Another Fifty Years of the Corrido: A Reassessment

James Nicolopulous
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Texas at Austin.

[Reprinted with permission of the Regents of the University of California from _Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies_, vol.22, no.1, Spring 1997, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.  Not for further reproduction.

All page numbers refer to Works Cited, at the end of the document.  Footnotes are linked. ed.]

For the past forty years, most scholars writing about the corrido have accepted a chronological trajectory that depicts this ballad genre entering a precipitous decline during the 1930s -- a period of decadence from which it does not again emerge.  Nonetheless, conditions have not remained entirely static in the communities that nurture, produce and "consume" the corrido, and there are indications that it is now time to reassess the established chronology (vid Hernández, "el Corrido ayer..." 219-220, 221-29).  This is especially appropriate in regard to the widely accepted idea that the "true" or "heroic" corrido had virtually died out by the end of the 1930s.  In this article, then, I would like to examine the formulation of the "classic" chronology, and some of the underlying criteria that gave it shape, and then explore several developments from the 70s, 80s and 90s that suggest that a major readjustment, if not total revision, of the accepted scheme is now overdue.

In 1954, Mexican scholar Vicente T. Mendoza laid out the basic tripartite, chronological trajectory for the corrido that, with a few exceptions, continues to inform the work of most scholars writing on Mexican balladry to this day. (1)  According to Mendoza, the genre first gathers steam during the period from c. 1875-1910, which is characterized by "proto-epic" ballads celebrating the deeds of figures who have been called "pre-revolutionary bandits" (Simmons 43). With the outbreak of the Maderist revolution in 1910 the corrido then enters a genuinely "epic" phase that will last up until the resolution of the cristero revolt in 1929.  Mendoza makes it clear that this period represents the flowering of the "true" corrido:  "todo esto constituye la culminación del corrido con sus caracteres épicos y marca los jalones históricos en la evolución de nuestro país" (El corrido xvi).   Finally, with the cessation of the "epic" stage of the revolution during the 1930s, the corrido swiftly falls into an irreversible decline (El Corrido xvi).  Although his words have been cited often and are familiar to all students of the corrido, because they form the basis of virtually all subsequent commentary, it is worthwhile to quote them once again:

Perhaps what stands out most in this characterization is the equivalence that Mendoza takes as a given of the "epic" quality in a corrido  with its legitimacy or authenticity.  This implicit relationship between "genuine" and "epic" no doubt derives from Mendoza's early insistence on the direct descent of the corrido from the Spanish Romance.  I will have occasion to return to this point at several junctures in my argument.

Writing four years after Mendoza in 1958, Texas scholar and dean of North American corrido studies Américo Paredes was to base his own chronology of the "rise and fall" of the corrido on Mendoza's scheme, at least as far as the fate of the corrido after 1930 was concerned.  Although Paredes made important, even revolutionary, adjustments in regard to the earlier periods of the trajectory, his judgment on the demise of the genre was perhaps even more severe than Mendoza's:

Here it is apparent that it is not so much the waning of the "epic" circumstances of the revolution but rather the negative effects of commercialization which are to blame for the genre's decadence.  Nonetheless, Paredes' overall view is equally grounded in the equivalence between "epic" and "genuine" that we have seen in Mendoza's formulations.  In the first place, Paredes characterizes the "pre-Revolutionary bandit" ballads as "proletarian" rather than "epic" because they celebrate "Robin Hood" type figures who emerge from the most marginalized classes of society to engage in a sort of inchoate class war (137).  Parades is willing to concede that, with the important exception of the ballads of Border resistance such as "Gregorio Cortez," only the corridos of the Revolution itself are truly "epic," remarking:  "With the revolutionary corrido the ballad tradition of Greater Mexico reaches its peak.  In the best of them a comparison with the romance is justified in the compact drama of the narrative and in the epic tone" (138).  Again, as in the case of Mendoza, it is clear that it is the supposedly "epic" nature of the romance which ultimately shapes the definition of the corrido.

Of course, as all readers of Paredes are aware, the most provocative aspect of the Texas scholar's thesis concerns the pre-revolutionary developments of the corrido. It is not my intention to enter the minefield of the debate over the precise chronological and geographical distribution of the earliest corridos in this article.  For the present argument perhaps the most important feature of Paredes' restatement of Mendoza's chronological scheme is the observation that the "heroic" corrido does not completely disappear after the 1930s, but rather completes a process of transition from a "living tradition" into what Paredes calls a state of preservation -- i.e., the "authentic" corridos of the "heroic" period are still remembered, sung and play a role in the life of the community, but new texts of the genuinely "heroic" type are no longer produced, and the traditional texts face increasing competition in the commercial marketplace from bogus "movie corridos" ("Mexican Corrido" 139).

