Corridos: “singing newspapers” and community organizers…
Luis Valdez’s La Carpa de los Rasquachis is an extended play based on the corrido musical tradition.
The corrido, which tells a true story in song, has served us well over the years. It has informed and inspired us and has moved us to action. Corrido expert Celestino Fernández describes the corrido as “a descriptive narrative, a running account, written in verse, like poetry, and put to music. The emphasis is on the words and story, not on the music or voice.” (Source 1) Corrido scholar María Herrera-Sobek notes that the corrido is thriving in Mexico and in the United States. (Source 2)
In a 1990 essay I stated that, “Before the days of radio and television … corridos actually served the purpose of informing people of events that were going on, a kind of a ‘singing newspaper’.” (Source 3) Fernández also uses a newspaper analogy: “Much like the editorial page of the local newspaper, the corrido takes a topic of importance and accurately and precisely documents the essential points, interprets them, and then provides commentary, advice, or recommendations.” (Source 1) The corrido also has been, and continues to be, a political vehicle, a means of organizing communities and of opposing attacks on our culture.
Foundational aspects of the corrido…
The Mexican corrido derives from the Spanish romances, “…short poems of regular meter and assonance which capture an intense and dramatic moment—of sorrow, of defeat, of parting, of return—in simple and direct language…” Romances in turn evolved from the cantares de gestas, “songs of great deeds.” (Source 4). Herrera-Sobek also notes the nexus between the corrido and the canción de gesta. (Source 2)
Folklorist Americo Paredes chronicled corridos about the Texas Mexico border.
According to James Stamm, many Spanish romances of the XV century have as their theme, “…dramatic moments of the conflict between Moors and Christians in frontier (border) encounters (fronterizo ballads).” (Source 4) Anthropologist Américo Paredes, devotes a sizable portion of his classic collection of Texas Mexican/Chicano corridos to corridos that deal with XIX and XX century fronterizo (i.e., border) conflict between Texas-Mexicans and white/Anglo Americans. (Source 5) Fernández also notes that, “People have written and sung corridos on specific border themes, often of political and cultural clashes, since the nineteenth century.” (Source 1)
Both the Spanish romances/cantares de gestas and Mexican/Chicano corridos originated and flourished during intense periods of nationalism and cultural unity. In Spain this was during the first centuries of its existence as a cultural entity. In Mexico (and Mexican-dominant parts of the U.S.) these were the periods immediately before, during, and after the Mexican Revolution (1910 on). Fernández refers to the period from 1836 to the late 1930s as the “corrido century” for the U.S.-Mexico border. (Source 1) In the 1960s and the 1970s the Chicano Movement—whose foundation was an intense sense of nationalism and of cultural identity—produced an immense amount of literature, including songs and corridos.
Corridos have some common characteristics: They usually have verses of four or six lines, with established rhyme schemes, and are written in the popular vernacular, from a working-class perspective. Old-style corridos contain twenty or thirty verses, while modern corridos tend to be eight or ten verses. Corridos usually have an Opening (“This is the corrido of…”), a Middle (the story details), and a Closing (“The corrido ends here…”). Traditional corridos were performed simply by one individual accompanied by a guitar. Today corridos are performed in various musical genres, from mariachi to norteño. (Source 1)
The Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave corridistas great material with which to work.
The Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave corridistas great material to work with—real heroes and heroines, a plethora of local issues, and broader movements such as the farm worker struggle and the fight to reclaim stolen land in New Mexico. Space limitations prohibit a full discussion of the immense and important role of corridos in our history. But the following examples give a good sense of their historical role in combatting negative depictions of Mexican Americans and as community organizing vehicles.
Corridos go to war…
World War I…
Mexican Americans served in great numbers in WW I. Historian Carole Christian, suggests that Mexican Americans were actually overrepresented in the WW I ranks due to Draft boards being very aggressive in getting Mexican Americans into the military. (Source 6) The corrido “Laredo,” popular circa 1920, describes the hostility that Mexican people in Laredo (Texas) experienced. But, in spite of that hostility, says the song, Mexican Americans fought valiantly, many losing their lives, under the U.S. flag in WW I, bringing honor and pride to the community. (Source 5)
World War II…
About 750,000 Mexican Americans served in the military during World War II. Many of these didn’t wait to be drafted—they enlisted. “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. WW II veteran and author Raúl Morín asserts that “Everywhere that Mexicans would gather, here and overseas (during WW II)…” they would sing “Soldado Raso.” (Source 7) “Los soldados olvidados de la Segunda Guerra Mundial” (The forgotten WW II soldiers) discussed below also references the immense contributions of Mexican Americans during WW II.
“Soldado Raso” was a popular song about Chicanos going off to World War Two.
Mexican Americans were overrepresented in Vietnam. According to Census reports, Mexican Americans comprised 11.8% of the population of the five (5) Southwestern states, yet the fatality rate of Chicanos from these states was over 19%. However, Chicanos with English last names are not represented by this figure nor are Chicanos from states other than the five (5) Southwestern states. “El hijo del soldado raso” (The son of the Soldado Raso) references the participation of Mexican Americans in the Vietnam War. (Source 8)
Corridos go to work…
Mexican Americans have a very rich union-labor history. Much of that history has been memorialized in corridos and songs. The United Farm Workers struggle inspired many of these. The UFW’s Teatro Campesino (Farm Worker Theater) produced “¡Huelga En General!,” an LP album of their songs. Two members of the Teatro Campesino, Daniel Valdez and Augustín Lira, each produced an LP album containing songs referencing the farm worker struggle. Lalo Guerrero (the “father of Chicano Music”), wrote several corridos about the UFW struggle. Los Angeles schoolteacher José Luis Orozco produced an LP album that paid tribute to the UFW struggle. (Source 3)
Mining, a major industry in Arizona and other southwestern states, was dominated by Mexican American workers. Many corridos memorialize the dynamics of the workers fighting to obtain fair wages, safety regulations, and overall decent treatment and comment on the social dynamics of the times, such as housing discrimination, etc. A sampling:
The “1903 Strike Corrido” is about a strike in Clifton, Arizona.
