Immigrant Songs

Los Tigres del Norte continue to document the complex lives of Mexicans in America

Jorge Hernandez was an 18-year-old accordionist, a Mexican immigrant, when one night in a Los Angeles club he heard a woman sing a song about two drug smugglers.

The song unfolded like a film. It told the story of a man and woman--he an illegal, she a Chicana from Texas--smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to Los Angeles. After exchanging the dope, the man says he's taking his money to visit his girlfriend in San Francisco. However, his partner is in love with him. Unwilling to share him with another, she shoots him in a dark Hollywood alley and disappears with the money.

Hernandez asked if his band--which included his brothers and a cousin--could record the song. Los Tigres del Norte put out "Contrabando y Traicion" (Contraband and Betrayal) in 1972.

By now America's youth was getting high in large numbers, and Mexican immigrants were seeing drug trafficking daily as they crossed the border. The song hit huge. With that began one of the most remarkable careers in Spanish-language pop music.

Since then, Los Tigres del Norte, out of their home base in San Jose, have made 30 albums and 14 movies, won a Grammy and changed Mexican pop music twice. Now in their 30th year, they have relied on what one sociologist has called "a remarkable anthropological sense" to remain vital, creative and the kings of Mexican pop.

Los Tigres del Norte--now four brothers, a cousin and a friend--are the Mexican immigrant experience personified. Like thousands of immigrants, they crossed the border and made it in America, but never shed their most precious commodity, their "Mexicanidad"--their Mexicanness.

Like the Mexican immigrant community, they are virtually unknown to American society at large. Within their community, they are idolized--"Los Idolos del Pueblo."

Los Tigres have twice created trends in Mexican pop music, first with songs about drug smuggling, and later, immigration. Immigrants, in turn, transported their music to parts of Mexico where the band was unknown. Los Tigres' audience now stretches across the United States through Mexico and into Central America--places where people's first contact with norteno music was at a Tigres' dance in the U.S. Together the band and its public turned norteno music into an international genre.

Meanwhile, the band modernized the music, infusing it with boleros, cumbias, rock rhythms and waltzes, sound effects of machine guns and sirens, and better recording quality. In the process, it made a pop style out of an accordion-based polka music indigenous to dusty Northern Mexico cantinas.

Los Tigres emerged from an unnoticed side of the 1960s. As America's restless children were turning to drugs and music as instruments of rebellion, restless working-class Mexicans began coming to the United States.

Their exodus was also a rebellion of sorts, if unarticulated and unpublicized. Mexico's young were leaving corrupt Mexico, the Mexico that never gave a poor man a chance, eager to re-create themselves in the fields and restaurants of gringolandia. The irony was that in gringolandia, these immigrants wanted more than ever to be Mexican. They missed the pueblo, a girlfriend, mom. Mostly they asked from the U.S. what Mexico had never allowed them--a chance to earn real money for hard work, to "progresar."

As these immigrants grew into one of the world's most important movements of people in the last half-century, Los Tigres became their chroniclers, spokesmen for a community that remains largely voiceless in Mexico and the U.S.

If you want to know what the Mexican immigrant community is feeling, listen to a Tigres recording. Their audience is your gardener and grocer, your carwasher, your busboy and your heroin dealer. Their best songs distill the essentials of Mexican working-class life: brutal machismo, piercing irony and the tenderest melodrama.

In 1968, they arrived at the border from the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa, a kid group hired by a promoter to play two dates: the September 16 Mexican Independence Day parade in San Jose and a concert for inmates at Soledad Prison. Since the oldest band member was only 14, they had to convince a middle-aged Mexican couple to pretend to be their mother and father. The band had no name. But the immigration officer kept calling them "little tigers," and they were headed north and playing norteno music, so they became Los Tigres del Norte.

Los Tigres never returned to Mexico to live. In San Jose, Art Walker, an English record entrepreneur who spoke no Spanish, signed them, bought them instruments and gave them music lessons. He also suggested that they use electric instruments.

"We never thought you could play norteno music with a full drum set and electric bass," says Hernan Hernandez, bass player and singer for Los Tigres. "That was for modern groups, rock groups."

It was this chance encounter with Walker that kept Los Tigres from returning to Mexico and probably spending their days in anonymity.

San Jose was still a city where Mexicans daily felt the brush of racism. "We really had to battle to eat," says Hernan Hernandez. "They wouldn't serve us in stores or restaurants." But it was growing rapidly, as was its Mexican community, so it was a good place for a young Mexican band.

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