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Sing Now, Die Later

Saturday slides toward Sunday at Rodeo de Medianoche, a cavernous nightclub in Pico Rivera, as the duo Voces del Rancho sing the story of how Lamberto Quintero died. A drug smuggler in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Quintero was killed in a 1976 shootout, and his ballad - or corrido - is now a classic. While keeping true to its accordion-based polka beat, Voces del Rancho (Voices of the Village) have updated the corrido with an overlay of machine-gun fire. All the duo's songs are polkas or waltzes - corridos about events in isolated Mexican pueblos. Their audience - about 300 tonight - is a mass of bobbing cowboy hats; their latest album shows them in boots and white cowboy hats, sitting on hay bales in front of a barn. Yet none of that - the hats, the album cover, the lyrics, even the music - has much to do with the singers' life experience, nor that of their audience, most of whom are L.A. born and bred. Nothing about the scene would suggest that Voces del Rancho are actually two Angelenos who see a Mexican village about as often as they see a bale of hay.

 

Mariano Fernandez and Edgar Rodriguez, both 21, grew up in Bell, graduated from Bell High School, listened to rap, speak an up-to-the-minute urban slang and, until recently, never condescended to sing Mexican country music. They and their audience are part of a little-noticed but significant cultural shift among Los Angeles Mexican-American working-class youth, who in recent years have rediscovered and remade their parents' folk music, including the traditional corrido.

 

In the days before telephones and mass media, the corrido established itself in Mexican popular culture by bringing news to those who couldn't read. It was the people's tabloid, telling the tall tales of legendary revolutionaries and notorious bandits - those who had done something worth singing about. In recent years, the corrido has been transformed into the narcocorrido, the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap, with themes of drugs, violence and police perfidy, and an abiding admiration for the exploits of drug smugglers. The music is distinctly Mexican, but its creative hub is Los Angeles, where at least 30 clubs regularly present narcobands.

 

How all this happened comes down to the story of one man: a simple, rough-hewn undocumented Mexican immigrant named Chalino Sanchez. His career lasted just four years and he was killed when he was only 31, yet he's an authentic folk hero and one of the most influential musical figures to emerge in Los Angeles in decades. After Chalino, guys whose second language was an English-accented Spanish could pump polkas out their car stereos at maximum volume and girls would think they were cool.

 

"When we were small, we always wanted to fit in, so we'd listen to rap," says Edgar Rodriguez. "The other kids were all listening to rap, so I guess we felt that if we listened to Spanish music we'd be beaners or something. But after Chalino died, everybody started listening to corridos. People wanted to feel more Mexican."

 

"Without exaggeration, 50 percent of the [Mexican] music that's recorded in L.A. is based on his legacy," says Angel Parra, the engineer who recorded most of Chalino's albums.

 

Abel Orozco, owner of El Parral in South Gate, one of the big Mexican-music clubs, puts it this way: "Chalino changed everything."

 

He was born in a small village in Sinaloa. His parents named him Rosalino, but he thought it sounded too much like a woman's name; he preferred the nickname Chalino. He went north as a teenager. There was no work in his village, but the reason he left had more to do with an event that had happened years before.

 

When Chalino was a child, the story goes, his sister was raped by a valiente - or tough - known as "El Chapo" Perez. Chalino waited. He grew up. When he was about 15, he went to a party and there saw El Chapo. "Chalino told me he didn't say anything to him. He just went up to him and shot him. He didn't give him a chance," says Nacho Hernandez, his longtime accordion player and leader of the band Los Amables del Norte.

 

After the shooting Chalino came to Los Angeles, to the home of an aunt. For a while he worked the farms, following harvests up through California and Oregon. Then he settled in Inglewood during the time when it and neighboring towns were forming a belt of Mexican-immigrant suburbia around the city of L.A. He washed dishes, sold cars and, for a while, dabbled in drug dealing - small quantities of marijuana and cocaine, according to friends. He also helped his older brother, Armando, run an immigrant-smuggling business. But that ended in 1984, when Armando was shot and killed in a Tijuana hotel.

