Los Tigres del Norte

Jefe de jefes


By Sam Quinones

Jorge Hernandez was 18 years old and not long out of Mexico when he heard a woman in a Los Angeles nightclub sing a song about two drug smugglers.

The song unfolded like a film. It told the story of a man and a woman–he an illegal, she a Chicana from Texas–smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to LA. After handing off the dope, the man says he’s taking his half of the money to visit his girlfriend in San Francisco. But his smuggling partner is in love with him and, unwilling to let him go, she shoots him in a dark Hollywood alley.

Hernandez, an accordionist, was enchanted and asked if the band he had with his two younger brothers and a cousin could record the song. Los Tigres del Norte put out “Contrabando y traicion” (“Contraband and Betrayal”) a few months later. It was 1972; America’s kids liked to get high and Mexican immigrants were seeing drug trafficking even as they crossed the border. The song hit huge among Mexicans on both sides of the border, and thus began one of the most remarkable careers in Spanish-language pop music.

Now in their 30th year, the San Jose-based Los Tigres del Norte have made 30-some records and starred in 14 movies, many based on their songs. They’ve won a Grammy. They have spearheaded not one but two major trends in Mexican pop music, first with songs about drug smuggling and later with songs about immigrants.

Immigrants in turn transported their music to places back in Mexico where the band was unknown, and Los Tigres’ audience now stretches across the United States and down to the states of Michoacan and Guerrero, as well as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua–places where people’s first contact with norte–o music, an accordion-based polka style indigenous to dusty northern Mexican cantinas, was through somebody who’d been to a Tigres dance in Fresno or Phoenix. On Sunday, before the band closes this weekend’s Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, 26th Street in Little Village will be named in its honor. Still, like many of their fellow Mexican immigrants, Los Tigres are virtually invisible to mainstream American society.

In the late 60s, when Hernandez and his kin arrived at the border from the state of Sinaloa, on the Gulf of California, Mexico’s young were leaving Mexico–corrupt Mexico, the Mexico behind the sunglasses, the Mexico that never gave a poor man a chance–in droves, eager to re-create themselves in the fields and kitchens of gringolandia. Mostly they wanted from the U.S. what Mexico had never given them–a chance to earn real money for hard work. The irony was that once here, these immigrants wanted more than ever to be Mexican. They missed the pueblo, a girlfriend, mom.

When Los Tigres came they came as musicians, a kid group hired by a promoter to play at the Mexican Independence Day parade in San Jose and for the inmates of Soledad prison. Since the oldest was only 14, they had to convince a middle-aged Mexican couple to pretend to be their mother and father. Their band had no name. But an immigration officer kept calling them “little tigers,” and they were headed north, so they became Los Tigres del Norte. They never returned to Mexico to live. A chance radio broadcast after the parade was heard by a local record impresario, who signed them to his new label, Fama, the first and for many years the most important Spanish-language record label on the west coast.

Los Tigres lived in a room in the house of a Mexican woman. Over the next few years, they played for the Bay Area’s growing Mexican community. They once shared a Berkeley festival bill with Big Mama Thornton and Janis Joplin, talking with the latter backstage as she and her band wolfed down apples that made them “act funny,” says Hernandez. “Contrabando” was the first song strong enough to take them back to Mexico, and they began returning home to play.

“Contrabando” became a classic, covered and recorded by many lesser-known norte–o bands. Its two characters, Emilio Varela and Camelia la tejana, are part of Mexicans’ cultural vocabulary. Historically, the song is also remembered as the first Mexican hit about drug smuggling. Los Tigres followed it with “La banda del carro rojo” (“The Red Car Gang”), and together the songs more or less invented the narcocorrido, which is currently undergoing a revival.

The narcocorrido updated the traditional Mexican corrido, or ballad, which usually takes for its subjects revolutionaries and bandits. Los Tigres’ narcocorridos tell the same kind of heroic tales about drug smugglers. Los Tigres also modernized the music itself, not just by recording it well but by infusing it with boleros, cumbias, rock rhythms, waltzes, and the sounds of machine guns and sirens. Almost any norte–o band nowadays plays a few narcocorridos, and hundreds of bands play nothing but. Like gangsta rap, narcocorridos recount horrible violence, are condemned by right-wing politicians, and receive little radio play, yet they maintain an enormous audience. “The only thing that we do is sing about what happens every day,” Hernandez insists. “We’re interpreters, then the public decides what songs they like.”

