gone to heaven.

Killed far away in Vietnam.


So they shipped you back to where you came from.

Like a dummy you were tossed around in an airplane.

Back to the hell from which you tried to escape,

Back to the so-called free United States.


Should a man,

Should he have to kill

In order to live like a human being in this country?


The Valdez recording appears on the Cucaracha Records label, based in Fresno and produced by El Teatro Campesino de Aztlán, the farmworker theater troupe founded by his brother, playwright Luis Valdez of Zoot Suit fame. The Frontera Collection features another song about the Campos tragedy, “El Corrido De Ricardo Campos” by New Mexico singer/songwriter Roberto Martinez and Los Reyes De Albuquerque. One is from an album, Hurricane MHS-10002; the other is a 45-rpm single, Hurricane 45-6982. Both are on the label owned by Al Hurricane Sanchez, known as the father of New Mexico music.

Overt anti-war songs by Chicanos are rare, asserts Kirsten Lustgarten in her 2013 master’s thesis in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. In fact, they are virtually unknown, compared to the trove of anti-war songs in English by major artists such as Bob Dylan, Country Joe McDonald, and others.

The song gap is glaring, she argues, because Mexican-Americans were vastly over-represented within the rank-and-file serving in Vietnam, and thus had a lot more to lose. “That absence works to sideline the contributions and struggles of an ethnic group that is considerable in size,” she writes, adding that “filling in the gap in the historiography is a pressing contemporary need.”

In trying to explain the war song gap, Lustgarten argues that the nature of the corrido genre itself precluded protest songs. Why? “Because the celebratory tradition of the corrido is one of violent resistance, of machismo, and of the individual social bandit.” Corridos for peace did not fit the tradition.

That’s a stretch, because Chicanos at this time were not limiting their interest to corridos. They loved Santana, Little Joe, and Ritchie Valens just as much, if not more. Moreover, they identified with a strong wave of socially conscious music, or nueva trova, coming from Mexico. The Frontera Collection contains other styles, perhaps not properly considered protest songs, in which Mexican-American artists make strong statements against war and its human consequences.     


“El Soldado Huerfanito” by Los Conquistadores de José Morante (Norteño 805)


Although the title does not name him, this is another song about Richard Campos. “The Little Orphan Soldier” takes a more personal approach, highlighting the victim’s sad childhood. It includes a minor detail about the teenager volunteering for the Army: “on a cloudy day he went to register.” It begs the question how songwriter José A. Morante would know what the weather was that day, unless he assumed San Francisco was always cloudy.

Other facts don’t match the official biography.  The song states that Campos never knew his mother, and that he was raised in orphanages. That seems calculated to pull listener’s heartstrings.

The story ends with a patriotic verse diametrically opposed to the civil rights outrage expressed by Valdez in his corrido: “He was buried with honors and the land embraced him like one of its own sons.”


Allá en San Francisco descansan sus restos,

Con Gloria y honores su patria le dio.

Lo abrazó la tierra como un hijo suyo.

Ya no es huerfanito, Dios lo recogió.

“Por Que Estamos En Vietnam” by Arnaldo Ramirez (Falcon 1724)

This is a zealous, spoken-word recording, more polemic than poetry. It’s an unabashed defense of the Vietnam War, narrated by Arnaldo Ramirez, who founded Discos Falcon in 1948 in South Texas and pioneered the influential conjunto sound in Tex-Mex music. The title is not a question, “Why are we in Vietnam?” It is an answer, directly quoting one of the architects of the war, U. S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

This recording vaguely mimics the old Mexican records that re-create historical events, like audio newsreels. But it is rare to find a recording that is such an overt example of war propaganda. Nevertheless, the song represents a rather mainstream conservative strain in Mexican-American politics, which fuels patriotic fervor. In case there is any doubt as to where Ramirez stands, the record opens with John Philip Sousa's patriotic march “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which continues as background music during his reading of the Rusk war apologia.


“Cancion Para Un Niño De Vietnam” by Judith Reyes (Catalog Number EH01-B-1)


On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Mexican singer-songwriter Judith Reyes offers a scathing indictment of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Her “Song for a Child from Vietnam” jarringly juxtaposes harsh images of war with a sing-song, lullaby melody, identified as “cancion de cuna” on the label. Reyes, a popular protest singer in the 1960s, wrote the song and accompanies herself on guitar. This is also a polemic, but dressed as verse. She calls the gringo “an embarrassment” (una vergüenza) for humanity, and his presence in Vietnam “a calamity.”