 

Chalino possessed the hard, unwashable veneer of the Mexican rancho; few photos show him smiling. He had a rail-thin body topped with an angular face that looked slightly bent. He spoke the rolling, singsong, slurred Spanish of the Sinaloan Coast. Those with money and position who would meet him later had the impression he was a shy man, not given to easy conversation. His friends say he merely had a rural Mexican's deference before power and education, since he had neither. He spoke no English. Onstage and around people he liked, he was friendly, generous and informal. They knew him as "El Compa" Chalino (Buddy Chalino). But he could be obstinate if he thought someone was trying to manage him, and he was more than ready to fight when challenged.

 

"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."

 

Cracking the established L.A. record-distribution system was nearly impossible, so the racks (or raquitas) at car washes, bakeries, butcher shops and, above all, swap meets became their primary outlets. For most Angelenos, the dozens of swap meets dotting the Southland are places to unload unwanted junk - or pick up someone else's. But for many Mexican immigrants, who don't understand banking or have no hope for a business loan, swap meets are a shot at capital formation. They get product directly to the public, without having to rely on advertising, big distributors or credit lines.

 

"People who want to open a shop go first to the swap meet," says Abel Orozco, who also owns one of these small labels, Discos Linda. "Those of us who have record stores, dancehalls, distributorships, started in the swap meets."

 

If distribution was difficult, airplay on Mexican radio was impossible. "We didn't have money to give [DJs] cars or cocaine. They never played us, and they still don't," says Rivera. "This is why artists record these corridos prohibidos - drug ballads. You don't need promotion to sell what's prohibited."

 

Rivera had learned this lesson in early 1989, after releasing on a lark a corrido about Panama's General Manuel Noriega. "Before that, I had made a cassette for $14,000, with a musical director, with a mariachi, very good songs that weren't corridos. It didn't even sell 100 cassettes," says Rivera. But he sold 7,000 Noriega cassettes in the first two weeks alone. "I told myself that's the way to go. People buy stories."

 

It wasn't long after the release of the Noriega corrido that Chalino began coming to Rivera with his stories of bad men. The fit was perfect. "Other people had recorded corridos, but no one was recording corridos that were so personal, about common people," says Rivera. "You'd be biting your nails waiting to hear what happened to the main character."

 

Acuario was a good fit for Chalino, too, because as his popularity grew it became clear that he horrified the established music business. His voice, by industry standards, was famously bad. "I don't sing," he would say, "I bark." Rough, moaning and reedy, Chalino's voice was an echo of immigrants' rural roots. And that was about the last thing the Mexican music establishment was interested in. Mexican pop was far removed from Mexicans' daily reality - either at home or in the U.S. That was really the whole point. In a poor culture, the music industry put a premium on puff and polish; the idea was to lose - or deny - any vestige of poverty, of the rancho. Male singers looked like playboys and tried sounding like opera stars. In this world, Chalino's raspy voice and menacing valiente look went over like battery acid.

 

"He had a voice you had to get used to," says Angel Parra. "The bad sound at first, the rough production, the way he'd slur his words, all this made him difficult for many people to understand. Then he'd do strange things that people [in the industry] weren't used to. For example, instead of saying 'te fuiste' ['you left'], he'd sing 'te fuites.' That's how it's said in the hills. He knew how to say it correctly. But he'd say it that way so that people, campesinos, would hear it the way they were used to."

 

The Mexican music industry was too distant from its public - at least the Mexican public living in L.A. "Most of the people in L.A. are campesinos," says Fernando Gonzalez, promotions director for Culver City-based Musart, one of the Southland's large Mexican labels. "All these people come from villages, ranchos. They saw Chalino as a singer from the pueblos. We didn't realize it. And the campesinos buy records."

 

What the campesinos wanted, Chalino delivered - literally. His friends remember him tooling around L.A. in an old green Oldsmobile, then a Cougar, then a Chevy truck, laden with boxes of his cassettes. Then, in 1990, he persuaded Orozco to let him play at El Parral. So many people came that Orozco had to close the doors. From then on, Chalino had club owners avidly bidding for him.

