Real life in beautiful and ugly Guadalajara.
categories: culture, society

Northern Mexico is nothing short on reputation.  From Tijuana to Monterrey, throughout the states of Baja California, Sinaloa, Sonora, and eastward over to Nuevo Leon, the image of the quintessential Mexican male has evolved into that of a bullet spitting, grenade belching, machete hacking wilderbumpkin.  Offensive or not, that’s what the north has become in the eyes of many Mexicans, and especially foreigners from the outside.  The region, as it’s often made to look these days from my vantage point in Guadalajara, is renowned for its population of hardened souls and drug traffickers who claim to be the most chingón detolos mejicanos cabronez.. with the money, means and might to take down the Mexican Army and subvert an entire system of law - from the piss pitiful policía all the way up to the Supreme Court. 

Sadly, no part of this image is completely false.  But just how embellished it all has become from one reporter or citizen to the next is anyone’s guess.  

Speaking of enhancing the public’s wonderment and fright regarding the social ladder of narcobutchery… I wonder… if you could create a soundtrack to accompany this whole mess, what kind of disturbing and menacing musical pieces would you include?  Would there be any, say..  brutal limb grinding, corpse splattering death metal?  Maybe some Slayer.. ‘Reign in Blood’, or ‘Alter of Sacrifice’.. perhaps??  How about something more simple and sleazy.. and grimy.. like AC/DC?

Bueno, there’s little need to bother with that, anyway.  Mexico has long since adopted its own stereophonic portrayal of narcolegend and the glorious crushing destruction of peace and goodwill:  polka music.

Obvious, right?  Although here in Mexico, it’s referred to not as polka, but as “musica norteña”.  Some of it is composed as waltz, rather than polka…either way, the manner in which it is played and performed here is so distinctly Mexican that you couldn’t mistake it for having originated from any other part of the world.  Does every Mexican therefore like it?  Nnnoo..  Does every American like Creedence?  But you’ll hear it almost anywhere you go.. not to mention blaring out of apartment windows and car stereos like it is THE shit.   If there were a Mexican version of the Dukes of Hazzard, the Waylon Jennings intro would be cut, and something norteña would be in its place.

For the recently arrived traveler, it provides an almost immediate sensory shift.   Hearing it here and there in the background or passing by on the street is as common as hearing the birds.. chirp… or, whatever they do.  However, that’s about as close as the foreigner typically gets to it.  Ranchera / mariachi is much more accessible to visitors because it tends more to reach out into the world.. as if it wanted to be something international… and it is, to a certain extent.  Norteña on the other hand, doesn’t present itself as so outwardly friendly.  It has a very local feel to it.  Mexicans reach out to embrace it, and usually in settings and around the type of people that the foreigner has an extra difficult time feeling comfortable being with.  It’s too bad, really..  ’cause it’s nothing that a couple or three shots of Cuervo couldn’t fix in a jiffy. 

For the Mexican living abroad, regardless of personal musical preference, hearing a famous norteña song (and they’re all bloody famous) tends to strike an extra strong nostalgic chord.  It feels to one like a little piece of home.  Imagine living in some other country and culture for prolonged period and suddenly hearing Johnny Cash in some random place on some random day.  Seriously.. imagine that.

For the gringo, this hardly knee slappin’ 2/2 “nn det nn det nn det nn det” rhythm (or sometimes nn det det nn det det), complete with flowery accordion interludes between vocal lines sung in just as passionate a Slowpoke Rodriguez voice as you can imagine, represents nothing even remotely badass.  So what really is its appeal to Mexicans, then?  How does it interweave with culture to make people feel so at home with it and moreover so proud to flaunt it?

It’s the message.  It’s always the words… always has been the words that make the message, and will forever be nothing more than the message. 

In addition to its sound, what makes norteña somewhat unique is the ‘corrido’.  Now some try to describe the corrido as a style of music, usually folk or country.  But what it really refers to is the type of message.  It’s a story, often written in third person.  Although they could be about love, most are decidedly and refreshingly not.  These simple stories, carried by the even simpler music that accompanies them, so easily stick in one’s mind that their rise to cultural legendary status is practically inevitable.  Hence, the narcocorrido. 

So… what?  The musicians are also the narcos?  Not likely.  What’s far more probable is that as they become more famous,  they receive more and more offers they can’t refuse. 

