04/18/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay: The Little-Known Roots of 'Cielito Lindo'

From the Sierra Morena,
Pretty darling, they come down
a pair of black eyes
Pretty little heaven, which are contraband

One of many translations of the Mexican song, "Cielito Lindo."

Chances are you've belted out your share of "Ay, ay, ay, ay" choruses in that timeless Mexican song about a lovely lady with dark eyes. Everyone knows "Cielito Lindo," right? Even if you've never been to Mexico. Even if you have no idea what "Sierra Morena" means. Or why the lady's eyes are called "contraband." Or what a mole has to do with the song.


'Cielito Lindo' might have looked like this little Mexican girl. Photo by Bob Schulman.

Like most Latin golden oldies, "Cielito Lindo" (written in 1882) has several versions and lots of meanings. A popular story has it the song was inspired by 17th century legends about a bandit-infested mountain range in southern Spain called the Sierra Morena. Quirino Mendoza y Cortes, the Mexican composer, is believed to have heard yarns about a "cielito lindo" (roughly meaning a "lovely sweet one") who was rescued from the outlaws and smuggled out of the hills. Hence the word, "contraband."

Besides dark, flashing eyes, the lady was said to have a "lunar" (a mole) near her mouth. The blemish got into the song this way: "Ese lunar que tienes" ("That mole you have"). The composer (apparently a mole man) goes on to say. "Don't give it to anyone... it belongs to me."

I Am a Captain, Not a Sailor

Like your "ay ays" in "Cielito Lindo," you've likely sung lots of "bam, bam, bambas" between verses of another Mexican oldie called "La Bamba." And you've probably heard that the ballad, popularized by Ritchie Valens in his 1958 chart-topper and again in the 1987 movie about Valens, is a happy Mexican wedding dance.

Well it is, usually.

But one version of the lyrics tells the story of a guy who loved and lost, and who turned up being anything but happy at his ex-girlfriend's wedding. The song ends this way: "Oh I ask you out of compassion, that "La Bamba" end and another song start."


Mexican street band bats out 'La Bamba' in Mazatlan. Photo by Bob Schulman.

No one knows when the song was written, or even who wrote it. What's known for sure is that it's a classic Veracruz "son jarocho" tune, typically plucked out on a gut-string harp backed by three or so guitars. (People down in Veracruz have been known to cringe when they hear Ritchie's rock version.)

What's the meaning of "La Bamba's" iconic words, "I am not a sailor, I am a captain?" Ask that question in Veracruz, and the answer you most often get is, "quien sabe" (who knows).

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