Source: The Washington Post
Author: Sam Quinones, Special to The Washington Post 
Pubdate: Sunday, 1 Mar 1998


PICO RIVERA, Calif.—As Saturday slides toward midnight at Rodeo de
Medianoche, a cavernous club just outside Los Angeles, Voces del Rancho
perform the ballad of Lamberto Quintero.

Quintero was a drug smuggler in the Mexican Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa
who died in a legendary 1976 shootout. His ballad is now a classic. Voces
del Rancho (Voices of the Village) have updated the accordion song: Now it
opens with the sputtering sound of machine gun fire.

The songs Voces del Rancho perform are called narcocorridos. They are folk
music, somewhat reminiscent of polkas or waltzes. For generations in the
Mexican badlands, corridos recounted the best, the worst and the bloodiest
exploits of men. The heroes of corridos were revolutionaries or bandits,
sometimes noble horses or ferocious fighting roosters.

Drug smugglers' Chevy Suburbans with smoked windows now trundle down the
roads where bandits once rode. And in turn, the corrido has become the
narcocorrido -- the story, set to music, of the drug smuggler.
Narcocorridos celebrate shootouts with federales, betrayals and executions
and stories of how legendary traffickers fell and how cargoes of contraband
got through -- always set to an obliviously cheerful accordion line.

In some ways, the narcocorrido is like a gangsta rap: It deals openly with
themes of drugs, violence and police perfidy. And though it enjoys
virtually no radio support, it is wildly popular among working-class youth.

Today, the narcocorrido is in the midst of a surge in popularity both in
the American Southwest and in Mexico. "There seem to be hundreds of groups
that sing them. When I go to the record shops, I find so many groups that
have albums and CDs," says Maria Herrera-Sobek, a professor of Chicano
studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of
three books on corridos. But, she continues, it is difficult to assess the
sales figures.

"It's almost impossible to estimate," Herrera-Sobek explains. "There are
the big groups, like Los Tigres del Norte; then there are so many groups
that are almost unknown. Plus, there are so many small labels, then there
are groups who just go in and record their own cassettes and try to market
them. Then there are the bootleg cassettes. You see them all over markets
in Mexico."

But increasingly, the genre has become the domain of Mexican American
youths who grew up on rap, once disdained Mexican folk music and are
connected to the places described by the songs only through their parents.

Despite its Mexican roots and references, the narcocorrido is now a U.S.
product, and the Los Angeles area is its creative and commercial center.
Voces del Rancho's Mariano Fernandez and Edgar Rodriguez, both 21, grew up
in the L.A. suburb of Bell, listening to hip-hop and speaking
up-to-the-minute urban slang.

"When we were small we always wanted to fit in, so we'd listen to rap,"
Rodriguez says. "The other kids were all listening to rap, so I guess we
felt that if we listened to Spanish music we'd be beaner or something."

Now, says Rodriguez, "everyone's listening to narcocorridos."

The evolution of narcocorridos has much to do with the story of one man --
an undocumented immigrant from the hills of Sinaloa who became an
underground L.A. folk legend.

His name was Rosalino Sanchez, but everyone called him Chalino. In 1977, at
age 17, he immigrated to L.A., where he made a living as a farm worker,
then as a dishwasher and then as a car salesman. Occasionally he worked as
a "coyote," smuggling Mexicans across the border into California.

Chalino wrote his first corrido in 1984. It was about his brother, who had
been shot to death in Tijuana. After that, Chalino composed corridos about
his friends, and soon word spread that he would write corridos on
commission. By 1987 he was taking bands into studios to record his songs
for his clients. Eventually his tapes were put out by small independent
labels that orbited the larger Spanish-language record industry in Los
Angeles. Chalino sold them at swap meets and carwashes around L.A., but no
matter how many thousands they sold, no radio station would play his songs.

Traditionally, Mexican pop placed a premium on puff and polish. Male
singers looked like playboys -- any vestiges of poverty were anathema --
and tried to sound like opera stars. Chalino didn't fit in. His voice was
rough, thin and limited, and he sang in the slurred accent of the Pacific
Coast. He was rail-thin, with an angular face. Chalino didn't even try to
rid himself of the hard, unwashable veneer of the Mexican rancho, or village.

