“The corrido was always about applauding the loner, often a poor man, up against power”
Our current issue of Hiedra focuses on protest song, art and politics in Latin America and the United States. Given your experience and interest in these topics, we would like to start by asking about your views on what is currently happening in music and border culture. What is the state of pop music with regards to politics or social movements currently on the (U.S.-Mexico) border?
It is a good question. My feeling is that the message is less overtly political, and more political in the sound that they are sharing rather than the words and the message. I think the corrido has become coopted, if it’s political it is a way of maintaining the status quo, particularly as it tends to applaud the drug trafficker and cartel leaders, and that is a very disturbing trend politically. But there’s a lot of other music that is being created that has nothing to do with that at all, and is political in a rambunctious way, not in an overt political way. Just the things that they’re trying and the combinations of music they are putting together are very interesting and political -- I believe radical in a way. But I believe the corrido has been corrupted and coopted.
Can you think about examples of the artists, sound, or regions that you think are political in terms of their sound?
I think Nortec Collective in Tijuana, who piece together different kinds of music; electronica, a lot of norteño music, a little bit of heavy metal thrown in there. I think that along the border that’s a natural tendency because the border is made of pieces from everywhere, physically demographically it is a hodgepodge of things. That’s a place where you see this kind of thing. I am not sure if they are still recording, but they had a very interesting political sound, not political in an overt sense, rather political in what they were trying, they were showing instead of telling, showing us new ways of approaching the world, new ways of seeing the world, so that we are not so conformist, which I like quite a bit.
What is so interesting about Nortec?
I love the approach, more than anything, just this idea that, “we are going to be a part of where we are from, and we are no longer going to kowtow to the Mexico City music industry. We are going to be up here on the border, we have a whole different reality than the folks in Mexico City, and we don’t know anything about that. And the music reflects the region we are from.”
It seems that many of the stories that you follow, although broad in reach, seem to germinate from very specific and small communities in Mexico. Is this the case in current movements such as canción alterada and narcocorrido?
I think that that grew, of course, from all the violence that has been going on for the last 10 or 12 years in Mexico. Very barbaric stuff, very medieval stuff and you would guess that some kind of painful, disruptive or destructive music might in fact originate from that. It mainly grew from a business situation. People saw that that was the kind of music that sold. And they began to work towards putting together more bands that sing that kind of stuff. The thing with the corrido is that it has become propaganda for whatever cartel you write about, and that is a huge about-face for the corrido. The corrido was always about applauding the loner, often a poor man, up against power, probably doomed, probably he was going to die. But he is going to go up there and do his thing, he is going to do it anyway, fight and confront power. That was the essence of corrido; about the lone individual, some bandit, some social outcast, some social misfit who is a loner. And now the corrido is basically propaganda, applauding the virtues, whatever they might be, of the most powerful, the wealthiest and the most armed and the most bloodthirsty. That is a complete corruption of the corrido, in my opinion, and it’s almost impossible to listen to.
So is there complicity between musicians, fans and a culture that condones or normalizes violence?
Yes, that’s part of it. They always say that they are just “newspaper reporting”, and to a certain degree, the corrido has always been that. But this is more like advertising, not just telling stories. This is more like advertising; you find advertising in newspapers too. This is what the corrido has become, advertising. And musicians, in part out of fear, in part out of natural alliances or in part out of desire for more money, have bought into this and written songs about what a great man this one gunman is, or how fearsome he is. Or they write about El Chapo or one of these guys. What it really amounts to is propaganda, advertising, and it a sad thing to see.
In your most recent book, Dreamland, you tell the stories of middle class Americans becoming addicted to opiates, and of young Mexican traffickers’ addiction to the glamour of being “king for a day” with the money they bring back home from the United States. An important element of their homecoming celebrations involves paying long hours of live banda music. How does that work?
For these guys, the sign of having made it, the sign of prominence is to come back well dressed, wearing the nice jeans, nice cowboy hats, and whatever else. They want to build a nice house, but also have enough money to dance with their girlfriends all night, pay the banda for hours of music, pay the beer for everybody around and that kind of thing. It just became what these guys were really addicted to and that’s why they keep coming back here to sell dope, because nothing else around them was going to fulfill that addiction or satisfy that habit. Only driving heroin around cities in the United States, and eventually for some of them starting a heroin business in the United States. That is what it was.