Si el gringo esta aquí, que calamidad.

El gringo es vergüenza de la humanidad

Si el gringo se va, feliz me verás,

Porque ahora mi amor, viviremos en paz.


The track is one of three numbers issued on an unusual 33-rpm EP, on a label with no name. The disc has two songs on one side and one on the other.  Sharing Side B with the anti-war lullaby is “Gorrilita, Gorrilón,” a critique of Mexican government repression. Side A features “Los Restos de Don Porfirio,” a five-minute string of stinging, satiric verses. It opens with a sarcastic celebration of the return to Mexico of the remains of the dictator overthrown by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The satire lies in the fact that Porfirio Diaz remains buried in Paris, where he died in exile. He is interred at the Cimetière du Montparnasse, which he shares with France’s leftist intellectual luminaries, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, another jarring juxtaposition.


“La Tragedia Del 29 De Agosto” by Lalo Guerrero (Colonial 596)


This corrido memorializes one of the most traumatic days in Chicano history, the death of reporter Ruben Salazar during the Chicano Moratorium, a huge anti-war march in East Los Angeles in 1970. It was written and performed by Lalo Guerrero, considered the father of Chicano music. Interestingly, he opens by making the event personal, placing it near his home and rhyming every line with the Spanish word for home:


            En Los Angeles, California, en el barrio junto a mi casa,

            El 29 de agosto, gritando “Arriba la raza,”

            Se reunió nuestra gente para protestar en masa

            Contra la guerra en Vietnam, que sigue y sigue y no pasa.


In the next stanza, Guerrero adds a statistic as rationale for the protest. He notes that 23 percent of war casualties are “young Mexican men” (jóvenes mexicanos), a number he calls “a severe proportion” (una proporción severa), though he probably means disproportion. Then in an occasionally fierce and growling voice, he expresses the protestors’ deep rage:


Cuando vino la policía, la violencia se desató.

El coraje de mi raza luego se desenlazó.

Por los años de injustica, el odio se derramó,

Y como huracán furioso, su barrio lo destrozó


The song takes an unexpected turn at the end. Employing a device often found in Mexican folk songs, Guerrero stops the music to recite a spoken verse, invoking a metaphorical bird as a messenger. But his message at the end is not against the war, but against the protestors for destroying their own neighborhoods. He asks a white dove to tell them to stop, so Salazar will not have died in vain.


Paloma blanca, tu que por doquiera que vas eres símbolo de la paz,

Lleva en tu pico este ramo de azar, y dile a la raza que ya no destroce,

Que no haya muerto en vano Rubén Salazar.


“Corrido a Ray Guzman” by Conjunto Laureles (Nu-Mex NM-101)


Providing the date of an event is one of the essential elements of the corrido narrative. In the case of Ray Guzman, the first line of his corrido sets the date of his death as January 25, “that was a fatal Tuesday ” (que fue un martes fatal). Other than that, the song provides no details about the circumstances of his death. Instead, the body of the lyric becomes a paean to the fallen soldier, whose “ambition for glory knew no bounds,” who “had no fear in dying,” who “was always first in combat,” who was “Mexican by fortune,” and who was “noble, brave and loyal.”

In the end, a corrido also normally provides a final farewell. In this case, it’s delivered by the voice of the soldier himself, identifying his hometown in the process: “Adios Lovington querido, ya de su suelo me voy.” The song, written by Manuel Morales, was released on the Nu-Mex label, based in Lovington, New Mexico.

The basic facts found in the song can be verified in a government archive that lists Vietnam casualties by home state. There, we find a listing for Reynaldo Guzman, Marine Corps Lance Corporal, born May 30, 1943, in Lovington, the county seat of Lea County, New Mexico. Died January 25, 1966. Remains recovered: Yes.


