The very first music review I wrote for this infernal rag was 11 years on Los Tigres del Norte, the conjunto norteño group who will one day go done in history as one of the greatest musical groups of any genre or language for their brilliant fusion of politics, braggadocio, storytelling, awesome suits and hard-charging dance music, all set to a polka beat. In the years since, the Tigers of the North have only grown in stature, recording MTV Unplugged sessions, getting profiles in the New Yorker, and hitting bigger and bigger venues all the while never losing sight of their audience–they'll trek all the way to Des Moines and Pensacola to reach their core fans, migrants tossed among the fields of plenty. Locally, they used to play the Anaheim Convention Center almost every year for decades–in fact, Los Tigres just played last year. But fans wanting to see their epic hours-long concerts (where they read fan requests from the stage) will have to trek to the San Manuel Casino next week (June 20) for their next local performance. In honor of them, behold their 20 greatest songs–enjoy, and gabachos: take notes.
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20. “Vivan los Mojados”
19. “Ni Aqui Ni Alla”
18. “El Avion de la Muerte”
Based on a true story, the song tells the tale of “The Plane of Death”–a group of soldiers nab a drug dealer named Atilano and proceed to torture him, even his “noble parts.” As they transport the narco, the latter suddenly takes control of the airplane and plans to crash it into army barracks. But, seeing a schoolyard nearby, Atilano decides to crash the plane into a barren hill, killing everyone on board. The song never identifies Atilano as a narco per se, but the city in which the plane crashes, Badiraguato, is infamous for the many cartels that sprung from there–make your own conclusions. When it comes to celebrating anti-heroes, Atilano makes Stagger Lee seem like a choir boy, and Los Tigres also sneaked in a critique of the Mexican government's scorched-earth, failed drug war even back in the 1970s.
16. "Golpes en el Corazon”
Can't say much about a song called "Blows to the Heart,” and now that I think of it, this song is almost sentiment-for-sentiment like "You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi. So why include it? It's one of the few times Los Tigres got truly vulnerable in their macho career, and shows they ain't too tough to cry. A fave at concerts, because it's one of the few songs you can slow-dance to them, although the group's wisely didn't continue its polka with the 1980s-era grupero beats that drag down this song–that's the realm of Los Bukis.
15. "La Tumba Falsa”
A Gothic tale straight out of a Johnny Cash song, the protagonist speaks to a wife that abandoned him and their children a long time ago, a pain so traumatizing that he told them that their mother died, going so far as to erect a tombstone–the "False Tomb” of the title. All is well until the day the woman returns, upon which he tells her "no reason to revive/she who died.” Nevertheless, the husband cannot win–the littlest one "kissed your photo yesterday/and asked for you.” I'm sure there's some old song with the same themes somewhere–quick, gabachos, one of you get a copy of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads!
14. "Una Camioneta Gris”
Every 30-some Mexican-American knows this song by heart, loves the chintzy sound effects, saw the film when it came out, whose gist you can catch in the video above. A newlywed couple celebrates by trying to smuggle drugs from California to Acapulco, but the federales track them. It's an equal relationship: when Pedro tells Inez that someone is following them, she replies "Take out your machine gun/And make them disappear.” Unfortunately, fate is not with the couple, and the mythical gray truck that they ride gets run over by a train–The End. Its breakneck pace never ceases, and its sparse, direct lyric–"A gray truck with California license plates”; "The truck had race tires/with the rims very chromed/A big, tricked-up engine”–is songwriting at its finest
13. "Pedro y Pablo”
As bitter a song as Los Tigres ever sang, it's the tale of two brothers–Pedro sacrificing his future by traveling North to work to make money so that the left-behind Pablo can study and become the better of the two. Pedro also leaves his girlfriend Leticia behind…and, yep, you know the rest of the story: years later, when the brothers reunite, Pedro finds that Pablo has married Leticia. The back-and-forth between the two lead singers taking on the Pedro and Pablo roles when Pedro asks for Leticia is heartbreaking, the metronomic bass escalating the unbearable tension akin to "The Tell-Tale Heart. Ending with one of the more flippant lines you'll ever hear: while Pedro doesn't hold the turn of life against Pablo, "Of Leticia I won't speak/She did act bad.” And the squeezebox flourishes? GANGSTA.
12. "La Puerta Negra”
Probably the most famous vocal contribution of bassist Hernán Hernández (better known as the Tigre with the fabulous Mexi-mullet and streak of gray in his hair), this tale of a girl's parents prohibiting the unrequited love of a couple could've been written by Brian Wilson. Another great opening line: "It's now closed, with three locks/and bolted down, the black door”–positively medieval. Also featuring the most memorable saxophone in Los Tigres' repertoire, a wailing cri de couer. And check out the 1980s fashion in the video! [
11. "Jefe de Jefes”
While beloved, Los Tigres del Norte have always had to face critics who say they glorify criminals, a charge made to virtually every teller of tales since Aesop. They usually respond by saying they only speak of truths, rarely letting emotion getting in the way of answers. This is the one grand exception, a magnificent chinga tu madre to the haters wrapped in the tale of a narcoboss–the Boss of Bosses. The song starts with what's presumably two fans saying why they like corridos: "because they're the real doings of our community” and because "they sing the undisputed truth.” Then a gigantic tiger roar, the only time I do believe Los Tigres have ever summoned their namesake animal avatar, and a strutting accordion as Hernandez starts the boasts of the boss. One and done–Los Tigres have never bothered to address the critics since.
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”
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 Hernández”
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.
Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @gustavoarellano.