Author: Viktorie Mertová (Katedra amerických studií, FSV UK)

Introduction

This paper covers the topic of narcocorridos as a significant segment of Mexican popular culture. First it will focus on corridos and narcocorridos in general, then it will deal with Chalino Sánchez as one of the interesting persons related to the topic and finally it will present some of the social and political implications of the Mexican narco-culture.

Narcocorridos as a phenomenon

The so-called narcocorridos are a type of popular Mexican music that derives from traditional ballads called corridos.[1] These songs were popular in the first half of 20th century since 1910s because of their relation to Mexican revolution. Corridos told stories about famous revolutionaries in the rhythm of waltz or polka, accompanied by the sound of accordion. The narcocorridos – corridos with themes of drugs – emerged later and became popular especially in the 1970s.[2]

Today’s narcocorridos originate from this kind of music, the difference is that they don’t tell stories about revolutionaries but address the topic of drugs and drug culture in Mexico. Their position in Mexican culture is similar to gangster rap songs in the United States.[3] They focus on drug smugglers and people living in the margins of society and often portray them as heroes. The narcocorridos are popular especially among the young people.

Because of narcocorridos, in 1980s and 1990s, the popularity of corridos in general among young people skyrocketed. Before that, young Hispanic people in Mexico and nearby states in the U. S. (California etc.) almost didn’t listen to traditional Spanish music. The topic of drugs and crime attracted them to the traditional music again. Nowadays, the narcocorridos are very popular on the both sides of U. S. – Mexican border.[4]

Most of all, the narcocorridos cover topics and phenomena like murders, illegal immigration, drug smuggling. Some of them can also be seen as a kind of protest songs that criticize the government, corruption, poverty and local conditions. They tell stories about life in a poor desolated village without a justice system (rancho) and about local heroes, the tough men who live there (valientes).[5]

Chalino Sánchez: The most famous narcorrido singer

As the culture of narcocorridos is closely related to crime and violence, the singers live in a constant danger of being murdered. In fact, many of the prominent singers were killed.[6] The most famous and significant case is Chalino Sánchez who died in 1992. Especially after his violent death, his songs became very popular. It may be because of the circumstances under which he died that he is probably the most famous narcocorrido singer of all.

Rosalino Sánchez, later known as Chalino, was born into a poor family in a desolated village. His childhood and youth were full of troubles, in the end he killed a man who had raped his sister and then fled to California. There, at the beginning of 1990s, he started performing and recording and became famous as narcocorridos singer and songwriter.[7] However, his fame can be attributed not only to his songs but also to the number of shootings that he participated in.[8]

In May 1992 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Chalino Sánchez was taken away from his car by men who declared to be police officers. Later that day, he was found dead. Until now, it is still not known what exactly happened. Most likely, Sánchez was murdered by members of one of the drug cartels.[9] The interesting fact is that it is possible that Sánchez knew or felt that he was going to die. Shortly before his death, he acted as if he was trying to put all his things in order, he sold all rights to his songs to Musicart company and thereby provided money for his wife and children.[10]

Chalino Sánchez became popular especially after his death, even among the English-speaking people in the U. S. He was seen as one of the valientes, a legend, a symbol of all the corrido singers. After his death, over a hundred of corridos about Chalino and his life emerged and many singers started to imitate his style.[11]

Chalino Sanchez: Tengo El Alma Enamorada

Social implications – why songs about drugs?

What is the Mexican “narco-culture”? In short, poverty is a large problem in Mexico, especially in some parts of the country. Drug trafficking is a way to earn money, so it is not necessarily perceived as something of negative denotation.[12] In fact, the people who smuggle drugs are at times seen as heroes, and at times even as someone who might be taken as an example by children. The mainstream offers very few educational or economic opportunities to the people especially in some of the communities in Mexico. The organized crime has a very strong influence in Mexico, in some areas it may be even stronger than the government.

As for the corridos culture, most of the narcocorridos singers also come from a very poor background. In fact, Sánchez himself wrote heroic lyrics about people in return of cash at the beginning.[13] Also the people who listen to this kind of music are often poor. The topics of the narcocorridos songs may be inspiring for the children and young people who listen to them, especially the poor ones.[14] A comparison to the social role of gangsta-rap in the U. S. is appropriate.

Political implications

The problem is that the narcocorridos lyrics are often tending to be approving of the phenomena that they narrate about. In a way, the songs can be seen as if they were glorifying violence. The narcocorridos songs at least seem to be promoting criminal life, violence and drugs.[15] Therefore, lately, attempts to ban narcocorridos in the interest of public safety intensified across all the political parties in Mexico.

