Living la Vida Coca

Singing along with the drug trade

You're driving down Harbor Boulevard with the windows rolled up, but you can still feel it from a distance: the brain-rattling bass from a car stereo transmitting itself through the imperfect media of air, car and your own skeleton. You expect an expletive-filled rap from a Honda, but you instead pull up to a yuppie panzer, and then you hear the Spanish lyrics and the herky-jerky polka strains of an accordion. At the wheel is a teenager with a shaved head and earring but otherwise dressed like a chúntaro(a Mexican hillbilly).

This is the future America. The new Mexican no longer toils on his family's sterile plot of land. He works in el Norte to earn the new beast of burden: an SUV. He is the product of narcocultura—literally, the culture of narcotics trafficking—itself a byproduct of the American war on drugs.

Over the past 30 years, Mexican economics, pop culture and dress have been shaped by the drug business. And like almost everything bad in this world, narcocultura can be blamed in part on American excess. During the drug-fueled '70s, entrepreneurs known as narcotraficantes introduced drug crops throughout rural Mexico, especially in the state of Sinaloa, where the major narcotraficantes have been based. In an effort to eradicate the emerging narco-economy, the Mexican army went after smugglers and growers with equal vigor. With a common enemy, narcotraficantes and townspeople united in a socioeconomic symbiosis: the narcos would give ailing ranchos financial aid, and the citizens would grow drugs.

The benevolence of narcotraficantes created cult followings for the cartels and their leaders, including such figures as Ámado Carrillo Fuentes, "El Señor de los Cielos" (the Lord of the Sky), who died during plastic surgery in 1997; Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, who recently escaped from a Guadalajara prison and is currently at large; and the Arellano-Félix cartel of Tijuana. Narcos became the modern-day folk heroes of Mexico, reported on breathlessly by the Mexican media.

With jobs and adoration, though, came gang hits and drug-related massacres throughout rural Mexico. The violence was exploited by a Mexican film industry that had been in decline throughout the 1960s and was desperate for a moneymaker. Thus the narcopelícula, the narco film. These were not Cheech and Chong farces but rather portrayals of the Mexican drug trade as a deadly but glamorous adventure. The men were almost stereotypically macho, the women either whores or virgins, and the movies violent even by the sanguinary standards of Mexican film. Shootouts were the norm—at weddings, while driving, in the mountains. The most famous actors of the narcopelícula, brothers Mario and Fernando Almada, were the good guys: 50-year-old Dirty Geraldos massacring anyone who crossed their path. They became Mexican idols, and their films are still shown as if on an endless loop on Spanish-language television stations.

But the embodiment of narcocultura was the late Chalino Sánchez. Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Johnny Rotten rolled into one undocumented Mexican immigrant, Sánchez helped transform the corrido, Mexico's traditional song structure, into a running commentary on the glories and terrors of drug running: the narcocorrido.

Sánchez sang narcocorridos not in Mexico but in Southern California during the late 1980s. He combined the violent imagery of the narcopelícula and the corrido form—with its emphasis on communicating history—and added his own ideas. Sánchez turned the corrido into something like journalism, singing about contemporary but otherwise anonymous people whose only claim to fame was their (usually violent) life story. If he was experimental, he was also traditional, writing songs on commission, transforming the invisible lives of immigrants into heroic songs of violence, hard work and tragedy.

Soon, narcocultura had a sartorial style named for Sánchez himself, the Chalinazo: a cowboy hat, exotic-animal cowboy boots, gold chains, an ornate belt called a cinto pitiado, and silk shirts. After Sánchez's 1992 assassination in Sinaloa, his style and music became de rigueur for any Mexican who wanted to be el más chingón, the biggest badass around.

The music and clothes established, the official car of the narcocultura emerged from the suburban dreams of soccer moms and dads: the monstrous SUV. Much like corridos about famous horses in days gone by, new corridos hit the radio waves boasting about trucks—such as "El Cherokee de La Muerte" ("The Cherokee of Death") and "El Suburban." These new ballads sing the praises of vehicles bought with drug money and emblazoned with symbols of the rancho: bulls, horses and la Virgen de Guadalupe.

This love of materialism yielded the newest trend in narcocultura: corridos pesados, heavy corridos. They deal only peripherally with drugs and narcotraficantes, instead concentrating on trash talk. The protagonist in the corrido pesado has made his drug money; now he brags about what he owns as a result and vows to kick your ass if you have a problem with him. Most notably, singers of corridos pesados cuss—big time. This created a dilemma for the Federal Communications Commission. During the birth of corridos pesados, around 1999, Spanish-language radio was awash in expletives. Perhaps FCC monitors spoke Spanish, but not the Mexican Spanish in which many swear words translated literally have no obvious vulgar content. For example, "Te voy a madriar" means "I'm going to mother you," but in Mexican Spanish more liberally translates as "I'm going to kick your fucking ass." The FCC seems finally to have captured the nuances of Mexican swearing; in the past year, corridos pesados have been censored or outright banned on Spanish radio.

The group with the biggest reputation among narcoculturaacts is Los Razos de Sacramento y Reynaldo, who play at JC Fandango Sunday night. Emulating the voicing (something between a howl and a screech) and dress that Sánchez employed, Los Razos have made their name as Los Reyes del Corrido Pesado (Kings of the Heavy Corrido) with songs such as "El Jodón" (The Bad-Ass Motherfucker) and "El Huevudo" (The Guy with Big Balls). In interviews, lead singer Sacramento Ramírez has frankly said the only reason his group sings corridos pesados is because that's where the money is. It's not the older generation of immigrants he wants as fans—it's their children, the ones who drive the huge trucks, are immersed in narcocultura and are the future of this nation. With corridos pesados in one culture, gangsta rap in another, and thrash metal as overlord, we can look forward to some interesting shit in the next decade.

Los Razos de Sacramento y Reynaldo perform with Eliseo Robles, Flamazo Norteño and Banda Grullo at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-9998. Sun., 8 p.m. $30.
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