‘If she’s on her period, offer her an ice cream….
And if after this, she isn’t happy
To relieve her of all her bitterness,
With all due respect,
Lend her to me’
– Calibre 50, Préstamela a Mí
Despite lyrics like these ones, which should send shivers down my feminist spine, I really fucking love Calibre 50. They are a four-piece group from Sinaloa who shot to fame in 2011 with a controversial and raunchy song called El Tierno Se Fue, which cracks me up when I listen to it, with its oh-so-risqué oh-so-almost mention of a sexual act. I couldn’t possibly repeat what it is they are insinuating, but let me tell you it is quite a job for listeners to blow right over it.
I came across Calibre 50 last year when I heard the song Siempre Te Voy a Querer everywhere, blasting out from mechanics’ garages, barber shops, rolled down car windows, and the oversized speakers that people just love to haul along to the beach with them. Here it is – check out the video before reading on, you’ll need it for context.
That intro! That accordion! That brassy bass! How he rolls the second R in querer! The matching hats! MAN. How can you not fall for those lads? (If you still aren’t convinced, leave that link playing to hear Amor Del Bueno, my second fave).
There is something so powerful, so fun, so bright, and so goosebump-inducing about it. You might not think it, but like most things in Mexico, this sort of music has a long and meaningful history, it is political and creative, and goes so much deeper than you think. Here, I’m going to look at how it plays a key role in Mexican identity and memory.
In the late 19th century, German immigrants coming to work in northern Mexico brought their instruments and their musical tastes and traditions with them. The genre that developed out of this is known as Norteño and it is still characteristic of the north of Mexico, specifically the border area. It is also a big deal in California, Texas and other US states. All kinds of subgenres make up Norteño and a professor of music will be able to tell you the difference; I still can’t, despite doing a fair chunk of research. Norteño can encompass banda, corridos, bolero, ranchera and more. Two instruments form the core of Norteño music, the accordion and the bajo sexto, but these days many more instruments can be included in an ensemble. Norteño has retained a rural, migratory, working class and masculine identity since those German immigrants first came to work in the northern Mexican countryside. It is deeply associated with los ranchos and los campesinos who live there, because it was written by them, for them and about them.
Lyrically, corridos are perhaps the most powerfully associated with Mexican history, memory and identity-formation. A corrido is ‘a popular narrative in the form of song, poetry and ballad. The songs can deal with political themes, historic events and sentimental relationships. The corrido played an important role in the history of Mexico as a source of information about the movements, victories and losses of the revolution.’ Since their beginnings, the corridos have celebrated the underdog, the rebel, or the every day Mexican.
Corridos remain at the core of Norteño music today, continuing to make heroes out of those whose lives (and deaths) would otherwise go unsung. Immigrants continue to be key characters in, and consumers of, Norteño music today. Those who are forced to risk their lives crossing the Sonoran desert to try to get into the US are the poor, rural Mexicans who Norteño has always been for and about. It is touching and powerful that they are the inspiration for songs like Somos Mas Americanos by Los Tigres del Norte (this video has the English translation included).
‘I want to remind the gringo
I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me’
– Los Tigres del Norte, Somos Mas Americanos
Many of the articles I’ve read about Norteño music do not situate it statically in Mexico. Both in real life and on paper, it splurges across the line in the sand that separates Mexican and US territory. Martha I Chew Sanchez writes that, ‘Mexicans and Mexican Americans insist on recalling and re-creating spaces of Mexico embodied in canciones rancheras and corridos in radio stations, dance halls, and fiestas in the United States’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 484). She goes on to describe how Mexican identities are reproduced and reinforced in Northern Texas and Albuquerque by repeating many of the same behaviours and customs in dances there that are performed in rural events in Chihuahua. She says that one reason for this is because, ‘when the collective memory of a diasporic group, such as the Mexican migrant one, finds itself under constant threat from the host society, its members tend to resort to creative forms of ‘recreating’ or ‘reinforcing’ their collective memory’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 484).
It is also important –personally and politically – to retain a connection to one’s own language, particularly when discussing painful experiences, as the immigration process is. See the snapshot of an imagined conversation between two (invented) academics discussing the role of language (in this case Spanish in the USA) in a post-colonial world:
“Right. To Latinos insisting on a legitimate role for Spanish. That language enables them to speak out against oppression and discrimination in a way that one can’t – at least so readily – in English, the language of the very group that is oppressing them… This echoes the finding of contemporary Lat-crit authors who write that Latinos are ‘perhaps more attached to their language than any other non-English speaking immigrant or minority group.'”
“I’m not surprised. Rao says that the colonial subject who adopts the language of the conqueror ‘has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought movement that looks maltreated in an alien language.’
“In fact,” Rodrigo replied, fishing a second piece of paper out of his pocket. “Simon During says much the same thing. I have it right here. ‘For the postcolonial to speak or write in the imperial tongues is to call forth a problem of identity, to be thrown into mimicry and ambivalence.”
