Over the past decade, a slew of art devoted to the cause of amnesty for illegal immigrants has flourished across the United States (check out the work of my former KPFK-FM 90.7 producer, Long Beach chingón Julio Salgado), everything from music to YouTube videos, posters to poems. It follows in the grand tradition of Mexican protest songs about la frontera and migra, a genre that goes back a century and has produced some of the most touching (or, conversely, hilarious) songs in the Mexican canon. Following are the 10 best, going back decades and involving some of the biggest names in music. Enjoy!
- The 20 Greatest Vicente Fernandez Songs of All Time: The Complete List
- The 20 Greatest Los Tigres del Norte Songs of All Time: The Complete List
- The 20 Greatest Ranchera Singers of All Time: The Complete List
10. “Ilegal en Estyle” by Pilar Díaz
Nowadays going by María del Pilar, this 2010 pop ditty came about at the height of America's most recent anti-immigrant madness. Written by the former frontwoman for cult group Los Abandoned, the song encourages undocumented folks to live “en estyle”–that is, to not feel ashamed of their status and to come out of the shadows. Don't dismiss the cutesiness of the video–Pilar's tune offers a playful subversion of roles, and an unabashed celebration of ser un ilegal.
9. “Superman es Ilegal,” by Los Hermanos Ortiz
“It's a bird! It's a plane! Nah…it's a wetback.” So starts this hilarious reinterpretation of the all-American Superman, whom people always conveniently forget was sent into this country by his parents without asking for permission…hey, was Superman the original DREAMer? A novelty song, but a trenchant one.
8. “El Corrido de los Mojados,” by Los Alegres de Teran
I like conjunto norteño pioneers Los Alegres de Terán better when they're not accompanied by horns, but I will not deny the power of this song, which functions on many levels: as an indictment of American immigration policy, as a celebration of the cunning of Mexicans to cross into the United States at will, as an offering of a novel solution to the plight of mojados: all of them should marry a gringita, then divorce her once the Mexican gets a green card–HA! Extra credit goes to Los Alegres for also working in an insult toward gabacha welfare queens, too!
7. “Un Mojado sin Licensia,” by Flaco Jimenez
This classic by the Tex-Mex legend was downright prophetic by dealing with the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, except he deals with its downfall regarding romance. In the corrido, Jimenez croons about not being able to marry his honey (with the OLD SKOOL name Presencia) in San Antonio because he doesn't have a driver's license to go visit her. He nevertheless buys a car, summarily gets arrested, gets out and sees his beloved Chencha going out with the gabacho who issues driver's licenses. The live performance in the above video comes from the seminal Arhoolie Records documentary Chulas Fronteras, and shows how Jimenez is the Bach of the accordion. ¡Pinche gabachos!
6. “Tres Veces Mojado,” by Los Tigres del Norte
Los Tigres del Norte have made a career praising illegal immigrants, but no song remains more powerful than “Three Times a Wetback,” the story of a Salvadoran migrant who crosses through Guatemala and Mexico to reach the United States, only to get imprisoned in Mexico. As I previously wrote, “The same language and skin color I showed them” the protagonist wonders. “So how is it possible that they call me a foreigner?” At that point, lead singer Jorge scolds his countrymen, reminding them that Central Americans at the time of the song's late-1980s release had it far harder than Mexicans. “The Mexican walks two steps and he's back in Mexico/Today, they throw him there and the next day he's returned to the U.S./That's a luxury that I don't have.”
5. “El Muro de la Vergüenza,” by El Tri
This jam by the chilango rock dinosaurs starts innocently enough: A Mexican speaks wistfully about finding new opportunities in el Norte. And when he comes across the border wall . . . he's going to take a piss on it. And then shit on it. And piss. And shit. And wipe his private parts on it. “The Wall of Shame” got the Know Nothing nation so furious that you'll see pirated YouTube clips of El Tri howling this song defaced with anti-Mexican rhetoric. This particular clip has an intro by Tri leader Alex Lora in all his chilango hilarity–enjoy!
4. “Hielo,” by La Santa Cecilia
La Santa Cecilia at its finest: slinky, subversive, serious, saintly. In bossa nova terms, lead singer La Marisoul unveils the story of a family of undocumented folks as they take on the American Dream–parents off to work, DREAMers at school, and the kiddies born here in constant fear of having their families destroyed. The characterization of ICE (“el hielo”) as a menacing plague taking away the innocent without notice is perfect, and La Marisol does it in tones so dulcet that those who don't habla probably think that La Santa Cecilia is singing about Margaritaville or some silly gabacho fantasy.
3. “Ilegal, ¿Y Qué?” by Los Crudos
51 seconds of unapologetic fury by the straight-edge gods, the word “illegal” is never once used in the song by design, as the lyrics are far more poetic than the music–“We came looking for a better life/to escape pain and suffering/But we found what we thought we left,” lead singer Martin Sorrondeguy growls. Instead, the title is a boast–“Illegal, and What of It?”–daring anyone to have a problem with it. Magnificent.
2. “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” by Woody Guthrie
Sí: the incident that inspired this Woody Guthrie poem (he never recorded it) didn't specifically deal with illegal immigrants but rather braceros who died in a tragic plane crash in 1948, whose Mexican victims were never even identified until very recently–because, as Guthrie erroneously wrote–they were “deportees.” Doesn't matter: no song gets at the human tragedy that is Mexican immigration to the United States better than this song, from farmers letting the orange crop rot in creosote dumps while their pickers starve to said pickers being tossed when no longer needed to Americans not even bothering to learn the names of those at the bottom of our food chain. Many versions of the song exist, but none are better than this version by the Byrds in their alt-country phase. One of the few songs that brings tears to my eyes, and I'm not ashamed to say it.
1. “Los Mandados,” by Vicente Fernández
But if Guthrie's masterpiece is about the human tragedy of illegal immigration, then this one by ranchera god Vicente Fernández makes the issue one giant, glorious human comedy. As I wrote before: Not only is this the best Vicente Fernández song of all time, it's one of the funniest, angriest, scathing recordings to ever come out from Mexico, one giant guffaw against American immigration policy that would never be recorded in this era lest the multinational releasing this get fried on FOX News or from the halls of Congress (just look at what happened to that lame version a couple of years ago of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish).
In less than three minutes, Chente turns a complex issue that riles Americans so into a hilarious, eternal chase ala Smokey and the Bandit, with the protagonist freely admitting that la migra has caught him “300 times, let's say.” But Chente ain't sad: “The beatings that they gave me/I charged them to their countrymen,” he roars with glee. Too bad he didn't sing this song when he performed at the 2000 Republican National Convention, as that would've been the greatest surprise musical performance since the Ramones played at Mr. Burns' birthday. It should be blasted at every amnesty march, every time you drive through Newport Beach, every time you argue with your Know Nothing colleague–THIS is how you blast hate: you laugh. Loudly. AND get a big ol' settlement.