 

As his popularity spread, he began to clean up his corridos. "He didn't want problems with anyone," says Nacho Hernandez. "Before, he'd record a corrido about someone who died and take his side. In the song he'd insult the guy's rival or opponent. Sometimes the other guy would get mad. So he stopped singing that so-and-so, who killed this guy, was a coward."

 

As a performer, Chalino had a distinctly American, democratic ethic. He dressed like his audience: a cocked cowboy hat, large belt buckle, cowboy boots, and usually gold chains and watches. He often tucked a gun in his belt. He broke, too, with the traditional Mexican entertainment style, where the singer was the star, the audience the adoring public, and everyone knew his place. He would pose for photographs with fans while he was singing (something every ranchero singer in L.A. does now).

 

"Chalino liked people surrounding him when he sang. He started this tradition of people dancing while the singer sang," says Emilio Franco, owner of El Farallon, a club in Lynwood where Chalino often appeared. "If there were 200 people in the hall, he'd mention them all. 'Here's to my compa so-and-so, and my compa sitting over there.' He mentioned me one time."

 

Then came the real breakthrough - kids began to play his cassettes on their car stereos as they cruised the boulevards. Soon their friends would be asking about him and heading to the swap meet for his tapes. "That's what made Chalino," says Orozco. "In Tijuana, Guadalajara, Las Vegas - they'd all have Chalino going in their cars. That was his radio. It began here in Los Angeles. They'd leave from El Parral with their stereos going at full volume."

 

In January of 1992, Chalino sang at a private quinceanera - the traditional coming-out party for 15-year-old girls - in Compton. When word leaked out that he would be performing, hundreds of people tried to crash the party. Windows were broken, and the police came. He was becoming famous. But the Chalino legend really began later that month.

 

As a singer known as a valiente, Chalino would occasionally be challenged by men in the audience. On January 20, Chalino was booked into Los Arcos, a club in Coachella, 20 miles east of Palm Springs. His arrival was something special for the isolated, predominantly Latino desert town; Los Arcos was packed. Chalino later told police that someone gave him a 10mm pistol as he walked in, hoping he would wear it onstage, as was his custom. But according to Hernandez, the gun belonged to Chalino. "He always took a gun to a show. It was always loaded."

 

Coachella Police Sergeant Vince Singleterry says that Chalino "explained the facade, the showman, the corridos, the macho thing with the gun, the tough-guy attitude. That was expected, especially of somebody from Sinaloa. But he seemed like one who hadn't been bit by the fame and stardom. He still had the presence of mind to say that that was the showman part of him and he was really a normal person."

 

There were some, however, who took the showman part of him seriously. Shortly before midnight, as Chalino was taking requests, Eduardo Gallegos, a 33-year-old unemployed mechanic high on alcohol and heroin, jumped up on the short stage and, from a few feet away, fired a .25 caliber pistol into the singer's side.

 

Chalino pulled his gun, leaped from the stage and, as he ran through the crowded dance floor, fired at Gallegos, who cranked off another few rounds. People rushed the doors and smashed windows, trying to escape. Someone took the gun from Gallegos and shot him in the mouth, then the crowd wrestled him to the ground. When it was over, seven people were wounded, including accordionist Hernandez, who was shot in the thigh. Rene Carranza, a 20-year-old local, was hit in the leg and bled to death as friends lugged him to a car and drove to a hospital. Other victims were said to have been taken by friends to Mexicali, 90 miles to the south.

 

The shooting made ABC's World News Tonight the next day, bolstering Chalino's reputation as a valiente. While he convalesced, sales of his cassettes shot up, and he finally began to get radio play - though DJs would air only one of his love songs, "Nieves de Enero" ("Snows of January"). At his first appearance following the shooting, at El Parral a few weeks later, hundreds of fans were locked out when the club had to shut its doors - at 6 p.m.

 

But the Coachella shooting may have taken its toll on Chalino. In the months that followed, he did two strange things. To his friends, he gave away his prized gun collection. And to Musart, he negotiated the rights to his music. Chalino had always been wary of business dealings with people he didn't know, yet he now spoke of letting a company promote him while he concentrated on his nightclub act, which was netting him $10,000 and $15,000 a weekend.

