The gleaming black Cadillac Escalade trembles at the intersection of Beach Boulevard and Cerritos Avenue in Stanton. Four young Mexican men inside, all buzz cuts and oversized white T-shirts and tattoos, look as if they're two days out from a stint at Theo Lacy. They type away on smartphones while clowning on one another in English—a scene as far away from their Mexican roots as a taco salad.
Except for the music. Accordion trills rush from the Escalade's speakers and rattle the windows of my pathetic Camry, idling in the next lane. It's the opening notes to "Baraja de Oro" ("Golden Deck of Cards"), a conjunto norteño classic written more than 45 years ago that compares women to poker and gets more macho from there. Next follows one of the baddest singing voices ever put on tape, a howl that sounds like an air-raid siren filtered through sandpaper, that makes Tom Waits sound like Marvin Gaye. "And if I lose, oh, well," the singer brags. "Because I'm of the men/That when I lose, I don't cry."
The SUV speeds off, but the voice of Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez remains. And not just because the song still echoes even 100 feet away; once you hear Chalino, he's impossible to forget. His songs jar every sense. The drums snap with menace; accordions overdose on notes. The lyrics are three-minute rural operas about men who kill or die for revenge or respect—and usually a combo of all four. Even if you don't know Spanish, the productions feel like an invitation to duel.
There's no seemingly logical reason why twentysomething Mexicans in Orange County would blast Chalino's music. For more than a century, Mexican-Americans have shook off the rituals of the old country to embrace the new, with traces of symbolic ethnicity such as tamales for Christmas and mariachis for parties allowed to linger as ritual. This full-scale assimilation still happens, with one fundamental change: It's now cool for Mexican-Americans to display as much of their mexicanidad as they want. It's as if Coachella millennials un-ironically rocked out to "Streets of Laredo" performed in the most bumpkin way possible, in daily homage to the Wild West.
And it's all gracias to Chalino. He's the most influential musician in the United States of the past quarter-century—no one comes even close. Jay Z and Dr. Dre launched empires and protégés; Nirvana and Pearl Jam defined a genre and fashion; Tupac and Biggie got gunned down before their time and became immortal; Green Day and Weezer spawned waves of imitators. All of them transcended music. Chalino did all of this, without the help of a music label or media hype or seed money—in Spanish, in los Estados Unidos.
He's also one of the most important Southern Californians in decades, someone who deserves mention in the same conversations about region-changing titans as the Chandler family and Don Bren. Yet Chalino remains criminally, unsurprisingly unmentioned in the mainstream, in both the United States and Mexico. The 25th anniversary of his murder after a concert in Mexico came and went this past May, with no public commemoration, no media coverage, no nada. Just like the 20th anniversary, the 15th, the 10th and the fifth . . . The repeated snubs are no mystery: The gatekeepers of American and Mexican popular culture remain disgusted by Chalino, aghast at the profound changes he brought not only to music, but also to an entire generation of Mexicans on both sides of the border—for better and for worse.
* * * * *
I'm at the Cypress College swap meet, looking for Chalino. Sure, I can stream his hundreds of corridos on Pandora, Spotify and YouTube, but it's the swap meets where the compa lives. Here, he's everywhere. The car-accessories booth sells a black-and-white window decal of a grim Chalino, Stetson on his head, which is cocked to the side. A vendor sells a T-shirt with an overcontrasted photo of him on top of "CHALINO" done up like the Supreme logo. Another hawks a poster of him loading a gun, with just one word: SINALOA.
And then there are the CD booths. In addition to the official releases, they stock the Chalino CD on which he was backed by a banda that wasn't around during his lifetime. Chalino in duets with people he never met. Chalino backed by mariachi, a style he never recorded while alive. Chalino singing with norteño star Cornelio Reyna, even though both were already dead when their album was released. Chalino trading off with his son Adán, who was only 8 when his apa passed.
Surrounding those CDs are what Mexicans call chalinillos: Little Chalinos, artists who continue to rip off their idol's storylines, voice and style. Even his CD-cover poses, which never varied much from him in front of a truck, or with a gun, or in a western-style jacket and shirt—or a combination of all three. Anything to be like Chalino.
"He'll always sell," says the CD vendor in Spanish. More than half of his booth are either Chalino or chalinillos. "He was a chingón—and who doesn't want to be a chingón?"
