The Tigers’ Tale

Sam Quinones is the author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lunch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press). His last story for the magazine was on politics in South Gate

During most shows by Los Tigres del Norte, there comes a moment when a certain ecstatic clarity is achieved by those ready to receive it. The heart is warm and generous, troubles are forgotten and you feel like hugging whoever is closest. This moment comes for Martin Yanez and Guillermo Valdenegro about three hours into a Los Tigres show at the Carta Blanca baseball stadium in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, an agricultural state on Mexico’s northern Pacific coast. Yanez is a truck driver, and Valdenegro is an agronomist. Out on the outfield grass, they have been approaching young women, fearlessly pleading their case with noticeable insistence and an equally noticeable lack of luck. Yet they are undaunted. For the two young men are feeling that sublime vibe found at the confluence of Tecate beer, the warm, late-night Culiacan air and the high-energy music Los Tigres is pumping out over 15,000 people on the baseball field. Life is good. Nothing--not even the adamant refusal of Culiacan’s best-looking young women to dance with them--can mess with that.

Onstage, Los Tigres del Norte are garbed in tiger-striped, coffee-colored fringed leather suits. The band has already played “Agua Salada” (Salty Water), about a man who tells the young woman who loves him that he is too old for her, kissing the tears that roll down her cheek. Now, as if that weren’t enough melodrama, the band launches the bass run known to virtually every Mexican alive as the opening to “La Camioneta Gris” (The Gray Truck).

The song is a ranchera with an accordion fluttering over the rollicking bass. It’s about a couple on a honeymoon in a gray truck filled with cocaine, who, surrounded by federales, drive into an oncoming train rather than surrender. That kind of love prompts Yanez to let loose a yelp, raise his beer to toast the sky and chortle, “This is the best of Mexico.”


He’s only half right.

Seeing Los Tigres del Norte in Sinaloa is like seeing Elvis play Memphis. The band is from Sinaloa. Mexican drug smuggling began here. Sinaloa also sends many immigrants to the U.S. And these two themes--drug smuggling and immigration--have been the foundation for the band’s career.

But the story of Los Tigres del Norte is really an American story. The members of Los Tigres are immigrants--legal U.S. residents, but not U.S. citizens--and a product of the possibilities that bring Mexicans to the United States. Mexico has been a country where power and prestige are revered, and little people are generally ignored; the millions of those people who leave for the United States are proof of that. Los Tigres understands that better than anybody. It is the most enduring binational band today because, in a very un-Mexican way, it hears the humble.

To date, Los Tigres del Norte has made 33 records, 14 movies, won a Grammy and reinvented Mexican popular music. Still, the band tours 44 weeks a year. Every night band members respond to dozens of requests in notes passed to the stage, and take photos with fans during their break. Every record sells a million copies, more than 60% of those in the United States. Its logo is as well known in Mexican communities as Coca-Cola’s, and the band has played recently in Germany, Chile, Japan and Guatemala.

Yet Los Tigres, whose members live in San Jose, Calif., are as unknown to non-Mexican America as the immigrants to whom they sing. Their children are American, working as airline mechanics and school-district bureaucrats and married to people of other races. But Los Tigres remain Mexican citizens and hold tight to their Mexicanidad--their Mexicanness.

Los Angeles has long held a core Los Tigres audience. In 1999, the band donated $500,000 to UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center to create the Tigres del Norte Fund, in part to pay for the digitalization of 17,000 78-rpm records of early 20th century Mexican popular music. The mural shown on the album the group released last year, “De Paisano a Paisano,” has been replicated on a wall in East L.A.

Los Tgres del Norte emerged from an unnoticed side of the 1960s. As America’s rebellious children were turning to drugs and music, working-class Mexicans began coming to the United States. They were rebelling, too. They were leaving Mexico, which never gave a poor man a chance, for a future in gringolandia. But they missed the pueblo, a girlfriend, mom.


Some Mexican government officials and intellectuals have suggested that people who immigrate to work in the United States have turned their backs on Mexico. But really the opposite is true. In this foreign land, immigrants ached for Mexico, though it had mistreated them. With so much of Mexico in the United States yearning for home, it’s not surprising that music a young man could call “the best of Mexico” would be created here, too.

Amid this river of young men were the Hernandez brothers from the village of Rosamorada, Sinaloa. During the band’s career, it has included five Hernandezes: Jorge, on vocals and accordion; Hernan on bass; Raul and Luis on bajo sexto (a lower-register 12-string guitar); and Eduardo on accordion and saxophone. Anchoring the band since the beginning has been the brothers’ cousin, drummer Oscar Lara. Saxophonist Guadalupe Olivo also played with the band on and off through the years, but no longer does.

