Los Tigres del Norte Breaks Boundaries
By LARRY ROHTER
JUNE 27, 2014
JUNE 27, 2014
MINNEAPOLIS — About four hours before a Friday night show late last month, the five members of Los Tigres del Norte, the premier band in the accordion-driven musical genre known as norteño, were quietly eating dinner at the restaurant of their hotel here. None of the other diners seemed to have any notion of who they were, and neither did the staff — until a Spanish-speaking waiter spotted them and shyly approached their table.
“Is it really you?” he asked Jorge Hernández, the lead singer and oldest of the brothers and cousins who make up the band. “I can’t believe you’re here at our hotel. What an honor this is!” Mr. Hernández politely acknowledged his identity, replying “at your service,” and with that, a waitress sidled over, asking for an autograph. Soon, word spread to the kitchen, and cooks and dishwashers began excitedly peeking out, smiling and waving and calling out “Bienvenidos!”
Though they have made more than 50 albums and sold millions of records in their 45 years together, Los Tigres are all but invisible to mainstream English-speaking America. But to the country’s growing Spanish-speaking population — especially the many Mexican and Central American immigrants who do the scut work in fields, construction sites, factories and hospitals — they are idols who sing, from personal experience, of trying to make a new life in a strange new country.
“The problems our audience has, we once had, and I think they can sense that in us when we are onstage,” Mr. Hernández, 62, said later in the weekend during a ride on the band’s bus from Des Moines to Omaha, part of the group’s ever more-frequent tours of the American heartland. “They identify with us, and we with them. They see themselves mirrored in us.”
Over the years, Los Tigres del Norte, whose name means the Tigers of the North, have recorded songs in all kinds of styles, from up-tempo cumbias to languid, bolero-like love ballads. But they are probably best known for their corridos, a traditional style of Mexican narrative song, often in polka time, and usually about a political or social issue or figure.
Several of Los Tigres’ songs directly address the challenges immigrants face in getting to the United States. The premise of “Three Times a Wetback” — which like “Long Live the Wetback” and “The Wetback’s Saint” appropriates an ethnic slur and makes it a term of pride —is that Central Americans face an especially tough gantlet because they have to cross the Rio Grande, the Suchiate and Paz Rivers.
Other songs are about the difficulties that arise once in the United States. Perhaps the best-known, made twice into a movie and in constant demand at live shows, is “The Gilded Cage,” in which an immigrant, prosperous after 10 years but still here illegally, laments that his American-born children have no sense of their roots and asks: “What good is money if I am a prisoner here in this great country?”
Nor have Los Tigres hesitated to wade into the national debate about immigration reform. When Arizona passed restrictive legislation in 2010, Los Tigres were among the first to call for a boycott, and they have filmed public service announcements urging Latinos to register to vote, a message sometimes repeated at their concerts.
“They are more than a band,” said Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta, a corridos expert who teaches at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley. “They are social leaders as well, who steer the course of the conversation among Mexican-Americans and the Latino community.”
At a rally for immigration reform in Washington last October, the band pointedly sang “We Are More American.” The song begins “They have shouted a thousand times to go back to my own country/Because there’s no room for me here” and goes on to assert that “we are more American/than the children of the Anglo-Saxons” because “I am of Indian blood” and descent.
“My sons have lots of friends, kids they went to school or soccer games with, that I always thought were born here, but are threatened with deportation because they came here as little kids,” Hernán Hernández, the group’s bass player, said. “They’re so much like my own boys that you would never imagine they are here illegally. Some of them don’t even speak Spanish. So how are you going to deport them?”
Los Tigres themselves, the brothers Jorge, Hernán, Eduardo and Luis Hernández, and their cousin Oscar Lara, come from a family with roots in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, now a violent center of the drug trade but once a peaceful agricultural state. When Jorge was in his teens and Hernán about 8, they took an early version of the band to Mexicali to try their luck as a novelty act; they first crossed over to the United States in 1968, with temporary visas to play for Hispanic inmates in California prisons.
But, Jorge said, the tour organizer absconded with their passports, and so the band members were left on their own in San Jose, where they still live today. An immigrant family took pity on them, offered them lodging, and soon Los Tigres were playing for tips in restaurants there: “a dollar a song, a quarter, whatever we could get,” he recalled.
“There were times we wanted to return to Mexico, but we had a responsibility,” Jorge added. “Our father was really bad off, he had a paralysis and couldn’t walk, so we wanted to put together enough money to cure him, and that’s why we said, O.K. we can withstand this.”