And I believe that is really true for many, many traffickers in Mexico. There is this idea, they may start out thinking, “I am going to do enough to buy a house or start a new business and not mess with it ever again.” But a lot of people just don’t know how to stop, because there is that narcotic of coming home and being the man of envy, the man of respect, the guy who is giving away gifts, the guy all the girls want to talk to. All of that is a real narcotic and many, many times we overblow the profit a family makes selling drugs to the United States. Some make an awful lot, but those are the ones who are frequently going to be targeted by the cops or other traffickers. A lot of guys on the lower end, I don’t really think they make a lot, or if they make a lot they blow it on things that don’t actually lead to a more productive life. They just seem to be interested in that momentary charge of being the guy everybody wants to know. I heard this many times not just from folks in Nayarit [Mexico], I heard it from other folks as well. They just end up not spending their money on productive things; instead, they end up wasting it.
In the same book you also mention the Xalisco boys, a notorious group of heroin traffickers. Have you heard any corrido about the Xalisco Boys?
There are a few. There is one by one particular band that was from Xalisco, Vaqueros Musical. They have the “Corrido de David Tejeda,” among others. There are two or three corridos that Vaqueros Musical has put out. “El Gomero de Nayarit” is another, there are a few and they are almost all about the traffickers from Xalisco. But this was also in the late 90’s when they were doing this, I am not sure if they record many of these songs anymore.
Since the Xalisco Boys may not have a great deal of corridos about them, but now they have a book about them, do you see any relation between the politically engaged corrido and your book?
No, mainly because the book has not been published in Spanish yet. I would be surprised if ten people know about this book down in Xalisco. Nobody speaks English down there. I would be very surprised if anyone knew it. We are looking to publish it in Spanish, but the truth is that until that happens, I don’t think widespread knowledge of this book is going to be achieved. I am not sure when that will happen or if it will happen. Remember, most of the folks that came to the U.S. to traffic heroin. Whatever English they learned had to do with their business, to make their business easier. They didn’t really learn how to read in English. A lot just learned what they needed, and some never learned a word of English at all. So I think that there is that gap that hasn’t been bridged.
Can you talk to us about your current project and what attracted you to it?
I want to make my next book a full biography of Chalino Sánchez, the narcocorrido singer who was killed in 1992. He is from Sinaloa but really made most of his life in Los Angeles. What attracted me to it was that I thought that his story allowed me an opportunity to tell the history of several things at once in the same book. Not just his personal story, but also the story of Mexican immigration and the growth of the smuggling industry, illegal immigration particularly through Tijuana and Southern California. Also there is emergence of the coyote industry, which is a very interesting story. Number two is the story of drug trafficking, from Mexico into the United States. He [Sánchez] was part of the time when the cartels were really small but growing. What ends up happening is that the Colombians, who were dominant in the market of that time, end up being killed or going to prison. And the Mexicans basically take the business from the Colombians and that is the way it stands now. The Mexicans are now in charge. That began in the early 90’s into the late 90’s and on into today. They have grown very, very large and well-armed, bloodthirsty, and sophisticated. The years in which Chalino was alive were the years when all that began to happen, so I thought that was pretty interesting. And lastly I wanted to tell the story of one of the most important areas in Mexican immigration to the United States, which are the cities of Southeast of Los Angeles County, which effectively became another Mexico, beginning in the 80’s and into the 90’s and they remain so today. There is intense concentration in small suburbs that were built for white G.I.s in the 1940’s and 50’s; the whites move out, Latinos move in, and they become essentially Mexican suburbs, and a lot of that is connected to Sinaloa, a lot of Sinaloans, a lot of people who want to pretend that they are Sinaloans because it got a certain cachet, because of the trafficking of drugs. It is a very interesting group of towns. None of them has over a hundred thousand in population, but all of them are densely populated. I spent a lot of time in those areas. I was hoping the Chalino book would be a good way of talking about those areas. Chalino spent a lot of time in those towns; he did a lot of his first singing there as well, and became hugely popular. I think they are unique and unprecedented in the history of U.S. history of immigration. I think they stand alone for a lot of the reasons I want to get into in the book.