Los Tigres became the most perceptive chroniclers of the Mexican American experience. In song, they reflected its most personal feelings, and took the side of these millions of immigrants who are voiceless on both sides of the border.

“Los Tigres feel very Mexican, but they are here in the U.S., and they relate to people in this country,” says Guillermo Hernandez, director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center and no relation to the band members. “They have this intuition about what the [working-class] community is feeling. An anthropologist would not have that kind of knowledge.”

The band’s wide repertoire also includes novelty tunes, inspiration and message songs about peace and the brotherhood of Latinos. In 1996, it released “El Circo,” the story of two brothers, Carlos and Raul, who run circuses. This was a reference to the shady business dealings of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas and his brother, Raul, who is now serving a prison term for money laundering. “El Circo” was the first Mexican pop song to criticize an ex-president, and its release was a landmark on the country’s journey to democracy.

Yet Los Tigres’ best songs often are simple pages torn from the world view of Mexico’s working classes, and they remind a traveling man of what’s his at home. They are love songs drenched in tears and machismo, or tales of irony and melodrama: the boy whose mother is dying and goes to the church to stop his father from remarrying, only to have the father deny he knows him; the immigrant who kills his wife and the Texas rancher who seduced her; the man who keeps a grave site so his children will believe their mother died instead of running off.


“Our country has beaten us up a lot,” says Jose Jimenez, a ceramics worker who has worked in the United States, at a concert near Mexico City. “We have to go beyond our borders to find a better life. [Los Tigres’ music] reminds us of our country. It makes us feel more Mexican.”

In the mid-1960s, the Hernandez boys were like millions of campesino children, growing up on a ranch, milking cows and feeding pigs before school. But their father took sick. To pay his medical bills, the boys--ranging in age from 7 to 13--left school and learned to play instruments. They traveled 850 miles up the coast to Mexicali, across the border from California, to sing for money in cantinas.

Mexicali in the mid-1960s was booming. Many men had moved there to work in California fields. At night, they’d convene in the city’s cantinas. The band members, being children, were protected by old prostitutes and barmaids, who’d hide them from the police and encourage the men to pay the boys to play. One night, a drunk told them to get up on the bar and dance. He pulled a gun and began firing at their feet.

A promoter in Mexicali spotted them and, in September 1968, hired them to play a Mexican Independence Day parade in San Jose. Jorge, the eldest, was 14. At the border, the customs agent noted the band had no name. But they were eager kids, so he wrote on their immigration permit, “The Little Tigers.” Heading north, they became Los Tigres del Norte.

After the parade, a family hired them to play a party at a park nearby. The boys were to return to Mexico the next day. But the show was broadcast over the radio and, elsewhere in San Jose, Art Walker was listening.

Walker, an Englishman, had come to Los Angeles in the 1950s. For a while he was an electrician. Then, with $500 from a car-accident insurance settlement, he bought some 78-rpm records and began selling them at the Paramount Swap Meet. Later, he branched up the state to meets in Fresno, Roseville and San Jose, where he moved in the early 1960s. One of the ironies of Mexican music in California is that the pioneer who started what’s now a multimillion-dollar industry and changed a part of Mexican culture was from Manchester, England, and didn’t speak Spanish.


“He was a merchant by heart,” says Walker’s ex-wife, Lydia Riojas Walker, an accountant in San Jose. “He would buy anything in quantity that he could sell at the swap meet. Once someone sold him a bunch of Mexican records. He took them out to the swap meet in L.A. and began getting a lot of requests. At the time, Mexican music was really hard to get.”

From his stand in the flea markets of California, Walker saw Mexican communities growing and only Texas labels supplying them with music. In the early 1960s he formed Discos Fama (Fame Records, though English speakers still call it Fama), California’s first Mexican music label, and began scouting talent.

Hearing Los Tigres on the radio, Walker ran to the park, signed the boys and kept them from returning to the oblivion of Mexicali’s cantinas. Years later, their relationship dissolved when Walker’s partner allegedly began using the label’s income to buy cocaine and Fama went bankrupt. Walker died in 1992; son Bill owns Fama’s rights and re-released 10 titles from the band’s Fama collection this year. He plans to reissue others.

