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Singing the border news.

Then said Gregorio Cortez With his pistol in his hand, "Ah, so many mounted Rangers Just to take one Mexican!"

from the corrido of Gregorio Cortez, (circa 1901)

The Mexican corrido, or sung narrative ballad, holds a primary place in the mythos of that country's last century. Corridos were the poetry, press, and propaganda for much of Mexico's revolutionary past. Before the days of radio and universal literacy, the corrido--by spreading news to one and all--held the nation together during its darkest days. Today these collected songs have become the schoolchild's history book.

The first corridos of the mid-nineteenth century heralded outlaws who dared challenge the established order. In the early days of the Revolution, freshly minted corridos passed the word faster than newspapers could be printed. They chronicled Pancho Villa's battles of Torreon, Zacatecas, and Celaya; praised Emiliano Zapata and vilified Porfirio Diaz; and immortalized small-time heroes like Juan Vasquez, and Juan Carrasco.

John Reed, who chronicled the revolution in his book Insurgent Mexico, wrote of soldiers gathered around the fire singing a corrido about Pancho Villa: "One of them began to sing. . . . He sang one verse, and then the next man sang a verse and so on around, each man composing a dramatic account of the deeds of the Great Capitan. . . . While one man sang, others stared upon the ground, wrapt in composition. . . . [T]hey sang around their fire for more than three hours."

Like all folkloric genres, the corrido's formal structure is flexible. It generally has a consonantal rhyme scheme a-b-c-b in quatrains of eight-syllable lines. Textual conventions include a Homeric account of personal heroism; an explicit statement of names, dates, and places; short quotations of the hero's actual words; the singer's call for his listeners' attention (la llamada); and the singer's farewell (la despedida).

As with other oral art forms, the corrido seemed to have sprang from a preliterate folk consciousness. If, contrary to Reed's overly idealized account, it was not collectively improvised around a fire, it certainly did speak directly to the people in simple, memorable words and images. Its purpose was both practical and artistic--to spread news, boost morale, and entertain the war weary. Some corridistas were famous, like Marciano Silva of the Zapatista forces in Morelos, while most remained the anonymous Everyman.

The corrido got its name apparently from the term romance corrido, a romance from Spain sung without refrain, and Spanish Americans apparently favored this form. Social expressions of bravado, boastfulness, and machismo entered the genre, while the corrido's chief subject matter became stories of class, cultural, and foreign oppression--common feelings at a time Mexico felt the consecutive shocks of the Mexican-American War, the French invasion, the Diaz dictatorship, and finally the Revolution.

According to the late Mexican folklorist Vicente Mendoza, the corrido's history can be divided into three periods: 1875-1910, when the form first emerged, with songs of Robin Hood-like outlaws such as Heraclio Bernal, Joaquin Murrieta, Ignacio Parra, and Valentin Mancera; 1910-1930, the age of epic-style revolutionary corridos; and from 1930 onward, a time of decadence as the great historical moment--which had given the corrido its epic purpose--passed.

Other theories of the corrido's decline as a folkloric genre point to the rise of the recorded music industry, which created such high demand for newly composed corridos that professional songwriters masquerading as traditional corridistas began adulterating its conventions and subject matter. The physical bond between singer and audience, the basis of the singer's call and farewell, lost meaning for radio and phonograph listeners.

Today, however, many critics dispute the alleged decadence of the post-1930 corrido, pointing to the folkloric and artistic resilience of the border corrido, a genre reflecting the unique culture and history of the lower U.S.-Mexican frontier. In this region permeated by age-old disputes, the border corrido's main theme was the conflict between Anglos and Mexicans, between imported laws and ancestral rights, and between the raw power of force-of-arms and an individual's moral claim to justice.

The earliest of all corridos whose hill text remains, the "corrido de Kiansis" (Kansas), also known as the "corrido de los Quinientos Novillas," was composed and sung on the border about 1860. The tale of a longhorn cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail from Texas, this corrido is not directly about Mexican-Anglo conflict but rather offers a metaphor for a north-south encounter that ends, from both the steers' and a Mexican vaquero's point of view, in death.

