America's liberal class and MSMers are abuzz right now over Narco Cultura, a documentary about Mexico's horrific drug war and the musical movement that has risen around it. These libs (and more than a few conservatives) are telling each other and the two Mexicans they know about how Mexican music nowadays glorifies the drug trade, how artists will write songs for narcos on commission, how musicians go on stage with AK-47s, bulletproof vests, and bazookas, how those songs revel in being as gory as possible–and how terrible all of this is.
Never mind that the music groups highlighted really hit their height in Mexican culture in 2010. Never mind that almost no media outlet had reported on this new wave of narcocorridos–alternately called el movimento alterado (“the altered movement”–“altered” as in “high as shit”) or corridos enfermos (“sick corridos”) until now, and now everyone is tripping on themselves to report this “new” news. NPR and the New York Times did stories on Narco Cultura recently, so it's now news! And you know something is the liberal flavor of the month when they're going to Ry Cooder–the only person progressive gabachos trust for their ethnic music–so he can cluck about the sadness of it all.
SNORE. Yes, America: Mexican music is violent. Get over it.
The buzz over Narco Cultura is causing audiences to sigh again about poor Mexico–so far from God, so close to the United States blah blah blah. About the country's failed status. About the continued degradation of cultura. A Two Minutes Hate for our neighbors south of the border. But this attention proves again two realities that Mexicans know: Americans will believe anything about Mexico a white “authority” tells them, and only then. And the lamestream media is as lazy as ever.
First off, a primer about the specific movement at the center of Narco Cultura. The main group highlighted, an LA-based outfit called BuKnas de Culiacán (each part a signifier in narco cultura: BuKnas being a shoutout to Buchanan's the Cristal of narcocorridos, and Culiacán being the center of Narcolandia), is featured in this video produced by Twiins Enterprise, the Brill Building of movimiento alterado music. It's called “Sanguinarios de M1” (The Bloodthirsty Ones from M1), highlights all the groups in the Twiins' roster at the time, and is as jaunty as it is disturbing. Enjoy!
If our newfound experts on Mexican music would've remembered their Grey Lady, they would've recalled a 2006 profile by my pal Josh Kun highlighting Los Twiins. Back then, they were promoting a single that would call for amnesty for undocumented folks. Back then, other groups were dominating the narcocorrido racket–except they were known as corridos pesados. And that movement itself was just an evolution from the narcocorridos pioneered by groups such as Los Tucanes de Tijuana during the 1990s. And they were, in turn, influenced by norteño icons Los Tigres del Norte, Los Cadetes de Linares, and Los Alegres de Terán, groups that first made their bones praising drug lords and violence during the 1970s and 1980s. And that era saw the rise of the narcopelícula (“narco film”) genre, wildly popular bloodthirsty affairs usually starting the brothers Almada, Mario and Fernando. And those two genres built on drug songs ranging from “El Contrabando del Paso” to even “La Cucaracha.”
In other words, there's nothing new whatsoever about BuKnas and their contemporaries.
Songs glorifying the drug trade and violence is a part of Mexican music, just like it is in American music. And if it seems amplified in Mexican culture, that's because it is: folk music will always serve as a newspaper of el pueblo as opposed to pop music, and violence has been part of Mexican society in one way or another since the Mexican Revolution. And the working classes will always glorify the badasses of the era–the more criminal, the better (see: Stagger Lee). Simple sociology, you know?
Critics might argue that the new songs are more explicit in their descriptions of violence–but the same is true of culture worldwide, and such ahistorical whining is nothing new: the Los Angeles Times, in one of the first MSM articles on narcocultura back in the 1990s (in an article I currently can't find because my pinche Lexis Nexis is down) found a Socrates-era quote bemoaning how youth even then were coarsening culture. Even then.
The movimento alterado has been especially huge in Southern California, and has been the topic of much soul-searching in Mexican and Mexican-American circles–yet it has received no attention until now. And why now? Because a gabacho did a documentary about it. And, of course, once a gabacho does something, it becomes news for other gabachos.
Such ignorance when it comes to narcocorridos' influence in Mexican culture is, unsurprisingly, not new. In 1992, singer Chalino Sanchez was assassinated in Sinaloa, sparking mourning across Southern California and launching a wave of imitators. No one in the English-language media bothered with an obituary until my mentor-friend Sam Quinones (now of the Times) wrote a magnificent piece for LA Weekly on Sanchez's life and the copycat movement by then dominating Latino LA and ever since. The article's publication date? 1998–five years after Chalino died. Five years.
In the article, Quinones described a movement that had its artists writing songs on commission praising narcos, and used a particular choice of dress. “Singers posed with massive weaponry,” Sam wrote. “On his album Mi Oficio Es Matar (Killing Is My Business), Jesus Palma shouldered a bazooka. Singers who had never done many narcocorridos found they had to sing a few if they wanted to sell records. Recently, one company even released an Alvin and the Chipmunks-style album of corridos for children.”
In other words, the same shit that reporters nowadays are freaking out over. Whenever I teach a journalism class, I always try to invite Sam to speak to my students and retell the tale of how the MSM missed such a huge story.
Don't take this essay as an endorsement of or an apology for movimiento alterado (and for a more thoughtful critique, check out Kun's essay in The American Prospect last year). I can't stand its asinine lyrics, the shoutouts to narco lords get grating after a while, and the combination of accordion and tuba is as unholy a marriage as Kim and Kanye (besides, my choice of ultraviolent Mexican music is Brujería). But it's a fad that'll go away. And ultimately, the attention put to narcoccoridos right now is as much an indictment of America as it is of Mexican society. There are many more musical genres in Mexico, but the American media will never touch them because it doesn't serve the American psyche's expectations of seeing Mexican society as fundamentally depraved.
By the way: my pick for the most violent, disturbing song Mexico has ever produced? “La Delgadina” by Dueto America, a nice track about a dad who tries to marry his teenage daughter, locks her in a room for refusing, and starves her to death. Now THAT'S some fucked-up shit there.
And it's also hundreds of years old, dating back to Spain. Yes, America: Mexican music is violent. Get over it.
Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly, author of the ¡Ask a Mexican! column, and has covered Latin music since 2001, nowadays only emerging to write rants and listicles. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @gustavoarellano.