It is precisely Paredes' characterization of the "heroic" corrido as surviving in a state of preservation that provides the basis of the most intriguing aspects of recent presentations of the now "classic" chronology.  José Limón, in  a series of papers and publications appearing throughout the 1980s that culminated in the publication in 1992 of his Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry, has given us a thought-provoking refinement of Américo Paredes's overall thesis informed by late-twentieth-century Marxist cultural theory.  Limón states at the outset that he is limiting his discussion to the "epic heroic corrido of Greater Mexico" (8).  Following Paredes, he postulates that the corrido of Border resistance to Anglo-Capitalist encroachment both pre-dates and pre-figures the heroic stance and function of the truly epic corridos of the Revolution as a discourse of resistance to cultural, economic and political hegemony (26-9).

As for the corrido after 1930, Limón characterizes what Paredes had called a state of preservation as a period of "residual" activity.  Working from the Marxist cultural theories of Raymond Williams, Limón argues that although hew "heroic" corridos are infrequent and their impact is increasingly diluted by commercial imitations after 1930, the "authentic" texts produced in the earlier time continue to remind their listeners of the prior period of open, epic confrontation, and thus go on playing an active role as an ideological focal point and expression of resistance.  In fact, according to Limón, it is precisely for this reason that the dominant culture attempts to exert its hegemony by a selective "defanging" of the tradition through commercialization (41-42).  Nevertheless, in spite of this recognition of the active residual function of the heroic corrido, Limón and others who have adopted his interpretation like Ramón Saldívar (39-41) continue to reinforce the contention of the "classic" chronology that the "heroic" corrido had reached its peak of production by the 1930s, and had then entered a period of decadence or preservation from which it was never to recover.
 Indeed, Mendoza, Paredes and Limón have all, up to a point, been quite right.  From the late 1920s on, commercial sound recording has increasingly dominated the dissemination of the corrido.  As Guillermo Hernández has pointed out, the introduction of this "secondary orality" has had tremendous repercussions for the trajectory of the corrido as a genre, many of which have yet to be studied systematically ("La punitiva" 55-57).  One such repercussion has been that even versions of corridos collected directly from the oral tradition may well have been established in that tradition by commercial recordings (Nicolopulos 147-48).  Another is that students of corridos produced after c. 1928 rely less on printed texts and increasingly on sound recordings. (2)

Undeniably, from their respective vantage points in the 1950s, the prospects that confronted Mendoza and Paredes in terms of commercially recorded corridos were bleak.  Mendoza had his gaze fastened primarily on the incipient Mexican recording industry, and preliminary results of my own on-going discographic research tend to support his conclusions.  Although I do not yet have complete data for the period c.1926-1938, that which I have been able to collect for Peerless (the first Mexican label) suggests that although many sides were labeled as corridos, few indeed would satisfy three of Armando Duvalier's six basic categories (about which more below), and even fewer would qualify as genuine "heroic" corridos by any standard. (3)  My data for Peerless from 1939 to 1955 is complete, and, although there is a slight resurgence in the number of authentic corridos recorded, few if any concern events after c. 1940.  My preliminary data for Mexican Victor, the only other company active in Mexico during the 1930s, while as yet incomplete, tends to bear out this picture.

Américo Paredes, while sharing Mendoza's vision of Mexico's "Tin Pan Alley" in the 1930s, observed that the Columbia catalog for 1957 "...has a large number of traditional corridos on its recording lists, along with the currently popular pseudo-corridos" ("The Mexican Corrido" 139).  It is worth noting here that by the time Paredes was writing, artists who featured a great deal of authentic traditional material like Los Donnenos, Los Alegres de Terán and Lydia Mendoza had been recording for Columbia for a number of years. (4)  More importantly, however, while all or almost all of Columbia's postwar production of Mexican music was recorded in Mexico, from the late 1940s on there was an incredible proliferation of small labels in the United States, many owned by Mexican-American businessmen, and which issued hundreds, if not thousands, of corridos.  The first such label in Texas, Discos Ideal, for instance, put out at least 250 corridos out of a total production of c. 5000 songs between c. 1948 and c. 1963. (5)

