Elijah Wald – Corrido Censorship (A talk for Freemuse)
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By Elijah Wald ©2002

First of all, anyone interested in modern Mexican music or Spanish-language music in the United States needs to be aware of a singer named Chalino Sánchez. Chalino, as he is always known, completely revolutionized not only Mexican music, but Mexican identity for a lot of young people in the United States by creating a new image of a hip urban gunfighter. He became a legend in 1992, when he did a concert in Palm Springs, California, and someone attempted to assassinate him, and Chalino pulled out his own gun and returned fire from the stage. That put Chalino in the news, and he became a superstar four months later, when he gave a concert in Culiacán, Sinaloa, and four guys came up with police credentials after the concert and took him away, and the next morning he was found in a ditch with two bullets in the back of his head. Chalino became the Mexican Tupac Shakur. You now find posters of him all over the Southwestern US and Mexico, there are radio stations that play an hour or two of Chalino every week -- they will have their “Hora de Chalino” -- and his success gave impetus to a whole movement of Los Angeles corrido singers.

Corridos have been around for over a hundred years, and have functioned as a sort of musical newspaper of Mexican life. There are corridos of every major news event, from local murders to national elections. Starting with the era of Prohibition in the 1920s, there has also been a long tradition of corridos of the cross-border traffic in illegal inebriants, and it is the modern wave of these smuggling songs, the drug ballads or “narcocorridos,” that has sparked most of the recent attention, both from record-buyers and from censors.

To understand the contemporary narcocorrido scene, it is important to think of how much of it is coming not out of Mexico but out of Los Angeles. Chalino hit at the same time and in the same place as gangsta rap, and while the music is completely different -- polkas and waltzes, sung to the accompaniment of accordion or brass bands -- it appeals to much the same audience, for much the same reasons. At least on the US side of the border, the same people who listen to this listen to gangsta rap, and it is thought of as a Mexican roots tradition, but also as the hip street music of LA.

To European, or Anglo-American ears, this music sounds kind of old-fashioned and silly, and it is hard to imagine it as a hardcore gangsta style, but if you wander through a poor Latino neighborhood anywhere in the Southwestern US, or straight up the West Coast to Seattle, this is what the tough guys are playing blaring out of their car stereos as they drive down the streets. If you understand the lyrics, it is also quite similar to a lot of rap in its themes: money, girls, drugs, power, and gun battles between rival traffickers and with the police. However, because it is all in Spanish, it has not attracted the amount of criticism in the US that has been directed at rap.

In Mexico, there have been attempts to ban narcocorridos since the form took off some 30 years ago, and these attempts have grown more forceful in the last decade. In Mexico censorship has always been a rather complicated business, because theoretically there is complete freedom of speech and of the press. This has meant that censorship has often been exercised in complicated ways: for example, for many years newspapers were free to print whatever they wanted, but the government had a monopoly on newsprint. So, you could print whatever you wanted if you had paper, but you only had paper if you were printing what the government wanted to read.

In the same way, while there have been outright attempts to ban narcocorridos from the radio and television, the more usual censorship is not so clear and direct. Instead of laws against playing the music, you find agreements between the state governments and the radio and television programmers that they “voluntarily” will not play the stuff. I have a wonderful quotation from the president of the Chamber of the Radio and Television Industry of the State of Michoacan, urging the local programmers to follow the lead of their peers in the states of Sinaloa and Baja California, and agreeing not to play narco songs. He says that this would not be an issue of censorship. “We are enemies of censorship. This is about getting the media themselves to stop broadcasting this music.”

There have also been calls for more direct bans, and the reason given for these is that the music supposedly not only makes the drug traffickers seem heroic, but actively recruits people into the business. Several of the officials who have proposed legislative bans quote lyrics like the following: “I was a poor kid up in the mountains. I had the fields my father left me, but what we grew could not give us enough to eat. We were miserable. Everyone looked down on us. Then a friend came and gave me some seeds to grow marijuana. Now, everybody respects me. The best bands come and play at my parties, and people call me Señor. I am still a farmer, all I have changed is the seeds.” This sort of lyric is frankly fairly rare -- most of the songs are about gunfights, with lots of action -- but among the thousands of narcocorridos one can certainly find dozens on this theme, and hundreds that at least suggest the same idea.

