Call it the Mexican Spring. Over the weekend, I was riveted by the protests in Mexico City: the tens of thousands of people who had taken to the streets to demand answers from the government about the disappearance of 43 student activists in the southern city of Iguala.
The students, last seen detained by police in September, are believed to have been turned over to a local drug gang and are now presumed dead after the discovery late last week of human remains that had been incinerated and unceremoniously dumped along a river. (Vice has an excellent timeline of events.)
The case has galvanized the country in previously unimaginable ways, putting a spotlight on alleged collusions between criminal drug gangs and government officials. On Monday, prominent Mexican film directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu issued a joint statement decrying the disappearances at an event in New York. “We believe that these crimes are systemic,” read the statement, “and indicate a much greater evil — the blurred lines between organized crime and high-ranking officers in the Mexican government.”
That is a sentiment that has been echoed in the streets. “I am tired of living in a narco state,” read the placard of one protester in Mexico City on Saturday — a reference to Mexico’s top prosecutor, who abruptly ended a press conference by telling reporters, “Enough, I’m tired.” His remark, in fact, has turned into a meme during the protests, with people taking to the streets and to social media to say they are tired of living in fear, tired of dead bodies appearing in the streets.
But how tired are they of the presence of the narco state in their music and their art?
The protests mark a curious moment, one that is as much about culture as it is about politics. The so-called “drug war” is one that has been fought on many fronts. Culture is one of them. And not in just Mexican culture, but also in the myriad other countries that also serve as outposts of cocaine trafficking, including the U.S.
The violent omnipresence of the drug trade has long been present in art at every level — from high-minded literary novels to vernacular songs. It has been chronicled, critiqued and celebrated.
It is present in the mournful stanzas of Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and in the dystopia of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño‘s final novel, “2666.” It is in the austere, emotional installations of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, who employs assassination detritus in her works, and the lush paintings of L.A. artist Carolyn Castaño, who documents the individuals trapped by the trade’s stringent (a)moral codes. And, of course, it is all over film and TV, with the flamboyant Latin American narco serving as regular cinematic trope.
More recently, however, the chatter at the intersection of narcos and culture has intensified around narco-corridos (narco-ballads), the brassy, cheerful songs that chronicle the ways of the drug trade. These are produced by a vast array of nattily dressed Mexican regional singers, who pen lyrics about smuggling and guns and drug deals gone sour.
To be certain, these are not new. Ballads that tell stories about the drug trade go back to the 1930s, with songs like “Por Morfina y Cocaína” (“For Morphine and Cocaine”). And in the 1970s, the California band Los Tigres del Norte (better known for its songs about the immigrant experience in the U.S.) had its first certifiable hit with the legendary “Contrabando y Traición,” about a marijuana smuggling job that ends with a shooting in Hollywood.
But in the last half-dozen years, as the violence in Mexico has reached ever more phantasmagoric proportions, corridos have taken a hyper-violent turn. The artists who are part of the musical subculture known as the Movimiento Alterado don’t just chronicle the stories of life in the drug trade, they boast about them from the point of view of gangsters and hit-men.
“With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder / Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off,” goes one such ditty. “We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill.”
Where other works of art criticized or observed, the songs of the alterado movement have become objects of outright glorification: up-by-the-bootstraps tales of drug runners, odes to killing and death, traffickers meeting their maker in a blazes of glory. In some cases, lyrics are commissioned by the drug gangs themselves.
Perhaps most fascinating is the fact that a lot of alterado music is produced right here in the United States — by the Twiins Music Group in Burbank, to be specific — and is available for purchase at places like Walmart. The U.S., after all, is as much a part of this as any country in Latin America: we buy the cocaine, supply the guns and venerate the same illicit idols, be it through “Scarface” merch or a high-brow Manhattan art installation consisting of 50 feet worth of white lines. We, too, are in possession of our own narco-culture.
This whole phenomenon of alterado music, along with its North American fabrication, has been astutely covered by photographer and filmmaker Shaul Schwarz in last year’s essential documentary “Narco Cultura” (now streaming on Netflix) and more recently in a trio of fascinating reports on Vice.com. (Seriously, watch them both.)
But most worthwhile is a 2012 essay on the subject by music critic Josh Kun in American Prospect. In it, he cites an assertion by Tijuana writer Heriberto Yépez that “Mexico’s cartels have gone from being an economy to becoming an ideology that saturates society.”
As Kun explains, “The term narco can refer to both ‘drug trafficker’ (el narco) and ‘drug life’ in general (lo narco). For Yépez, narco was once a prefix, an adjective that described an aspect of Mexican culture. Now it is Mexican culture; ‘narco and culture are synonyms.’ ”
In other words, a phenomenon such as alterado isn’t simply culture about narcos, it is narco culture becoming the de facto culture of Mexico. And by so many it has been treated as fait accompli. (Again, Schwarz’s doc is instructive when it comes to this point.)
Certainly, I’m not immune to the strange charms of a good narco-corrido. I’ve bounced my way through the occasional rush-hour jam by blaring the late Jenni Rivera’s “La Chacalosa,” one of the rare songs told from a female narco’s point of view. And I will always remain intrigued by work — be it art, film, literature or music — that examines the difficult issues generated by the drug trade in considered and poetic ways. This is, after all, one of the burning issues of our time.
But the massive protests in Mexico City make me wonder if we are facing a tipping point. One in which the celebrations of relentless violence in some corridos might come to feel like the wretched excess it is. Perhaps the protesters who have grown tired of the narco-state might also be growing tired of the trappings of the more extreme aspects of narco-culture.
For, after all, how does one honor 43 college students of humble extraction lost to murder and immolation? Not, I hope, by glorifying the men who so indiscriminately put an end to their lives.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.