Significantly, among the early recordings of corridos on Ideal we find "Jacinto Treviño" (Ideal 359).  Based on events of 1911 in South Texas, Paredes considers "Jacinto Treviño" to be one of the most paradigmatic of the Border resistance corridos in the mold of "Gregorio Cortez."  As Paredes notes, it is also one of the most widely sung and preserved in the tradition, having coalesced into its present form by at least the 1930s (A Texas-Mexican Cancionero 31-32).  Curiously enough, however, "Jacinto Treviño" was not recorded during what Chris Strachwitz ("An Introduction" 8) has called the "Golden Era of the Recorded Corrido" between 1928 and 1937. (6)  Thus the version recorded by the Hermanos Maya (singers from Nuevo Leon known as specialists in the corrido) for Ideal in 1949 is probably the first commercial recording of "Jacinto Treviño."  In that case, the disk issued by the small, regional label is the first, key link in a chain of secondary orality that has disseminated and propagated the "residual" power of this seminal celebration of what Paredes characterizes as a "peaceful man goaded into violence and defending his right with pistol in his hand" (A Texas-Mexican Cancionero 32) on through what is now a considerable number of recordings.  "Jacinto Treviño" is only one example of the crucial role played in the preservation of the heroic corrido by the new, regional Mexican-American labels in the 1950s.  In fact, systematic study of the production of companies like Ideal may well reveal that their contribution already in the 1950s went beyond preserving the heroic corrido in a residual state, with the production and dissemination of new texts. (7)
It is in the 1960s, however, that the corrido undeniably enters a period of renewal both as social event in the community and as a focus of commercial recording.  As always, this resurgence of the genre was closely linked to changing social and political circumstances.  One well-documented example is the cycle of  corridos composed immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Dan Dickey's study of some 24 texts celebrating the life and lamenting the untimely death of J.F.K. makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the state of the corrido in the early 1960s; not so much because the Kennedy ballads can be considered "near epic" as Dickey proposes (21), but rather because they illustrate so well the robust health of the topical ballad and the prolific activity of composer/musician/record entrepreneur corridistas like Willie López, José Morante, Salomé Gutiérrez and many others during the period.  As for the specific corridos themselves, they are mostly of the funeral panegyric type so familiar throughout the history of the corrido genre -- a general category which includes many of the most well-known corridos dedicated to the memory of figures like Villa and Zapata, as well as various aviators, bull-fighters, etc.  Ballads of this variety, of all periods and subjects, generally lack the dynamic narrative tension that guarantees the survival of a text in the tradition, although the significance  to the community of the person celebrated can dictate a fairly long period of preservation, even for essentially lyric panegyrics.  Thus some songs commemorating the death of Villa continue to exercise some "residual" power some seventy years after the event in spite of the essentially "non-narrative" character of their texts.

Of far more interest are the protest corridos that began to emerge in the later 1960s.  These texts tend to center around the farm worker's movement that was beginning to make a real impact on both the community and the society-at-large at this time.  Although many of the ballads celebrating leaders of the UFW like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta are often also of the static, panegyric type, others that came out of the farmworker's struggle, particularly those that deal with specific incidents, can truly be said to have a "near epic" tone.  Indeed, a ballad like Willie Lopez' "Los rinches de Texas" (Chulas fronteras) displays many of the distinctive features of the "true" corrido.

The text begins with what John McDowell ("The Corrido of Greater Mexico" 48-49) calls the "meta-Narrative" voice of the corridista asking his audience for permission to sing, the date (June 1967) and place (Starr County, TX) are quickly mentioned, as is the theme: the brutality Texas Rangers ("Los rinches" of the title) inflicted on striking melon workers in South Texas.  The song even ends, as should a true corrido, with the traditional "farewell" or "despedida" of the corridista, reinforced by an exhortation to join the union.  More importantly, however, the "emotional core" (to use Paredes' term) of "Los rinches de Texas" revolves around a series of what McDowell calls "corrido speech events" ("The Mexican Corrido" 213).  As both Paredes ("The Concept" 159-62) and McDowell ("The Corrido of Greater Mexico" 47-48) have made clear, it is in the dynamic moment of direct speech by the protagonists that the corrido achieves its maximum "heroic" tension, and where, as McDowell puts it "...we are transported beyond the narrative frame into the experiential substratum itself.  The narrative discourse is thus punctuated by flashes of identification between the narrative frame and the experiential substratum" (48).  Indeed, as we listen to the singer tell us:

we are effectively ansported into identification with the experience of the Rangers' Violence in a way that would be difficult for third person narration alone to achieve.  Furthermore, these speech events, as well as the direct denunciation of then Governor Connally and his wealthy grower friends that follows, remind us in many ways of seemingly similar challenges to the rinches and direct confrontation with Anglo authority in the classic corridos of Border resistance such as "Gregorio Cortez" or "Jacinto Treviño."