* * * * *
He was born in a tiny rancho in the coastal state of Sinaloa in 1960, into poverty that worsened after his father died when Chalino was only 6. Small-town life in Mexico then made life in Appalachia seem as cosmopolitan as a brownstone in Brooklyn. The government was far away, clans were dominant, and grudges were passed from grandfather to father to son. Looming over rancho life were the valientes, "the brave men," archetypical bad hombres who dispensed equal parts grace and terror. One of them, nicknamed "El Chapo" (though not the drug lord by the same name), raped Chalino's sister and got away with it—or so he thought. When Chalino was about 15, during a party in the rancho, he silently went up to El Chapo and killed him. Soon after, he left for Los Angeles and never looked back.
Mexican identity has demanded that its men be badasses, from both the Aztec and Spanish branches of their ancestry, for hundreds of years. But for most of the 20th century, the Mexican male's ideal was the charro: the man on horseback in a mariachi suit who defended the weak and wooed the ladies and hailed from Jalisco, birthplace of tequila. The country's culture makers exported the charro image across the globe while scorning his flip side: the paisas, the rough hillbillies who toiled and partied to excess and spoke funny and loved weird music. The Chalinos.
But they were about to have their day. With no education and no papers, Chalino took whatever job was available—farm work in the Coachella Valley and Oregon, dishwashing and small-time drug dealing across Los Angeles. He eventually joined his brother, Armando, as a coyote and smuggled hundreds of immigrants through Tijuana. That career ended when Armando was murdered in a motel room in 1984.
In his grief, Chalino wrote a corrido that payed homage to his hermano and shared it with friends. The murder made no news; the song itself was more personal than memorable. Nevertheless, it represented something never done before in commercial Mexican music: It celebrated the life of a paisa. And now, in the United States, other paisas wanted the same mythmaking treatment for themselves.
Chalino soon began to compose corridos on commission, tailored to their buyers. They were a defiant middle finger to a Mexican music industry that, by the late 1980s, veered toward pop and fluff and largely ignored the increasing number of paisas migrating to el Norte and their way of life. Chalino's protagonists have baroque names out of an Ancestry.com search: Loreto Mendoza. Prajedes Félix. Toledo Félix. Cano Zazueta. Tino Quintero. "El Güilo Rivera" features all the Chalino lyrical trademarks: A date of death (Jan. 6, 1970), a location (Tierra Blanca, Culiacán), the valiente's preferred gun (M14 rifle), how he died (in a shootout), why (betrayed by friends), a shoutout to Güilo's home rancho, a line of respeto to his grieving mother, and why people continue to honor his memory: "Among the valientes/el Güilo was distinguished/He was a man of few words/Of undisputed valor."
Demand became so great that in 1989, Chalino recorded a cassette of 15 songs. Then another. And more. He stocked tapes at mercados, panaderías and swap meets across Southern California. He'd even sell them out of his car trunk. Chalino eventually connected with another Mexican immigrant. Pedro Rivera had set up Cintas Acuario in Long Beach, a small recording studio where aspiring musicians could record for cheap.
The two became pioneers of the corrido prohibido—"prohibited corridos," songs that mythologized the bad, whether drug smugglers, murderers or just plain valientes. The Cintas Acuario roster (which later included Pedro's children, Lupillo, Juan and the late Jenni Rivera) received no radio airplay at first, but it didn't matter; they were becoming the soundtrack of Latino Los Angeles and beyond.
Promoters across the Southland quickly sought to book Chalino at their clubs. He also appeared on El Show de Keystone Ford, a legendary Saturday-morning music showcase that aired on KWHY-TV Channel 22 that Mexican immigrant families watched every weekend to hear a snippet of home. The 1980s had seen Mexicans swoop into Southern California from areas that had never previously sent many people to el Norte: the Tierra Caliente of Michoacán and Guerrero, Oaxaca, Mexico City, but especially Sinaloa. Chalino sang their songs, in their cadence and slang, something no big singer had ever bothered to do.
The buzz made Chalino a cult figure. And then came January 1992. During a concert at a nightclub in Coachella, a drug-fueled man jumped onstage and shot Chalino in the side. Chalino not only survived, but he also returned fire with a gun he had strapped on him; he flashed the sidearm at all of his performances to show crowds he meant business. The shooting went national, and a new valiente was born.
He returned that May to Sinaloa, to play in the capital of Culiacán. The audience of more than 2,000 was his largest he'd ever play to—as well as his last. Later that night, armed men posing as federales took Chalino from a car occupied by him, his brother and friends. His body was found the next day in an irrigation canal, blindfolded and with two bullets in the back of his head.
