The recent passing of Chicano music icon Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez generated many accolades commenting on his musical activism. Indeed, Chunky epitomized the trovadores (singers, musicians) who have made immense contributions to our community over the years. For, in our history music has been more than entertainment and trovadores more than entertainers.
Corridos corrected negative images,” fostered cultural pride, rallied the community
Historically, corridos, stories told in song, have served to foster cultural pride, counter negative views of Mexicans, and rally the community around issues. Some examples from the 1900s:
“Laredo” (popular about 1920) praises Mexican Americans who fought valiantly in WW I. “El Corrido de Kiansis” (The Corrido of Kansas) boasts that Mexican vaqueros taught American cowboys how to handle cattle. “El Renegado” (The traitor/renegade) criticizes Mexicans who have abandoned their culture. Other corridos chastised Mexicans who knew but refused to speak Spanish.
The Gregorio Cortez and Juan Reyna corridos were vehicles to organize the Mexican community. Cortez and Reyna were arrested for murder in the 1900s (Cortez in 1901 in Texas, Reyna in 1930 in California). The authorities considered Cortez and Reyna heartless killers, but the corridos portrayed Cortez and Reyna as having acted in self-defense and served to develop community support movements.
Songs also inspired and educated our community through the 1940s. During WW II, “Soldado Raso” (simple, or common, soldier)—highlighting the bravery and patriotism of Mexicans/Chicanos—was a song of pride and inspiration for Mexican Americans going to war. Even the cultural-rebel Pachucos had their own songs, which they used to express pride in who they were.
Corridos and songs energized the Chicano Movement
Corridos and songs energized the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. At marches, rallies, and meetings, the trovadores-activists sang about the United Farm Workers (UFW) and New Mexico land fight movements and local barrio struggles. The trovadores inspired Chicanas and Chicanos involved in the movement and encouraged those who weren’t to get involved. With apologies to the many trovadores I don’t mention due to space limitations, here’s a sampling:
The “father of Chicano Music,” Lalo Guerrero, wrote corridos about the UFW struggle and Chicano pride—e.g., “El Chicano” (“I am 100% Chicano … that group that’s not afraid of anybody”).
The UFW’s Teatro Campesino (Farm Worker Theater) wrote and sang songs about the farmworker struggle for decent wages and working conditions. In 1976, Teatro Campesino produced “¡Huelga En General!,” an album of their songs, one of which, “El Picket Sign,” became a Chicano Movement staple. Teatro Campesino inspired many urban barrio theater troupes. One, Teatro de la Gente (San José, California), put on an entire play in corrido style, using songs to musically narrate the story.
Los Angeles schoolteacher José Luis Orozco produced an album, “Corridos Mexicanos y Chicanos,” paying tribute to the UFW struggle. He sang his songs at rallies and meetings and in schools throughout California. Two members of the Teatro Campesino, Daniel Valdez and Augustín Lira, wrote songs and performed separately. Both Valdez and Lira focused on an issue the Chicano Movement emphasized: the indigenous roots of Mexican Americans.
Chicano music goes to college
San Diego State University Professor José “Pepe” Villarino formed the Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlán, a guitar ensemble of SDSU students, in 1972. The Rondalla performed at UFW and other movement events, and donated money it raised to the UFW. San Diego trovadores performing with the Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlán and/or other groups such as the Trío Moreno included Olivia de San Diego, Viviana Zermeno, Apolinar “Poli” Gloria, Richard Saiz, and Delia and Delia Chica Moreno. [In 1974, the Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlán accompanied popular 1960s-1970s folk singer Joan Baez on her album “Gracias a la vida.”]
California State University-Sacramento professors José Montoya and Esteban Villa joined with Rudy Carrillo to form the Trío Casindio, which performed at UFW and Chicano movement events. In 1976, the Trío and a group of young Chicano musicians, The Royal Chicano Air Force, produced “Chicano Music All Day,” an album of Chicano poems arranged as Mexican songs and corridos.
Western New Mexico University professor Luis “Nacho” Quinones wrote, among others, the “Corrido de Juan Chacón,” who led the historic 1950 copper miners’ strike memorialized in the iconic movie “Salt of the Earth” and “El Corrido de Reies Lopez Tijerina,” who led the New Mexico land fight. In that vein, Los Reyes de Albuquerque wrote and sang the “Corrido de Tierra Amarilla,” about the 1967 raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse by Tijerina and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes in their attempt to reclaim what was considered Mexican stolen land.
