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Los Tigres del Norte, Idolos del Pueblo

GUAMUCHIL, Mexico - By now it is very close to 4 a.m. on the outfield of the Garbanceros - the Garbanzo-Bean Growers - the baseball team for the town of Guamuchil (population about 100,000), not far from the Pacific Ocean in the state of Sinaloa. Los Tigres del Norte are dressed in the sweetest turquoise-satin suits you've ever seen, with white fringe to make David Crosby green with envy, and are bouncing through "El Avion de la Muerte" ("The Airplane of Death").

The song is about a man whom soldiers take up in an airplane and torture. He disarms one of them, takes control of the plane and decides to crash it into a military barracks on a hill in the distance. On the hill, he sees a school and children at play. So he pulls the plane up and smashes it instead into a hill farther away, killing himself and his torturers, who go to their deaths reduced to tears.

Now that's the kind of thing songs should be written about. It's a true story. The whole event was taped by an airport control tower.

And about now, on the Garbanceros' outfield, groups of staggering, short-haired young men in white cowboy hats, silk shirts and cowboy boots are feeling the song's sublime message. They hold each other upright in full-grip handshakes that take a good 10 seconds in the wind-up and consummation. Heads to the sky, faces contorted, they chortle along with Jorge Hernandez, Los Tigres' lead singer.

At stagefront, hundreds of young people, primarily teenage girls, stand crushed against each other, mouthing lyrics to a song recorded when most of them were in elementary school. Farther back, on the infield, couples grapple in various stages of consent as they rock to and fro with the polka beat.

And this moment, as the band tells this story of humiliation and revenge, as young men bond, young women squeal and young couples explore each other on a baseball field in a small town in a corner of Mexico - this moment you are getting close to the essence of Los Tigres del Norte, the most important and enduring binational band in pop music.

Los Tigres have played dances for 100,000 people in Los Angeles, Monterrey and Guatemala City. So this crowd of about 3,000 people is small by Tigres standards. Yet the band plays Guamuchil every year. It is a homecoming. Los Tigres grew up in Rosa Morada, a village of unpaved streets half an hour from here. Playing dates like this is one way the band shows that they remember who they are, where they came from, and that no matter how long they live in America's decadent gut, they remain mexicanos, cien porciento.

Los Tigres del Norte - four brothers, a cousin and a friend - are the Mexican-immigrant experience personified. Like thousands of immigrants, they crossed the border, made it in America, but never shed their most precious commodity, their mexicanidad - their Mexicanness. Like the Mexican-immigrant community, they are virtually unknown to American society at large. Within it, they are revered - Los Idolos del Pueblo.

This year marks the band's 30th anniversary. They have made 30 records and 14 movies, won a Grammy and were nominated for another this year, and have played thousands of dances on both sides of the border.

Los Tigres have twice created trends in Mexican pop music, first with songs about drug smuggling and, later, about immigration. Immigrants, in turn, transported Tigres' music to parts of Mexico where the band was unknown. Los Tigres' audience now stretches across the United States, and down to the states of Michoacan and Guerrero, and into Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Together, the band and its public turned norteno into an international genre.

Meanwhile, the band modernized the music, infusing it with boleros, cumbias, rock rhythms and waltzes, sound effects of machine guns and sirens, better recording quality. In the process they made a pop style out of an accordion-based polka music indigenous to northern-Mexico cantinas.

Los Tigres emerged from an unnoticed side of the 1960s. As America's restless children were turning in rebellion to drugs and music, restless working-class Mexicans began coming to the United States. Their exodus was also a rebellion of sorts, if unarticulated and unpublicized. Mexico's young were leaving corrupt Mexico - the Mexico behind the sunglasses, the Mexico that never gave a poor man a chance - eager to re-create themselves in the fields and restaurants of Gringolandia. The irony was that in Gringolandia these immigrants wanted more than ever to be Mexican. They missed the pueblo, the girlfriend, Mom. Mostly they asked from the U.S. what Mexico had never allowed them - a chance to earn real money for hard work, to progresar.

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