“Corrido de Jimmy Aguirre” by Agapito Zuñiga (Discos Escorpión ES-114)


This is a corrido in which the heroic acts of the main character are actually understated. The song, released on the Corpus Christi-based Escorpión label, begins with the usual platitudes about patriotism, bravery, and ethnic pride. (“Jimmy se arrojó al combate, y su nombre hizo valer. Como era Mexicano, hasta morir o vencer.”) The specific acts of bravery that earned our hero the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross are mentioned in just one stanza: Aguirre suffered 50 wounds but still saved other injured soldiers.

The song does not do him justice. The official account of Aguirre’s “exceptionally valorous actions on 4 December 1967 as platoon medic,” reads like the proverbial movie script that would be rejected as too fantastic to be believed.

In the end, composers Jesse Saldivar and Agapito Zuñiga turn the soldier’s profile in courage into a crass Army recruitment ad.


            Ya con esta me despido, con sentimiento y afán,

            No tengan medio, muchachos, cuando vayan a Vietnam.


“No Naci Pa’ Soldado” by Lalo Guerrero (Colonial 533)


With his renowned sense of humor, albeit sometimes corny, Guerrero in this song explores an ambiguous area between bravery, cowardice and common sense, adding a touch of racism and right-wing anti-communism.

On “I Wasn’t Born to Be a Soldier,” Guerrero is backed by the Mariachi Colonial, a studio band for the label based in Monterey Park, California, east of Los Angeles. The uncertain soldier ponders his future after getting drafted by Tío Sam. If he had married and started a family, like his mother admonished him, he might have dodged the draft and avoided “becoming a target for some “slanty-eyes” (unos ojos estirados). He’d rather be ordered around by his wife than by a sergeant, he says. And he’d rather duck a frying pan than a machine gun.


Mejor me hubiera casado, no sucediera esto ahora

De que me mande un sargento, que me mande mi señora

Mejor capear sartenazos y no una ametralladora.


“It’s not that I’m afraid of them,” Guerrero adds, because he already took his chances “over there in Korea.”  But he is wary of the communists who are “hijos de la china roja” (the sons of Red China), playing on a common Spanish profanity. He also calls them “the monkeys of the Vietcong.”

The final verse takes a different tone, abandoning the song’s sarcasm and hostility. In the end, Guerrero brilliantly captures the existential dilemma of the common soldier who can’t quite find his motivation to kill the so-called enemy: “How do they want me to fight if I’m not angry at anybody?”


Adiós les digo a mis cuates, me voy todo aguitado.

No es miedo, es precaución. Yo no nací pa’ soldado.

¿Como quieren que pelen? Con nadie estoy enojado



--Agustín Gurza



Featured Song: “The Ballad of Joaquín Murrieta”

The corrido is perhaps the quintessential genre in Mexican roots music. But as a narrative ballad, it has a close cousin in traditional country and western music. Remember the tale of heartbreak and murder called “El Paso” by country singer Marty Robbins? That song, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop and country charts in 1960, has many classic elements of a corrido, including an opening that sets the scene and a protagonist who tragically follows destiny to his death. 

Robbins wrote “El Paso” in English while he was driving across Texas with his family. (There’s a rare, speeded-up version performed live on Australian TV in 1964 here.) But corridos can also be transposed across cultures. Take the classic ballad about the controversial California character Joaquín Murrieta. The Frontera Collection has some 20 versions of the song in Spanish, detailing the exploits of the beheaded protagonist, who was alternately considered hero or villain, rebel or bandido. The earliest versions, released as 78-rpm singles, include two-part recordings by Los Madrugadores, the famous Los Angeles-based radio act (more about these tracks in a moment). 
I was recently surprised to find a modern English-language version of the Murrieta saga by a harmonizing family trio named Sons of the San Joaquín, based in the Fresno area. Their song “The Ballad of Joaquín Murrieta” was written by singer Jack Hannah, who formed the vocal group with his brother Joe Hannah and Joe’s son Lon, a music teacher in the Visalia school district. The song, released on the group’s 2005 album Way Out Yonder, is a traditional cowboy ballad, adorned with Spanish guitars and subtle mariachi-style horns. 
Hannah’s lyrics reflect both fact and legend in the Murrieta story. He alludes to the rebel’s Sonora origins, his tall and handsome appearance, his drive to join the Gold Rush and the vicious beating he suffered at the hands of assailants who also raped his wife. Murietta vowed to take revenge, the song continues, and “the rage of Murrieta swept throughout the San Joaquin.” In a spoken part of the story, Hannah refers to California governor John Bigler, who in 1853 placed a bounty on Murrieta’s head and named a veteran of the U.S.-Mexico War, Captain Harry Love, to lead the manhunt with newly deputized California State Rangers.