 

His wariness of businessmen did Chalino in. He demanded up-front money instead of royalties. Who could say whether there'd be any, after all, and in any event, who could trust a record company to keep track? So he committed what his friend Angel Parra calls "his greatest error." He sold Musart all rights to his songs - with no provision for royalties later - for a lump sum of 350,000 pesos, the equivalent of $115,000 at the time.

 

Chalino's royalties today are worth several million dollars. His widow, Marisela, and their son and daughter, though not penniless, must rely on relatives for financial help. "The quantity of money that this man lost was incredible," says Musart's Fernando Gonzalez. "I think he was already thinking that he was going to die."

 

In fact, Chalino had been receiving threats since the shooting. "The atmosphere in the bars and cantinas is dangerous, and he knew it," says Marisela. "He did what anyone does when you realize that you can die at any time. He put his life in order. He never thought his records would sell as well as they did, or would have helped us out as much as they would have. He never felt like an artist. He never knew the magnitude of what he would become." a

 

Still, things appeared to be going well. With the Musart money, Chalino bought a home for his family in Paramount - an L.A. suburb that had become a kind of second Sinaloa. He was singing live again. And he'd been offered the relatively huge sum of $20,000 for an engagement in Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital city. Marisela didn't want him to go. Culiacan was a dangerous place; he knew L.A. better. But Chalino had asked for and received half the money in advance. He had to go.

 

Culiacan is a city of 600,000 people, and that Friday night in May 1992, 2,000 of them packed into the Salon Buganvilias. The crowd exploded in cheers as Chalino, flanked by six scantily clad young women, took the stage. After the show, Chalino, his brother Espiridion, a woman friend and some of her relatives left the club in a car, but were stopped at a traffic circle by armed men in a federal police car. Chalino and Espiridion were taken from the car. They offered the gunmen money, believing them to be police officers. The gunmen didn't accept, but they released his brother.

 

"Chalino told them, 'Don't take him, he's not to blame for anything. I just met him at the show,'" says Hernandez. "They didn't know he was his brother, so they let him go."

 

A few hours later, as dawn broke on May 16, two campesinos found the body of Chalino Sanchez dumped by an irrigation canal near the highway north of town. He was blindfolded, and his wrists had rope marks. He had been shot twice in the back of the head.

 

The reaction in Culiacan was immediate. "That night, all these guys were driving around town with their speakers blaring, just waiting for someone to look at them funny," remembers Fernando Sauceda of the Sinaloan Human Rights Defense Commission.

 

Back in Los Angeles, the news clicked quickly along the informal network his music had created at high schools in Bell, Long Beach, Compton, Huntington Park. Girls cried at Paramount High. El Parral filled up that night. Only Chalino's music was played. There was a minute of silence. People broke into tears.

 

Out in Coachella, the D.A.'s office sent detectives down to Sinaloa to confirm Chalino's death. The trial of Eduardo Gallegos proceeded without its key witness. (Gallegos, who never gave a reason for the shooting, was convicted and is serving 15 years to life in prison.)

 

Musart took full advantage. "Immediately, obviously, we began to promote him," says Gonzalez. "We advertised that he'd been killed, put out special posters. We said, 'Why should we keep all his tapes locked up?' But we didn't expect the gigantic reaction that followed."

 

Those who worked the swap meets felt the groundswell. Pedro Rivera's son, Lupe, was selling cassettes that Sunday at the Paramount Swap Meet. "This lady walked up and said, 'Do you have any cassettes by Chalino? I want one of each. I just found out this morning that he was shot.' Her family had called her from Mexico. Then radio stations started announcing it. Pretty soon people just started buying his cassettes like crazy, you know: 'Let me have two of each.'"

 

If the Coachella shooting established Chalino's underworld credentials, his Culiacan murder mythicized him. Soon a Chalinomania gripped Los Angeles on down to Sinaloa. "It was an epidemic," says Marisela. "You could hear his music all over the place. So many people would play him in their cars, their houses, their dances."