Indeed, as Manuel Peña has pointed out, the context of conflict with abusive rinches enforcing Anglo-Capitalist economic exploitation is exactly the same as that which obtained in the days of Gregorio Cortez.  Even the epithet "cobardes" applied to the Rangers comes directly from the earlier "heroic" corridos of Border strife ("Folksong and Social Change" 37).  Nonetheless, Peña makes an important distinction between ballads from the 1960s and 70s like "Los rinches" and the earlier "heroic" corridos: "...unlike 'Gregorio Cortez' and 'Jacinto Treviño,' corridos like 'Los Rinches' are not concerned with status reversal, the structurally weak Mexican symbolically defeating the structurally strong Anglo" (37).  Peña explains that Mexican Americans had significantly improved opportunities for community and labor organization, and consequently far better access to recourse through the legal system during the 1960s.  Thus the "status reversal" implicit in a figure like Gregorio Cortez facing off with his enemies blazing six-guns in hand was a less effective way of rallying support than was a compelling portrayal of victimization.  For this reason, Peña prefers to call ballads like "Los rinches de Texas"  "victim" corridos, which he contrasts directly with the "heroic" corridos of an earlier time (38).  Referring to the chronological postulation of Mendoza, Peña asserts that the corrido is still alive and well in the Southwest, with a continuing audience for both "heroic" and "victim" ballads (39).  Implicit in this judgment, however, is the assumption that the "heroic" corridos, products of an age with less possibilities for successful legal confrontation, continue to perdure only in a residual state, serving " reminders that the Anglos have always been the Mexican's enemies" (38).

In contrast with the situation that Peña describes in the United States, protest movements in Mexico did not have the same success at obtaining redress by working through the system.  On the contrary, a series of violent repressions of workers' and students' movements culminated in the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968.  In the aftermath of the bloodbath in the Plaza de Tlatelolco in Mexico City, where the army fired indiscriminately upon unarmed student demonstrators, a number of well-organized groups took up armed resistance to the government.  The most noteworthy of these was the movement led by former school teacher Lucio Cabañas.  Cabañas and his guerilla fighters carried out a series of increasingly spectacular kidnappings, and over a period of several years cane to dominate the rugged Sierra de Atoyac to the northwest of Acapulco.  Matters came to a head in 1974 with the kidnapping in June of the powerful former senator and then governor of Guerrero state, Rubén Figueroa.  The government in Mexico City responded by sending in a massive force (estimates at the time ranged between 16,000 -- 20,000 troops, 30-40% of the entire Mexican Army), cutting roads through the formerly trackless mountains, and employing tanks and aircraft on an unprecedented scale.  By early September, Governor Figueroa had been recovered alive, but Cabañas continued to elude the government forces (New York Times 8 Sept. 1974):  In early December the government announced the death of Cabañas, producing photos of a headless corpse to back its claims (Newsweek 16 December 1974).

Reliable published information about the Cabañas uprising has always been difficult to obtain, and the mainstream media in Mexico have always done their utmost to sweep the entire matter under the rug.  Nonetheless, Cabañas enjoyed widespread support among many sectors of society, and especially among the rural poor of Guerrero.  Although as little as possible was said about Cabañas in the "official" media, he and other resistance leaders were widely celebrated in corridos.   Guerrero, along with the neighboring states of Morelos and Michoacán, has long been a stronghold of corrido production and consumption.  Given this very active ballad tradition, combined with a long history of resistance to centralized authority (8), it is hardly surprising that corridos about Cabañas and his exploits should have flourished despite official discouragement.  I myself heard Cabañas corridos being sung in clandestine cantinas and on buses late at night in Guerrero during the early 1970s, and Mexican corrido scholar Catalina H. de Giménez notes that in spite of their complete banishment from the mass media of radio and television, these corridos of the Cabañas cycle live on in oral transmission and can still be heard, as she says, "hasta en las playas de Acapulco" (58)

Nor were these corridos entirely dependent on transmission through the primary orality of unrecorded performance.  Although the singing of the texts most favorable to Cabañas was explicitly prohibited by t PRI government through the official musicians union, (9) one small record company in Mexico City did manage to issue a series of corridos highly favorable to Cabañas and his movement.  At present, these sound recordings on the EDM label are probably the best testimony that we have of the overall corpus of the Cabañas cycle.  Of the dozen or so of these corridos that I have found on EDM releases, one, "El tigre de Atoyac" (EDM 1013), will have to serve here as a representative example.

Even the most cursory examination will show that this is no "movie" corrido.  Although some of the most perceptive recent criticism of the genre rejects inclusion or exclusion of texts based on the presence or absence of certain formal elements (H. de Giménez 26-27, 36-42), much of the literature debating the "legitimacy" of this or that text has referred to Armando Duvalier's system of "six formulas" as a yard-stick of authenticity.  Duvalier's analysis proposes the following formulaic motifs as typical of the genuine corrido: a) llamada inicial del corridista al público; b) lugar, fecha y nombre del personaje central; c) fórmula que precede a los argumentos del personaje; d) mensaje; e) despedida del personaje; f) despedida del corridista (quoted by Simmons 17 ).  Although all six are not necessarily found in any given single text, the presence of three or more, combined with certain features of metrical and stanzaic organization is taken as an indicator of authenticity (Leal 20-21).

