When a norteno album called “Guerra de Estados Pesados” appeared at No. 4 on the Southern California album sales chart two weeks ago--alongside ‘N Sync and Sisqo--many were surely surprised.
That’s because most people don’t realize the U.S. is the world’s top Latin music market, and that Mexican regional music--not salsa or Latin pop--dominates that marketplace, accounting for 60% of Latin music sales. Most also don’t realize that this music has a long history in the U.S., and is as much a part of this nation’s heritage as blues, jazz, Cajun and country.
Now, thanks to a new foundation established by Los Tigres del Norte--the top-selling norteno band in the world--Mexican regional music, created on both sides of the border, may finally be on the way to gaining the mainstream respect many say is long overdue.
The Tigres del Norte Foundation, which gave its first grant to UCLA last month, is the first to focus on preserving Mexican and Mexican American folk music traditions. While efforts have been made to preserve other U.S. folk genres, none has ever addressed the working-class music of Mexico and the Mexican diaspora.
The Tigres del Norte Foundation, and the academic projects it will fund, are milestones in the history of Mexican and Mexican American folk music, according to those who have long labored to have the genres recognized in mainstream American culture.
“For me, we should study it for the same reason we study jazz or blues or classical music,” says Ramiro Burr, a music writer for the San Antonio Express-News and the author of “The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music.” “It’s a cultural art form, as good as any, and it’s a shame that it’s been ignored for so many years.”
The first grant, in the amount of $500,000, was awarded to UCLA’s Chicano Research Center, and will be used to digitalize a collection of some 32,000 corrido recordings held in a private collection by German-born, Bay Area resident Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Arhoolie Foundation and Arhoolie Records, a label that has released significant folk and blues recordings since the ‘60s.
According to UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, the Tigres grant is the largest ever given to the Chicano Research Center and a landmark in the academic study of Mexican regional music.
Guillermo Hernandez, director of the center, became friends with the six members of Los Tigres del Norte when he invited the Grammy-winning group to conduct a workshop at UCLA in 1998. Hernandez met Strachwitz while studying at UC Berkeley in the 1970s.
Last year, Hernandez began talking to Strachwitz about donating his Mexican and Mexican American recordings to the center. Strachwitz agreed, on the condition that the songs would be transferred to digital recordings, an undertaking estimated at almost $300,000.
Hernandez approached Los Tigres del Norte about funding the project. The band has sold more than 30 million albums in its 30-year career, and has contributed to many charities in the U.S. and Mexico.
The band consulted with the lawyer for its record label, Van Nuys-based Fonovisa. The lawyer, Jose Zorrilla, suggested establishing a foundation, which the group did, beginning with a $500,000 gift. Fonovisa President Guillermo Santiso offered to supply matching funds from the company. The foundation will continue fund-raising in the Latin music community.
“It’s important to us that we teach the young people about their cultural heritage,” Zorrilla says. “We lose too many of them by the second and third generation.”
According to Burr, corridos developed in revolutionary Mexico as a storytelling mechanism, “sort of like a sung newspaper,” he says. They are typically performed in the accordion-dominated conjunto and norteno styles. Tejano is an urbanized Texas version of the same. All have roots in European and, most likely, Native American traditions, according to Hernandez.
One important distinction between the study of the corrido and other American folk genres is that the corrido, in its various incarnations, is alive and well--perhaps stronger than ever, “a living idiom,” according to Strachwitz. They continue to be written about figures ranging from war heroes to politicians to criminals.
Strachwitz points out that Mexican folk traditions based on the corrido have been a part of the Southwestern U.S. cultural fabric for more than a century, but have gone largely unnoticed.
Most of the recordings in Strachwitz’s collection, in fact, were made in Texas and Los Angeles, because, he says, Mexican labels ignored “poor people’s music” at the time.
It’s a tradition that continues, to some extent. Los Tigres del Norte, for instance, live in San Jose, and record for a Los Angeles label. And norteno, popular in Northern Mexico, only recently became popular in Mexico City after gaining popularity in the U.S. first.
“The Mexican labels didn’t think poor people bought records,” Strachwitz says. “What the American labels understood, and still understand, is that poor Mexicans in the U.S. are strongly connected to their music and will spend all they have to buy it.”
Because it is so often associated with poor people and immigrants, much Mexican regional folk music, modern and historic, remains a source of ridicule for assimilated middle- and upper-class Latinos, including many in Los Angeles, according to Hernandez.
For that reason, he says, it is much more common to find assimilated and educated Chicanos dancing to Cuban son, Puerto Rican salsa or Spanish-language rock than to corridos or nortenos--because the other genres are associated with middle- and upper-class values.
Hernandez says he hopes the Tigres foundation will make it easier to convince other academics and students, particularly Chicano students, that Mexican regional popular music is nothing to be ashamed of.
“The fact that academia is recognizing it will probably make the community realize that the wealth of their culture is also something they should appreciate,” Hernandez says.
“Sometimes our own people discard it as if it were of no value. They don’t find their peers in the middle class sensitive to this type of music, and choose other ‘legitimate’ song forms, without realizing that what they’ve discarded is in many ways superior to what they have replaced it with. Corridos are jam-packed with Latin American tradition, and we’re only now beginning to discover how rich a body of literature this is.”
Burr says the struggle he has faced as one of the nation’s few journalists attuned to the Mexican regional music scene is similar to the ones that were faced by early proponents of jazz, blues and country music.
“In Hank Williams’ day, everybody thought he was just into drugs and alcohol,” Burr says. “Now there are three or four books out there on him. I think there should be books on people like [conjunto pioneer] Tony de la Rosa, who was just as important as Hank Williams.” (De la Rosa was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998.)
There are signs the mainstream scorn of Mexican regional music is changing, and quickly.
Already the Tigres foundation and the work of Hernandez have drawn the attention of Refugio Rochin, director of the Center for Latino Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution.
According to Rochin’s office, the Smithsonian is planning an international tour highlighting U.S.-Mexico border music and its social, psychological and musical contributions to the world.
That tour will feature Los Tigres del Norte, and is scheduled to begin in February 2002, with an extended stay at the University of Madrid.