Unity, yes, but still no anthem

Times Staff Writer

It has all the makings of a reality TV show: The search for an artist with a homegrown song that can best serve as the anthem of the immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles.

At least one number is being professionally produced with an ensemble of popular Mexican artists in the mold of "We Are the World," the all-star charity tune from the 1980s. But many more songs are sprouting spontaneously from amateur singers and songwriters within Southern California's Mexican community, inspired by recent protests against a proposed crackdown on immigrants without papers.

Unsolicited cassettes, CDs and even DVDs have arrived by the dozens at the offices of Los Tigres del Norte, the famed norteno group known since the 1970s for songs about immigrant life. And many more are flowing into the mailrooms of Spanish-language radio stations, where DJs helped rally the millions who turned out to march during the recent pro-immigrant demonstrations in Los Angeles and other cities.

One package was addressed to Eduardo Sotelo, better known as El Piolin, the top-ranking morning DJ on Univision Radio's La Nueva (KSCA-FM 101.9), who was instrumental to the turnout at the marches. It contained a mini-cassette complete with a tape recorder for easy playback, which immediately stood out.

The song on the tape is called "Los Ignorados," literally "The Ignored Ones." It was written and sung a cappella by Ernesto Ortega, a 30-year-old immigrant from Mexico City who works in an Inglewood tire shop.

Like many of the songs in this new crop, this one addresses mainstream Americans directly. More than a protest, it's a plea for recognition for those who cut their lawns, serve their food, clean their homes and care for their kids: "So despite how much you try to ignore me / and although you refuse to give me a driver's license, you won't ever forget me / No matter how tall or short, fat or skinny, an immigrant you will have to use."

After Piolin played the jaunty tune on the air and identified the author, Ortega was flooded with calls and visits at the tire shop from newfound fans.

"Oh, the song really touched La Raza," Ortega said.

Ortega said he has written several songs, but none has ever been recorded. When he feels bad or sad, he goes for walks or drives and comes up with a new song. This particular song was inspired by a customer who recently approached him while he was changing a tire. The man called him an "undesirable," remarking that Ortega was taking a job that the customer's son could be doing.

"It hurt me, but you can't say anything because you'd lose your job," Ortega said. "So I just wrote the song."

Such deep feelings sparked by this issue are fueling the gush of grass-roots creativity from folks, many with few formal outlets of expression.

"These are people who don't usually write their congressman," says Piolin, "but they want to be heard."

A good anthem needs to have grass roots and grow organically from within a community or a movement, such as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." So far, no one song has captured the spirit of the immigrant movement at that level, leaving organizers to borrow some English-language standbys, such as Neil Diamond's "America."

Conversely, the protests also provided an alternative avenue for marketing an immigration-related song that had little chance of commercial airplay.

"Vecino" (Neighbor), the edgy appeal for better inter-ethnic relations by La Calle Records rapper Jae-P, was pitched instead by the Univision label to march organizers and groups such as the United Farm Workers, which aired it on its Radio Campesina station in Bakersfield. The song's creative video, incorporating news clips of the marches, shows Jae-P walking across digitized L.A. landscapes and ducking to avoid being hit by insulting words, such as "wetback" and "spic," that fly at him like arrows that miss their mark.

One song that turned out anathema as an anthem is the controversial Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Conceived by a British executive for a New York label featuring artists primarily from Puerto Rico and the East Coast, "Nuestro Himno" (Our Hymn) has had no resonance with the movement it was meant to represent, composed primarily of working-class Mexicans living west of the Mississippi. (Neither Puerto Ricans, who already are U.S. citizens, nor Cubans, who can seek residency under special procedures, share the dilemma that drove Mexicans and Central Americans to protest.)

Pundits panned it as the "The Star-Mangled Banner." It had a shelf life lasting as long as politicians and talk-radio hosts wanted to pontificate about whether it was unpatriotic.

When the translated clunker was finally released May 30 on a compilation album titled "Somos Americanos" (We Are Americans), it was the thud heard 'round the world.

The lesson: You can't ram an anthem down a movement's throat.

In Mexico, there is a long tradition of addressing historical events in popular songs called corridos, narrative tales of heroes and bad guys. Immigration has always been a hot topic for groups like Los Tigres, who joined the May 1 march in downtown Los Angeles, walking and singing a cappella to hits such as "La Jaula de Oro" (The Golden Cage), which speaks to the intangible values immigrants leave behind to gain better jobs and more money.

But the popularity of such songs is as cyclical as the immigration issue itself, which seems to crop up as a hot national topic every 20 years. Following the immigration reform of 1986, when millions were legalized, the issue faded, both in the media and in Mexican music.

The recent proposed crackdown got those corrido juices flowing again.

One morning last week, seven more demos were received by Los Tigres, said leader Jorge Hernandez. Two of the titles translate into "I Am the Frustrated Immigrant" and "The Prosperous Immigrant."

Hernandez said he was struck by the fact that so many would-be recording stars have suddenly surfaced.

"They are our guides," Hernandez said of these would-be artists. "The people are the ones who know their own stories, and they tell us what they're thinking and feeling in the songs they send us."

One song stands out for Hernandez. It's written from the perspective of a marcher, describing how he felt walking the streets with thousands like him during the marches, rather than walking alone. The song may appear on a Tigres release later this year.

"For a long time, people had stopped making that type of song because there hasn't been a real threat against immigrants until now," says songwriter and Mexican radio celebrity Pepe Garza.

Garza, program director of Mexican music station La Que Buena (KBUE-FM 105.5), has written his own songs on the topic. One in particular, performed by La Arrolladora Banda El Limon, is an angry, in-your-face rebuke of illegal immigration opponents. Hardly anthem material.

But Garza takes a more positive approach on a new song he wrote with producers Omar and Adolfo Valenzuela, twin brothers who have worked with some of the top names in the Mexican music business.

The Burbank-based brothers are enlisting top Mexican regional artists to record the song, titled "Se Que Triunfare" (I Know I Will Triumph). They hope to record it, along with a video -- in the style of "We Are the World" -- within the next few weeks.

Like the other songs, this one deals with the disconnect between the dignity and discrimination immigrants feel: "I am the one who fixes your car without having a license to drive." It also uses irony to assert the contributions of immigrants to U.S. society: "You don't want to give me papers because you say that I do harm / But yes, I do have a son fighting in Iraq."

The song's original chorus had an angry edge, but the Valenzuelas changed it to deliver a more uplifting message, a move Garza agrees makes a better song.

And hopefully a good anthem.

"The song has to take us beyond pride," says Omar. "We have to impart a winning mentality that will help change the prototype of the Mexican here in the United States. We want to look better in the eyes of the gringos, so to speak. That's what we're shooting for."

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