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.

There are also corridos that address historical events. In fact, the vitality of the form lies in the fact that no sooner does an important incident take place than a song is already available to reflect on it. This immediacy is crucial; it grants the song the quality of a news report. There are corridos about police brutality in Los Angeles against Rodney King and the tragedy of September 11. A handful of movies have even been based on corridos, including the highbrow The Ballad of Gregorio Cortés, directed by Robert Young. The narcocorrido is a slightly different item, though: Once a subgenre of the tradition, it has emerged since the 1970s as the principal instrument to chronicle the odyssey of Mexicans across the Rio Grande in a drug-infested universe.

In the past few months a couple of US journalists have published insightful books on the narcocorrido that serve as compasses to navigate critically the cultural scene. Perhaps this is a sign that the US radar is finally becoming less dogmatic and more flexible to subtleties in the catalogue of Latin musical variations. Elijah Wald, a Bostonian whose father was a Nobel Prize honoree, is a nomadic guitarist responsible for the biography Josh White: Society Blues. Wald was for a time the music critic of the Boston Globe. His book on the narcocorrido offers an enlightening rendezvous: Rather than dwell on the origin and varieties of this sort of ballad in a scholarly mode, he delivers a travelogue. For almost eight months he hitchhiked, with a guitar on his back, across the Southwest, northern and central Mexico, and down to Chiapas. He talks to truck drivers, impresarios, vocalists and fans. The reader at times stumbles upon anecdotes that might add little to the overall context of the topic, yet these detours, approached with patience, are a midrash to understand the overall context that nurtures this kind of transnational phenomenon. (Wald's volume is also available in a Spanish-language version, and selections of the ballads discussed in its pages are featured on the CD Corridos y Narcocorridos, released by Fonovisa.)

Sam Quinones, a freelancer whose attention has been focused on Mexico since 1994, has a literary manner that tends toward a condensed, almost telegraphic narrative; this brevity I find both appealing and empathic. He also is less patient than Wald, which results in an eaglelike overview of the ballads themselves that left me hungry for examples. Actually, his True Tales From Another Mexico is only marginally about narcotics; instead, it is a collection of profiles of various personalities and a survey of popular themes that pertain to what Quinones describes as "the other side of Mexico." In his introduction, he argues that "the [foreign] press, other governments, and tourists are most aware of the official, elite, corrupt Mexico; the Mexico that won't allow a poor man a chance; the Mexico behind the sunglasses." He then adds: "I've even been told by people, including Mexicans, that this is Mexican culture. But I know that's not true." In response, Quinones follows the unlikely life of soap-opera diva Verónica Castro, as well as the unascertained path of the discoverers of the Popsicle–la paleta–in Tocumbo, Michoacán, and the rise of their business empire: La Michoacana.

But the chapters in Quinones's book I was mostly drawn to are about Chalino and about the so-called "Angel of the Poor": Jesús Malverde. These two figures strike me as veritable paradigms of complex popular sentiment. Malverde, for instance, is the type of magnet of collective faith that allows people to sustain themselves through violence and loss. Did he ever exist? How to explain that thousands of people stop regularly at his shrine in Culiacán to ask for a miracle–from a recovery from illness to protection against the federal police and the narcotraffickers? Scholars of various persuasions claim he is a fusion of Catholic iconography and the biographical leftovers of Sinaloan outlaw Heraclio Bernal, another representative of the oppressed, executed in 1909 by a meanspirited governor and hung for weeks on a tree. But Eligio González, a composer and self-made entrepreneur devoted to the construction and administration of La Capilla, a chapel dedicated to honor Malverde, believes that the bandit's name was Jesús Juárez Maso, and that Malverde became his appellative "because of the green [verde] plants in which he used to hide himself from the rurales, the rural police." In any case, Malverde, he explains, was a self-righteous bandit who was one day severely wounded, according to the legend. His condition was desperate; he seemed to be dying. Suddenly, he decided to sacrifice himself by requesting that a friend of his turn him in so as to collect a reward posted on his name. Malverde then asked the friend to distribute the money among the dispossessed. He especially cared for those involved in the drug trade, thus his nickname, El Narcosantón, an unofficial narcosaint.