But through the 1970s, the older Walker tended to his young charges and expanded Fama’s stable of artists. Walker also transformed norteno folk music. Norteno had been a regional acoustic music, played primarily in cantinas in northern Mexico for borrachos--drunk adult men. (Women weren’t allowed in cantinas in Mexico until the early 1990s.) But the music had immigrated to California, where rock music was played in larger venues. Walker suggested that Los Tigres take up electric instruments. “He said, ‘How are you going to play a dance hall for 100 people? How will they hear? How are they going to dance?’ ” says Hernan Hernandez. “He always thought the music was to dance to. We never thought you could play norteno music with a full drum set and electric bass. That was for rock groups.”

Thus norteno music adapted to new realities, much like the blues when black migrants moved from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. Los Tigres made norteno a pop music, a music for young people, particularly young women, who still make up the largest part of a Los Tigres audience. With electric instruments, Los Tigres could play other rhythms, particularly the bouncy cumbias from Colombia.

About that time, in an L.A. nightclub, Walker and Jorge Hernandez heard a song about a couple smuggling marijuana from Tijuana in a car tire. The couple are paid in Los Angeles, and the man tells the woman he’s going to San Francisco to visit his true love. But his partner is jealous and, in a dark Hollywood alley, she shoots him and disappears with the money.


Jorge Hernandez arranged to re-record the song: “I liked the story. It was very much like a movie. With each scene, you could imagine the story unfolding in your mind.”

The band put out “Contrabando y Traicion” (Contraband and Betrayal) in late 1972. It hit huge and changed norteno music. Before that, Los Tigres, like every other norteno band, performed songs in a folky duet. But Walker had Jorge sing “Contrabando” solo, giving it more of a pop feel. Walker also added gunshots at the end of the song, paving the way for a barrage of Tigres sound effects to come--sirens, telephones, helicopters.

Walker never fully understood the lyrics to that or other Los Tigres songs, says Hernan, but with “Contrabando,” “he found us a style that nobody had.”

“Contrabando y Traicion” is a classic. Every Mexican knows Camelia La Tejana and Emilio Varela, the song’s heroes. The song was made into a movie, as were the song’s two sequels, in which Emilio’s drug gang kills Camelia, and is then wiped out by her son in revenge. “Contrabando” made drug smuggling an acceptable topic for popular music and proved that the age-old Mexican folk genre--the corrido, or ballad--could be commercially successful.

The band followed it with “La Banda del Carro Rojo” (The Red Car Gang), about drug smugglers in a shootout with Texas Rangers. In 1989, Los Tigres released “Corridos Prohibidos” (Prohibited Ballads), an album about drug smuggling and violence; traffickers reportedly bought the record by the case. One song is about the killing of Hector “El Gato” Felix, a columnist for the Tijuana news weekly Zeta who had angered Baja California politicians. The band received threatening phone calls. Tijuana radio stations refused to play the song until Zeta complained.

Today, the narcocorrido is a staple of Mexican pop. Many traffickers are said to pay composers to write about them. Los Angeles is the center of a surge in narcocorrido popularity. Several small labels use gangsta-rap marketing techniques to sell the genre. Singers pose with assault rifles, silver-plated pistols, gold chains, and, with off-color language, sing of their drug involvement, all to a merry accordion and polka beat.


Los Tigres’ narcocorridos are tamer, and usually don’t mention living traffickers.

Before 1972, the largest show Los Tigres played was a Berkeley festival at which Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton appeared. Mostly it played parties and furniture store openings in San Jose. But “Contrabando” found it an audience across the country. In a Chevy van, the group’s members explored the length and breadth of Mexico in the United States. Most Mexican immigrants were undocumented migrant farm workers during these years. Los Tigres quickly became their musical counterparts.

“Every time the harvest changed, when the people went to Florida, we’d go there. When the harvest went north to North Carolina, we’d go up there,” says Jorge. “We did so many little towns. All the small towns of Indiana, Wisconsin. We’d play for 200, 300 people. In California, we worked Fresno, Madera, Sanger, Clovis, Modesto, Visalia. They’d finish in California and go to Oregon. We’d follow.”

Even today, following a Los Tigres concert schedule is to discover all the places Mexicans live: Sioux City, Iowa; Charlotte, N.C.; Garden City, Kan.; Nampa, Idaho.

But Los Tigres didn’t fully understand the power of this new demographic force until 1976, when it recorded an anthem to the importance of immigrant labor. “Vivan Los Mojados” (Long Live the Wetbacks) asks, “When the wetback goes on strike, who will pick the onions, lettuce and beets?”

“Vivan Los Mojados” was the first immigration hit in Mexican music. It spawned a wave of jokey mojado songs by other bands in which the ingenious immigrant fools the bumbling Border Patrol. Los Tigres heard a roar go up every time they started the song and realized then that undocumented farm workers, Mexico’s invisible poor across the United States, ached for songs that recognized them. “That was the first time they began to relate us to what they were living,” says Hernan. “It was like they were proud of us, that we were daring enough to say these things to the gringos.”