As far as the formal elements of "El tigre de Atoyac" are concerned, the stanza of six octosyllables, although perhaps less frequent that the quatrain -- especially in corridos norteños --, was recognized by Duvalier as a legitimate variant (Leal 20-21), and is especially common in corridos from Michoacán and Guerrero.  The use of assonance rather than consonantal rhyme in a considerable percentage of corridos was noted by Mendoza (El corrido xvii), and continues to predominate in texts from southern Mexico.  The double-vowel assonance of the á-o in the second verse of stanza 1 does not conflict with the single-vowel assonance in á of the rest of the stanza, given that fundamentally "...all assonances are double" (Smith 27).  Stanza 1 corresponds to Duvalier's formulaic motif b, giving the place, date and name of the principal protagonist.  Stanza 3 begins with c, the formula that introduces direct speech, and the remaining verses of the strophe are a heroic speech event that would be at home in many a corrido of the most "epic" period of the 1910-29 revolution.  Finally, stanza 6 is a classic example of f, the despedida del corridista.  The highly propositional nature of the content of this final strophe is consistent with the context of production:  an on-going struggle against the forces of hegemony.  the overall brevity of the text is not due to a decline in the artistic standards of the genre, but rather to the requirements of the principal medium of diffusion: a single side of the 45 rpm phonograph disk.(10)  Although a great deal more could be said about formulaic diction and the presence of typical corrido motifs in this text, it can be seen that "El tigre de Atoyac" meets the formal requirements of the "legitimate" corrido.
Even more important than the formal characteristics, however, are the questions of tone and ideological content.  As Américo Paredes made clear more than thirty years ago, it is the spirit if militant mexicanismo that sets the Greater Mexican corrido apart from the traditional romance-corrido far more clearly than any aspect of form ("The Ancestry..." 233).  I think that it is fair to say that a similar criterion can be applied to distinguish the authentic, heroic corrido from the "movie" corridos so decried by Paredes and Mendoza.  Mexican scholar Catalina H. de Giménez, writing at the beginning of the 1900s, insists that "...el corrido debe definirse no por las características (temáticas, estéticas, etcétera) de su contenido, sino por su representividad sociocultural, es decir, por su referencia al pueblo como portador y soporte" (36).  The same writer goes on to explain that the corrido " ... sirve como vector ideológico de los grupos subalternos, como signo de reconocimiento y de identificación entre los mismos y como archivo de la memoria colectiva" (38).  It is in this last sense, as an expression of an otherwise marginalized, subaltern voice, that corridos from the 1970s and beyond like "El tigre de Atoyac" and others of the Cabañas cycle must be recognized as "authentic," "heroic" ballads in no way inferior to those of the "classic" period of the revolution before 1930.

Of course, it is easy enough to say this in the context of the rural uprising in Guerrero during the early 1970s.  Conditions very similar to those of the earlier revolution obtained, at least on a local level, and it is understandable that a figure like Cabañas would assume a "heroic" stance comparable to that of earlier revolutionary chieftains when portrayed as the protagonist of a ballad cycle.  Is this apparent resurgence of the heroic corrido in the 1970s, then, just a fleeting anachronism dependent on a short-lived recurrence of "revolutionary" conflict?  Is the heroic corrido thus doomed to expire again in obscurity before the onslaught of commercial, "movie" corridos disseminated by the mass media?

Some would attempt to answer this question with reference to the so-called narco-corridos that have come to dominate the genre since the 1970s.  On the one hand, María Herrera-Sobek has argued that although the figure of the drug trafficker as ballad protagonist may well descend directly from the smugglers of an earlier age, like Mariano Reséndez and the bootleggers of the Prohibition era, the community's disapproval of drugs and the drug culture overrides this "antihero's" impact as a "culture-conflict type hero" as described by Paredes in his studies of corridos like "Mariano Reséndez" and "Los Tequileros" ("The Theme..." 53;  Paredes, A Texas-Mexican Cancionero 41-45). According to Herrera-Sobek, in spite of the fact that the smuggler's enemies are still the hated rinches and federales -- the traditional antagonists of the hero of the Border resistance corrido --, the shift fro trafficking in luxury goods and alcohol to illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine has fundamentally undercut the status of the protagonist and deprived these ballads of the necessary "heroic" qualities (52, 57).  Herrera-Sobek supports this conclusion with the observation that in all but one of the twenty-two corridos she studies the protagonist meets a bad end, and that many of the despedidas appear to contain admonishments against illegal activity (54-55). (11)

