By Jim Schutze
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For the next few years, they played for the Bay Area's growing Mexican community. The largest crowd they played for during those years was a Berkeley festival bill with Big Mama Thornton and Janis Joplin, after which the band talked at length with the Texas-born Joplin backstage as she and her group wolfed down apples that made them act, well, funny.
In 1972, "Contrabando" gave them their break and established the band in Mexico for the first time; soon, they began returning home to play. "Contrabando" became a classic, and dozens of lesser-known bands have recorded it; its two characters, Emilio Varela and Camelia La Tejana, are part of Mexicans' cultural vocabulary. The song is also remembered as the first hit about drug smuggling. Los Tigres followed it with "La Banda del Carro Rojo" ("The Red Car Gang"). Together, the songs revealed a market and essentially created the narcocorrido, currently undergoing an explosion in popularity in Mexican music.
The narcocorrido updated the traditional Mexican corrido, or ballad, which told of revolutionaries and bandits; instead, narcocorridos tell of drug smugglers, shootouts between narcos and police, betrayals and executions. Almost any norteno band nowadays plays a few narcocorridos; hundreds of bands play nothing but. Today, they're the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap: Both recount horrible violence, both receive virtually no radio support, yet both maintain enormous audiences.
Catholic Church spokesmen and Mexico's center-right National Action Party have criticized the narcocorrido phenomenon, and the groups that play them, as part of "the culture of death." "The only thing that we do is sing about what happens every day," says Jorge Hernandez. "We're interpreters, then the public decides what songs they like." The public has always decided it liked the dope songs. For many years, the band included two or three on each album. In 1989, they released Corridos Prohibidos (Prohibited Corridos), an entire album about drug smuggling.
The album caused an uproar in Mexico and in the immigrant community in the U.S. There were reports that narcos were buying the record by the case. Still, Los Tigres try mightily to distance themselves from the hundreds of cookie-cutter narcobands that have sprouted over the years. Their repertoire has always been at least half love songs. "Un Dia a la Vez" ("One Day at a Time"), a quasi-religious tune written by Tex-Mex bandleader-turned-evangelist Paulino Bernal, responded to the growing influence of fundamentalist Protestant churches within the Mexican immigrant community in the mid-1980s--churches that were condemning dancing, concerts, and singing as indecent. Los Tigres won their Grammy for "America"--a rock anthem expounding the universal brotherhood of all Latins.
The band resides by choice on the tamer side of the narco genre. Unlike younger bands following them, they only occasionally mention names of real drug smugglers, are never photographed with pistols or assault rifles, and never curse in a song. "[Narcos] have sent me letters, notes," Jorge says. "They invited us to meetings years ago. We've never had the opportunity, nor wanted to meet them. We've made our career in public, not at [private] parties."
Los Tigres' explorations of the narco theme brought them fame, but the band earned a lasting transcendence when their songs began reflecting immigrants' conflicted feelings toward their new home. Their first effort was "Vivan Los Mojados" ("Long Live the Wetbacks"), recorded in 1976 and well ahead of its time; the song wonders what would happen to America's crops if all the mojados suddenly were sent home. The reaction to the song within the Mexican immigrant community was electric.
In the early 1980s, their collaboration with producer-composer Enrique Franco would give Los Tigres their most enduring and bittersweet immigration tunes, roughly coinciding with the U.S. debate over immigrant amnesty, which Congress passed in 1986. Among them: "Pedro y Pablo," "El Otro Mexico" ("The Other Mexico"), "Los Hijos de Hernandez"--all dealing with the yearning to return home, love lost through separation, and the economic importance of immigrant labor.
As war was sending thousands of Central American immigrants to the U.S. in 1988, Franco wrote "Tres Veces Mojado" ("Three Times a Wetback"), a story of a Salvadoran refugee who crosses three borders to get to America. But Franco's greatest immigration song, the one that changed the genre, was recorded in 1984: "Vivan Los Mojados" had spawned a slew of novelty songs about immigration--songs about the zany high jinks of wacky immigrants outfoxing the dull-witted migra.
"[Immigration] had never been treated as a social problem," says Franco, now a record producer in San Jose. "I was illegal at the time. I never had the problem of communication with my children, but many immigrants do. There isn't time to talk to the kids. The children learn another language. That's where the gap between kids and parents begins."
"La Jaula de Oro" ("The Gold Cage") is told by the immigrant years after he crossed the border and discovers he doesn't feel at home in the country he tried so hard to enter. Even worse, his children now speak English and reject their Mexicanidad. And though he aches to return home, he can't leave his house for fear he'll be deported.