 

A cottage industry in cheesy Chalino reissues grew. Both Musart and Cintas Acuario quickly stripped the vocal tracks from his original recordings and wove them in with singers and bands Chalino had never even met. Musart would put out 10, and Cintas Acuario 12, of these horrible ersatz recordings. But the demand was there: All but one of Musart's 15 Chalino albums still sell at least 10,000 copies annually.

 

A kind of Sinaloazation of L.A. Mexican culture was taking place. If tourists or the average Angeleno thought mariachi synonymous with Mexico, Mexicans in L.A. - the working classes - were really listening to the music of Sinaloa: the norteno conjunto and banda. And if being Sinaloan - with its drug undertones - was suddenly cool, to be from the Sinaloan hills was even more so.

 

Thus emerged the Chalinazo, a new style of dress in which urban kids imitated Mexican hicks. At clubs, they'd dress up in cowboy hats and boots, large belt buckles, and jackets with epaulets made from the skin of some exotic animal; eventually, gold chains and silk shirts were added. Narcotraficante chic. It was nothing short of a Mexican roots renaissance, though this time led not by a small group of Chicano college professors, intellectuals and artists, but by a large swath of working-class youth.

 

"I've listened to his songs 100 times, and every time I listen to them I hear and feel something different," says Jose Quintero, a 22-year-old from Paramount and a regular at El Parral. "Like the song about Tino Quintero. He was like a Billy the Kid. Everybody wanted to kill him, but because he was a man they couldn't. They invited him to a party. At the party they began shooting at him. Surrounded by his enemies, he said, 'I'm going to take a few of them with me.' Then he ran out of bullets. He wasn't going to apologize to nobody. He died like a man. He inspired a lot of people. I want to die like that."

 

In the six years since his death, dozens of young singers, who'd sung only in the shower or the car, figured that if Chalino could do it, they could too. One even took the stage name Chalinillo (Little Chalino), another La Sombra de Chalino (Chalino's Shadow). Among the new singers was Saul Viera: "At first, when Chalino came out, no one really liked him. Myself, I was like, Where the hell did you get that guy? But then you pay attention to what he's saying and you start liking him. It's like gangster music about people getting shot, battles with police, growing marijuana."

 

Viera's own story is about as improbable as Chalino's. A graduate of Paramount High, in 1995 Viera was working for a courier company when one night he was drinking with some friends at El Parral. At their urging and because the club was almost empty, Viera got up to sing with the house band. Abel Orozco, looking for a new Chalino, figured Viera's raw style would do. He recorded his first album the next month - and 14 more by the time he was 22. Viera, who took the stage name El Gavilancillo (The Little Hawk), became that wonderful urban-immigrant anomaly: a young man who listened to rap and made a living singing polkas about Mexican drug smugglers (though, as with Chalino, Viera's biggest hit was a radio-safe love song).

 

"When I was in junior high and my dad would play the banda music, I'd be like, 'Turn it down. My friends are going to hear.' Now it's the other way around," he said. "I'm turning it up, and my parents are turning it down. When I was younger, I was ashamed of Mexican music. Now I know who I am. I'm not afraid of my race."

 

His goal was to be "as big as Vicente Fernandez," the great Mexican ranchera singer.

 

He never got the chance. Last April, Viera and his fiancee were in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant in Bellflower. A tall, thin young man approached them, pulled a pistol from his shirt and fired several times into Viera, who died in the parking lot. His fiancee was unharmed. Viera was a well-known ladies' man - he even kept a scrapbook filled with photographs of himself with an array of young, beautiful women, and he'd had children by three of them. Many suspect the shooter to be a jealous boyfriend, friend or brother of one of Viera's ex-girlfriends, but so far the case remains unsolved.

 

What had been implicit in Chalino's music turned explicit and extreme in the torrent of "corridos pesados," or drug corridos, emerging out of the small L.A. labels. Singers posed with massive weaponry. On his album Mi Oficio Es Matar (Killing Is My Business), Jesus Palma shouldered a bazooka. Singers who had never done many narcocorridos found they had to sing a few if they wanted to sell records. Recently, one company even released an Alvin and the Chipmunks-style album of corridos for children.

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