Migrant Song

After 40 years, the kings of norteño are still going strong. And lookin' sharp.

A group of Central American and Mexican men waits anxiously outside the Medrano Express courier offices in Homestead for a five-dollar snapshot. They're posing next to local Guatemalan talent Lily Alvarez, a sweet, voluptuous gal in a silver sequined top who could pass for Selena. Most of these migrants left their families several years ago with plans of sending money and materials home, and Alvarez's Sunday-afternoon karaoke performances of cumbia and norteño songs has brightened their week of hard labor. Among the most popular numbers performed are those by Mexico's legendary Los Tigres del Norte.

With an anticipated upcoming South Florida visit by Los Tigres themselves, New Times poses a few of these men a question. If Los Tigres' corridos are ballads based on the real-life stories of the conflicted and downtrodden, does anyone think they have an experience worthy of a Tigres song?

Most of the men stare at their feet, shifting a little. Then a Guatemalan migrant named Fredy grins, exposing a gold star on one of his front teeth. "I do," he says, and proceeds to tell of his 15-day journey from Guatemala through Mexico and across the Rio Grande. Mexican migrant Enrique intercepts with a shake of his head. "Dude, Los Tigres already did that one. It was 'Tres Veces Mojado' ('Three Times a Wetback')."

With a career spanning four decades and 55 albums, there's hardly such a story that this multiple-Grammy-winning band hasn't turned into song. So it's little wonder this past year's Grammy was a Lifetime Achievement Award.

"I would describe it as communicative music with lyrics directed to the audience," lead singer and accordion player Jorge Hernandez explains by phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico. "We sing real-life stories — things that happen to our audience. We make the music and work with composers to fit it with the lyrics."

Hernandez can relate to the migrants. In 1968, he, his brothers, and their cousin came to the United States to test the band's luck when they were teenagers. They were fortunate to obtain a visa through a contract to perform at Salinas Valley State Prison near Soledad, California. From there, they went to San Jose, where they sang for a lot of suppers, belting out mariachi tunes at diners' tables in restaurants. That all changed the day English producer Art Walker strolled in, liked what he heard, and got them recording on his Discos Fama label.

"My plan was to go over, fulfill my contract, and come home," Hernandez recalls, chuckling heartily. Home was the tiny town of Rosa Morada in Sinaloa, Mexico. "[Walker] really liked folklore, and I think he took notice of us because he thought our folklore was different," Hernandez says.

The sonic outcome was kind of like mariachi, country, and cumbia, with a strong oompah beat, and, though the group's success wasn't immediate, Walker's ear never failed him. In 1972, he asked them to record Angel Gonzalez's ballad "Contrabando y Traición" ("Contraband and Betrayal"), about a woman smuggler who shoots her lover and takes his money. The sensationalism of the lyrics and the gusto with which Los Tigres performed them suddenly had the band's music moving away from rounds at restaurant tables and onto international airwaves.

The success of that number prompted the band to dig into other real-life incidents, which they continue to do today. Often, they send out researchers, even journalists, to scope out dramatic tales in dangerous lands. They've made millions off stories of true crime, political corruption, and perilous border crossings, all the things so tied to the folklore of Mexico's northern border. But don't think for a second that they condone vice or violence. In fact, Hernandez is miffed that the recent wave of unsolved murders of other norteño artists such as Sergio Gomez of the Grammy-nominated band K-Paz de la Sierra, Zayda Peñas, and Valentín Elizalde should have any reflection on Los Tigres' music or create a perception of the group as outlaws.

"I don't think it's right that we're judged along with other people who've taken a different life path," he says. "We've always behaved ourselves, and we always will. We don't have anything to hide." That even goes for their critiques of the Mexican government, because, he says, their tales are already in the archives. "We've told some pretty heavy stories, but they're all documented."

On the song "El Circo," he calls former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) and his brother Raul circus owners: Carlos the tamer and Raul a magician who could make money disappear from the president's hands.

It's all part of consciousness-raising, Hernandez insists. "Music isn't there to get us into trouble but rather to give us a form of communication and an emotional stability." In fact, one of the songs Hernandez is most proud of is "Un Día a la Vez," a number in which he asks God to help him make the right choices in a fallen world. "Please God, I just want to live one day at a time," he sings into the phone quietly. He pipes up when he adds excitedly, "They sing it in the churches all the time."

There have been actions that he's regretted, not for the band's lack of nobility but for that of the crooked politicians the band has come across. In 2004, Los Tigres decided to hold a benefit concert for the families of the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juarez since 1993. International rights groups had long criticized the government for a weak investigation. Hernandez says he felt a total sense of disillusionment when local officials refused to help sponsor the Tigres benefit concert. Their reason? The show, they said, as well as Los Tigres' homage song to the women "Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez" gave the city a bad reputation.

"You try to help people, and you get frustrated because suddenly you get into problems you weren't looking for," Hernandez says. Since the Juarez concert, the band has opted to do less-controversial benefits, instead pouring their money into the Los Tigres del Norte Foundation at University of California-Los Angeles in an effort to help Hispanics preserve their language and culture. In fact, their upcoming release Raices is an effort to recapture classic Mexican songs like "Cielito Lindo," whose melody is known way beyond the Hispanic world. "We hope that when people have this CD, they feel like we do. It's a way to identify with your people, roots, customs, and experiences."

Although Hernandez is only a U.S. resident and thus can't vote, he says if he could, he'd definitely cast a ballot for the Democrats, and he's more convinced by La Señora Clinton. "I like to give credit to the women," he says. But whoever wins, he hopes they can come up with a viable immigration policy. "We've sung about immigrants on every single album," he adds.

Back in Homestead, New Times is still curious to know whose story might make for a Tigres ballad. Prying produces only pursed lips from the migrants until Enrique finally speaks back up: "Illegals don't have any stories to tell, remember?"

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