I remember that day well. I was only 13 years old at the time, and I was perplexed why my older cousins from East Los Angeles and Montebello—who until then were quickly losing their Spanish and mostly bumped the oldies-but-goodies, old-school funk and hip-hop that any Chicano of that era would—now dressed and swaggered like our dads. They suddenly rocked tejanas and cowboy boots, with elaborately crafted cintos piteados that my uncles couldn't pay them to wear even five years earlier; at my rancho's many quinceañeras, baptisms and weddings across Anaheim and Buena Park, prim-and-proper pochas now looked like a mix of Daisy Duke and a Teen Angel spread.
These teenage fans were crushed by Chalino's murder; our parents were pleased that this ill-mannered paisa was gone and wouldn't corrupt their children anymore. I didn't care much for him, but even then, I knew he had changed Mexican-American identity forever. I just didn't realize then we had gotten Chalino all wrong.
* * * * *
The dead Chalino became a hero to a community in need of one. The Los Angeles riots happened just two weeks before Chalino's death. Anti-immigrant politicians were already demonizing Mexican migrants and their children as threats and unassimilable. Into this assault on Mexicans swooped Chalino.
His corridos never addressed politics; there are no known interviews in which he tried to put his work in a larger context. But a tough, no-apologies Mexican immigrant such as Chalino was a perfect response to American society in the 1990s. Even if his fan base never became woke, like those who followed Rage Against the Machine, the very act of playing Chalino's corridos loudly in cars or dressing like him was radical enough. Be a paisa like Chalino, and people had to respect you.
"When I was in junior high and my dad would play the banda music, I'd be like, 'Turn it down. My friends are going to hear,'" says Saul Viera, a chalinillo who achieved fame as "El Gavilancillo" ("The Little Hawk") in a 1998 interview. He'd be assassinated before the story got published. "Now it's the other way around. I'm turning it up, and my parents are turning it down. When I was younger, I was ashamed of Mexican music. Now I know who I am. I'm not afraid of my race."
"Chalino ushered in and embodied a demographic, cultural and generational shift—from a second-generation-dominant Chicano LA to a migrant-dominant Mexican Los Angeles," says Adrián Félix, an assistant professor of social science at UC Santa Cruz who's not related to any of the Félix men in Chalino's corridos
Central to the phenomenon's rise was the Sinaloan paisa. The Mexican imagination had considered the state as Americans do the Ozarks, a wild land of beauty and insular, proud people that birthed a bounty of musical talent—the brassy sounds of banda sinaloense is from here, as well as Los Tigres del Norte and ranchera icons Pedro Infante, Luís Pérez Meza and Lola Beltrán. But it was most notorious as the center of Mexico's drug trade. Chalino's verses iconicized the state's men as modern-day valientes who did what needed to be done—and if it meant dabbling in the drug trade or offing your enemies, so be it. His death cemented Sinaloan identity as the indomitable "Mexican" all young Mexican-Americans in Southern California wanted to be.
It would've been fine if Chalino's lasting gifts were a surge in Mexican pride to fight xenophobia, an uptick in Stetson sales and a songbook of timeless tracks. It's also great that Southern California's Sinaloan obsession also spread the popularity of banda sinaloense, música sierreña (harshly plucked-and-strummed guitar music from the mountains), and dishes such as aguachile and Mexican-style sushi. But Chalino also uncorked a musical movement of ever-diminishing returns that wrecked Mexican society.
Narcocorridos had always existed in Mexican music, dating back to "La Cucaracha," which has a stanza about a marijuana-smoking cockroach. But they were morality tales, and criminals always got their comeuppance in the end. That changed in 1971, with the release of "Contrabando y Traición" by Los Tigres. The protagonists, Emilio and Camelia, cross the border in Tijuana in a car with tires "filled with hierba mala" (weed). Emilio gets murdered in the end by Camelia (after a brief cameo in San Clemente), but the punishment is for his infidelity, not drugs. Add an irresistible beat, and "Contrabando y Traición" was not only a chart-topper that led to two sequels and a film, but also a tectonic shift in how Mexicans would go on to depict narcocultura.
Chalino's corridos prohibidos helped narcocorridos become legitimate. Once they became a business, musicians who once might've sung about love now had to one-up one another in ultra-violence, as everyone tried to out-Chalino one another. He sounds tame to his heirs, the corridos pesados (heavy corridos) of the 2000s and the corridos enfermos (sick corridos) of el movimiento alterado (altered movement) of this decade.
