Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez isn't someone you are likely to know about. Yet his legendary role as the revitalizer of the corrido–as the Mexican border folk song is known–is unquestionable among the 24 million people who inhabit the territories that unite or separate Mexico and the United States. In fact, his reputation reaches far beyond, from his native state of Sinaloa to the nearby Coahuila and Durango and, emphatically, to the Mexican "suburbs" of Los Angeles, where Chalino spent his most artistically fruitful years. Songs popularized by him like the "Corridos de Amistad" are listened to religiously on the radio in cantinas and at birthday parties, malls and mechanic shops. His cassettes and CDs are astonishingly popular. By all accounts a mediocre singer with little stage charisma, he is nevertheless a folk hero of epic proportions to Mexicans.
Soon after his mysterious death in Culiacán in 1992, close to 150 corridos about his plight were recorded. This, in the opinion of ethnomusicologists, makes him the most written about corrido subject ever. That the Anglo music radar refuses to acknowledge Chalino's durability is, to my ears, proof of abysmal distrust. He is a bestseller in a tradition whose luminaries often make it to the Billboard Latin chart, one that even though MTV en Español refuses to embrace, on the grounds that its stars are unappealing 40-plus-year-old males, is not only more popular than tropical rhythms–salsa, merengue, cumbia–but also accounts for approximately two-thirds of overall Latin record sales in the United States. The explanation of Chalino's anonymity among nonbelievers is more complex: Together with scores of other solo corridistas and troupes, like Jenni Rivera and Los Hermanos Jiménez, like Los Pajaritos del Sur and Grupo Exterminador, he eulogized in his lyrics a symbol regularly satanized in the English-language media: the narcotrafficker.
The protagonists of Chalino's songs and those of his peers are immigrants to the United States. The songs address urgent political and social issues head-on: poverty, drug traffic, injustice, discrimination and the disillusionment of a life built chasing the ever-evasive dollar bill. (The term corrido comes from correr, "to run.") In one ballad a couple of girls disguise themselves as nuns and drive a van full of cocaine, which they claim is powdered milk for an orphanage in Phoenix. In another, two brothers, Carlos and Raúl, are the owners of a circus that uses unfair strategies to push other circuses out of business. The circus, of course, is an allegory of the Mexico of the late 1980s and early 1990s: The names are obvious references to former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his drug-money convict brother, Raúl. These and similar lyrics insert themselves into one of the oldest rural musical traditions of the New World. They deliver a rough-and-tumble plot succinctly, offering a recognizable startup that leads to a denouement, all the while following a rhymed meter that is simple and straightforward. In that sense they are structurally similar to the British broadside, the cowboy songs of the Southwest and gangsta rap. Instrumentally, though, they use accordion and guitar, although acoustics and percussion might also be on display.
The corrido spread its influence in the nineteenth century but reached its apex during the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910, when political figures like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, as well as prototypes like the female soldier La Soldadera, were the stuff of corridos. I've heard corridos about bandit Tiburcio Vázquez and labor activist César Chávez, about the late Tejana singer Selena, and revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos, even about scholar and folklorist Américo Paredes. These figures are extolled in a way that allows people to spill out their emotion.