Yesterday, we sang the praises of Los Tigres del Norte by revealing their best B-sides, so to speak; today, we tackle 10-1. Methinks everyone will agree with half of my choices, dispute three of them, and ridicule my top choice–enjoy!
10. “Un Dia a la Vez”
In their retinue of narcocorridos and Aztlanista chants is this curious ditty, a dirge that has become a staple of Mexican Catholic funerals and at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings for its simple message: one day at a time. As starkly beautiful as Cornelio Reyna's “Te Vas Angel Mio,” Los Tigres rarely play this one live anymore, because it ain't exactly a barn-stomper–but that doesn't make it any less awesome.
9. “La Banda del Carro Rojo”
“'They say that they were coming from the south/In a red-colored car/They had 100 kilos of cocaine/They were going to Chicago'/That how the snitch said it/Who had ratted them out.” So begins one of Los Tigres' two great sung sagas (the other one comes in a bit), a story so gripping, a beat so tense, that they later on recorded “La Muerte del Soplón” (“The Death of the Snitch”) just to reconcile the mystery of who ratted out the group of narcos in the red car who would end up dead in a hail of gunfire–but not before killing some American officials of their own. Bonus points to Los Tigres for name-dropping the rinches: The Texas Rangers, the Joe Arpaios of their day who figured in many an ancient corrido, thus tying the old to the new.
8. “Pacas de a Kilo”
Only Los Tucanes de Tijuana's infamous “Mis Tres Animales” more blatantly celebrates the narco life than this ode, whose title roughly translates as “One-Kilo Bundles”–but it does it via code complex (the mention of cows with “sheep's tail”? Reference to marijuana) and not (cuernos de chivo? Narco slang for an AK-47). The song gallops through the pastoral lyrics, themselves a nod to the rural upbringing of most of the cartel lords. But the best surprise is near the end, when Los Tigres mention that their narco of note rests under the shade of “los pinos”–the pine trees, which just happens to be the name of the Mexican White House. Not the first time Los Tigres would directly challenge the regime of Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, as you'll soon see.
7. “Contrabanda y Traiccion”
This is the song that made Los Tigres famous, a story set in Southern California (shout out to the migra station in San Clemente) involving a San Antonio girl named Camelia who doesn't like it when her narco boyfriend tries to break up with her after a successful smuggle. This is the original original version of the song, one rarely heard anymore–hear the rougher instrumentation, and Jorge Hernández's reedier, Cornelia Reyna-style voice. And this is one of the most groundbreaking songs in Mexican music history, unleashing a wave of narcocorridos (and narcopelículas) that haven't ceased and a recalibration of the role of women in the genre. Los Tigres would record two sequels to “Contraband and Treason”–“Ya Encontraron a Camelia” (“They Found Camelia”) and “El Hijo de Camelia” (“The Son of Camelia”). Wouldn't be surprised if they record “El Niete de Camelia” (“Grandson of Camelia”) by this point…
6.” El Mojado Acaudalado”
But while Los Tigres' narcocorridos are without peer, their songs celebrating los mojados will stand as their greatest accomplishment–no group before or since has not only embraced Mexican immigrants so enthusiastically, but celebrated their craftiness, their hard work, and the scope of their influence with such accuracy. This bittersweet song with its seemingly oxymoronic title (“The Wealthy Wetback”) is Los Tigres' best tribute to illegal immigrants, told from the perspective of a Mexican who worked across the United States, from Oregon to New York, California to Chicago, to even a gabacha in Florida who told him “I love you Mexican men.” He's earned his wealth, and is returning to Mexico–a Know Nothing's wet dream? As precious as this song is, it's nowadays unfortunately an anachronism–“Ni Aqui ni Allá” is a far-better testament to the current state of illegal immigrants, while the following tune is more accurate…
5. “La Jaula de Oro”
The best song ever recorded about the contradictory plight of illegal immigrants in this country, it documents the feelings of a mojado who has achieved success in this country but controls nothing. He can't return to Mexico, he can't feel comfortable in this country, his children no longer speak Spanish–it truly is a golden cage in which he lives. The heartbreaking part where the protagonist asks his son if he'd like to return to Mexico, only to have his hijo reply in English should be force-played to Congress and yaktivists alike, as that is the destiny of ALL children of Mexican immigrants, whether people want to admit it or not.