On the other hand, Guillermo Hernández, for instance, has suggested that "El héroe en el corrido de narcotráfico hereda el papel adjudicado al protagonista del corrido tradicional" ("El corrido ayer ..." 225).  Hernández analyses the current super-hit "Pacas de a kilo" as an example of how the protagonist in many drug-trafficking corridos has assumed the role, portrayed in much the same terms, of the heroic figures of resistance to hegemonic domination in both the Border conflict and revolutionary ballads of the period up to 1930. (12)  Hernández emphasizes that drugs and drug trafficking per se are usually incidental in these corridos in relationship to the portrayal of the protagonist as a culture-conflict type hero who represents the aspirations of subaltern strata of society (225). (13)  Most importantly, however, unlike the corridos studied by Herrera-Sobek, "Pacas de a kilo" presents the figure of an unrepentant trafficker whose heroic stance epitomizes the qualities of personal bravery, sincerity and independence most admired in the corrido community (228).  In contrast to Herrera-Sobek's interpretation that the trafficking corridos express the community's condemnation ("The Theme..." 60), Hernández concludes:

Although the example presented by Hernández dates from the 1990s, corridos from as early as the 1970s come to mind which unabashedly present the trafficker as a hero of the culture-conflict type.  One such ballad from the tierra caliente of Michoacán and Guerrero is "El rey de la pipa roja":

The portrayal of "El Sapo," the drug-trafficking protagonist, as a hero of intercultural conflict is first made explicit in stanza 3, where he is celebrated for outwitting the roadblocks set up under the infamous Operation Condor of the Nixon era.  In stanza 4 the machismo and essential Mexican character of the hero are explicitly extolled.  The characterization of the U.S. government as the antagonist is made even more clear in stanza 5.  "El Sapo," his trusty submachine gun in hand, is described as crossing back into Mexico "unconquered, invincible."  The most telling commentary is reserved for the final two lines of the stanza, with "ningún grado respetó / de aquellos entrometidos."  Not only does the corridista flaunt the hero's disdain for the power of North American law enforcement here, but he also underlines the widespread resentment felt in Mexico for what is perceived as an unjust of national sovereignty.  The long reach of U.S. drug interdiction policy into local affairs has created among many Mexicans the impression that official North America is indeed a "meddlesome interloper."  Given the history of Anglo-American intervention in Mexico, beginning with the transfer of over a third of the national territory under the Treaty of Guadalupe HIdalgo in 1848, this attitude does not necessarily reflect criminal cynicism, but a genuinely popular nationalism.  Furthermore, as Hernándes points out, the drugs are not destined for consumption where they are produced, so any potential harm is effectively transferred to the traditional cultural antagonist (225, 229).  This portrayal of the drug smuggler as an anti-imperialist culture conflict hero is widespread in so called narco-corridos from the 1970s on.  Even in corridos of the Caro Quainter cycle, for instance, where there is often an explicit condemnation of the traffickers, as stanza or two that implicitly or explicitly celebrates Car Quainter and his gang as culture conflict heroes will frequently coexist in the same text.

Nonetheless, although the drug-trafficking corridos are clearly the most prolific and productive of the present day, and merit far more study than they have yet received, the issue is too complex to be dealt with adequately in the context of the present discussion.  Furthermore, in the cases of "Pacas de a kilo," and to a lesser extent "El rey de la pipa roja," one could well argue that despite their commemoration of important values central to the corrido world view, that these are still essentially "movie corridos." That is to say, they cannot be proved to be genuinely "epic" texts that can be traced to specific persons and events, although they may well reflect contemporary realities in a more general sense. (14)

It is not necessary, however, to rely on texts that explicitly identify the protagonists as drug traffickers to demonstrate that the heroic corrido is indeed alive and well in the 1990s.  An excellent example is "La muerte de Juan Ortíz" (Alborada: Arhoolie CD 426), yet another corrido from the tierra caliente:

