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Americans call them white trash; Mexicans prefer chúntaros—rural poor who arrive in the cities where they're kicked in the ass and laughed at for their lack of sophistication. But in a world gone madly cosmopolitan, it's conceivable these rubes—these hicks, hayseeds, yokels—are revolutionaries.
"A chúntaro is someone poor who doesn't have an agenda, who's not in accordance with anything the upper class tells them," says Cano Hernández, lead guitarist and singer for Monterrey, Mexico, group El Gran Silencio. "That's why chúntarohas always been used in Mexico in the pejorative sense, to let everyone know that it's okay to harass them."
You want chúntaro? The members of El Gran Silencio—Hernández and brother Tony on vocals and guitar, "El Vulgar" Hernández thunking a deep bass, Ezequiel Alvarado on lowrider-hopping drums and Campa Valdez pumping a braying accordion—grew up in the decaying colonias of central Monterrey, far from the city's upper-class suburbs where Monterrey's celebrated Latin alternative bands make their homes. You want chúntaro?Valdez wasn't available for this story because his house doesn't have a phone. You want chúntaro?For years, El Gran Silencio used a garbage can for a drum because Alvarado couldn't afford a real kit.
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But rather than mask their poor upbringing, El Gran Silencio shouts it to the world. "Early on in our career," Hernández continues, "we decided to take chúntaroback from the upper class and make it ours."
El Gran Silencio draws upon this well of chuntarismo. The quintet has built its reputation hybridizing genres—Alvarado's jittery cumbia and ragamuffin drumbeats loll along with Valdez's accordion, breathe out Argentina, exhale Bavaria. The Hernández hermanos, meanwhile, sling MC boasts and guitar bullets with the skill and relentlessness of a Latin American flyweight. Together, their performances are a glorious mess of sound, instruments bleeding over each other until the only noise discernable is a quivering wallop of rhythm.
Their second album—buy it tomorrow, por favor—was Chúntaros Radio Poder(Chúntaros Radio Power), a celebration of their beloved Monterrey and its fusion of urban and rural realities. The album's most powerful song is tellingly titled "Chúntaros Style," a furious accordion/sax manifesto in which Hernández proudly proclaims to the world, "This is the chúntaro style/I sing ragamuffin and I dance [ranchera]."
Unlike alternative bands, El Gran Silencio disavows musical rigidity, embracing globalization for its power to smash society into classlessness. And because of this, El Gran Silencio is one of Mexico's most maligned combos.
"It's strange for us," admits Hernández. "We just want to play the music of our roots, like cumbia and norteño, combine them with rap and rock, and share it with the world. But most of Mexico still doesn't accept that. They hear us and dismiss us as chúntaros."
More sympathetic is Mexico north of the Rio Grande. "Our favorite fans are Latinos in the United States because they understand the concept of chuntarismo," Hernández confesses. "They're also used to not completely belonging to the mainstream culture of either the United States or Mexico and so do their own thing. So they don't see anything wrong with people dressed in Stetsons while going to a rock concert. That's perfectly acceptable to Latinos."
"When we started out, we were afraid no one would play us at all," Hernández says. "Tropical stations thought we were rock, and rock stations thought we were tropical. But instead, we're playing in all types of radio stations and concerts around the world.
"We started out playing trash cans instead of drums—can you imagine that?" concludes Hernández with wonder. "Our success is our prize."
El Gran Silencio with Fidel and Orixa at Jc Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-1057. Thurs., July 31, 9 p.m. $30. 16 and over.