The Marginalized of the Margins

You know the Virgen de Guadalupe. Now meet San Jesús Malverde, patron saint of narcotraficantes. Malverde's feast day of May 3—the day he was reportedly hanged in 1909—is celebrated at his shrine in Culiacán, Sinaloa. There, in exchange for answers to their prayers, believers leave offerings of cocaine and cuernos de chivos—literally “goat's horns,” a nickname for AK-47s.

The Catholic Church doesn't recognize Malverde, and scholars doubt the Mexican Robin Hood ever existed. But his cult spreads in a Mexico where drug running and its corollaries—guns, gangs and political corruption—offer the only apparent salvation from dirt-farming poverty. Malverde is part of Mexico's culture of drugs, once a regional phenomenon, now transnational and with no sign of dissipating in the face of Washington's war on drugs.

The evolution of Mexico's narcocultura and its music, the narcocorrido, is brilliantly captured in Elijah Wald's Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. Wald spent more than a year hitchhiking throughout Mexico and the American Southwest, carrying a guitar and a tape recorder. He snorted coke from car keys, was accosted by police and talked to foul-mouthed grandmothers. But mostly he pursued the singers and songwriters behind the rise of narcocorridos, popular songs about drug trafficking.

Wald's chapter on the Mexican state of Sinaloa is a war journal, a description of a state that lives down to its infamous reputation as a hellhole inhabited by a race of wild men and women composing the best damn music about narcotraficantes in Mexico. Wald visits Malverde's shrine, hears a different version of the murder of legendary narcocorrido king Chalino Sánchez every time he asks about it, and visits the Badiraguato rancho, renowned for its generations of violent drug lords.

“It was like something out of a movie,” Wald writes after revealing to fellow travelers his plan to travel to the small pueblo. “Smiles froze on faces. One guy's eyes actually narrowed into slits. The party was over. No one asked me why I was going there. No one had anything more to say.”

Narcocultura's true stronghold isn't in Mexico, though. It's LA and its countless Mexican suburbs describing a Southern California that long ago reverted (in fact if not in law) to Mexico. Wald focuses on the Rivera clan—father Pedro, daughter Jenni and son Lupillo—narcocultura's royal family. Out of two buildings “on a quiet residential block in north Long Beach,” Wald notes that the Riveras “preside over a small empire of narcocorridistas, putting out songs that are notable for their lack of social consciousness, their willingness to push the limits of acceptability and baldly cash in on the most violent and nasty aspects of the drug trade.”

This is not the tropical music of the Miami junta or the dance tunes of the Latin Grammies. This is the real soundtrack of Latino USA, Wald notes: Mexican regional music (mostly narcocorridos) accounts for more than half of all Latin music sales in the U.S.

The majority of the book consists of interviews whose subjects range from millionaire composers to Zapatista minstrels. Whatever their social or geographic place, they tell fascinating anecdotes and raunchy jokes and provide the inspiration for corridos like “Las Monjitas,” the tale of two women who dress as nuns and transport cocaine disguised as powdered milk for orphanages.

Wald is not entirely happy with his adventures, arguing that narcocultura is the end result of people left at the margins of both Mexico and the United States. This negligence is creating a generation of young people embracing a nihilism that bodes but darkness for the future. Commenting on a narcocorrido tour of LA-area schools sponsored by KBUE radio, Wald sourly notes, “If they [the Rivera family] were gangsta rappers, the school tour would not stand a chance, but Mexican culture has been so marginalized that no one in a position of responsibility has the faintest idea of what the corridistas are doing.”

Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas by Elijah Wald; Rayo, 2001. Hardcover, 352 pages, $24.

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