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By appearances alone, the members of Los Tigres del Norte are your stereotypical, male Mexican immigrants —mustachioed, a bit chubby, skin bronzed from countless hours of work under the sun, bedecked in tejanas and cowboy boots. But Los Tigres del Norte (the Tigers of the North)—brothers Jorge, Raul and Hernán Hernández; their cousin Oscar Lara; and family friend Lupe Olivo—are huge. U2 huge. Beatles huge. As in regularly selling out 100,000-seat stadiums around the world. But most important, they are beacons-of-artistic-activism huge.
Along with their global popularity and immense financial success, Los Tigres have become revolutionary leaders through their songs about corruption in the Mexican and U.S. governments, the struggles of Mexican immigrants, and issues of class consciousness. Those radical themes are delivered stealthily, masked by an innocuous 2/4 polka beat. And far from losing their common touch over time, Los Tigres have become more radical, transcending the narrow Mexican-music genre to become one of the most important activist musical groups in any language during the past 30 years.
Los Tigres are not rock en español-style defiant. Rather than singing explosive anti-American songs in a mélange of urban musical styles, Los Tigres stick to the rollicking polka beat that distinguishes the conjunto norteño. Theirs is the music of rural northern Mexico, a genre of heavy accordion riffs, pendulous bass lines and a corny nasal inflection—hear this music without the lyrics, and you'll swear you're in Bavaria around October.
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But the backbone of the conjunto norteño is the corrido. Half newspaper article, half morality tale, the corrido is a miniature epic poem about individuals who, because of personal flaws, lose their lives, become legends or both. Most conjuntos play only the traditional corridos; in their first revolutionary act, Los Tigres adapted the historic corridoto reflect the corruption of our times.
Los Tigres, now based in that most Mexican of cities, San Jose, started three decades ago in the rancho of Rosa Morada, Sinaloa, Mexico. When Eduardo Hernández was left unable to work, his eldest son, Jorge, and the rest of the future Tigres started performing to support the family. They began by playing traditional corridos, eventually traveling north to the States in the late '60s to play for the immigrants who had settled in the Bay Area.
As Mexico's economy got worse during the '70s and the drug trade boomed on both sides of the border, Los Tigres became social historians, singing songs about the threat to both countries. Their first major hit, 1972's "Contrabanda y Tracción" (Contraband and Betrayal), is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the narcocorrido era, gangsta rap's conjunto counterpart.
Narcocorridos keep the form of traditional corridos but are devoted exclusively to the celebration of drug culture and its violence. Los Tigres never glorified the drug dealers, however, and always made sure the trafficker got his comeuppance. Consider "La Camioneta Gris" (The Grey Truck), a song about a character named Pedro Márquez who owns a magnificent gray truck that he has bought with his earnings from his drug deals. After leading the federaleson a bloody shootout through the Mexican desert, Pedro swerves into the path of a train. For his sins, Pedro, his truck and his girlfriend are crushed beneath steel wheels.
In the 1980s, as Mexico's economy slid further, immigrants began realizing that the United States wasn't the Promised Land. Los Tigres switched its lyrical focus toward the experience of los mojados—"the wetbacks." Although commenting on the cat-mouse-and-dog game between coyotes (smugglers), pollos (immigrants) and la migra, most of their songs dealt with immigrant life in the States. A typical song of this period was the classic "La Jaula de Oro" (The Gold Cage). In it, a man laments the cost of his success in the U.S.: he has been ostracized by Anglos, he's homesick and, most tragically, his Americanized children have rejected Mexican culture. In these three minutes, the fears of the Mexican immigrant bloom like black roses: deportation, assimilation and loss of country.
Mexico's economy got worse still in the 1990s, and the corrupt ruling party—known by its Spanish acronym, PRI—was beginning to crack under the strain. Los Tigres directed their most pointed songs at then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose fleecing of the Mexican treasury from 1988 to 1994 led to the peso's devaluation in 1995 and set the stage for the third exodus of Mexican immigrants. One of their songs from this period, "El Circo" (The Circus), is a brilliant satire of Gortari, the PRI and Gortari's brother Raul (now in prison for various white-collar crimes). "El Circo" was banned on Mexican radio stations until a public outcry set it free.
Despite the inadvertent publicity assist from the government, Los Tigres' most famous song from this time was "Pacas de Kilo" ("Packets of Cocaine"). It's subtler, but it still alleges that drug money had infiltrated Los Piños (the Mexican White House) and the policies of Gortari.
After 30 years of progressive, biting lyrics and outrageous financial success, Los Tigres might have gone soft, abandoning their controversial tone for uniter-not-divider lyrics. But if anything, their latest album, De Paisano a Paisano(From Countryman to Countryman), picks off new targets: the stumbling U.S. economy, anti-union bosses and Byzantine U.S. immigration policies.