González is known in Sinaloa for handing out wheelchairs and coffins, and for officiating at funerals. In La Capilla he has placed various narcocorridos about Malverde on sale. Also available are human-size busts of him, and Wald includes a photograph of one in his book. He describes how these sculptures came about: at the request of González, of course, to satisfy a devout folk in need of a tangible object of worship. Given that no material evidence of the bandit has ever been available, González commissioned a local sculptor to make the sculptures. He tells Wald: "Since at that time [Mexican movie stars] Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete were popular, I said to him, 'Look, [Malverde] was a good-looking boy, white, and so that people will identify with him, make him somewhere in between Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete.'" González also describes Malverde's miracles. For instance, the Sinaloan government once decided to build a state office building in the land where people congregated to pay tribute to El Narcosantón. A huge protest ensued, lasting two years. In that time stones jumped like popcorn on the ground, machinery frequently broke down and other mishaps occurred. In the end the building was finished, but the aggregated faith among the people was by then undefeatable. A portion of the illustrious "Corrido a Jesús Malverde" follows:

 

Voy a cantar un corrido de una historia verdadera,
De un bandido generoso que robaba dondequiera.
Jesús Malverde era un hombre que a los pobres ayudaba,
Por eso lo defendían cuando la ley lo buscaba.

 

 

(I am going to sing a corrido of a true story,
Of a generous bandit who robbed wherever he went.
Jesús Malverde was a man who helped the poor,
Because of that, they protected him when the law was after him.)

 

Truth, generosity and bravado. Most of the narcocorridos I'm acquainted with are similar in tone. They celebrate the semi-fictitious adventures of a righteous person, usually a man, who dared to fight against the establishment. It is as if the best of Mexico, its source of endurance, was built against the current. The lyrics by composers like Paulino Vargas, Julián Garza and Jesse Armenta are fatalistic in nature; they recount bloody encounters in which individuals avenge themselves in order to leave their dignity intact. Dignidad, indeed, is what the narcocorridos are about: the supremacy of honor.

In what he described as "a journey into the music of drugs, guns, and guerrillas," Wald patiently explores the half-accomplished modernity that colors northern Mexico, where the drug business has radically transformed people's daily routine but has left untouched the sense of morality. The people he comes across are never appalled by the consumption of narcotics. Why should they be? As a bystander tells him, that is someone else's problem. Their immigrant's sole concern is with survival: la sobrevivencia. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz once described Mexicans as unafraid of death. The narcocorrido is proof of it. Malverde, for instance, is anything but a submissive figure. He is eager to subvert the official rule, although he knows his subversion will ultimately be ineffectual. In no way does he follow the pattern of a Stallone/Rocky archetype, who is able to overcome, with charisma and stamina, every obstacle to emerge in front of him. In the end, Rocky is the underdog who becomes an undisputed bell cow. No such emblem exists in the Spanish-language drug culture: In this ballad, as in "The Wetback's Grave," "The Circus" and countless others, the concept of the underdog is alien to such a degree that the Spanish language doesn't have a close translation of it. Malverde is a source of endurance; in the end, though, the establishment–the gringos, the corrupt politicos– prevails. Still, confrontation is embraced by corridistas. For them, a dignified death is better than a life lived on one's knees. Sooner or later, society figures out a way to pay tribute to the martyr.

In the case of Malverde, his timelessness is to be found not only in La Capilla and the handsome busts on sale but also in the Denny's-like cafeterias called Coco's Malverde and Chic's Malverde, as well as in businesses like Malverde Clutch & Brakes. According to Quinones, there's even a corporate connection Eligio González has established with Pepsi-Cola. As it happens, local distributors give the saint's caretaker discounts so he can sell soda at concerts and dances of narcocorridistas, allowing him to keep the profits for El Narcosantón.

Of the myriad troubadours who parade in the volumes under review, probably the most emblematic is Chalino, whose crystalized style has been compared, in its impact, to that of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. Thus, I'm delighted to see his travels hereby delineated for an English-language audience. His impact among youth is so fertile–the reader is exposed to a trend of Chalino sound-alikes that, demographically and in ambition, eclipses even the mania over Elvis. Wald recalls how in ten minutes a record-store owner showed him cassettes and CDs of twenty-five different so-called chalinitos. I own three of his records; his voice is rough and uninspiring, though his lyrics are appealing. As in Malverde's case, it is no doubt the myth, the way people inject their own dreams into Chalino's life, that holds the clue to his celebrity. For he was a warrior, and that is how every immigrant, no matter the background, wants to see himself: as a fearless combatant. He was killed in a shootout at the age of 31. This isn't at all unexpected, of course; almost to the end of his days he carried a pistol, and he made sure everyone noticed it. He wore a distinctive outfit, even for an "antistar": a cowboy hat, white or striped shirt, dark slacks and boots, accompanied by the ostentatious jewelry (rings, necklaces, watches) that is de rigueur among narcotraffickers. Chalino spoke with a distinctive Sinaloan rancho accent; for instance, he said te fuites for "you left," rather than te fuiste. "[Chalino] looked straight out of the mountains," a devotee assures us, "one more of the shy, fierce men drinking in the cantinas and carrying drugs across the border in suitcases, ready to do the jail time with quiet fatalism, or to kill someone over a woman or a thoughtless remark."