Of course, the story ends badly for Murrieta, who was killed on July 25, 1853, along with his notorious sidekick known as Three-Fingered Jack. A state historical landmark now marks the spot where they made their last stand, described as Murrieta’s headquarters at Arroyo de Cantua near Coalinga, off Interstate 5 southwest of Fresno. Hannah’s version skips over the fact that Murrieta’s head was cut off and ghoulishly put on display in mining towns throughout the state. 
Later, the dead man’s legend grew when people started claiming it wasn’t really Murrieta who was killed. Hannah handles these historic ambiguities with a poetic device, adding phrases such as “the story goes” or “so they say.”
His final verse, however, plays up the Murrieta myth.
     The saga ends, but did it? 
     Joaquín lives, the people say.
     For many swear they saw him mount and swiftly ride away.
     And down in old Sonora
     Where the days are hot and long,
     If you listen you can hear young señoritas sing his song
     And the tale unfolds.
That last part is true. People still sing the ballad of Joaquín Murrieta, who became a symbol of resistance in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s. When I was in college at UC Berkeley, I was part of a Chicano student group, Frente, which ran a dormitory and cultural center near campus called Casa Joaquín Murrieta. 
Record producer Chris Strachwitz and the Frontera Collection were influential in keeping the Murrieta 
myth alive during that era, according to Manuel Peña, an ethnomusicologist and author of books on Tex-Mex music. Peña notes that Murrieta “actually came to the attention of modern scholarship in the 1970s” after Strachwitz included a version of the song in a corrido compilation released on Arhoolie, his independent label.1 The corrido in question is that two-part 78 rpm by Los Madrugadores (The Early Risers), named for its pre-dawn radio show that served as an alarm clock for Mexican field workers during the Great Depression. The show also featured commentary by Pedro J. González, the group leader who spoke out against the mass deportations of Mexicans at that time. 
In a case of life imitating art, the message of the Murrieta corrido was reinforced when González was himself sent to San Quentin prison on trumped-up rape charges in 1934, the very year Los Madrugadores recorded the song. As Ethnic Studies professor Shelley Streeby noted, “[T]he story of the unjust treatment and criminalization of a Mexican immigrant (Murrieta) in the United States must have taken on new and tragic resonances for that working-class audience during these years of intensified nativism and forced repatriation, especially in light of González’ harsh experiences with the law.”2
The Frontera Collection has three versions of the corrido recorded in two parts, all by some incarnation of Los Madrugadores. The 1934 recording on the Vocalion label was also released on Columbia with somewhat better fidelity. A slightly different version (same lyrics, different arrangement) was released on Decca by Los Hermanos Sanchez y Linares, composed of the two original members of Los Madrugadores, the brothers Jesus and Victor Sanchez, along with Fernando Linares. (The group has its own compilation CD on Arhoolie featuring the two-part Murrieta corrido: Pedro J. González and Los Madrugadores, 1931-1937 [Arhoolie 7035].) 
Some scholars say this ballad does not meet all the official characteristics of a true corrido, starting with the fact that there is no narrator. Instead, the story is told in the first-person by Murrieta himself. But one verse, quoted in English and Spanish on a Murrieta website, shows how the theme might still resonate with Mexican-Americans today in light of the current struggle for immigration reform.
I'm neither Chilean nor a foreigner
to this land I tread. 
California belongs to Mexico
because God wished it so. 
And in my stitched sarape
I carry my baptismal certificate. 
No soy chileno ni extraño               
en este suelo que piso.
De México es California, 
porque Dios así lo quiso
Y en mi sarape cosida
traigo mi fe de bautismo.
-Agustín Gurza
1“Música fronteriza / Border Music” by Manuel Peña. Reprinted with permission of The Regents of the University of California from Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, vol. 21, nos. 1-2, pp. 191-225, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
2Streeby, Shelley. American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California, 2002. Print.


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