During the day, Jorge worked on the campus of what is today San Jose State University as a janitor or in the cafeteria, before heading off to English classes. Band members were in the country illegally for a time, they said, but all but Eduardo, holder of a green card, are now citizens of the United States and of Mexico.
Los Tigres had their first big hit in 1974 with “Contraband and Betrayal,” an innovative corrido that mixed a love story with drug smuggling. In their early years, band members said, they often played for migrant farmworkers in encampments and cantinas, and so their tour schedule followed the harvest season: grapes in California, then apples in Washington, potatoes in Idaho, asparagus in Michigan, citrus in Florida. (Out of that experience came “César Chávez,” a corrido about the farmworkers union leader).
But as the immigrant population has fanned out from traditional centers, so has the band’s tour schedule, especially over the last decade. They now perform regularly in southeastern states like Georgia and Tennessee, as well as in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where Spanish-speaking immigrants have flocked to slaughterhouse and meatpacking jobs.
At a Sunday night show at the cavernous Mid-America Center in Omaha early this month, many of the fans attending were just such working-class Latinos. Adolfo and Guillermina Zapata had driven two hours from Wakefield, Neb., where both work in an egg-processing plant.
“By the time we get back home, it will be 4:30 a.m., and we have to be at work by 6,” Mr. Zapata, 54, said as the couple stood in line after the performance, taking advantage of Los Tigres’s custom of signing autographs or posing for pictures with fans. “But it’s her birthday, and it’s Los Tigres, so we couldn’t miss this.”
Band members said they recently played in Maine for the first time and that the only state in which they have yet to perform is Montana. In Florida, where they have long played agricultural centers like Lakeland and Homestead, they are booked to play Miami, a hotbed for Caribbean music that has traditionally been indifferent to Mexican styles, for the first time in September.
“They are following the migratory patterns, as the Mexican and Central American population moves to places where just a few years ago there was no Latino presence,” Mr. Ramírez-Pimienta said. “As the demographics of the United States change, they are finding new audiences.”
One of the enduring strengths of Los Tigres, said Guillermo Santiso, the former head of Los Tigres’ record label and now a television producer, is that “they are great storytellers.” Jorge Hernández put it this way: “When we sit down to pick songs for our records, we see them as movies or telenovelas, and choose accordingly.”
That strategy obviously resonates with filmmakers: Los Tigres have appeared in 18 movies, mostly based on their songs. And the Telemundo television network recently had a hit with a telenovela version of “Contraband and Betrayal,” called “Camelia la Texana,” with two other telenovelas based on Tigres’ songs scheduled to follow in the next year or so.
“Contraband and Betrayal” was an early example of a corrido about drug trafficking, which Los Tigres followed with hits like “The Gang in the Red Car” and “Boss of Bosses.” But the Mexican regional music scene is increasingly dominated today by younger bands singing “narcocorridos” glorifying the drug lords who have brought havoc to Mexico, and the Hernández brothers are alarmed by the tone of those songs.
What makes Los Tigres’ songs about drug smuggling different, Jorge Hernández emphasizes, is that “the bad guys get their comeuppance.” In “The Gray Truck” a couple honeymooning in Acapulco decide to run some marijuana back to California, but are killed when, driving home in their pickup, they are chased by bandits and run over by a train.
Today’s narcocorridos “are not true to the roots of the corrido,” Hernán Hernández complained. “It’s developed in a negative way and become distorted.” He pointed to the case of Tito Torbellino, a narcocorrido singer who was shot to death last month while having lunch in a restaurant in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, as an example of the dangers of narcocorridos, some of which are believed to be commissioned by drug bosses with big egos.
At their show here, Los Tigres, as they always do, encouraged audience members to request favorite numbers, which turned out to be a mixture of political corridos and love songs. Pieces of paper, alone or attached to cowboy hats, crosses and even scapularies, were tossed onto the stage, with song titles and dedications written out in shaky longhand.
“I grew up listening to Los Tigres, and I came to the show because all those songs of theirs about immigration, I see myself in them now,” said Iván Sánchez, a 32-year-old native of Mexico who arrived in the United States illegally 10 years ago but now has his papers and teaches Spanish at a high school here. “They are one of the few bands to sing about the people and what we suffer, here and in Mexico. We cross over thinking of a dream, but we find out that life is not that easy. Los Tigres understand that, and they understand us.”