“El Corrido de San Pedro” about the Mexican neighborhood in the Arizona mining town of Hayden-Winkelman. “El Corrido de Morenci” about the eastern-Arizona mining town of Morenci. “El Corrido de la huelga” about the 1983 United Steelworkers Union strike against Phelps Dodge. “El corrido del minero,” which speaks to the hard lives of copper miners.
Two corridos are embedded in the documentary movie “Los Mineros,” which focuses on labor struggles of Mexican American miners in Arizona from 1903 to 1946. The “1903 Strike Corrido” is about a strike in Clifton, Arizona centered on fighting the “Mexican Wage” system whereby Mexican miners were paid less than white/Anglo miners for the same work. “Los Mineros Corrido” relates how after almost 50 years of struggle, Mexican American copper miners in Arizona miners achieved decent working conditions. (Source 9)
Corridos as organizers…
The UFW and miners-union songs and corridos served to inspire workers and to generate support for the unions involved. “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” and “El Corrido de Juan Reyna” 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, and in Reyna’s case, to raise money for his legal defense. (Source 5)
“Los soldados olvidados de la Segunda Guerra Mundial” (The forgotten soldiers of WW II) was written by José “Pepe” Villarino and performed by “Los Románticos” as part of the 2007 Defend the Honor movement to protest a Ken Burns documentary on WW II that was aired on PBS that omitted entirely any mention of Mexican Americans. The song encouraged people to protest to PBS. (Source 10)
Corridos are still inspiring and educating us…
“El Llanto de El Paso, Texas” is a corrido about the 2019 racially motivated mass shooting of Mexican Americans in El Paso, Texas.
Fernández notes that, “Corridos continue to share the news of the day, bringing this folk tradition into contemporary times.” (Source 1) Fernández gives some examples of these:
“Las Mujeres de Juárez” by Los Tigres del Norte is one of the numerous corridos that address the murders of over 300 women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico during the 1990s.
“El Corrido de José Antonio Elena Rodríguez” by Celestino Fernández, in collaboration with Guillermo Sáenz, memorializes the murder of 16-year-old José Elena in 2012 by a U.S. Border Patrol agent who fired 16 bullets through the U.S.-Mexico border fence, from Nogales, Arizona into Nogales, Sonora, hitting José Elena 13 times.
Josué Rodríguez and Alejandro Ramos performed the corrido “El Llanto de El Paso, Texas” at a vigil three days after the 2019 racially motivated mass shooting of Mexican Americans at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart.
The murder of George Floyd by the police and the subsequent national and global demonstrations against police brutality have inspired several corridos. Among them are “No puedo respirar/El corrido de George Floyd” by Ayalas Band and “8 Minutos de Infierno” by Pedro Rivera, and an a capella home recording of “El Corrido de George Floyd” by Humberto Reyes.
Several corridos address the Covid-19 pandemic. Fernández suggests that the most popular of these might be the satirical and humorous “El Corrido del Coranvirus” by Los Tres Tristes Tigres. (Source 1)
Fernández asserts that the period from 1836 to the late 1930s has been dubbed the “corrido century” for the U.S.-Mexico border, and he predicts that a rival “corrido century” may be in the making. Let’s hope he’s right. c/s
Special Thanks to Christine Marín, Celestino Fernández, and José “Pepe” Villarino for their assistance.
Copyright 2020 by Salomon Baldenegro. You can reach Sal by writing: Salomonrb@msn.com
Source 1 Celestino Fernández, “Running Tales for the Times,” Border Lore: Heritage and culture of the U.S. Southwest and Northern Mexico, August 7, 2020.
Source 2 María Herrera-Sobek, The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Source 3 Salomón R. Baldenegro, Chicano/Mexican Music as Literature: An Essay in Two Parts, Unpublished, 1990.
Source 4 James R. Stamm, A Short History of Spanish Literature, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1967.
Source 5 Américo Paredes, A Texas-Mexican Cancionero, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
Source 6 Carole E. Christian, Joining the American Mainstream: Texas’s Mexican Americans During World War I, The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 4, April, 1989.
Source 7 Raúl Morín, Among the Valiant: Mexican-Americans in WW II and the Korean War, Los Angeles: Borden Publishing Co., 1963.
Source 8 Freddy Gómez, Juan A Perez, “El Hijo Del Soldado Raso,” N.D.
Source 9 Los Mineros, Galán Productions, 1991.
Source 10 José ‘Pepe’ Villarino, “Los soldados olvidados de la Segunda Guerra Mundial,” Los Románticos, from the CD of the same name, 2007.
Photo of La Carpa de los Rasquachis and Chicano protesters copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. Photo of book cover used under face use proviso of the copyright law. All other photos in the public domain.