“Trenchant,” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of Fanon’s words about psychiatric self-preservation. The native must take forceful action, or else he or she succumbs to despair and depression. Holding onto one’s language could be a potent way of achieving mental health for the colonized subject such as the Latino.” (Delgado, 2007: 1708 – 1709)
‘Mate, I like your woman
If there’s a problem we’ll fix it
Maybe you don’t realise
But we like each other
If this comment hurts you
We’ll even shoot each other,’
– Banda MS, Me Gusta Tu Vieja
It is important to highlight one more point in this context; predominantly male identities characterise mainstream Norteño music. You may be surprised that the lyrics ‘if she’s on her period, offer her an ice-cream’ were NOT written by a woman. Norteño is subject to the same sexism as the music industry in general (women are less likely to be taken seriously, more likely to be encouraged / expected to be sex symbols, etc). The majority of bands are made up of men, and they sing about their own emotions and experiences. For example, regarding the theme of immigration, Chew Sanchez that, ‘existing patriarchal hierarchies are also reinforced by limiting the representation of migrant experiences to those of men, on men’s terms and from their point of view’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 491).
Furthermore, women are cast as the passive receivers of men’s adoration or their scorn. Hyper masculinity is especially potent in Northern Mexico, so as Oliva Solis Hernandez puts it, when male Norteño singers position themselves in relation to women, they are either (or indeed at once) fervently macho, or they are suffering terribly for love (Solis Hernandez, 2016). I might go so far as to say that suffering for love is actually the most macho you can be, though; ‘look how much pain I am withstanding. I am so strong to be battling onwards.’
However, lived gender identities, masculinity included, are constantly in flux, especially when migration comes into play. Although recognising the problems with the macho voice in Norteño, Chew Sanchez also suggests that corridos restore dignity to and re-humanise immigrant men facing racism and discrimination in the US, by showing them, ‘as people with multiple subjectivities, as parents, husbands, sons, workers, people who celebrate their culture, as survivors of racial scapegoating and low-intensity terrorism practised against them, as people with a joy of life who possess great humour, and who try to empower themselves’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 491).
Women have always been active in the Norteño scene, although this is hidden from the mainstream narrative (surprise, surprise). Many women recorded songs around the 1920s and 30s when Norteño was becoming commercialised. While they did enjoy success, they often stopped their singing careers when they started families (Villareal, 2006). What I find particularly interesting is that women played a valuable role in providing spaces for the music. ‘These women persevered as women bar and dancehall owners over a forty-year period in east and south Texas. Relying on Spanish-speaking customers who sought a specific type of music, their businesses thrived, even during economic depressions, particularly in rural areas… Texas Mexican American women pursued businesses that catered to a social network of Mexican Americans whose love for music and dancing demanded cultural spaces’ (Villareal, 2006: 47-48). This idea of place is particularly important, because a lot of the spaces that Mexicans occupied in the US in the first half of the 20th century have been literally wiped off the map because their existence does not fit with an ‘American’ narrative. This is one reason why senses of place created through Norteño music are especially important. Although they might not exist physically anymore, ‘these places are etched into people’s memories, memories not in the historical narrative or in the county or state museum, but memories that shaped their community’s identity.’ (Villareal, 2006: 51)
‘They made bets to conquer her,
But no young guy won her love’
– Los Tigres del Norte, Era Diferente
In 2015, a love song was released by Los Tigres Del Norte, Era Diferente, and it really was different. It’s about a teenage lesbian who falls in love with her best friend. According to Los Tigres it’s the first gay love song in the history of Norteño music EVER. I’ll take their word for it, and although it could easily be classed as a tentative step (female homosexuality isn’t generally seen by homophobes as as much of a threat as male homosexuality, especially since usually lesbians are just waiting for the right man to come along and anyway they don’t have real sex do they?) it’s a certainly a move in an interesting direction.
So, I’ll take it on the chin as I always do when people laugh at my musical tastes, and let go (slowly) of the fact that my legitimately Norteño Mexican boyfriend did not take me to a traditional dance when we visited his family in Sonora. When I first heard Siempre Te Voy A Querer, it clearly spoke to me on a profound, sociopolitical level and I just knew that it would serve my intellectual development to become a massive fan of Calibre 50. The rolling Rs, accordions and men in matching hats and jazzy waistcoats are completely inconsequential.
Note – Featured images are my artwork; the words hasta paracen bonitas todas mis palabras sucias are from Amor Del Bueno by Calibre 50
References (ask me for PDFs):
 ‘Se trata de una narrativa popular en forma de canción, poesía y balada. Las canciones pueden tratar de temas políticos, de eventos históricos y de relaciones sentimentales. El corrido jugó un papel importante en la historia de México como una fuente de información sobre los movimientos, las victorias, y las pérdidas de la revolución.’ This quote comes from https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corrido_(México) and references Chew Sánchez, Martha I. (2006). «Corridos In Migrant Memory». Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
 Some of the most famous historical corridos are the corridos villistas and the corridos zapatistas. They celebrate the revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Jose Zapata. I bet you’ll recognise this famous corrido villista: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp_7aieGEMQ
 Lina Mounzert does an amazing job of emphasizing exactly why this is the case, in her powerful article about translating first hand accounts of Syrians during the war. See: https://lithub.com/war-in-translation-giving-voice-to-the-women-of-syria/ WAR IN TRANSLATION: GIVING VOICE TO THE WOMEN OF SYRIA
 ‘Richard Delgado [the article’s author] enlists his alter ego, Rodrigo, to analyze Latino legal history and civil rights. Encountering “the Professor” after testifying at a hearing on an immigration bill, Rodrigo excitedly tells his old friend and mentor about a new body of writing he has come across.’ See References for full bibliographical info on this article.
 See El Papel de las Mujeres en el Discurso de la Música Norteña Mexicana: http://www.scielo.org.ar/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1669-57042016000100013