Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chicanonautica: Narcocorridos, Librotraficantes, and Contraband Culture

by Ernest Hogan

A specter is haunting the Borderlandia -- the specter of contraband culture. In Arizona they’re banning books. In the Mexican state of Chihuahua they’re banning songs.

It’s like the hysteria in the Fifties that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, resulting in the creation of the Comics Code. There are Arizonians who believe that if young Mexican Americans read about their own history and cultural roots, or Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, they will rise up in a bloody struggle to take back Aztlán. In Chihuahua they believe that the war on drugs can be won by stopping people from singing about it.

Or maybe it’s just that harassing musicians is easier than arresting real criminals.

Latino culture has come a long way. Once Norteamerica considered it so marginal that itcould be dismissed and ignored. Now it is seen as a threat to civilization. This is progress.

The world changed as the Librotraficantes chanted, “What do we want? Books! When do want them? Now!”

This was about the same time as the popular band, Los Tigres del Norte made news that broke the language barrier when they were fined for singing a song that glorified narcos, which is illegal in Chihuahua. The song that caused the trouble was La Reina Del Sur:

A typical narcocorrido, with an oomp-pah polka beat, it doesn’t sound at all like the heavy metal and gangster rap that it is often compared to. You have to listen to the lyrics to understand it chronicles the career of the legendary narcotraficante Sandra Avila Beltran.

I often hear such songs in my neighborhood. They can be pleasant on a sunny afternoon.

If the Chihuahuan government is concerned with narcocorridos inspiring drug use or trafficking, they have been slow at the draw. Los Tigres recorded Contraband y Traición, considered to be the first of the genre back in 1972.

Another song with a strong female protagonist. Hm . . . I wonder what they are really afraid of?

It’s not surprising that these songs inspired movies, like La Banda del Carro Rojo.

Los Tigres perform the title song and others in the film, acting as a Greek chorus to the tragedy of men who illegally cross the border, end up running drugs, and find their doom. It’s the mojado genre (yes, there is a Mexican film genre about how bad it is to come to America) that becomes a new archetype: the gangster western, with cowboy hats, horses, cars, and machine guns.

Oddly, drugs are never shown onscreen in La Banda del Carro Rojo. They could be smuggling anything: alcohol, guns, pirated movies, illegal software, genetically-engineered viruses, weapon-grade plutonium . . . or even books.

But that’s life when your culture becomes contraband: a mash-up of Fahrenheit 451 and Revolt of the Cockroach People.

Meanwhile, I recommend Elijah Wald’s Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas for historical perspective. Track it down, before it gets banned.

Ernest Hogan’s Novaheads, a lucha libre/narcotraficante/dystopian tale has been accepted for the anthology Border Noir: Hard-Boiled Fiction from the Southwest.

No comments: