Running Tales for the Times

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A writer and collector of corridos on the power of the people’s song

by Celestino Fernández

When my father was on his deathbed, at age 93, he sang out a verse of “El Rey,” a popular ranchera by the late José Alfredo Jiménez. A lover of music, his favorite genres were rancheras, Mexico’s country music, and corridos, ballads about specific events. He passed that love, along with his substantial music collection, to me.

One of my father’s favorite corridos was “Vendiste Los Bueyes” (You Sold the Oxen), by an unknown author, as is often the case with old corridos. It dates to the early 1940s and tells, from a wife’s perspective, the tragic story of a Mexican emigrant to the United States.

To pay for the trip north, where he hoped for better work to provide a better life for his family, the emigrant sells the oxen, his family’s means of livelihood, and leaves his wife behind to tend the fields and raise the children. That year the rain is sparse, the corn doesn’t grow, and she is barely to keep the kids alive. The song ends with this last stanza:

Los güeros mandaron la plata a montones      The Americans sent a pile of money
con unos papeles que había que firmar           With some papers that I was to sign
mi prieto había muerto piscando limones         My darling had died picking lemons
no quise la plata y me puse a llorar                  I didn’t want the money and just cried

My father came to the United States through the bracero program during World War II, working in agriculture in several states. In Southern California, he harvested lemons, just like the man from the corrido. Undoubtedly, this corrido touched a personal cord in my father’s soul, as it still does with me.

For many years, I collected immigration corridos with no particular plan. Of the over 500 corridos in my collection, over 100 address Mexican immigration and life in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. In the 1990s, I began writing both popular and academic articles, making presentations, and leading workshops about the form. I even started writing corridos, some as commissions for specific events or people, including “El Corrido de United Way” and “El Corrido de la Semana de Inmunización.”

In 1991, when Manuel T. Pacheco became the first Latino president of the University of Arizona in its over 100-year history, I composed “El Corrido de Manuel Pacheco: Presidente Tres Veces” (this was the third university he led), which was performed at his inauguration.

Nació en el cuarenta y seis          He was born in ‘46
En la tierra colorada                        In the land of red earth (Colorado)
El primero de doce hijos               He was the first of twelve kids
De familia no afamada                   From a humble family
 
A la edad de diez y seis                 At age sixteen
Entró a la universidad                   He enrolled at the university
No por cualquier cosa                   Not just because
Simplemente por capaz               But because he was bright

At the time, I worked as a vice president for Manuel, and he would often tell me how moved his parents were every time they heard the corrido. My collaborator, musician/composer Guillermo Sáenz, recorded it in one of the music studios at the University. I still work with Guillermo; I write the lyrics and then we sit together—or send drafts via email—and he helps edit and compose with the music. Guillermo will perform my latest, “El Corrido de la Conferencia del Mariachi,” at the 2021 Tucson International Mariachi Conference.

An Account of the Times

The corrido is a popular musical genre of Mexico’s oral tradition. The word “corrido” comes from the Spanish verb “correr,” to run. It is a descriptive narrative, a running account, written in verse, like poetry, and put to music. The emphasis is on the words and story, not on the music or voice.

Corridos were well-known from at least the mid-1800s onward but became even more popularized and deeply ingrained in Mexican culture during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Much like “embedded journalists” today, a corridista went with Pancho Villa on some of his battles. While the genre originated in central Mexico, it is now popular throughout Mexico and the United States. Today corridos are known and performed wherever Mexicans and Mexican Americans reside, particularly in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Much like the editorial page of the local newspaper, the corrido takes a topic of importance and accurately and precisely documents the essential points, interprets them, and then provides commentary, advice, or recommendations. However, the corrido always takes the point of view of the working class or “el pueblo.” In a world in which working class people have little economic or political power and influence, such cultural expressions play an important role in amplifying the voices of this population. Most often the values they espouse are bravery, loyalty to friends, machismo, independence, disrespect for human law (but respect for a Higher Divine Law), and love of justice for the common person. Corridos praise heroes and name villains.

Historically, corridos have often left out women, except as the subject of strong emotions such as love, anger, or scorn. For example, “El Corrido de Rosita Alvírez” tells of a young woman who refuses to dance with a suitor and is subsequently shot. A few notable corridos tell of strong women who participated in the Mexican Revolution and of mothers and their love and good advice. Today, more women are composing corridos about their own experiences, which form as valid a history as any other.  

Corridos have been composed about earthquakes, wars, revolutions, terrorist acts, immigration, horses and horseraces, folk heroes, assassinations (from JFK to Luis Donaldo Colosio), miraculous events, towns and regions, and drug smuggling. There is even a corrido about the corrido, “Yo Soy El Corrido.”

Corridos of the Borderlands

People have written and sung corridos on specific border themes, often of political and cultural clashes, since the nineteenth century. The period from 1836 to the late 1930s has been popularly labeled the “corrido century” for the U.S.-Mexico border, although given the popularity of corridos in this region during the past forty years, a rival “corrido century” may be in the making.

“El Condenado a Muerte,” a corrido discovered in New Mexico, laments the author’s coming execution for an unnamed crime, and provides an exact date, Wednesday, July 20, 1832. Possibly the earliest Texas corrido is “Corrido de Leandro Rivera,” which dates from 1841. An early Brownsville corrido, “El Corrido de Juan Nepomuceno Cortina,” chronicles the daring actions of a Mexican politician and military leader who in 1859 shot a U.S. marshal for mistreating his mother’s servant.

The most famous corrido from that period was about Gregorio Cortéz, well documented and analyzed by Américo Paredes in his 1958 book, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. A film version, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortéz, starring James Edward Olmos, also shares the story.

Popular cultural figures often end up in corridos. There are corridos about the popular Tejana singer Selena, about Michael Jackson, and about President Barack Obama. The list goes on.

Often intensely serious, corridos always mirror social and political concerns. They are repositories of both myth and history for a people not often served by mainstream media. As such, they are stories of unthinkable but all-too-common tragedy, injustice, and heartbreak.

Los Rinches de Texas” chronicles the brutal beating of poor Mexican farm workers by Texas Rangers. It’s featured in the film Chulas Fronteras and describes an incident during a strike of melon pickers in Star County, Texas, in June 1967. The “Corrido de Juan Reyna” tells the story of a man convicted for killing a police officer after allegedly being beaten up in a squad car. A sequel tells of Reyna’s apparent suicide in jail five months before his release. “La Tragedia de Oklahoma” recounts a famous case in which two students from Mexico, one of whom was related to the president, were shot by deputies near Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Corridos also serve to protest injustice. “El Deportado” describes Anglos as evil people who mistreat Mexicans without pity. The death of 18 undocumented workers who died of heat asphyxiation while locked in a boxcar in Sierra Blanca, Texas, was widely reported in the mainstream press, and was also recorded in a corrido, “El Vagón de la Muerte,” which also inspired a 1987 movie of the same name. “El Corrido de César Chávez” by Los Pinguinos del Norte, reflects the rise of Chicano political and ethnic consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, numerous corridos have been composed about the late César Chávez, the founder and long-time leader of the farm workers’ movement. One of the first was by Felipe Cantú, an original member of El Teatro Campesino, a popular theatre troupe that performed sociopolitical plays for farm workers and laborers. Tucson’s own, the late great Lalo Guerrero, also composed a corrido about Chávez.

Although the majority of corridos are serious, some are satirical and humorous but still make their point. “Superman es Ilegal” plays on the fact that Superman, who is “tall with light-colored skin,” is welcomed with open arms in the U.S., while “brown-skinned and short” Mexicans are apprehended and deported. I composed a humorous corrido about President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, “El Corrido de Clinton.”

Practices and Traditions  

Unlike folk music or popular music from Mexico, there are no regional variations of any significance in the form, only in content. While local events or personalities may have regional, national or even international appeal or consequences, they are nonetheless specific in time and place. The U.S.-Mexico border has inspired many corridos about immigration and drug-smuggling, for example, while Mexico’s southern border, which also deals with both of these issues, has not.