Corridos in the barrios
In 1973, El Grito, a Mexican American journal, published the “Corridos de Rumel,” a collection of corridos (e.g., “Partido La Raza Unida,” “Mexico-Americano,” “Política in the barrios”) by Texas schoolteacher Rumel Fuentes. Fuentes’ songs were featured in the 1976 classic documentary “Chulas Fronteras” (Beautiful Borders). [A 13-song album, “Corridos of the Chicano Movement,” of Fuentes’s songs was produced posthumously in 2009.] Denver’s Escuela Tlatelolco (associated with the Crusade for Justice) produced trovadores who sang songs like “El Año del Chicano,” and “Yo Soy Chicano” in Denver and elsewhere.
In 1979, Chunky Sánchez’ group, Los Alacranes Mojados, produced an album, “Rolas de Aztlán” (Songs of Aztlán), with songs such as “El Trilingual Corrido and “Chicano Park Samba,” about San Diego’s Chicano Park, built after the Chicano community in 1970 protested the lack of a park in a local barrio. Earlier, in 1969, Manuel Jáuregui wrote “El Corrido de People’s Park” about the Berkeley community’s victory in stopping the University of California from converting land in a southside neighborhood into athletic fields and instead creating a park.
The journal Xalmán dedicated its Fall 1980 issue to the “Corridos y Canciones de Aztlán,” a collection of thirty-three corridos and songs written and sung by Chicanos and Chicanas at rallies, marches, etc., in the Santa Barbara/Ventura County areas of California. The titles are illustrative: Corrido del Chicano-Mexicano, Liberación Feminil (Women’s Liberation), Sentimiento Chicano (Chicano Feelings), Maldita Pobreza (Evil Poverty).
Corridos and politics in Tucson
Tucson, where I am based, has a rich tradition of using music to inspire and organize the community. In 1969, Chicano and Chicana high-school students walked out of school to demand, among other things, the establishment of a Chicano Studies curriculum. Judson and Cuco Baker, brothers active in the Chicano Movement, wrote “Los Valientes de Tucson” (Tucson’s Brave Ones) in honor of the students. This song and others by the Baker brothers—“Chicano Blues,” “Evening in the Barrio”—were sung at events dealing with this and other issues.
In the early 1970s, a plan to build a freeway that would have destroyed parts or all of several Chicano barrios gave rise to a protest movement. University professor Dr. Arnulfo Trejo and graduate student Marcos Jerez wrote the “Corrido del Tiradito,” (El Tiradito is a local shrine to which miracles are credited and which was in the path of the proposed freeway) about the situation. The protests stopped the freeway plan.
In 1970 the people from Barrios Hollywood and El Rio—under the banner of “El Rio for the People”—were demanding that a park be built in the area since the children from these barrios had to play in the streets and empty lots. After months of protest, confrontations, and arrests, the city agreed to build a park and a community center to serve the two barrios. In commemoration, Fernando Tapia wrote the corrido “La Lucha en El Rio” (The El Rio Struggle) and collaborated with José “Pepe” Licano to write “La Lucha en el Barrio” (The Struggle in the Barrio).
In the 1970s, barrio-based Teatro Libertad performed works—in local neighborhood centers, schools and churches, and sometimes from a flatbed truck in Arizona’s mining towns for striking miners or farmworkers—around themes of unequal treatment, social inequality, etc. Many of their works included Chicano songs performed by Teresa Jones and her sister Pernela Jones, who often shared the stage with Rebecca Cartes and Antonio Pazos and their ensemble, Bwiya-Toli. Samuel “Sammy” Gallegos was also a prolific Tucson corridista. He wrote corridos and songs such as “Chano El Chicano,” “Barrio is Home,” and “Barrio, Barrio,” which he sang at schools, rallies, and other community gatherings.
Corridos win a war at the university
In the mid-1980s the University of Arizona’s Spanish Department opposed including Chicano Literature in its curriculum. Professor Armando Miguélez, a Chicano Literature expert who was promoting Chicano Lit courses, was fired and graduate students who supported Miguélez were dismissed from their graduate programs and stripped of their fellowships.
The Chicano activist community organized a movement to support Miguélez and the students and confronted university officials and the Board of Regents. Corridos—e.g., “El Corrido del Decano Pérfido” (Corrido of the Perfidious Dean)—were the weapon that the students used to generate support within the department and the university. Ultimately, the students and community won: the students and their fellowships were reinstated, and a new department head who supported Chicano Literature was hired. [Unfortunately, by the time the issue was resolved, Miguélez had left the university.]
Indeed, musicians have continuously put their skills and craft in the service of our community. Next time you see one of these fine people, thank her or him. c/s
Copyright 2017 by Sal Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org