A mighty roar

Los Tigres del Norte have become legends by singing the immigrant's song

Jorge Hernandez was an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant when, one night in a Los Angeles club, the young accordion player heard a woman sing a song about two drug smugglers. The song unfolded like a film, telling the story of a man and woman--he, an illegal; she, a Chicana from Texas--smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to L.A. After exchanging the dope, the man says he's taking his money to visit his girlfriend in San Francisco, but 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 the singer if his band, which included his brothers and a cousin, could record the song; in 1972, Los Tigres del Norte released "Contrabando y Traición" ("Contraband and Betrayal"). It was a time when America's youth were getting high in large numbers and Mexican immigrants encountered drug trafficking daily as they crossed the border. The song was a smash.

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 records, appeared in 14 movies, won a Grammy, and changed Mexican pop music twice. And 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, 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 it, they are idolized--Los edolos del Pueblo.

Los Tigres have twice created trends in Mexican pop music, first with songs about drug smuggling and, later, songs about 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.

In doing so, the band modernized the music, infusing it with boleros, cumbias, rock rhythms and waltzes, machine-gun and siren-scream sound effects, and better recording quality. They fashioned pop out accordion-based polka music indigenous to dusty Northern Mexico cantinas. Theirs was a different kind of revolution.

Los Tigres emerged from an unnoticed side of the 1960s. As America's restless children were turning to drugs and music in 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 recreate themselves in the fields and restaurants of gringolandia. The irony was that once here, 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 record. Their audience is your gardener and grocer, your car-washer, your bus boy 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 since they were headed north, 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 they use electric instruments.

"We never thought you could play norteno music with a full drum set and electric bass," says Hernan Hernandez, the band's bass player and singer. "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," Hernan says. "They wouldn't serve us in stores or restaurants." But San Jose was growing rapidly, as was its Mexican community; in the end, it became a welcoming home for a young Mexican band.

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.

"[The U.S.] is a gold cage. You have everything. You live well, you have comforts," says Jorge. "But it's another type of life, very different from ours...The United States is very solitary. And you can't relax, like [in Mexico]. There's not a lot of heart in the family. When the child reaches 18, he leaves the family."

By the early 1990s, the band was playing somewhat fewer narco and immigrant songs. But the nature of current events has returned a harder thematic edge to their music. In 1995, they recorded "El Circo" ("The Circus"), about former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his brother, Raul, now in prison on murder and money-laundering charges. The title song of last year's double album, Jefe de Jefes (Boss of Bosses), is about a fictional drug kingpin. The album includes several narcocorridos, including one about drug lord Hector "El Guero" Palma, arrested after a plane crash in 1996.

As anti-immigrant sentiment intensified in California and the country, Jefe de Jefes touched the concerns of Los Tigres' most important audience. "El Mojado Acaudalado" ("The Wealthy Wetback") tells of immigrants who've made it in the U.S., but no longer feel comfortable and are going home with heads held high. "Mis Dos Patrias" ("My Two Countries") featured a naturalized Mexican insisting that he is not a traitor to his flag, but that he's only protecting his pension.

Yet another song perhaps best sums up the feelings of immigrants these days: "Ni Aqui Ni Alla" ("Neither Here Nor There") is doused in pessimism brought on by America's anti-immigrant atmosphere and Mexico's economic crisis and corruption scandals. The song doubts immigrants' chances of receiving justice, or of being able to progress, in either country. It is a philosophical U-turn for a band whose music and career have been founded, like the immigrant community itself, on a healthy optimism and belief in the healing powers of hard work.

"You have to tell the truth," Jorge says. "We're not good here or there. You never know if you're going to make it."

Los Tigres Del Norte perform November 26 at the Dallas County Convention Center.

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