While there are exceptions to every rule, most corridos follow clear patterns in form and structure. Traditional corridos often share several common characteristics:

  • Perspective: Corridos are composed in the vernacular language of the people, generally by eye-witnesses or well-informed observers situated in or intimately knowledgeable of the culture of the working class, who are also the primary audience of corridos.
  • Meter and rhyme: Traditional corridos can be composed in seven to ten syllables, but mostly use either six or eight syllables per line. Verses can be either four or six lines. The rhyme scheme of four-line verses is ABCB, meaning the end the second and fourth lines should rhyme. The rhyme pattern of six-line verses is ABCBDB; the last words of lines two, four, and six should rhyme.
  • Length: Old-style corridos run twenty or thirty verses offering rich details of narration—so many, in fact, that many early recordings did not fit on one side of a 45-rpm record and had to be divided into “Part One” on one side and “Part Two” on the flip side. Today’s corridos–only eight or ten verses– fit the standard commercial radio air time, around 2.5 to 3.5 minutes. 
  • Opening, middle, and closing: To call an audience, many corridos name their form in the first or second verse with lines like “Este es el corrido” (This is the corrido) or “Señores pongan cuidado” (Ladies and gentlemen, lend me your ears). Then the song relates the details of the story. The final or penultimate verse signals the coming ending: “Así termina el corrido” (That’s how the corrido ends) or “Aquí termina el corrido” (The corrido ends here). If the corrido has described death, it typically ends with a verse that begins with “Vuela, vuela palomita” (Fly, fly little dove), a spiritual reference to the afterlife.
  • Performance space: Traditionally, corridos were performed wherever people gathered—plazas, mercados, or ferias. It is still common to hear corridos in city plazas or at family parties in the countryside.
  • Singers: Trovadores or wandering singers would carry the news of the day in their corridos as they traveled from town-to-town. They played mostly for tips, although some of them also sold broadsheets, often with artistic borders and designs, printed with the lyrics.
  • Singing style and accompaniment:  Because the emphasis is on the story being told, traditional corridos were performed without any embellishment, simply by one individual accompanied by his guitar. Today corridos are performed in almost all musical genres, from mariachi to norteño, with emphasis always on the story or lyrics.

Contemporary Corridos

Corridos continue to share the news of the day, bringing this folk tradition into contemporary times. Corridos about the U.S-Mexico border serve as an important chronicle of daily struggle and injustice.

The murders of over 300 women (femicide) in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico during the 1990s, for example, has been the subject of numerous corridos, including one by the most famous Norteño band, Los Tigres del Norte, called “Las Mujeres de Juárez”:

Humillante y abusiva                              Humiliating and abusive
La intocable impunidad                         The untouchable impunity
Los huesos en el desierto                       The bones in the desert
Muestran la cruda verdad                     Tell the raw truth
Las muertas de Ciudad Juárez            The dead women of Ciudad Juárez
Son vergüenza nacional                          Are a national embarrassment

My long-time friend and collaborator, Guillermo Sáenz, also composed a corrido about the feminicides called “Cruces Rosas”:

Hoy en Ciudad Juárez                      Today in Ciudad Juárez
Se ven cruces rosas                            Pink crosses are visible
De mujeres muertas                          Of the murdered women
Quedando en la nada                      Their lives ending all for naught

Corridos also document the 2019 racially motivated mass shooting of Latinos at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, which claimed 22 lives and injured another 26. Josue Rodríguez and Alejandro Ramos performed “El Llanto de El Paso, Texas” at a vigil just three days after the shooting, and it then went viral.

Voy a cantar un corrido                       I’m going to sing a corrido
Pónganle muy buen oído                     Listen closely 
Que en los Estados Unidos                 In the United States
Cuidad de El Paso, Texas                     In the City of El Paso, Texas
Mucha gente están llorando              Many people are crying
Por lo que ha sucedido                         For what has happened here
 
El día tercer de agosto                          On the 3rd day of August
Un sábado en al mañana                    On a Saturday morning
En Walmart de Cielo Vista                 At the Walmart in Cielo Vista
La gente pasa y miraba                        The people walked and looked
Pero nunca se imaginaba                    But they never imagined
Que la vida les cambiara                    That their lives would change

Of the 50 or so corridos I have composed, several are set in the borderlands. “El Corrido de José Antonio Elena Rodríguez” documents the murder of 16-year old José Elena on October 10, 2012, by U.S. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz. Swartz fired 16 bullets through the U.S.-Mexico border fence, from Nogales, Arizona into Nogales, Sonora, hitting José Elena 13 times. Predictably the agent was granted impunity.