Los Tigres never forgot that important lesson. Now, says Jorge, “I don’t do anything the public doesn’t tell me to do. They send me notes onstage: ‘Dedicate this song to my brother who died and who liked this song a lot.’ Imagine what that person feels when you read that in public, that you paid attention to him. No one else who comes along will take your place in his heart.”


The narco songs gave Los Tigres its first fame, but songs of immigration gave it a transcendence that no group has duplicated. Immigrants, meanwhile, introduced Los Tigres to Mexico when they returned each year. “They’d bring the ocho-traques--the eight-track tapes--and the records,” says Jorge. “That’s how people got to know us in Mexico.” In the early 1980s, Los Tigres hired composer Enrique Franco, an undocumented immigrant from Tijuana. The collaboration gave Los Tigres its best immigration tunes, songs that dealt with the themes of longing to return home and love lost through separation.

Mexican immigration had entered another phase, and Los Tigres’ music with it. The mojado had outwitted the migra. Now he faced life in a country where he worked the toughest jobs, had no papers and didn’t speak the language. The band’s best song of that era--Franco’s “Jaula de Oro” (The Golden Cage)--was the lament of an immigrant who, years after trying to enter the United States, finds his children deny their Mexicanidad and don’t want to speak Spanish. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico. No way, Dad,” says his son in English.

Franco wrote “El Otro Mexico” (The Other Mexico), a response to the attitude that immigrants had betrayed Mexico: “While the rich go abroad to hide their money and travel Europe, the campesinos who came here illegally send almost all our money to those who remain back home.” “Tres Veces Mojado” (Three Times a Wetback) is about a Salvadoran immigrant who crosses three borders to escape civil war and come to the United States. Because of it, Los Tigres is among the only norteno bands to play Central America.

By the early 1990s, many immigrants were now legal, due largely to an immigrant amnesty measure passed by Congress in 1986. They began settling in cities. Los Tigres no longer had to follow the harvests; it could play North Carolina, Florida or Washington any time of the year, usually in fairgrounds or convention centers.

But the settling of millions of Mexicans brought with it California’s Proposition 187, which proposed limiting the government services illegal immigrants could use. With that as a backdrop, Los Tigres released “Jefe de Jefes” (Boss of Bosses) in 1997. Three songs on the album reflected immigrants’ conflicted feelings for the United States. In “El Mojado Acaudalado” (The Wealthy Wetback), an immigrant with money returns to Mexico because he feels uncomfortable in his adopted country. “Mis Dos Patrias” (My Two Countries) is about a Mexican becoming an American citizen and pleading that he isn’t betraying Mexico, but rather protecting his pension in the country where his children were born. “Ni Aqui Ni Alla” (Neither Here Nor There) doubts that the immigrant can find justice on either side of the border.

Los Tigres, like much of its U.S. audience, is considering naturalizing as Americans, since the Mexican government now recognizes dual citizenship. The newest member and youngest brother, Luis Hernandez, left a soccer scholarship at Stanford to join the band. Now they play shows in Japan and Germany at military bases for the enlisted children of immigrants who grew up with the band.


The band’s new album is “Uniendo Fronteras” (Uniting Borders), which is what their audience has done. The band has recently recorded two bilingual songs and is looking for bilingual composers. To that end, it funds a UCLA seminar for young composers of Spanish-language folk music, and has recorded some of the work produced.

“We can’t keep writing the way we always have,” says Jorge Hernandez. “At our dances in the U.S., there’s a lot of the young generation. They speak a little Spanish but they don’t really understand the feeling in the words. We don’t want to lose that audience.”

All of which is to say that, at the beginning of the 21st century, Mexican immigration is changing again. Immigrants who began as Mexico’s restless youth have settled into America in a very traditional way. Just as amnesty made more immigrants urban residents, Proposition 187 scared millions of them into becoming American citizens. A beltway of Mexican-immigrant suburbia now cordons Los Angeles; campesinos have become middle-class suburbanites. The worker picking onions, lettuce and beets near Bakersfield is no longer the sole icon of Mexican immigration. He has been joined by the clothing wholesaler near the Paramount Swap Meet and the student at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Likewise, the band that 30 years ago followed farm workers across America as they harvested hops and picked lettuce now wears dapper suits and is itself a large company. For though Mexican immigration has changed, what has not changed is this: The songs of Los Tigres del Norte remain one of the clearest windows into the immigrant soul.