But many immigrants saw themselves in Chalino. "Other people recorded
corridos, but no one recorded corridos that were so personal, songs about
common people," says Pedro Rivera, who put out several Chalino recordings
under his own Long Beach-based Cintas Acuario label. "It was pure pueblo."

The desolate pueblos of Sinaloa, which stretches down the Pacific Coast
across the gulf from Baja California, were fertile ground for Chalino's
corridos. Blood feuds lasted for decades. Betrayal and ambush, paid
killings and corrupted justice were not rare. And in the ranchos of
Sinaloa, the drug business flourished.

Chalino's lyrics celebrating the tough hombres in the hills of Sinaloa
rarely mentioned that they had connections to the drug trade. The lyrics
didn't have to. It was understood.

By 1990, Chalino's shows were selling out. His cassettes started showing up
in Mexico and in other parts of the United States. His fans' car and truck
stereos proved remarkably effective substitutes for radio.

"In Tijuana, Guadalajara, Las Vegas -- they'd all have Chalino going in
their cars," says Abel Orozco, owner of El Parral nightclub in South Gate,
an L.A. suburb, where Chalino played several times to packed houses. "That
was his radio. It began here in Los Angeles. They'd leave here from El
Parral with their stereos going at full volume."

On a January night in 1992, Chalino was set to perform at a club in
Coachella, 20 miles east of Palm Springs. As he walked into the crowded
club, Chalino later told police, someone gave him a 10mm pistol, hoping he
would wear it onstage, as was his custom.

Shortly before midnight, he had finished a few songs and was taking
requests. Suddenly Eduardo Gallegos, a 33-year-old unemployed mechanic,
jumped onstage and fired a 25mm bullet into Chalino's side.

Chalino leaped from the stage and ran through the crowd, firing the 10mm
back at Gallegos. People rushed the doors and smashed windows trying to
escape. When it was over seven people were hospitalized and one youth had
bled to death. The shooting made the evening news the next day in Los Angeles.

The Coachella shooting added to Chalino's credentials. And as he
convalesced, his cassettes sold better than ever. Once he recovered, his
fees rose from $1,500 to $10,000 a night.

Several months later, Chalino accepted an engagement in Culiacan, the
capital of Sinaloa. After the first night's show, about 2 a.m., he left in
a Grand Marquis accompanied by one of the female singers in his group. The
woman said later that men dressed as police officers stopped them, arrested
him and took him from the car.

As dawn broke on May 16, 1992, the body of Chalino Sanchez was found beside
a highway. He had been shot twice in the back of the head. He was 31.

The Coachella shooting boosted Chalino's credibility. His death turned him
into a legend.

Mexicans from California down to Sinaloa became obsessed with him. "It was
an epidemic," says Marisela Vallejo, Chalino's widow. "You could hear his
music all over the place. So many people would play him in their cars,
their houses, their dances."

Chalino's death spawned a cottage industry in cheesy reissues that
flourishes to this day. Labels that owned the rights to his songs quickly
stripped his vocal tracks from original recordings and wove them in with
singers and bands Chalino had never met. More than 20 ersatz recordings are
still on the market. The 11 released by Musart, one of the largest
independent labels, still sell at least 10,000 copies annually. Today,
dozens of singers follow in his footsteps. One even uses the stage name
"Chalinillo," or Little Chalino.

Saul Viera, 22, a Los Angeles native, listened to rap growing up and was
generally ashamed of his parents' folk music. Then one night he sang at an
open mike, and a record producer signed him immediately -- Viera sounds
like Chalino. Viera still listens to rap, but he makes a living singing
polkas about drug smugglers.

Today, Viera is known as "El Gavilancillo" (the Little Hawk), has released
15 albums and is one of the biggest of the post-Chalino wave of
narcocorrido singers.

"At first when Chalino came out, no one really liked him," Viera says. "I
was like, 'Where the hell did you get that guy?' But then you pay attention
to what he's saying and you start liking him. It's like gangster music. The
corridos are about people getting shot, battles with the police, growing

Since Chalino's death, a kind of "Sinaloaization" of Mexican culture has
taken place. Tourists may think Mexico is mariachi music, but many
working-class Mexicans in Los Angeles are now listening to Sinaloan folk
music. The accordion and the tuba have suddenly become hip. Nowadays, young
men like Viera, whose second language is an English-accented Spanish, pump
polkas out of their car stereos at maximum volume, and pretty girls think
they're cool.