The public has always liked the dope songs. For many years, Los Tigres included two or three on each album, and in 1989 they put out Corridos prohibidos, an entire album about drug smuggling. Mexican newspapers reported that drug lords were buying the record by the case.

Still, Los Tigres try mightily to distance themselves from the hundreds of narco bands that have sprouted in the turf they turned over. Unlike younger bands, they only occasionally mention names of real drug smugglers, are never photographed with pistols or assault rifles, never curse in song, and usually refer to marijuana as hierba mala (bad grass). And Los Tigres’ repertoire has always included at least as many love songs as narcocorridos. “Un dia a la vez,” a quasi-religious tune, responded to the growing influence of fundamentalist Protestant churches within the Mexican immigrant community in the mid-1980s–churches that were condemning dancing and singing as indecent. The Grammy they won, in 1988, was for “America,” a rock anthem expounding the universal brotherhood of Latinos.

“[Drug lords] have sent me letters, notes,” says Hernandez. “They invited us to meetings years ago. We’ve never had the opportunity nor wanted to meet them. We’ve made our career in public, not at [private] parties.”

If the narcocorridos brought them fame, their songs about the immigrant experience have brought them transcendence. Their first such effort was “Vivan los mojados,” recorded in 1976 and well ahead of its time. The song wonders what would happen to America’s crops if all the mojados, or “wetbacks,” were suddenly sent home. A few years later, in the early 80s, Los Tigres hired as their producer Enrique Franco, a musician and composer who had just arrived from Tijuana. The collaboration with Franco would give Los Tigres their most enduring and bittersweet immigrant songs, which came out roughly at the same time Congress was debating amnesty for illegals, which it passed in 1986. Tunes like “Pedro y Pablo,” “El otro Mexico,” and “Los hijos de Hernandez” dealt with the yearning to return home, love lost through separation, and the economic importance of immigrant labor. As war was sending thousands of Central American immigrants to the U.S. in 1988, Franco wrote “Tres veces mojado” (“Three Times a Wetback”), the story of a Salvadoran refugee who crosses three borders to get to America.

But Franco’s most touching immigration song, “La jaula de oro” (“The Golden Cage”), was recorded four years before that, in 1984. “Vivan los mojados” had created a wave of novelty tunes about immigration–little ditties about the zany immigrants outfoxing the dull-witted migra. “Immigration had never been treated as a social problem,” says Franco, still a record producer in San Jose. “I was illegal at the time. I never had the problem of communication with my children, but many immigrants do. There isn’t time to talk to the kids. The children learn another language. That’s where the gap between kids and parents begins.”

“La jaula de oro” is narrated by an immigrant years after he’s outwitted the INS. He’s discovered he doesn’t feel at home in the country he worked so hard to enter, and though he aches to visit his real home, he can’t leave his house for fear of being deported. In the U.S., Hernandez explains, “You have everything. You live well, you have comforts. But it’s another type of life, very different from ours….The United States is very solitary. And you can’t relax like [in Mexico]. There’s not a lot of heart in the family. When the child reaches 18, he leaves the family.”

By the early 1990s, Los Tigres were playing fewer narcocorridos and immigrant songs, but current events brought them back around. In 1995 they recorded “El circo” (“The Circus”), about former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, now in exile in Ireland, and his brother Raul, who is in prison on charges of murder and corruption. The title track on their most recent record, Jefe de jefes, is about a fictional drug kingpin, and there’s another tune about real-life drug lord Hector Luis Palma Salazar–“El Guero”–who was arrested after a plane crash in 1995.

As anti-immigrant sentiment has intensified in California and around the country, the band has responded to the concerns of its most important audience. The new album’s “El mojado acaudalado” (“The Wealthy Wetback”) is about immigrants who’ve made it in the U.S. but no longer feel comfortable and are going home with heads held high. “Mis dos patrias” (“My Two Countries”) is about a Mexican becoming a U.S. citizen but insisting that he’s only protecting his pension.

But in “Ni aqui ni alla” (“Neither Here Nor There”), Los Tigres take an uncharacteristically dour view of immigrants’ chances at justice or progress in either country: “My dreams, neither here nor there, will I ever realize.” It’s a philosophical U-turn for a band whose career has been founded, like the immigrant community itself, on a healthy optimism about the healing powers of hard work. “You have to tell the truth. We’re not good here or there,” Hernandez explains. “You never know if making money and living right, you’re going to make it.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Sam Quinones; album cover.