From Sinaloa he moved north not only in search of work but because he needed to run away from the law. Apparently, at the age of 15 Chalino went to a party where he found the man who had raped his sister Juana four years earlier. Chalino killed him on the spot. He followed the harvests up through California to Oregon, finally settling in Inglewood, a Mexican-immigrant satellite town in Los Angeles. From a series of small crimes he was sent to prison in Tijuana, and it was there where he came across contraband smugglers with guitars. With them he began to write corridos. It was his first exposure to composition. Back in LA, he traded marijuana and cocaine but stopped when his musical career–which lasted only four years–took off. He asked a norteño band to record his lyrics but was unhappy with the result, so he tried his own luck in front of the microphone at the studio. Soon his cassettes were selling like hot cakes.

True Tales From Another Mexico reconstructs Chalino's roving, reflecting on his success in clubs, cantinas and quinceañeraparties. Soon everyone, from coyotes to wetbacks, began replaying his albums, in which he collected songs made to order on narcotraficantes of any stature. Eventually, after a performance in Coachella, twenty miles east of Palm Springs, in which he took requests, an alcoholized, unemployed, 33-year-old jumped onstage and fired a pistol into Chalino's side, injuring him. The incident made it to ABC World News Tonight, another case of Anglos paying attention not because of the artistic quality of the performance but as a result of gunshots.

Chalino's reputation as a valiente, a brave macho, was bolstered by the incident. But his reputation as a daredevil and a singer of revenge followed him, and sooner rather than later it caught up with him. Probably filled with regret, he gave up his gun collection shortly after the incident, and he also sold the rights to his music for the lump sum of $115,000. These were the last acts of a singer whose themes often got him in trouble. In May of 1992, after a packed performance back in Culiacán, he and some relatives were stopped by armed men driving a Chevrolet Suburban. Hours later, a couple of campesinos found his body, dumped by an irrigation canal near a highway. He had been blindfolded and his wrists had rope marks. He had been shot twice in the back of the head. The mystery of his death is unsolved. In a lawless landscape such as the one Chalino inhabited, it is likely to remain so. A stanza in his homage reads:

 

Para cantar estos versos voy a quitarme el sombrero,
Para contar la tragedia de un amigo y compañero.
Chalino Sánchez ha muerto, que Dios lo tenga en el cielo.

 

 

(To sing these verses I will take off my hat,
To recount the tragedy of a friend and companion.
Chalino Sánchez has died, may God have him in heaven.)

 

News of his death spread far and wide through technology–radio, TV, e-mail. But in the migrant communities it was through narcocorridos that news of the tragedy was widely disseminated. It was through these ballads that Chalino became famous, and it was through them that he was immortalized. This adds another crucial aspect, one that Quinones discusses in some detail: "In the Mexican badlands," he argues, "where the barrel of a gun makes the law, for generations dating back to the mid-1800s, the corrido recounted the worst, best, and bloodiest exploits of men." Indeed, the corridos are the newspaper of an illiterate people. And they are something else: For migrants weary of corrupt politicians, this is a literary form that is alive for those unexposed to the written word. This is a form, needless to say, that is authentically democratic, one in which people express themselves in full.

Democracy isn't a system to which the immigrants have been exposed. They run away from a dictatorial regime, looking for a better future elsewhere. They often don't find it. Still, the corrido allows them a sense of freedom. What has kept the tradition alive in the border region is the fact that workers with scarcely a cent to spare are eager to unpocket what to them is a handsome sum to a composer to tailor-make a ballad about the customer's own journey. Chalino's career flourished in large measure thanks to the endless commissions he received from his avid customers. In the melodic tales he told about them, their anonymity was suddenly unlocked. This wasn't anything but liberating. Through the corrido the laborer, pushed to oblivion by History (with a capital "H"), was allowed the key to a room of his own. Un donnadie, a nobody, unexpectedly got the chance to become un alguien, a somebody, at least for the few minutes that Chalino's stanzas lasted. And in taped form, replayed time and again, they could last forever. Producer Abel Orozco put Chalino's contribution in perspective for Quinones: "Before, they'd only do corridos about legendary figures. Now people want to hear about themselves while they're alive. Although they may be nobodies, they want to make themselves known. Corridos have become, over the last several years, a little less news and a little more publicity for common people. They're fifteen minutes of fame that they pay for themselves."

Chalino the Mexican immigrant: Isn't he an American hero too?