"With AK-47s and bazookas/Making the heads fly of those who get in the way," begins "Sanguinarios del M1" ("The Bloodthirsty Ones"), a 2010 collaboration between artists from Los Angeles and Sinaloa who openly pledged their allegiance to the Sinaloa Cartel. "We're bloodthirsty ones, coked-up and crazy/We like to kill."
Chalino's musical children normalized narcocultura; his spiritual descendants tolerate it. When crusading journalist Javier Valdez was assassinated in Culiacán, just one day before the anniversary of Chalino's death, only reporters cared. The rest of Mexican society did what they almost universally do with every death in the Drug War: shrugged and continued.
* * * * *
"The guy is such a ranchero dude," says Sam Quinones about Chalino. "He's got that unpolished ranchero sound, and no one [in the media or elite society] wants that. No one cares about that."
The acclaimed author of the award-winning Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic was the first American author to tell the story of Chalino, in a 1998 LA Weekly cover—six years after the musician's death. The American media didn't report on his murder and was so clueless that articles about the Coachella club shootout incorrectly called him "Marcelino." Even more laughable, a 1997 San Jose Mercury News dispatch from Culiacán on the city's narcocultura scene said Chalino died in 1989 and identified a 24-year-old singer nicknamed Chalinillo as the late singer's son, even though Chalino would've been 11 when he supposedly became a dad.
"When I was doing that [LA Weekly] story, I immediately began to understand what a cool story it was," says Quinones. He first heard Chalino's music while on assignment in the mid-1990s in Michoacán, where he profiled a group of wannabe cholos. "They kept talking about him. There was one guy who had a lowrider bike in which he had a place for beer and a speaker that would play Chalino all the time."
Quinones traveled to Sinaloa, where he was surprised how few people cared about Chalino. He then traveled to Los Angeles in 1997, "and everyone wanted to talk about him. His story had really taken place in LA."
That LA Weekly story made it into Quinones' first book, True Tales From Another Mexico, as "The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez." He's now working on "an epic of Mexican migration" for Bloomsbury that will use Chalino's saga as its primary framing device. The author remains a fan of the man and agrees Chalino has few peers in American music. "Southern California had three great, do-it-yourself music explosions. First was the white kids in Hollywood and punk. Then came Compton and gangster rap—kids in their garages on drum kits creating music. And the third one was Chalino and the corridos. Those stories touched a nerve. There were great stories. They were magnificent stories."
Though the mainstream press—including Univisión and La Opinión, the country's largest Spanish-language newspaper—continue to ignore Chalino, he's appeared in documentaries and academic papers and books. But Quinones feels fans miss the most important point about the singer. "The guy was totally punk rock," Quinones says. "They're missing the essence of Chalino. If you really want to be like Chalino, don't get a cowboy hat with a gun by your side."
The former Los Angeles Times staff writer particularly hates the devolution of the corrido scene, which he dismisses as "extraordinarily non-creative. . . . They've imitated the superficial. That's not his lesson.
"The corrido has become corrupted in a very sinister way. What he was writing about and what the corrido had been was about a lone guy going up against power. And doomed, he still continued to fight and die. Now, the corrido is about applauding the most powerful, the most money, the best armed. It's propaganda. And part of that is Chalino's legacy.
"I tend to hope that his legacy is also what I learned from punk," Quinones adds. "You go do whatever you think you can do and wanna do and will love with, and don't let other people tell you—but you gotta put in the work. It's an enormously liberating legacy, if people will see it."
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But that's not the legacy that's winning right now. After talking to Quinones, I queued up Chalino's only mainstream hit, his remake of "Las Nieves de Enero" ("The Snows of January"). It's a song I particularly hated in the past because it featured Chalino as a chavala. Now, I actually listened to what he was saying. It's the anti-Chalino, the macho reduced to pleading with his beloved to explain why she continues to spurn him despite seasons of faithful devotion.
"Las Nieves de Enero" isn't his; it was first popularized by Miguel Aceves Mejía—a charro. It's not even Chalino's best song. Or is it? Now, I hear it as a lament to fans from beyond: You betrayed me. You focused too much on what I said, instead of what I did. And here we are today.
"I can't stand your lies anymore/This wait is tearing me apart," he wails. "To see that years have passed by/And I don't plan to die waiting."