11th May, 1996

However easy it seems to look back at the decades and identify patterns, make generalizations, and persuade yourself that music is its own through-line, there are always going to be pieces of the puzzle that go missing if all you hear, if all you know, is the music.

So while I've been making a pretty glib case for the increasing recurrence of Mexican norteño music (and American tejano music) at the top of the Hot Latin chart being entirely due to Selena's star power, it's just as much due to demographic shifts — in the wake of NAFTA, cross-border immigration exploded as multinationals opened cheap factories across Mexico, decimating local economies and sending millions looking for a better life in the factories and fields of the United States. But this too is glib (though no less pertinent); focusing on the new immigrants obscures the Spanish speakers who have been here for generations. Border life for Mexican-Americans means being concerned with the politics, the culture, and the wars of two nations, and Los Tigres del Norte, a norteño band from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, are the Clash, the Bob Marley, or the Public Enemy of the region, truth-tellers and gadflies of power who couch their commentary in witty, effervescent music. (The fact that they do most of this truth-telling from San Jose, California doesn't hurt.)

The tool they use for this commentary is the corrido (lit. "ballad"), a standard form in Latin music that can be analogized to the twelve-bar blues in its standardization, its antiquity, and its flexibility and adaptability to any tempo, instrumentation, or topic. Los Tigres' primary lead instrument is the norteño accordion, and their stiff polka-derived tempos may sound corny if you're not hearing with the proper ears (as I didn't for many years), but once you accept these as features instead of bugs, there's a whole world of little runs between verses, ironic chord changes, and most of all, the deliciously biting, sarcastic lyrics.

Los Tigres del Norte (that's "The Tigers of the North" in English) came to fame in the mid-70s with a series of narcocorridos, or ballads about drug trafficking — in humanistic, literary songs, with a cinematic gift for narrative and character — and have remained at the very top of the norteño heap since; but on "El Circo," which hit the top of the Hot Latin chart for a week in the spring of 1996, they turn their gimlet eye on the world of Mexican politics.

Even if you know Spanish, this might not be immediately apparent; after all, as leader Jorge Hernández sings the first verse, it's a song about two brothers who own a circus. (The full text of the song — my translation — is behind the jump.) But anyone who'd been paying attention to Mexican politics from the late 80s to that very week knew exactly who the brothers Carlos and Raúl were supposed to be: ex-president of Mexico Carlos Salinas and his strongarm brother Raúl, then in jail for conspiring in political assassination and under suspicion of money laundering. (It was Carlos Salinas who negotiated the NAFTA agreement with the Clinton administration; under his right-wing presidency, Mexico plunged into debt and suffered economic collapse.) The political enemies of the Salinas brothers tended to meet mysterious but fatal ends; in this regard, both the Tigres' recording of this song and the airplay that pushed it to #1 on the (American) chart can be seen as acts of political defiance.

Between them, Carlos and Raúl
Were masters of a circus.
Carlos was the lion tamer,
He was the handsome brother,
Raúl the coordinator
With a hunger to make himself rich

They became so influential
That they began to knock off
[Competing] circuses from all over,
Until they began to fail,
Staying too long in the plazas
And being out of work.

The circus in the Gulf
Was the first to fall
And the circuses of Chihuahua —
It was Carlos who shut them down,
Leaving only the one in Sinaloa
Facing the lion tamer.

Raúl made himself a millionaire
They say it was through being a magician:
The money disappeared
From the hands of his brother.
Today they say it's in the banks
Of Switzerland and everywhere else.

Carlos disappeared
And brought the circus down,
Learning the Sinaloan way.
After that plane crash
Was how Raúl and Carlos
Left their work behind.

Raúl found himself in jail,
Now the magic has left him.
Carlos out on the tightrope,
But now the people are bored,
Until another circus comes
And the same swindle starts again.

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