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A group of Central American and Mexican men waits eagerly outside the Medrano Express courier offices in Homestead for a five-dollar snapshot. They're posing next to local talent Lily Alvarez, a sweet, voluptuous Guatemalan gal in a silver sequined top who could pass for Selena. Most of these migrants left their families several years ago with plans of sending money and materials home, and Alvarez's Sunday-afternoon karaoke performances of cumbia and norteño songs have brightened their week of hard labor. Among her most popular numbers are those originally performed by Mexico's legendary Los Tigres del Norte, who are widely known for their corridos, ballads based on real-life stories of the conflicted and downtrodden.
Aware of an upcoming South Florida visit by Los Tigres, New Times asks a few of the migrants a question: Does anyone have an experience worthy of a Tigres song?
Most of the men stare at their feet, shifting a little. Then a Guatemalan named Freddy grins, exposing a gold star on one of his front teeth. "I do," he says, and tells of his 15-day journey from Guatemala, through Mexico, and across the Rio Grande. Mexican migrant Enrique shakes his head and intercepts: "Dude, Los Tigres already did that one. It was 'Tres Veces Mojado' ['Three Times a Wetback']."
With a career spanning four decades and 55 albums, this multiple-Grammy-winning band has turned nearly every story into song. So it's little wonder last year's Grammy was a Lifetime Achievement Award.
"I would describe it as communicative music with lyrics directed to the audience. We sing real-life stories — things that happen to our audience. We make the music and work with composers to fit it with the lyrics," explains lead singer and accordion player Jorge Hernández.
To a certain extent, he can relate to the migrants. After all, in 1968, he, his brothers, and their cousin came to the United States to test the band's luck when they were teenagers. They were fortunate to obtain a visa through a contract to perform with their compatriots at Salinas Valley State Prison near Soledad, California. From there they went to San Jose, where they sang for many suppers, belting out mariachi tunes at patrons' tables in restaurants. That all changed the day English producer Art Walker strolled in, liked what he heard, and signed them to his Discos Fama label.
"My plan was to go over, fulfill my contract, and come home," Hernández recalls, chuckling heartily. Home was the tiny town of Rosa Morada in Sinaloa, Mexico. "[Walker] really liked folklore, and I think he took notice of us because he thought our folklore was different," he says. "His musical ear was pretty broad. He used to tell us: 'Hey, that melody's good. We have to find the lyrics.' Then he'd hum and say, 'Do this with the accordion; do that with the guitar.' We always did our music with a lot of joy for living, which he really liked."
The sonic outcome was kind of like mariachi, country, and cumbia, with a strong oompah beat, and though the group's success wasn't immediate, Walker's ear never failed him. In 1972, he asked them to record Angel Gonzalez's ballad "Contrabando y Traición" ("Contraband and Betrayal"), about a woman smuggler who shoots her lover and takes off with his money. The sensationalism of the lyrics and the gusto with which Los Tigres performed them suddenly had the band's music moving away from restaurant tables and onto international airwaves.
The success of that number prompted the band members to dig into other real-life incidents, which they continue to do today. Often they send out researchers, even journalists, to scope out dramatic tales in dangerous lands. They've made millions off stories of true crime, political corruption, and perilous border crossings, all the things so tied to the folklore of Mexico's northern border. But don't think for a second they condone vice or violence, says Hernández. In fact he's miffed that the recent wave of unsolved murders of other norteño artists such as Sergio Gómez of the Grammy-nominated band K-Paz de la Sierra; Zayda Peñas; and Valentín Elizalde should have any reflection on Los Tigres. There's been widespread speculation among music industry and crime experts that many of these artists had ties to drug cartels, though nothing has been officially proven.
"I don't think it's right that we're judged along with other people who've taken a different life path. We've always behaved ourselves and we always will. We don't have anything to hide," he says. That even goes for their critiques of the Mexican government, because, he says, their tales are already in the archives. "We've told some pretty heavy stories, but they're all documented."
On 1996's "El Circo," he calls former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and his brother Raul circus performers: Carlos the tamer, and Raul a magician who could make money disappear from the president's hands. In 1995, authorities discovered Raul had stashed hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas accounts, while his annual salary as the director of the government-run Basic Commodities Distribution Co. had capped at $190,000.
It's all part of consciousness-raising, Hernández insists. "Music isn't there to get us into trouble but rather to give us a form of communication and an emotional stability."
Indeed one of the songs Hernández is most proud of is "Un Día a la Vez," a number in which he asks God to help him make the right choices in a fallen world. "Please, God, I just want to live one day at a time," he quietly sings into the phone. He pipes up when he excitedly adds, "They sing it in the churches all the time."
There have been actions he has regretted, not for the band's lack of nobility, but for that of those crooked officials the band has come across. In 2004, Los Tigres decided to hold a benefit concert for the families of the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez since 1993. International rights groups had long criticized the government for carrying out a weak investigation. Hernández says he felt a total sense of disillusionment when local officials refused to help sponsor the concert. Their reason? He said they told him the show, as well as Los Tigres' homage song to the women, "Mujeres de Ciudad Juárez," which suggested state police were involved in a coverup of the murders, gave the city a bad reputation. Mexico's federal authorities later took over much of the investigation after allegations surfaced that the state police tried to plant evidence. Now under a different administration, Ciudad Juárez's municipal government hadn't responded to requests for a statement by press time.
"You try to help people and you get frustrated because suddenly you get into problems you weren't looking for," Hernández says. Since then, the bandmates have opted to do less controversial benefits, instead pouring their money into the Los Tigres del Norte Foundation at University of California-Los Angeles in an effort to help Hispanics preserve their language and culture. In fact their upcoming release, Raices, is an effort to recapture classic Mexican songs such as "Cielito Lindo," whose melody is known far beyond the Hispanic world. "We hope that when people have this CD, they feel like we do. It's a way to identify with your people, roots, customs, and experiences."
Although Hernández is only a U.S. resident and thus can't vote, he says if he could, he'd definitely cast a ballot for the Democrats, and he's more convinced by La Señora Clinton. "I like to give credit to the women," he says. But whoever wins, he hopes that person can come up with a viable immigration policy. "We've sung about immigrants on every single album," he adds.
Back in Homestead, New Times is still curious to know whose story might make for a Tigres ballad. Prying produces only pursed lips from the migrants, until Enrique finally speaks up again: "Illegals don't have any stories to tell, remember?"
"So Los Tigres tell the stories you all can't?" asks New Times.
"You got that right," Enrique replies.