By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"He had the reputation of being a valiente," says Hernandez. "He was a very nice guy. You'd come up to him, greet him, 'Hey, how are you? Great.' But if you came up with the intention of fighting, he'd get into it. He was very delicate that way."
In 1984, Chalino married Marisela Vallejo, an immigrant from Mexicali, who worked at the same sewing factory as his aunt. That year he wrote a corrido about his brother, Armando. No one seems to remember for whom he wrote his second corrido. And no one remembers exactly how writing the ballads developed into a business. But in the L.A. cantina culture, word slowly spread that Chalino would write them on commission. Sometimes he'd set a fee, sometimes he'd accept something of value - gold watches or, as his fondness for guns and target shooting became well known, fancy pistols.
He began singing almost by default. With his first batch of corridos composed, he asked a local norteno band to record them. But the band dallied while Chalino's clients were asking for their cassettes. Finally, he decided to sing them himself. So in 1989, he and the band Los 4 de la Frontera went into Angel Parra's studios on Olympic Avenue and in about four hours recorded 15 corridos. Chalino knew nothing of recording. He didn't understand that, inside the studio, you could stop the tape and talk. Nor did he care about the quality of the recording. "He didn't consider himself a singer," says Parra. "He just wanted to say, 'I composed a corrido about you. Here's your cassette.'"
He made only 15 copies of the first tape - 15 songs, no cover, no title. But six months later he was back with another 15 songs. On the third cassette, the radar blipped. He made his usual 15 copies, but the next day called and asked for 25 more, saying his clients wanted copies for their friends. Parra suggested they go to a cassette factory. "We ordered up the grand quantity of 300, printed with Side A and Side B."
Chalino had unintentionally struck a nerve. A lot of immigrants in L.A. wanted to hear their life stories in a corrido. "He'd get his order, then he'd call again the next morning," Parra says. "He'd say, 'Jefe, grab a pencil. I need more cassettes.' 'But I just gave you some last night.' 'They're all sold.' That's how he began."
Taken together, Chalino's songs formed a kind of oral history of the Mexican ranchos. In the poor and desolate villages, family feuds lasted for decades. Betrayal and ambush, paid killings and corrupted justice were common; parties could be expected to end with gunshots, if not a body or two. From the rancho emerged a legendary figure in Mexican popular culture: the valiente - tough, poor, barely civilized and fiercely independent men, men who could be sadistic, noble, insane, generous; in the absence of a justice system, they made their own law, their own rules, occasionally challenging those with power. Everyone else lived in fear - or went north.
And in the ranchos of Sinaloa, the drug business flourished. Stretching down the Pacific Coast east of the Gulf of California, Sinaloa is Mexico's Medellin. Chinese immigrants brought the opium poppy in the late 1800s, and marijuana grows easily in the hills. Virtually all the Mexican cartel capos of the last 30 years have been Sinaloan. So while Chalino rarely mentioned that some tough hombre in the hills of Sinaloa had a connection to the drug trade, he never had to. His fans understood; they were rancheros as well, even if they now lived in Downey and worked in Alhambra.
The stories of these drug-smuggling valientes became the stuff of Chalino's corridos. They were men who, now living in Los Angeles, spent a lot of time in cantinas and wanted to show off for their friends. Many of his corridos were about how their brothers or fathers had died back in Mexico. They were, said one man, "people who you never know who they are, what they do, or why they have so much money."
"He didn't write songs about people like you and me," says Nacho Hernandez. "He wrote about people who were in the life."
Still, they were usually nobodies - hardly on a level with the famous revolutionaries and bandits who populated the corridos of old. Chalino wrote their stories anyway. And as demand grew, he became more sophisticated, adding titles, black-and-white photos and, finally, color covers. He took those to the swap meets. "He began selling really well," Parra remembers. "We'd order 500 of the latest cassette, then 200 of the previous one, 100 of the one before that. So they were orders of 1,000 at a time." By 1989, Chalino had given up his day jobs, had formed R.R. Records and was hustling his cassettes full time; a Nacho Hernandez and Los Amables del Norte had become his regular band.
Around that time, Chalino met a fellow corrido composer and singer named Pedro Rivera. Having left Mexico as a young man in the early 1960s, Rivera picked melons near Fresno, then, too, traded farm work for the stability of urban life - in Culver City, where he developed an idea. The only music labels then serving the Mexican community were the big ones - CBS, EMI-Latin, Musart, RCA - and musicians were at their mercy. Singers who had already paid for their recordings would be charged another $10,000 to put their albums out under the label's name. Rivera figured he could offer these singers a better deal. And so he began Cintas Acuario, among the first of what is now a constellation of tiny and nimble independent labels on the outskirts of L.A.'s Mexican music industry. "What I did was to give opportunity to those who had no opportunity at all," says Rivera. "We began recording new artists. People loved it because there wasn't anything like it."