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
Los Tigres reside by choice on the tamer side of the narco genre. Unlike the younger bands who followed them, they only occasionally mention the names of real drug smugglers, are never photographed with pistols or assault rifles, never curse in a song, and usually refer to marijuana and cocaine as "hierba mala" or "coca."
Other bands have allegedly received narco sponsorship. A drug informant, during an interrogation with police that was later published by a Mexican newsweekly, said Los Tucanes de Tijuana, one of the hottest narcobands, was sponsored by Benjamin Arellano Felix, leader of the Arellano Felix drug cartel.
In 1994, members of Los Huracanes del Norte were hurt in Guadalajara when a bomb exploded at a party they were playing for a family member of Rafael Caro Quintero, the imprisoned drug lord convicted of murdering DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985.
"[Narcos] have sent me letters, notes," says Hernandez. "They invited us to meetings years ago. We've never had the opportunity, nor wanted to meet them. We've made our career in public, not at [private] parties."
Los Tigres' explorations of the narco theme brought them fame. But the band earned a lasting transcendence when its songs began reflecting immigrants' conflicted feelings regarding Mexico and their new home.
At a dance in the mid-1970s, it dawned on Hernandez that many of the illegal immigrants hung back. They didn't laugh and shout as easily as those with legal papers. In 1976, the band put out "Vivan los Mojados" ("Long Live the Wetbacks"), an anthem to illegals that wonders what would happen to California's crops if all the mojados suddenly disappeared. Within the Mexican-immigrant community, the reaction to the song was electric. "That's when we realized that there was a market for this," Hernandez says. "We began to see that we needed to communicate with them."
In the early 1980s, Los Tigres hired as producer Enrique Franco, a musician and composer, who had just arrived from Tijuana. Franco gave them some of their most enduring and bittersweet songs on the immigration theme: "Pedro y Pablo," "El Otro Mexico," "El Bi-lingue," "Los Hijos de Hernandez" - all dealing with the wrenching dilemmas of immigrant life, with separation, love lost, the yearning to return home and the economic importance of immigrant labor.
In 1988, as war was sending thousands of Central American immigrants to the U.S., Franco wrote "Tres Veces Mojado" ("Three Times a Wetback"), a story of a Salvadoran refugee who crosses three borders to get to America. But "La Jaula de Oro" ("The Gold Cage"), Franco's greatest immigration song, was recorded in 1984. "Vivan los Mojados" had created a boom in novelty songs about immigrants, songs that generally were about the zany hijinks of wacky immigrants outfoxing the dull-witted migra. "[Immigration] had never been treated as a social problem," says Franco, now a record producer in San Jose. "I was illegal at the time. I never had the problem of communication with my children, but many immigrants do. There isn't time to talk to the kids. The children learn another language. That's where the gap between kids and parents begins."
"La Jaula de Oro" is told by an immigrant years after he outwits the migra. He's discovered he doesn't feel at home in the country he tried so hard to enter. Even worse, his children now speak English and reject their mexicanidad. And though he aches to return home, he can't leave his house for fear he'll be deported.
The U.S. is a "gold cage," says Hernandez. "You have everything. You live well, you have comforts. But it's another type of life, very different from ours. The United States is very solitary. And you can't relax, like in Mexico. There's not a lot of heart in the family."
Through the early 1990s, Los Tigres recorded fewer narcocorridos and immigration songs. But the nature of current events returned a harder thematic edge to Los Tigres' music. In 1995, they recorded "El Circo" ("The Circus"), about former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his brother Raul, now in prison on murder and money-laundering charges. Radio stations, still unsure how government censors felt about the issue, refused to play the song until a news anchor began putting it on his morning show.
The band's latest album, Jefe de Jefes (Boss of Bosses) - the first double album in norteno history and for which Los Tigres were nominated for a Grammy this year - is more clouded than ever by the headlines. The title song is about a fictional drug lord, and the album includes several narcocorridos, including one about Sinaloa drug-cartel leader Hector "El Guero" Palma, arrested after a plane crash in 1996. "El Prisionero" is about the recent political assassinations in Mexico. "El General" deals with General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who was arrested in February, accused of being in the pay of the Juarez drug cartel.
And in the midst of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., Los Tigres again touches the concerns of its most important audience. "El Mojado Acaudalado" ("The Wealthy Wetback") is a song about those who've made it in the U.S. but no longer feel comfortable here, and now are going home with heads held high. "Mis Dos Patrias" ("My Two Countries") has a naturalizing Mexican insisting that he is not a traitor to his flag, that he's only protecting his pension.