I must point out that the calls to censor these songs do not come from only the conservative end of the political spectrum. “Respectable” people of the left as well as the right are involved. In Tijuana, an agreement to keep narcocorridos off the radio was organized by the PRD, which is the main left-wing opposition party. The PRI, which was the old ruling party, has been proposing bans in various areas, and one of the first proposals by officials of the PAN, the conservative, Catholic party, after the election of President Fox was to impose some sort of national ban.

As with the quotation I already gave, all of these officials say that they are opposed to censorship -- but they are also opposed to this music being played. Senator Yolanda González, who proposed a national ban in March of 2001, declared: “We are convinced of the right of freedom of expression, but also believe that this freedom has certain limits in the case of attacks on public morals, the rights of third parties, and provocation to crime or distress to the public.”

The argument is that this music is actively functioning as promotion for the drug industry. It is often pointed out that many of the drug lords themselves have hired groups and paid songwriters to compose corridos about them. And that is quite true: this was the ancient ballad form, and it makes you feel like a hero, like Pancho Villa, if you have a corrido written about you. So if a smuggler makes a successful trip to LA, he uses some of his money to buy a new car, to get a fancy dress for his girlfriend, a fancy cowboy hat and belt, and he hires somebody to record a corrido about his deeds. The first three cassettes that Chalino recorded were not sold to the public. He simply would get fifteen clients, write a song for each, record a cassette with the fifteen songs, make one copy for each of them and that was that. It was only after a while the third cassette that he began to get enough reorders that it occured to him that he could also sell the cassettes to other people.

I do not have time to cover this subject in greater detail, but there is one more point I must make: Many people, including those here in Freemuse, argue that even though we oppose censorship, there are certain kinds of things which can appropriately be banned. What they forget is that, if one allows censorship to take place, it does not really matter what you decide to ban -- what matters is who gets to do the banning. You can say that you are only going to accept bans on hate speech, or on songs that specifically incite people to commit criminal acts, but every government will simply declare that the songs they want to ban are hate speech or will cause genuine harm to somebody. When it comes to censorship, the important question is who is in control of the apparatus.

Thus, in Mexico, one finds that an interesting thing about the bans on narcocorridos is that it is a class thing more than a matter of crime. This is poor people’s music, and not respected, so people who enjoy the Rolling Stones or the Doors singing drug songs can still say that this music is bad because it is reaching the sort of poor people who will get into the drug business. Meanwhile, as with the banning of rap, it does not necessarily hurt the companies who are releasing the music. Many of the corrido singers will say, “OK, they don’t play me on the radio -- that just means that people have to buy the records.”

At the same time, the principle of banning corridos does not only affect drug songs. Last year, Los Tigres el Norte, who are the most famous band in this style of music, did a song attacking the Fox government and it was banned. Not by the government, everyone insists, the government had nothing to do with it, but the major radio stations in Mexico announced in advance that they will not play this single. So the Tigres decided to withdraw it and put out a romantic song instead.

So then someone was interviewing Mario Quintero, the leader of the Tucanes de Tijuana, a group that has been attacked all over the place in the press because they were the first band to have hits that celebrate drug use, rather than just smuggling. (Traditionally, the idea was that Mexican traffickers were just poor guys trying to make a living, and that the depraved drug users were all Yankees.) So this is one of the hardest-edged of the drug singers, and they asked him what he thought of the censorship of corridos in general, and of the Tigres’ corrido about the Fox administration in particular. He said, “You know, the corridos have fallen into these vulgar expressions: there are corridos that are fictitious that have no foundation, that are obscene, vulgar and invented, so I think it’s a great thing that the government is now stepping in and taking a hand to control this. And as for the Tigres, they prohibited that corrido because they were attacking an elected president, and if I were President Fox and they were attacking me and hurting my image, I would shut them down, too.” So I think this an important thing to remember: The gangsta singers, who are the stated targets of the censorship, are completely in favor of the whole thing. And their songs keep selling underground. It is the political songs that are never heard, because they do not have a commercial apparatus to get into all the stores without radio support.

(For a timeline of efforts to censor narcocorridos, go to Corrido Censorship Timeline.