There is a conflict of this approach and the constitutionally declared freedom of expression. From this point of view, narcocorridos are nothing more than amusing songs that don’t promote or glorify anything illegal. Another problem is that many of the narcocorridos songs criticize the government and also the police that is considered to be utterly corrupt. That’s why the government’s restrictive approach can be also perceived as censorship.[16] As Beto Quintanilla sings in his corrido Libertad de expresion: “I am not going to speak of drugs, just of what happened/ Because a corrupt system makes bandits grow/If there is freedom of expression, don’t prohibit the corridos”.[17]

In fact, some of the radios that wanted to comply with the national government’s policy applied something as a voluntary ban on the broadcasting of narcocorridos. However, in the end it showed up that restrictive approach is highly ineffective. As the access to Internet spreads even among the poorer Mexican people, for anybody it is very easy to get narcocorridos songs because they are available on-line.[18]

Conclusions

In my opinion, those who say that the narcocorridos significantly contribute to the whole drug-popularizing culture in Mexico are quite right. The lyrics of the songs and especially the videos tend to glorify drugs and the criminal style of life. On the other hand, these songs are only a reaction to the conditions that the Mexican people live in. As long as the poverty in Mexico is as a large problem as it is now, people who attempt to make money through crime will be present.

The restrictions imposed on narcocorridos by the Mexican government are not a solution of the problems that the songs point out and criticize. On the contrary, the government should consider what issues the lyrics of the narcocorridos cover and how the problems of the poorer districts of Mexico could be solved. To sum up, the government should learn its lesson from the narcocorridos culture and fight the poverty and corruption in Mexico so that the singers have less issues to criticize.


[1] Sam Quinones, True Tales From Another Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001), 11.

[2] Sara Miller Llana, “Odes to Mexican drug gangs lose their appeal“, The Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2008/0407/p07s03-woam.html (accessed December 12, 2013).

[3] Quinones, True Tales, 12.

[4] Ibidem, 11-12.

[5] Ibidem, 12-13.

[6] See Lauren Johnston, “Famed Mexican singer Sergio Vega shot dead hours after denying reports he’d been murdered“, New York Daily News, June 28, 2010, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/famed-mexican-singer-sergio-vega-shot-dead-hours-denying-reports-murdered-article-1.185051 (accessed December 15, 2013) or Manuel Roig-Franzia, “The Savage Silencing of Mexico’s Musicians“, The Washington Post, December 26, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/25/AR2007122501437.html (accessed December 15, 2013).

[7] Quinones, True Tales, 12-14.

[8] “El Valienete: Chalino Sánchez“, POV – Acclaimed Point-of-View Documentary Films, http://www.pbs.org/pov/alotrolado/special_narcorridos.php (accessed December 28, 2013).

[9] Quinones, True Tales, 22-23.

[10] Ibidem, 21.

[11] Ibidem, 24-28.

[12] Sara Miller Llana, “Odes to Mexican drug gangs lose their appeal“, The Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2008/0407/p07s03-woam.html/(page)/2 (accessed December 12, 2013).

[13] Quinones, True Tales, 14-15.

[14] “Elijah Wald – Corrido Censorship: A Brief History“, Official Website of Elijah Wald, http://www.elijahwald.com/corcensors.html (accessed December 20, 2013).

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Ibidem.

[17] “LETRA ‘LIBERTAD DE EXPRESION’“, Musica.com, http://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=963652 (accessed December 20, 2013).

[18] „Elijah Wald – Corrido Censorship: A Brief History“, Official Website of Elijah Wald, http://www.elijahwald.com/corcensors.html (accessed December 20, 2013).

Resources

  • “El Valienete: Chalino Sánchez“, POV – Acclaimed Point-of-View Documentary Films, http://www.pbs.org/pov/alotrolado/special_narcorridos.php (accessed December 28, 2013).
  • “Elijah Wald – Corrido Censorship: A Brief History“, Official Website of Elijah Wald, http://www.elijahwald.com/corcensors.html (accessed December 20, 2013).
  • “LETRA ‘LIBERTAD DE EXPRESION’“, Musica.com, http://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=963652 (accessed December 20, 2013).
  • Lauren Johnston, “Famed Mexican singer Sergio Vega shot dead hours after denying reports he’d been murdered“, New York Daily News, June 28, 2010, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/famed-mexican-singer-sergio-vega-shot-dead-hours-denying-reports-murdered-article-1.185051 (accessed December 15, 2013)
  • Manuel Roig-Franzia, “The Savage Silencing of Mexico’s Musicians“, The Washington Post, December 26, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/25/AR2007122501437.html (accessed December 15, 2013).
  • Sam Quinones, True Tales From Another Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001),
  • Sara Miller Llana, “Odes to Mexican drug gangs lose their appeal“, The Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2008/0407/p07s03-woam.html (accessed December 12, 2013).