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Corridos Prohibidos

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.

As these immigrants grew into one of the most significant movements of people in the last half-century, Los Tigres became their chroniclers, spokesmen for a community that remains largely voiceless in both Mexico and the U.S. If you want to know what the Mexican-immigrant community is feeling, listen to a Tigres record. Their audience is your gardener and grocer, your car washer, your busboy.

Tigres' best songs are stories distilling the essentials of Mexican working-class life: brutal machismo, piercing irony and the tenderest melodrama - the honest cardsharp who, down to nothing in a poker game, bets his beautiful young bride, loses her and pays his debt by shooting her, then killing himself; the man who keeps a grave at the cemetery so his children will believe their mother died instead of running off with another man; the three inseparable drug smugglers who, surrounded by the DEA, blow themselves up with a grenade; the immigrant who leaves his young brother in the care of his fiancee to support the brother's education, only to return and find the brother has married his fiancee.

In 1968, the band - four kids - arrived at the border in Tijuana with a musical revue contracted to play for two dates: one, the September 16 Mexican Independence Day parade in San Jose; the other, for inmates at Soledad. Since the oldest was only 14, they had to persuade a middle-aged Mexican couple to pretend to be their mother and father. The band had no name. But the immigration officer kept calling them "little tigers," and they were headed north and playing norteno music, so they became Los Tigres del Norte.

Los Tigres never returned to Mexico to live. They stayed in San Jose and played small clubs, furniture-store openings and weddings for the Bay Area's growing Mexican community. They once shared a Berkeley festival bill with Big Mama Thornton and Janis Joplin, talking with the latter backstage as she and her band wolfed down apples that made them act funny. They might have remained just another cantina band were it not for a song that changed the group and norteno forever. Jorge Hernandez, the oldest brother, heard the song in an L.A. nightclub.

Los Tigres put out their version of that song, "Contrabando y Traicion" ("Contraband and Betrayal") in 1972. It tells the story of a man and a woman - he an illegal, she a Chicana from Texas - smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to Los Angeles. After exchanging the dope, the man says he's taking his money and visiting his girlfriend in San Francisco. However, his partner is in love with him. Unwilling to share him with another, she shoots him in a dark Hollywood alley and disappears with the cash.

The song beautifully fuses news item and twisted love story into a series of images that end in sweet tragedy. "It was like a film in the mind's eye," says Hernandez, the band's accordionist, lead singer and musical director. "And it was the truth of what was happening in those years. It came out at exactly the right moment. It spoke of the total chaos that is drug trafficking. Perhaps, also, people had never heard these things said so clearly in song."

By now America's youth was getting high in large numbers, and Mexican immigrants were seeing drug trafficking daily as they crossed the border. The song hit huge. "Contrabando" is now a norteno classic, and two sequels followed. Dozens of lesser-known bands have recorded it. Its two characters, Emilio Varela and Camelia La Tejana, are part of the Mexican cultural vocabulary.

The tune launched Los Tigres' career. But beyond that, "Contrabando" was the first hit about drug smuggling. a Los Tigres followed it with another, "La Banda del Carro Rojo" ("The Red-Car Gang"). Together those songs revealed a market and essentially created the narcocorrido, currently undergoing an explosion in popularity in Mexican music.

The narcocorrido updated the traditional corrido, or ballad, which told of revolutionaries, bandits or a famous cockfight. Instead, narcocorridos tell of drug smugglers, shootouts between narcos and police, betrayals and executions - bloody events set to a rollicking polka rhythm and an obliviously cheerful accordion line. Almost any norteno band nowadays plays a few narcocorridos. Hundreds of bands play nothing but. Narcocorridos are Mexico's gangster rap. Both musics recount horrible violence; both receive virtually no radio support and nonetheless maintain enormous audiences.

Catholic Church spokesmen and Mexico's center-right National Action Party have criticized the narcocorrido phenomenon, and the groups that play them, as part of "the culture of death."

"The only thing that we do is sing about what happens every day," Hernandez says. "We're interpreters, then the public decides what songs they like."

The public has long decided it likes the dope songs. For many years, the band included two or three on each album. In 1989, they put out Corridos Prohibidos (Prohibited Corridos), an entire album about drug smuggling. It was the first of its kind on a major label; there were reports that narcos were buying the record by the case. One of the songs dealt with the 1988 murder of Hector "El Gato" Felix, a muckraking columnist for the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, who had angered many in Baja California politics. Tijuana radio stations refused to play the song, until Zeta raised hell.

Still, Los Tigres have tried mightily to distance themselves from the hundreds of cookie-cutter narcobands that have sprouted over the last 20 years. Their repertoire has always been at least half love songs. "Un Dia a la Vez" ("One Day at a Time"), a quasi- religious tune, responded to the growing influence of fundamentalist Protestant churches within the Mexican-immigrant community in the mid-1980s - churches that condemned dancing and singing as indecent. They won their Grammy for "America," a rock anthem expounding the universal brotherhood of all Latins.

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.

But it is another ballad that perhaps best sums up the feelings of immigrants these days. "Ni Aqui Ni Alla" ("Neither Here nor There") is doused in the pessimism brought on by America's anti-immigrant atmosphere and Mexico's economic crisis and corruption scandals. The song doubts immigrants' chances of receiving justice and, finally, of being able to progresar on either side of the border: "Wherever you go, it's the same. My dreams, neither here nor there, will I ever realize."

It is a philosophical U-turn for a band whose music and career were founded, like the Mexican-immigrant community itself, on a healthy optimism and belief in the healing powers of hard work.

"You have to tell the truth - we're not good here or there," says Hernandez. "Anytime a Mexican does something good in the United States, there's someone waiting to take it away from him. You never know if, making money and living right, you're going to make it."