Again, as in the case of "El tigre de Atoyac,"  there is no question of faulting "La muerte de Juan Ortíz" on purely formal grounds.  The very first verse announces the date --  1990  --  and the second gives an abbreviated version of the metanarrative "llamada inicial del corridista" (Duvalier a), thus complying with two of Duvalier's formula's in the initial stanza.  The names of both protagonist and place appear in stanza 2, completing Duvalier's category b.  Stanza 8 has both the formula introducing direct speech (duvalier c) and the heroic speech event itself.  The final stanza is a fine example of the despedida del corridista (Duvalier f). Thus "La muerte de Juan Ortíz" has at least four of Duvalier's six formulaic  motifs, as well as the requisite rhyme and meter.
More important still, "La muerte de Juan Ortíz" rings true.  The speech event in stanza 8 is a fine example of epic defiance on par with the "Entrenle rinches cobardes" of the corridos of Border conflict.  Here, of course, the struggle is with the Judicial Police and the Mexican Army, descendants of the hated rurales of former times in the corrido universe, just as the modern day Border Patrol and DEA are still portrayed as "rinches cobardes."  Juan Ortíz is said to be wanted for crimes, but these are not specified.  The violence of the authorities' invasion of the rural world of the Ortíz family -- and that of a significant part of the corrido public -- leaps out with unforgettable starkness from the narrative stanzas 4-7.  The sympathy of the corridista is patent in the propositional discourse of the despedida.  Thus this corrido satisfies H. de Giménez's requirements of sociocultural representivity as well as the more formal criteria demanded by more traditional scholars.

"La muerte de Juan Ortíz" was originally recorded on the Alborada label by the Conjunto Alma de Apatzingán.  Alborada is a small regional label based in Uruapan, Mich. which specializes in Purhépecha language indigenous music of the region as well as Mestizo groups like the Conjunto Alma de Apatzingán.  This group is renowned in the region as the premier conjunto de arpa grande, a musical style that predates the modern mariachi, but which perdures to this day among michoacanos from the tierra caliente.  The members of the Conjunto Alma de Apatzingán told Chris Strachwitz that "La muerte de Juan Ortíz" was composed immediately after the events described occurred, and the protagonists were well known to the corridista in life.  Once again, it is impossible to categorized this type of ballad text as a "movie corrido."  An epic struggle goes on day after day between the people of traditional, rural cultures in Mexico and the forces of the central government, viewed just as much as "interloping outsiders" as either the rurales or the rinches were by the Border people described by Paredes in the early part of the century.  Regardless of whether or not there happens to be a recognized "revolution" in progress, what McDowell loosely defines as the corrido community ("The Corrido of Greater Mexico..." 44-45) conceives of these violent encounters between those who live by traditional values and what are widely perceived as the corrupt forces of the "outsiders" in epic terms.  "La muerte de Juan Ortíz" is by no means an isolated text, as anyone who listens carefully to the corridos sung by michoacanos, guerrerenses and other Mexicans from the ballad lands of the interior can attest.  The heroic corrido may well live on in a purely residual state for certain Mexican-American groups in the United States, but for the people of the tierra caliente, among others, on both sides of the international frontier, the obituary pronounced on the heroic corrido in the 1950s has proved to have been premature indeed.

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(1)  Vicente T. Mendoza himself was to repeat, essentially verbatim, his formulations of 1954 ten years later (La lírica narrativa 14).  back

(2)  The reliance on commercial sound recordings is especially evident in two recent valuable monographic studies by María Herrera-Sobek, The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis and Northward Bound: The Mexican Immigrant Experience in Ballad and Song. back

(3)  I include all of the precursor labels such as Huici, Nacional, Olimpia and Artex under the rubric of Peerless here for the sake of concision.  For a brief sketch of the early history of Peerless and associated labels, see Geijerstam (113-15). back

(4)  Lydia Mendoza, for example, made her first recordings for Mexican Columbia in Monterrey, N.L. in 1951 (Strachwitz and Nicolopulos 379).  While Lydia did not make any true corridos for columbia during the 50s, groups that began recording for the label at around the same time, like Los Alegres de Terán, Los Montañeses del Alamo and Los Donnenos certainly did.  Los Montañeses, for instance, were backing Lydia in sessions in Monterrey that same year (380). back

(5)  This information comes from as yet unpublished results of a database complied under my supervision for Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie/Folklyric with information taken from the recording logs of Ideal Records.  The relatively small percentage of corridos compared to the total production could perhaps be taken as an indicator of a decline in the genre, although it is more likely that it represents the decidedly middle class and assimilationist taste of Armando Marroquín, the A & R director of Ideal.  For more on Ideal, see the notes to Arhoolie/Ideal CDs 341 and 343, and Manuel Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music (71-78). back
(6)  "Jacinto Treviño" does not appear in Richard Spottswood's compendious discography of pre-WWII recordings, Ethnic Music on Records, nor have I found any indication that it was recorded in Mexico. back

(7)  I am presently engaged in collaboration with Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie/Folklyric/Ideal in the preparation of CD 367, which will be a sampler of the corridos issues on the Ideal and Río labels in Texas during the period c. 1948-1960.  This collection should serve as a preliminary step towards establishing the regional trajectory of the commercially recorded corrido, at least in Texas, during the 1950s. back

(8)  It should be remembered that the most successful and long-lived centers of the Mexican independence movement during the early nineteenth century were in the present-day state of Guerrero. back