Sonaron varios balazos              Several shots rang out
Con intención de matar             With the intent to kill
Así comienza el corrido              This is how the corridobegins
Que aquí les voy a cantar          That I am going to sing to you

José quedó ahí tirado                  José remained there shot
En el suelo agonizando               Dying on the ground
La Migra recargó su arma          Lonnie reloaded his weapon
Para seguirle apuntando           And continued shooting him

Despedida no les doy                  I can’t give you a farewell
Solo nos queda la pena              Only the sorrow remains
Que la Migra asesinó                 That the Border Patrol
A José Antonio Elena                 Murdered Antonio Elena

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, corridos by Homero Guerrero Jr. y Los KDTs de Linares, Alan y Roberto, and Los Potrillos De Turicato serve to tell the story, spread health-related messages, and offer positive encouragement. Most popular of the coronavirus corridos might be the satirical and humorous one by Los Tres Tristes Tigres:

Ya no hay clases en escuelas,                 There are no clases in schools
cancelaron los conciertos                        They cancelled the concerts
Ya cerraron Disnenlandia                         Disneyland is closed now
Eso me está dando miedo                         All of this is scaring me
Y hay quien dice que se abracen           There are those that say to hug each other
Que “no pasa nada, no hay pedo”         That “nothing will happen, it’s no big deal”

Current corridos also document the killing of George Floyd by the police and the subsequent national and global demonstrations against police brutality. Among them are “No puedo respirar/El corrido de George Floyd” by Ayalas Band and “8 Minutos de Infierno” by Pedro Rivera. In this very humble and beautiful home recording of “El Corrido de George Floyd,” Humberto Reyes el HR sings acapella to shares countless details about the event: 

Un 25 de mayo                                      A 25th of May
En tierras americanas                         In the United States
El racismo acabó                                   Racism ended
Con una vida humana                        A human life
El autor un policía                                In the hands of a policeman
Y tres mas telamerada                       And another three of the same cloth
 
Ya no puedo respirar                            I can’t breath
Aquel hombre pronunciaba             That man said
Ya por favor oficial                                Please policeman
La vida a mi se me acaba                   I’m dying
Mas las suplicas, señores                   But the pleas, ladies and gentlemen
Nunca fueron escuchadas                 Were never heeded

The Voice of the People

As the primary folk tradition documenting and interpreting important events from the perspective of “el pueblo,” the working class, corridos provide a perspective often not found in mainstream media, magazines and books. In just a few poetic words set to music, corridos say a great deal. They help preserve history from the perspective of the people, often times about events and individuals that the mainstream media and history books may wish to bury or “whitewash.” And like great books, corridos often have been the primary source and inspiration for documentaries and commercial films. Without some corridos, we would simply have not known the story.

There’s something about the corrido art form, a running account, from the perspective of humble eyewitnesses, set to music, that brings lived experiences to life, today, at this moment. Corridos don’t shout at us like commentators on cable TV or fire words rapidly like the hosts of nightly news programs. Rather, they challenge us to focus on the essential points and to reflect. Corridos don’t lie, have hidden agendas, attempt to placate, or otherwise try to deceive an audience. They deal with the essential facts and “tell it like it is.” They help us understand our humanity and challenge us to be our better selves. Corridos help us make sense of current events and happenings, of events that touch us deeply. They bring us the calm yet powerful voice of the people. 

Celestino Fernández, Ph.D. is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Arizona. He has collected, written about, presented on, and composed corridos for over 40 years, working mostly with musician/singer Guillermo Sáenz. He has organized corrido contests at Tucson Meet Yourself and the University of Arizona and Arizona high schools, and led workshops on composing corridos for youth and adults. His corrido, “La Mujer Misteriosa,” was featured in the movie, Rita of the Sky, and another, “Peligro en el Desierto,” was picked up by and played on border radio stations. He is currently recording a CD of corridos and is seeking funds to support the project.  

1 thought on “Running Tales for the Times”

  1. Loved this historical perspective on the Corrido form, and the examples given were perfect illustrations. Thank you for sharing your knowledge in such a clear and informative way.

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