By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Horrible news, cabrones: The annual Cinco de Mayo show for Manic Hispanic—those OGs of OC punk who wabbify punk classics to hilarious effect—is not happening this year. No, the members weren’t finally sent to la pinta; lead singer Mike “Gabby” Gaborno—he of a glorious gut—is still recovering from a stroke suffered earlier this year.
But that doesn’t mean our annual list of Mexican songs that tie to Manic Hispanic themes gets deported to next year. The subject this año: narcocorridos, the ballads celebrating, denigrating and documenting Mexico’s drug wars. Below are some of the best:
“La Cucaracha,” Various. Folklore has it that insurgents during the Mexican Revolution who despised President Victoriano Huerta created the line that the cockroach (Huerta) could no longer walk because he lacked marijuana pa’ fumar—to smoke. Huerta was such a notorious drunk that he died of cirrhosis of the liver, but whether he really was a dope fiend is a Mexican mystery as great as who stole the head of Pancho Villa.
“El Contrabando del Paso” (“The Contrabandist From El Paso”), Los Alegres de Teran. Generally acknowledged as the first true narcocorrido, this prisoner’s lament never reveals what drugs he smuggled that sealed his fate to a Leavenworth cell. Unfortunately, his warning to any aspiring smugglers—“Es bonito el contrabando/Se gana mucho dinero/Pero lo que si es muy triste/Las penas de un prisionero” (“Smuggling goods is nice/You earn a lot of cash/But what’s really sad/The pains of a prisoner”)—was, like any sensible advice ever given to Mexicans over the past century, largely unheeded.
“El Tírili” (The Reefer Man), Don Tosti’s Pachuco Boogie Boys. This guaracha boogie warns people about the dangers of beer, wine and tequila. But el zacatito? The grass? “Ayyyy,” Tosti sighs, before scatting so furiously he makes fellow reefer man Cab Calloway seem as restrained as Paul Robeson.
“El Circo” (“The Circus”), Los Tigres del Norte. The legendary San Jose-based, Sinaloa-born norteño supergroup have always been at the forefront of thematic developments in the narcocorrido, whether singing their respects toward the smugglers (“Jefe de Jefes,”or “Boss of Bosses”), of violent shootouts (“La Banda del Carro Rojo,” or “The Red Car Gang”) or criticizing the sadism of the trade (“El Avión de la Muerte,” or “The Airplane of Death”). But none of their narcocorridos has been more damning than this one, a tale of two brothers who take over Mexico’s various drug cartels. The brothers in question were the Salinas de Gortari boys, and one of them (Carlos) was Mexico’s president and generally the most-despised mexicano since Porfirio Diaz. That the Salinases didn’t off them speaks volumes about the group’s iconic status.
“Las Nieves de Enero” (“The Snows of January”), Chalino Sanchez. This Sinaloan immigrant single-handedly popularized narcocorridos in Southern California during the early 1990s and made the genre cool for cholos and wabs alike. He spawned two generations who mimic his music down to his rural Spanish and nasal intonations. Sanchez’s songbook is rife with drugs, murders and revenge fantasies—so how on Earth did he pen this syrupy love song? No, the snow is not a stand-in for cocaine—or, is it?
“El Federal de Caminos” (“The Highway Patrolman”), Ramón Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte. Mexicans were shocked when federal agents arrested Ayala, the country’s greatest living norteño star, as his band allegedly played at a narco party outside Mexico City. Ayala has rarely sung about the drug trade, and this tune—one of his most beloved—lionizes a real-life federale gunned down by narcos in Zacatecas. Is “El Rey del Acordeón” a drug mule, or is President Felipe Calderón framing Ayala because the musician supported his rival during Mexico’s 2006 presidential election? Like anything in Mexico, the crazier the conspiracy, the more likely it’s true—stay tuned.
“Mis Tres Animales,” (“My Three Animals”), Los Tucanes de Tijuana. Using the metaphor of three animals—a parrot, a rooster and a goat—and a simple, thunderous waltz beat to slyly boast of a man’s riches, this Tijuana group are masters of the craft, for better or worse. Worse, apparently, as the group now support the censorship of narcocorridos after a decade of crying freedom of expression. You know the drug wars are bad when Los Tucanes are urging temperance. . . . Happy Drinko por Cinco!
This article appeared in print as "Smoko Por Cinco? The greatest Mexican narcocorridos."