(9)  Musician Aurelio de la Cruz, presently the tololoche player with the conjunto Los Pingüínos del Norte, told Chris Strachwitz and me that he was working in Guerrero during the early 1970s and that the Sindicato de Músicos transmitted and enforced an order prohibiting the singing of pro-Cabañas corridos (video-taped interview, Piedras Negras, Coah. 9 May 1994). back

(10)  It should be remembered that from the early 1500s on, the space available on a page of a broadside had a similar abbreviating effect on the length of typical ballad texts. back

(11)  It should be noted that the texts studied by Herrera-Sobek are almost all commercial recordings destined for dissemination through radio airplay before 1980. back

(12)  The version cited by Hernández bears the title "Vacas de a kilo."  The most widely disseminated recordings of this corrido, including that by the Tigres del Norte, however, are titled "Pacas de a kilo."  The essential idea, as well as the main body of the text, is the same in either case. back

(13)  It is significant in this regard that just as the PRI dominated union banned the singing of corridos favorable to Cabañas in the 1970s, the authorities in the state of Sinaloa have prohibited the singing of drug-trafficking corridos in the 1990s ("El corrido ayer..." 225, n. 7). back

(14)  I have not yet been able to do field research on "El rey de la pipa roja."  Nonetheless, my sense is that it is a "genuince" corrido:  that is, that it refers to a specific, real person.  The use of beer and gasoline trucks to transport marijuana became widespread in the 1970s.  Furthermore, this corrido is a regional production which never received promotion or airplay, in contrast to the highly commercial "Pacas de a kilo."  back

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Chulas fronteras.  Brazos Films, 601.  El Cerrito, CA.:  1976.

Dickey, Dan William.  The Kennedy Corridos:  A Study of the Ballads of a Mexican American Hero. Austin: CMAS, 1978.

Geijerstam, Claes af.  Popular Music in Mexico.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

H. de Giménez, Catalina.  Así cantaban la revolución.  México:  Grijalbo, 1991.

"The Head of Lucio Cabañas."  Newsweek 16 December 1974.

Hernández, Guillermo.  "El corrido ayer y hoy:  nuevas notas para su estudio."  Entre la magia y la historia: tradiciones, mitos y leyendas de la frontera.  Ed. José Manuel Valenzuela Arce.  Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 1992.  215-30

---.  "La punitiva: el corrido norteño y la tradición oral, impresa y fonográfica."  Heterofonia 94 (1986): 46-64.

Herrera-Sobek, María.  The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

---.  Northward Bound:  The Mexican Immigrant Experience in Ballad and Song.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

---.  "The Theme of Drug Smuggling in the Mexican Corrido."  Revista Chicano-Riqueña 7.4 (1979):  49-61.

Leal, Luis.  "México y Aztlán: el corrido."  Aztlan 18.2 (1987): 15-26.

Limón, José.  Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems:  History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

McDowell, John Holmes.  "The Corrido of Greater Mexico as Discourse, Music, and Event."  "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore. Ed. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 46-75.

---. "The Mexican Corrido: Formula and Theme in a Ballad Tradition."  Journal of American Folklore 85.337 (1972): -220.

Mendoza, Vicente T.  El corrido mexicano. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1954.

---.  Lírica narrativa de México: el corrido. México: UNAM, 1964.

Nicolopulos, James. "El corrido de Luz Arcos."  Corridos y Tragedias de la Frontera. El Cerrito, CA: Arhoolie/Folklyric, 1994.

Paredes, Américo.  "The Ancestry of Mexico's Corridos: A Matter of Definitions."  Journal of American Folklore 76 (1963): 231-35.

---. "The Mexican Corrido: Its Rise and Fall."  Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border. Ed. Richard Bauman. Austin: Center for Mexican American Studies, 1993.  129-41.

---. A Texas-Mexican Concionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border.  Urbana; Chicago; London: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Peña, Manuel.  The Texas-Mexico Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

---. "Folksong and Social Change:  Two Corridos as Interpretive Sources."  Aztlán 13 (1982): 13-42.

Saldívar, Ramón.  Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

"Senator is Freed."  New York Times 8 September 1974.

Simmons, Merle E.  The Mexican Corrido as a Source for Interpretive Study of Modern Mexico (1870 - 1950).  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1957.

Smith, C. Colin.  Spanish Ballads.  Oxford: Pergamon, 1964.

Spottswood, Richard K.  Ethnic Music on Records:  A discography of ethnic recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. 7 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Strachwitz, Chris. "An Introduction."  Corridos y Tragedias de la Frontera. El Cerrito, CA: Arhoolie/Folklyric, 1994.

Strachwitz, Chris, and James Nicolopulos. Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1993.

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