In my personal opinion, lyrics are just an unnecessary byproduct of any musical composition.  But according to about 102% of the rest of the population (…anywhere), such a notion relegates me somehow to the never graduating class of the culturally retarded.   And musica norteña offers no exceptions to a bumbling, culturally challenged individual like myself… because were it not for the words, listening to it would be about as fascinating as staring at wallpaper.

Okay, let’s have a look at some of this.  This first video is the group, “Los Tigres del Norte” .  If you should see any photos or videos of them today, they look nothing like in this vid.. because what you see below is from the early ’70s (actually, that’s them in the photo a couple of paragraphs above).   So, they’ve been around for about ever.  They’re going to be here in Guadalajara soon and I hear the cheapest tickets are running around 1000 pesos.   Tons and tons of hits.  This one is among their most famous.. While it may have been once called “Traición y Contrabando”.. or maybe still is… it’s best known as “Camelia la Texana”…


Salieron de San Isidro  –   procedentes de Tijuana  –   traian las llantas del carro  -  repletas de hierba mala  -  eran Emilio Varela,  -  y Camelia, la Texana

They left from San Isidro  -  coming from Tijuana  -  with their tires packed full of marijuana  -  they were Emilio Varela, and Camelia the Texan

Pasaron por San Clemente  -  los paró la emigración  -  les pidió sus documentos  -  les dijó:  ¿De donde son?  -  Ella era from San Antonio  -  una hembra de corazón

 They went through San Clemente  -  immigration stopped them and requested their papers  -  asked them, “Where are you from?”  -  She was from San Antonio  -  a tough woman who was all heart

Una hembra si quiere un hombre  -  por él puede dar la vida  -  pero hay que tener cuidado  -  si esa hembra se siente herida  -  la traición y el contrabando…  -  son cosas incompartidas

A woman like this, if she loves a man  -  for him, she could give her life  -  but you must be very careful  -  should she feel mistreated  -  betrayal and contraband…  -  don’t go well together

A Los Angeles llegaron  -  a Hollywood se pasaron  -  en un callejón oscuro  -  las cuatro llantas cambiaron  -  ahí entregaron la hierba…  -  y ahí también les pagaron

They got to Los Angeles  -  went to Hollywood  -  in a dark alley they changed the four wheels  -  there they delivered the goods…  –  and there they were also paid

Emilio dice a Camelia:  -  Hoy te das por despedida  -  con la parte que te toca  -  te puedes rehacer tu vida  -  yo me voy pa’ San Francisco  -  con la dueña de mi vida

Emilio says to Camelia  -  Today I must part ways  -  with your cut of the cash  -  you can start a new life  -  I’m headed for San Fransisco  -  to be with my true love

Sonaron siete balazos  -  Camelia a Emilio mataba  -  la policía sólo halló  -  una pistola tirada  -  del dinero y de Camelia…  -  Nunca más se supo nada

Seven shots rang out  -  Camelia killed Emilio  -  the police only found a fired gun  -  of the money and Camelia  -  nothing more was ever known


This next one is another old video.  Like the one above, I like it because it captures the typical atmosphere, which really hasn’t changed a great deal over the years.. the group is “Carlos y Jose”.. I gather that they’re from Michoacan, which is nowhere near northern Mexico.  But here also, norteña is very popular…   (lyrics)

Just like the Tigres del Norte, their voices are evidently so tremendous that they don’t need microphones.. 

Now this above is from an old movie of course… in the real world the nice wooden chairs you see are more often replaced with white plastic ‘Corona’ chairs.. or maybe equipales…  The tables quite often are rickety old Coca Cola metal card tables… the waiter may well be putting down just as many beers in some back corner as any of the patrons… but this video isn’t too misleading a depiction.

Here’s something more current… Ramón Ayala is another of Mexico’s most famous norteña artists.  This one is “Dos Monedas”.. about alcohol addiction, it’s a song that makes your heart bleed a bit.. and almost makes you want to stop beatin’ your wife and kids…   (lyrics)

Ramón Ayala live – “Chito Cano”   (lyrics)

Did you notice how these last two sound almost exactly the same?  I didn’t.. until after I got them on here.  I was too busy paying attention to the words to notice.  If you know any Mexicans around where you live, ask them if they know any of these songs above.  The likelihood that they’ll recite all the words to at least any couple of them is greater than you’d think… try it and see.

This could go on and on.. but if you knew not even a thing about norteña before, here is as good a place to cut it off it as any.  At any rate, knowing what you now know makes you far more chingón than you were a few minutes ago.  It would be a lie to say that none of this has made me consider learning the accordion.  Maybe I could get good enough to be in a church band like this one below…..


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