4. “Tres Veces Mojado”
What's so remarkable about Los Tigres del Norte is that, although they're mexicanos to the core, they've also always proclaimed pan-Latino unity and will call out their fans for any intra-Latino bigotry. No lecture is more poignant 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. “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.”
3. “De Paisano a Paisano”
The official anthem of the Reconquista, no composition has Los Tigres more jingoistic, more exasperated, more ready to fight than this 2000 tune. “They've declared war on us patrolling the borders/They can't dominate us” Hernández boasts–and that's probably the nicest lyric! In his spoken-word segment, Hernández goes on to ridicule bosses who “spin their cobweb in their luxurious mansions” while their workers die–and then Hernández wishes that with his song “I could destroy borders so that the world would live with one flag in one nation.” Backing these incendiary lyrics is probably the best drumming of any Tigres song–militaristic, ceaseless, just like the immigrants Los Tigres so–pardon the mixed metaphor–lionize.
2. El Circo
Although comparing Spanish-language music to English-language music is always an imperfect, usually laughably bad exercise, “The Circus” is undoubtedly the “Won't Get Fooled Again” of Mexican song–but while the Who sung of a theoretical despot, Los Tigres were not afraid to call out their enemies: Mexican president Gortari and his older brother, Raul. In exacting, sardonic fashion, Los Tigres detail how the Gortaris stole the 1988 election and enriched themselves in the process, leaving Mexico in ruins while fleeing for the banks of Switzerland and the extradition-free land of Ireland. And while Raul eventually faced prison time and Carlos remains the most-hated Mexican since Porfirio Diaz, Los Tigres warn that Mexico can rest “until another circus comes along/And again the same farce.” Given that the PRI rules Mexico again, not only was this song prophetic, it's depressingly brilliant-and have you ever heard a more sarcastic accordion?
All the preceding songs are magnificent, but #1 is even better–and one I bet you no one else would describe as the best Tigres song:
1. Los Hijos de Hernandez
Despite all the narco songs, despite all the shout-outs to Mexico, the real message of Los Tigres is downright subversive: Mexicans are Americans, if not more so (witness their MTV Unplugged collaboration with Zach de la Rocha, “Somos Más Americanos”–“We're More American”). And not in the pan-continental way they sang of in “América,” but in the assimilationist fashion that Know Nothings insist will never happen and Chicano yaktivists refuse to accept. All of this is encapsulated in this four-minute masterpiece that starts with “Taps” and the roll call of soldiers, save for Hernández, who's missing in action. The story then switches to the US-Mexico border, to a Mexican immigrant who hears the whispers of migra agents that Mexicans are taking American jobs. The immigrant angrily replies in the affirmative: “My sons were born here/They ignored prejudice and discrimination/Their country called them for duty/And in the fields of battle/They put their heart,” where they're now serving as cannon fodder. At the end, the migra man tearfully allows the Mexican immigrant back into the United States as many times as he wants.
What's most remarkable about this song is that it was released in 1986, long before Desert Storm or our Iraq/Afghanistan debacles, which would've placed the MIA portion of “The Sons of Hernández” in the Vietnam War. I'm surprised this song isn't more hailed by critics, especially given how OC's first Iraq War casualty was José Angel Garibay, a former illegal immigrant from Mexico who only received his citizenship upon dying. But it encapsulates what Mexicans offer to the United States–our hard work, our lives, our dedication all in spite of those who'll always question our worth–and what Los Tigres offer to the world: a voice that simply tells the truth.