Violent Ballads as Border Representations: The Aesthetics of Violence in the Mexican and Chicana/o Corrido
Issue #61, September 2002
Mexican and Chicana/o working classes have a long tradition of ballad responses to racial and gender violence, a tradition that now includes ballads about the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. The Mexican corrido has been described as a social barometer of Mexican attitudes toward events affecting their lives. The corrido has long been an expression reflecting public values and a community's interpretation of the historical process.
Today, the corrido continues to sustain values, ethnic solidarity, and loyalty for causes that the masses see as important to their cultural survival. Corridos are important ethno-historical documents providing a range of facts regarding the social environment. Their contents, poetic organization, musical form, and aesthetic history lead to an alternative interpretation of the nature of violence in Mexican and American societies as seen through the Mexican's sense of history, music, and culture. This is true of the corrido among Mexicans in the United States. Here too, the corrido has functioned as a "collective diary," expressing symbolically the Chicano people's reactions to events vital to their self-interests.
El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez
El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez is probably the best known corrido throughout the Southwest and deals with interracial conflict between Anglos and Mexicans. It is based on a true story. According to ethnomusicologist Manuel Peña, Gregorio Cortez was apparently a peaceful Mexican until the afternoon of June 12, 1901 when Sheriff W.T. (Brack) Morris came to Cortez's home in South Texas. Sheriff Morris was after a horse thief and attempted to arrest Cortez, who was later cleared of the charges.
In the ensuing fracas Cortez shot and killed the sheriff after the later had drawn his own gun and wounded Cortez's brother, Rumaldo. Convinced that he would never get a fair trial in Texas, Cortez fled. For the next ten days, sometimes literally slipping through the fingers of the army that pursued him, Cortez eluded his captors. He was finally seized just thirty miles shy of his destination, the Rio Grande and Mexico. The chase had taken ten days, during which Cortez walked at least one hundred twenty miles and rode more than four hundred on brown and sorrel mares. He had been chased by hundreds of men, in parties of up to three hundred. He had killed two sheriffs and fought off many posses.
Soon after his capture many Mexicans expressed their support of Cortez and raised financial support to fight his court case. Cortez became a hero and a symbol of the Mexican people in Texas who were subject to racism, injustice, and discrimination at the hands of Anglos. After three trials on separate charges arising out of the original events, resulting in three guilty verdicts, three appeals court reversals, and one acquittal, Cortez was finally convicted of murder. He was given a life sentence, but was pardoned on July 7, 1913, after spending twelve years in prison. Cortez's case struck a responsive and sympathetic chord in the hearts of his compatriots.
Contemporary Mejicano Corridos
El Corrido de Juanito
Ahí les va el corrido de Juanito
Una noche a mediados de diciembre
Al llegar a ese baile celebrado
Que enorme el coraje que sentilla
Mira Anita, ya vi lo que me has hecho
Decidido y con pistola en mano
"No me mates", Anita le decía
Quando Anita estaba agonizando
"Ese joven con el que yo bailaba"
Here goes Juanito's corrido
One night in the middle of December
Arriving at that celebrated dance
How enormous was his rage
Look Anita, I have seen what you have done
Once decided and with his pistol in his hand
"Don't kill me," Anita said.
While Anita was in agony
That young man whom I was dancing with
This corrido may be interpreted in many ways. The first thing that stands out is absence of the copla. The ballad maintains uses four-line stanzas with eleven syllables per line. Likewise the line "con pistola en mano/with his pistol in his hand" is also used in El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez. It is an interesting metaphor for Mexican machismo. Narrative folk ballads of Mexican origin typically have regular metrical features such as rhyming quatrains (abcb) and use traditional imagery. Those with "epic themes" typically refer to conflict — sometimes personal, more often social as in this case between men.
The protagonist of El Corrido de Juanito is of course Juanito. Unlike Gregorio Cortez who was a heroic man defending his political and civil human rights, and by extension those of his community, against social tyranny and oppression, Juanito reacts here to a perceived assault on his masculinity and personal dignity. From his vantage point, Anita is his possession and thus the object of both his wrath and affection. The innocent Anita is mistaken as la traidora (traitor).
In a less than subtle way, perhaps the ballad speaks more to the oppression of women in contemporary Mexican society. More importantly, the absence of details such as setting, place, and surnames leaves the listener with ambivalent factual information and renders the corrido a tragic comedy or comedy of errors through omission of vital historical data and the absurdity of the situation. This aesthetic feature affects both structure and style and is called fragmentismo, the process by which fragments of ballads are torn from their context, leaving much unexplained and producing, at times, abrupt beginnings and endings. Fragmentation is a central feature of older Hispanic ballads. It is a unique aesthetic technique that has developed over generations and is agreeable and esthetically pleasing to singers, composers, and listeners. Of far greater importance however than limited negative and positive female images is the corrido's larger gender politics and poetics of exclusion and repression.
The narcocorrido has emerged as a recent sub-genre of the Mexican classical corrido. Following his death, Chalino Sanchez achieved popular canonization as a legendary narcocorrido performer. Better known as 'El Pela Vacas,' Rosalino 'Chalino' Sanchez Felix assumed a legendary role as the revitalizer of the corrido.
