La Tumba del Mojado (Paulino Vargas/Migration)

Paulino Vargas was  the defining master of the modern Mexican corrido and “La tumba del mojado” is one of his masterpieces. Though most famous for his outlaw corridos, he was a brilliantly versatile chronicler of Mexican life, and composed insightful and poetic songs about cross-border migration, government corruption, and other social issues. This song is the testament of a  Mexican  who has crossed to the United States without official documents, describing the difficulties of his situation, and is as relevant today as when he wrote it in the 1980s:

I couldn’t cross the line, the Rio Bravo was in my way.
They taught me harshly when I lived on the other side,
Dollars are pretty, but I am Mexican.

I didn’t have green card when I worked in Louisiana.
I lived in a basement, because I was espalda mojada [wet back].
I had to bow my head to collect my weekly pay.

Then the beautiful, tragic chorus:

The Mexicali Rose and the blood in the Rio Bravo
Are two different things, but in color they are siblings,
And the borderline is the wetback’s grave.

(Note: the Río Bravo “the fierce river,” is the Mexican name for what Anglos call the Rio Grande, and espalda mojada translates literally as “wetback,” but does not have the same pejorative connotation in Mexican Spanish that it has in English.)

I spent a year traveling around Mexico in the late 1990s, doing research for  Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, and met a lot of fascinating people, but Paulino was far and away the most intriguing and impressive. He had several careers, first with his partner Javier Núñez in Los Broncos de Reynosa, the most popular norteño duo of the 1960s, then as the most  influential composer in the reinvention of the corrido. He was deeply versed in older traditions, both the folkloric corridos of the countryside and the movie corridos that became popular radio hits in the 1940s, and he combined the classic form with a cinematic sense of action, new layers of poetic language, and a keen sense of social justice. He is probably best known for his journalistic songs of drug smugglers, especially “La banda del carro rojo,” a huge hit for los Tigres del Norte, and “El corrido de Lamberto Quintero,” a hit for the movie star Antonio Aguilar. Both were adapted into popular films, spawned numerous sequels, and along with “Contrabando y traición” (discussed in a previous post), started the wave of modern drug-smuggling ballads.

I was fascinated by Paulino’s sense of history. He had grown up in a mountain rancho between Durango and Mazatlan, and was deeply versed in the folklore of Mexico and the songs and legends of the revolution He had a photograph of Pancho Villa on his wall, and explained that Villa had bought some horses from his great-grandfather and the boy leaning against a tree in the background was his grandfather, who had gone along to mind them. (I have no idea how much of that is true; Paulino was creative in many ways.)

He linked the outlaws of the present with that history, and at times with broader issues of national and international politics, ranging from thrilling urban shoot-outs to songs like “Los super capos,” which took the narcocorrido theme to a higher level, accusing George Bush’s presidential administration of hypocritically profiting from the drug trade while claiming the right to decertify and punish Latin American countries for supplying US consumers’ insatiable demands. He wrote a powerful song about the unsolved killings of dozens of women in Ciudad Juarez, and in “La cronica de un cambio” questioned the new administration of Vicente Fox with witty and intricate wordplay. (I discuss “Los super capos” in my book and translate and discuss the latter songs on my Corrido Watch webpage.)

“La tumba del mojado” moves from the personal to the political, first giving the undocumented immigrant’s experience, then contrasting it with the way foreigners are treated on the Mexican side:

The tortilla curtain is an offense to the people.
Through Mexico travel French, Chinese, and Greeks,
And some Americans are bosses in the towns.

Along with admiring his writing, I loved spending time with Paulino. I visited him multiple times and was amazed at the range of his interests and the poetry and humor of his conversation. Rereading my chapter about him, I still chuckle over favorite comments: for example, when I asked if he was ever annoyed by other songwriters copying his style, he adopted the tone of a priest, saying: “Blessed be my imitators, for they shall inherit my faults.” He could go on like that for hours.

I worked up a guitar part for this song based on the accordion licks Jorge Hernández played on the Tigres’ recording, though I’ve only performed it in the context of a talk/concert that goes along with my blog on borders, migration, and nationalism. In some ways it feels strange to sing such a specifically Mexican story in my voice, but as the son of immigrants and refugees I feel a connection to its message… and what gorgeous songwriting.