Among the narcocorridos aficionados, a new style of dress is also all the
rage. Many kids, some of them college-educated, imitate illiterate Mexican
drug smugglers from the sticks. Call it narcotraficante chic. At clubs from
California down to Sinaloa, city youths now dress in cowboy hats and boots,
large belt buckles, gold chains and jackets with epaulets fashioned from
the skin of some exotic animal; recently silk shirts have been added, often
emblazoned with marijuana leaves, AK-47s, the Virgin of Guadalupe or the
word "Sinaloa."

"Everybody wants to be from Sinaloa," says Angelica Gonzalez, a
student-teacher at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills. "They even try to
talk like" Sinaloans.

And as narcocorridos evolve during the '90s, what was once implicit is now
explicit. Gunfire, helicopters and sirens are frequently added to songs as
sound effects. Singers pose with massive weaponry. Last year, Jesus Palma
shouldered a bazooka on his album "Mi Oficio Es Matar" ("Killing Is My

At the Cintas Acuario label, Pedro Rivera's son Juan Rivera recently
devised a series of compilation albums with photographs of staged drug
deals and drug robberies: "Puros Corridos Perrones" (Bad-[expletive]
Corridos," more or less). Last year, with no promotion whatsoever, the
fifth volume, "Somos Cocodrilos Y Que" ("We're Coke Dealers -- What of
It?"), sold 60,000 copies the first week.

On the cover of his 1997 album "Corridos de Fregadera y Media," Lupe Rivera
posed with an AK-47. The album included an ode to Mexican drug lord Amado
Carrillo Fuentes -- "The Lord of the Skies" -- who died during plastic
surgery last summer.

Since much of the music is recorded by and for Mexican American kids who
grew up listening to rap, the marketing debt is obvious. "When [rapper]
Eazy-E was coming out, he'd have a gun. I'd say, 'Damn, I'm gonna buy it,'
" says Lupe Rivera. "That's the stuff I liked. Plus, when you see a
cassette that says parental guidance, you want to get it."

In Mexico, Catholic Church officials and members of the center-right
National Action Party now deplore the music as part of the "culture of
death." Indeed, a debate is raging throughout Mexico and in the Mexican
community in the United States over the narcocorrido and its effect on
young people. As part of this, officials in the Mexican border city of
Ciudad Juarez last fall asked radio stations not to play the music; several
states and other cities in Mexico have done the same.

Even though most radio stations in Mexico and Los Angeles rarely play
narcocorridos, they can mean big business. EMI Latin signed a "narcoband"
- -- Los Tucanes de Tijuana -- to a major contract and is promoting them so
heavily that their hit "Mis Tres Animales" ("My Three Animals" -- a
reference to marijuana, heroin and cocaine) actually got serious airplay on
both sides of the border last year.

Despite the fretting of church and civic leaders, at this point no norteno
or banda group in Mexican music can afford to ignore the narcocorrido. "We
have to put one or two corridos on every album now because if it's just
regular songs, no one buys it," says L.A.-based BM Records' Carlos Manuel
Razos. "Even singers who really don't sing many corridos, we have to have
them sing a few. Otherwise it won't sell."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles continues to be the center of a booming corrido
industry. After all, anyone with a few hundred dollars can have a corrido
written and recorded about him.

Few of these commissioned corridos tell compelling stories. Usually, they
merely say that so-and-so has a nice truck, likes to go to bars and chase
women, maybe that he has a pearl-handled .45, and that he's real tough and
respected by his friends, so don't mess with him.

But for many immigrants, the corridos prove that someone has made something
of themselves in America. Like Nike sneakers or a new car, commissioned
corridos are tangible proof that an immigrant has done well. Narcocorridos
are particularly effective if the immigrant also wants to leave the
impression that he's connected to the drug trade.

"If I write a corrido about someone who's made a lot of money here selling
drugs, the first thing he does is grab my cassette and go back to Mexico to
show all his friends," says Teodoro Pena, a landscaper who took up the
corrido-writing business after Chalino's death.

"We can't write corridos to Pancho Villa anymore," Pena says. "Today, the
corrido is about a drug smuggler or some insignificant person, who has no
influence, but who simply wants to become known."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company