Best known among the 24 million people who inhabit the territories that unite or separate Mexico and the United States, Chalino Sanchez became the number one narcocorrido singer in his time. According to Ilan Stavans, his reputation reaches far beyond, from his native state of Sinaloa to the nearby Coahuila and Durango and, emphatically, to the Mexican "suburbs" of Los Angeles, where Chalino spent his most artistically fruitful years. Songs he popularized, like "Corrido de Amistad," are listened to religiously on the radio in cantinas and at birthday parties, malls and mechanic shops. His cassettes and CDs are astonishingly popular. By all accounts a mediocre singer with little stage charisma, he is nevertheless a folk hero of epic proportions to Mexicans. Chalino's songs address urgent political and social issues head on: poverty, drug traffic, injustice, discrimination, and the disillusionment of a life spent chasing the ever-evasive dollar bill.
In one ballad a couple of girls disguise themselves as nuns and drive a van full of cocaine, which they claim is powdered milk for an orphanage in Phoenix. In another, two brothers, Carlos and Raul, are the owners of a circus that uses unfair strategies to push other circuses out of business. The circus is an allegory for Mexico of the late 1980s and early 1990s: the names are obvious references to former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his drug money convict brother Raul.
Stavans points out that most narcocorridos celebrate the semi-fictitious adventures of a righteous person, usually a man, who dared to fight against the establishment. Chalino Sanchez's life and death were very violent. His music career was brief due to his unsolved murder on May 16, 1992.
Chalino always wore a distinctive outfit, a cowboy hat, white or striped shirt, dark slacks and boots, together with ostentatious jewelry. He spoke with a Sinaloan ranchero accent and looked like someone straight out of the mountains. He came to the United States at age 15 and followed the harvests from California to Oregon, finally settling in Inglewood, a Mexican-immigrant satellite town in Los Angeles.
At age fifteen he murdered a man called "El Chapo" who had raped his sister. After the incident, Chalino went to Los Angeles where he worked washing dishes, selling cars, and helped his brother smuggle illegal immigrants until Armando was was killed in Tijuana. Chalino was sent to prison there for a series of small crimes. It was during his incarceration that he came across contraband smugglers who were also musicians and he began composing corridos. Following his release, he returned to LA where he traded marijuana and cocaine. He ended his career as a narcotrafficante when his musical career — which only lasted four years — took off.
Today most people believe his death was tied to illegal drug activity. Following a concert in Coachella, twenty miles east of Palm Springs, an intoxicated, unemployed 33 year-old jumped onstage and fired a pistol in Chalino's side, injuring him. Chalino's reputation as a valiente, a brave macho, was bolstered by the incident. In 1984, Chalino married Marisella Vallejo and they soon had a son Adan and daughter Cynthia. That same year, Chalino composed a corrido about his brother that launched his musical career. Soon after this first ballad, Chalino began to compose corridos on commission, often accepting jewelry and firearms as payment.
According to ethnomusicologist Helena Simonett, "composed corridos tend to give the out view, and are composed in the first person. Protagonists in this type of narcocorrido are mystified and made modest. A commissioned corrido, on the other hand, is a story based more on a specific person. It tends to elaborate on every move or action of an individual and specifically states his or her position in the business. Commissioned corridos are usually performed by close friends or insider mafiosos. Commissioned corridos usually depict the trafficker or drug lord as a colorful person, courageous, cool, with extreme capabilities and power.
Promoting commissioned narcocorridos can be dangerous in today's world. By the time Chalino had composed several corridos, he hired a local norteño band to record them. The band dallied and Chalino opted to record the ballads himself. In 1989 he and his band Los Cuatro de La Frontera recorded fifteen corridos in Angel Parra's studios. He made only fifteen copies of his first tape and soon returned to record another cassette with fifteen new hits. Soon after, Chalino's music struck a chord with his audience and his recordings were in demand. An agent named Pedro Rivera helped Chalino reach the peak of his musical career. He began to play at clubs like "El Parral" and radio stations gave play time to his recordings.
In May 1992, after a packed performance in Culiacan, Chalino and some relatives were stopped by armed men driving a Chevrolet Suburban. Hours later, his body was found by two campesinos, dumped by an irrigation canal near a highway. He had been blindfolded and his wrist had rope marks. He had been shot twice in the back of the head. The mystery of his death remains unsolved.
News of Chalino's death spread far and wide across the media. In migrant communities, however, the corrido remains the newspaper of illiterate people. Chalino was immortalized in homenajes, or corridos composed and recorded in homage to him.
La Tragedia de Nueva York
Racial conflict and violence has long been a way of life along the United States/Mexican border. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, the sensational sounds and "in your face" images of violence and death on the news took on a more heightened expression. Global dissemination of violent cultural forms and symbolic capital provides people with new ways of accommodating and reacting to an increasingly uncertain world climate. The September 11th attack was no different. Several corridos devoted to the tragedy have been composed. One version is La Trajedia de Nueva York, recorded by El As de la Sierra in the Banda Sinaloense style. The text and translation of the ballad are as follow:
Qué raya comenzó
No me quisiera acordar
Que mentes tan criminales
La primera guerra del signo
El martes negro señores
La gente de Nueva York
Me da tristeza cantarles
I do not want to remember
Such criminal minds,
The first war of the century
On Black Tuesday, sirs,
The people of New York,
But I had to do it.
The ones responsible for starting the war
Prepare to lose.
That coward's country
(translated by Maribelle Sazazar)
Peter Garcia is assistant professor of Chicana/Chicano Studies at Arizona State University. He can be reached at Peter.Garcia@asu.edu.