Americo Paredes, a pioneering Mexican-American folklorist at the University of Texas, championed the border corrido as a cultural expression of the lower Rio Grande Valley. In 1954, when the ballad was still a living oral tradition, Paredes recorded 363 corridos from old-time singers and composers, an invaluable collection now housed at the Texas Folklore Archive.

In his classic book With His Pistol in His Hand, Paredes examined the facts, folklore, and myth-making process surrounding an actual event from the summer of 1901 that spawned the corrido of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican wrongly accused of murder who evaded Texas Rangers on a ten-day horseback ride across the state. The corrido and its commercial variants stood as a summary statement about the uneasy plight of Mexicans at the hands of U.S. law early in this century.

Cortez and his brother had been peaceably eating lunch at their house when they were challenged at gunpoint by Rangers investigating a stolen mare. For tack of a common language, the Rangers misunderstood Cortez's profession of innocence and shot his brother dead. Cortez killed the sheriff in self-defense and fled in fear of lynch mob justice. His escape, capture, trial, conviction, legal appeal, and eventual release from prison, all breathlessly reported in the press, became an emotional roller-coaster on which both Anglos and Mexicans rode as the story unfolded.

According to Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, a label known for its fine album litter notes on reissues from early 78s as well as more contemporary recordings, the popularity of border corridos rose and fell in periodic cycles. Major U.S. record companies first gave a push in the late 1920s when they discovered South Texan music; then, after World War II local, often Mexican-American-owned labels dug deeper for lesser known corridos.

The Chicano pride movement sparked another corrido revival in the 1970s, celebrating such cultural icons as Cesar Chavez, migrant farmworkers, Mexican victims of Anglo racism, and non-Chicano symbols of hope like John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Conjuntos such as Los Madrugadores del Valle, Los Pinguinos del Norte, and Los Tigres del Norte all found commercial success with these new songs, whose subject matter was as timely for contemporary radio listeners as the story of Gregorio Cortez was for newspaper readers in 1901.

A reflection of the growing Chicano political clout is beard in the corrido of Henry Cisneros, now U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who in 1981 became the first Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Santiago Jimenez, Jr., a third-generation conjunto musician there, composed the Cisneros campaign song as a corrido, and performed it much the same way that corridos of the revolution were sung in public, both to entertain and inform.

More popular in recent years, and also in keeping with the theme of border conflict, are corridos about larger-than-life drug smugglers. Trafficking corridos grew out of the songs about general contraband, such as the metaphorically titled "Contrabando del Paso," written long before hard drugs came to the border. In a jarring break with tradition, however, many corridos are no longer based on actual fact. Says San Antonio corridista and music archivist Salome Gutierrez, "corridos now are more like stories than the news." Gutierrez should know: He has written some fifty corridos, including the perennial favorite "El Gato Negro," a trafficking ballad that also stretches the truth.

Gutierrez thinks that new recording technology has a lot to do with the corrido's turn from truthful reporting to fictional invention. "The time is over," he says, "when a corridista could hear the news in the morning, write a corrido in the afternoon, record with his conjunto in the evening, and get it to radio stations and juke boxes the next day. They're not pressing 45s any more, and you can't get such fast turn around with cassettes and CDs. And besides, these days you're likely to be sued by the people you write about."

The latter consideration may sound absurd, but leading corrido producer Joey Lopez was sued by a Laredo lawman when a ballad about a jail break there blamed lax security. Even though some union musicians are discouraged from political topics, names and places can easily be altered enough for a song to be recorded.

The uniqueness of life along the border will keep the corrido alive there as a cultural expression in all its many dimensions. As Joey Lopez says, "Every day the world is different for us, so we will always need new corridos. Half are true and half aren't--only time will tell which become tomorrow's classics." Given the daily outpouring of newly composed corridos, some no doubt will live on as testimony to the next generation of what life today was like on the border.

Louis Werner, who resides in New York City, is a freelance writer and independent producer/director of documentary films. He is a regular contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:Mexican corrido
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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