Sing Now, Die Later

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At Cintas Acuario, Pedro Rivera's other son, Juan, devised a series of compilation albums with photographs of staged drug deals and drug robberies: Puros Corridos Perrones (Badass Corridos, more or less). Volume 5, with no promotion whatsoever, sold 60,000 copies in a single week last year. Juan himself recorded an album called Corridos de Poca Madre (roughly, Bad Motherfucking a Corridos). His brother Lupe released an album on which he posed with an AK-47 (Corridos de Fregadera y Media - Bitch and a Half Corridos), including an ode to drug lord Amado Carrillo, "The Lord of the Skies" who died during a plastic-surgery operation last summer. This week, Lupe released a new corrido to Saul Viera.


Since much of this music was recorded by - and sung by and to - Mexican-American kids who had grown up on gangster rap, the marketing debt was obvious. "When [rapper] Easy-E was coming out, he'd have a gun. I'd say, 'Damn, I'm gonna buy it,'" says Lupe. "That's the stuff I liked. Plus, when you see a cassette that says 'parental guidance,' you want to get it."


Beyond commercial production, the commissioned corrido that Chalino pioneered has become an industry. Today, anybody, no matter how dull and insignificant, can have a corrido recorded about him in L.A. for between $500 and $2,000. Dozens of composers and most narcocorrido singers supplement their income by writing them. Unlike Chalino's songs, few of these commissioned corridos tell compelling stories. Usually, they merely say that so-and-so has a nice truck, likes to go to bars and chase women and has a pearl-handled .45, and that he's real tough and respected by his friends, so don't mess with him.


The commissioned corrido barely exists in Mexico. It thrives in L.A. because, like corridos of old, it fills a need: that of immigrants to show they have done well in gringolandia. The corrido has adapted to the new Mexican reality of having to live and work away from Mexico. Immigrants use commissioned corridos as tangible proof - like a new car or Nikes - that they've made it in the USA; the songs are especially effective if the immigrant also wants to leave the impression that he's connected to the dope business.


"If I write a corrido about someone who's made a lot of money here selling drugs, the first thing he does is grab my cassette and go back to Mexico to show all his friends," says Teodoro Pena, a landscaper and composer. "We can't write a corrido to Pancho Villa anymore."


"Now people want to hear about themselves while they're alive," adds Abel Orozco. "The corrido has become a little less news and a little more publicity for common people. It's 15 minutes of fame that they pay for themselves."


Who killed Chalino Sanchez and why remains a mystery. Given Mexican justice and Chalino's circle of acquaintances, no one holds any hope that his killers will be found. A lingering rumor has it that he merely faked his own death to throw his enemies off his track, a rumor abetted by the phony recordings of him singing with living artists. Says Nacho Hernandez, "I know he's dead. I saw his body."


In a final twist on his career, more than 100 corridos have been written and recorded about Chalino, topping even Pancho Villa. Hernandez believes it was not his death that made him big, but the fact that someone was finally promoting Chalino. "He'd been a phenomenon without promotion, and with promotion, he grew even bigger," He grew even bigger," Hernandez says. "His bad luck was that he became famous after he died."


Still, his legacy is as strong as ever. At an amateur talent show held recently at El Farallon in Lynwood, "There were 15 singers, and they all sang like Chalino Sanchez," says owner Emilio Franco. "They cocked their hats like Chalino, they talked like him, pronounced words like he did."


Chalino's son Adan is also following in his father's footsteps; at 13, he has a nascent singing career. Some people suggested he be called "Chalino Sanchez Jr.," but his mother nixed that idea, choosing instead "El Compita" - The Little Buddy. Marisela and the kids still live in the Paramount house Chalino bought them. The walls are hung with photos of her deceased husband and gold records of the legitimate Musart albums - records that went gold after he died. (Marisela had to fight to get them. "I wanted him to have some kind of recognition," she says.) She is proud that her son sings Mexican folk music, but won't let him record the narcocorridos - the "dirty corridos," she calls them - that his father's life and death have made fashionable. "They're harmful for young people," she says.


Essayist Carlos Monsivais once said that during economic crises of the kind Mexico has suffered for 20 years, a hero is anyone who provides a job. Chalino's corridos concern the only two figures in Mexican popular culture during that time who can consistently claim economic success: the drug smuggler and the immigrant - usually both. His creation was literally Mexican and American, and showed the importance of the diaspora - primarily that in Los Angeles - in shaping contemporary Mexican culture. And, though his source was Mexico, his story is quintessentially American, one born of the opportunities, the re-imagining of life's possibilities, that so many Mexican campesinos have come to the U.S. in search of. In Mexico, Chalino could never have been what he became, would never have had even the chance. He was, after all, simply an anonymous campesino, and a singer whose most important attribute turned out to be that he couldn't sing.


"We're not talking about Caruso or Placido Domingo," says Musart's Gonzalez. "We're just talking about a poor boy who had a style people liked."


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