05/31/2012 07:49 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

What Has Happened to the Mexican Corrido?

The Mexican corrido has been around since Mexico became a country, and throughout its existence, it has been transformed by the economies and spaces it's inhabited. It was especially important during the Mexican revolution when it was used to transmit details of major battles. In these songs, figures like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa were portrayed as heroic revolutionaries who fought for the rights of peasants. Though corridos have now dramatically changed in content, they continue to be characteristic of the lower classes and are often considered "música naca," rural or "hick" music.

When I was a kid, I remember innocent corridos about stolen horses and fatal wrecks on the way to a town fair. The contemporary narcocorrido is bizarre and unfamiliar to me. Now there are songs about beheadings, shootings, and smuggling drugs across the border. The genre has become a tool for the drug cartels. Any narcotraficante with enough money can commission a song for himself. The transmission of history is being dictated by the wealthy.

What happens to the corrido when musicians become incredibly successful? Los Tigres del Norte, for example, have received a great deal of acclaim for their narcocorridos. Los Tigres del Norte, Inc. generates $150 million in revenues each year. Narcocorridistas can't be the voices of the poor and voiceless when by "representing" them, they are reaping the benefits of capitalism. They're now active participants in the structures that they so boldly defy. The narcotraficante is not "la voz del pueblo;" he is a very specific figure who has attained social mobility and is no longer in need of representation. He's also a figure who is seen as inspiration and is emulated by young men. Unfortunately, drug trafficking is often seen as the only way out for many in bleak and economically ravished towns.

"Las mujeres de Juárez" by Los Tigres del Norte, isn't considered a narcocorrido, but it reveals the contradictory nature of their genre. This song demonstrates a dedication to social justice, but when examined further, is complexly problematic. A few stanzas from "Mujeres de Juárez" reflect many of these issues. The speaker begins by praising the hard-working nature of these women and criticizes businesses whose only concern is profit. What is troubling here is that Los Tigres are participating in the propagation of this consumerist culture. Part of what makes Juárez such a precarious space is the fact it's a site of extreme poverty but simultaneously produces great wealth for other nations, particularly the United States. Also complex is the section in which the speaker says that they have lost "lo macho," implying that men have tarnished their masculinity by committing these heinous crimes. What's puzzling about this is the fact that masculinity here is seen as a trait that conserves their morality. One can argue that it's hypermasculinity that can be blamed for this type of behavior. The narcotrafficker embodies the stereotypical macho Latino and the narcocorridista is responsible for perpetuating this extreme masculine image.

Women typically did not perform corridos and were protagonists only as deceitful lovers or murder victims. Now, songs like "La Reina del Sur" and "Contrabando y Traición" by Los Tigres del Norte have female narcotrafficker main characters. ). Camelia was a tough woman who traffics drugs from Mexico to the U.S. and kills a man in the process. It's ironic that women are now more visible in the hypermasculine narcocorrido genre. This visibility, however, comes at a cost because their identities are inextricably bound to macho culture. Female norteña singers have also become more prevalent, but in their case, their popularity relies heavily on their bodies and clothes to accentuate their sexuality. Though it may seem progressive and feminist that the women in corridos are now active agents, these songs are still participating in consumerism and patriarchy.

In Jenni Rivera's song, "La Chacalosa," the protagonist is a woman who at 15 years old inherits the family drug business. She learns the workings of the trade from her father and her father's friends teach her how to shoot a gun. The protagonist of this song is perpetuating the notion that woman can only attain power through masculinity and exploitation. This is evident when "La Chacalosa" boasts about her gun adorned with gold. The gun is a symbol of both masculinity and capital. The fact that men can't tolerate/tame her is likely because they are intimidated by her masculine traits and her success. She has been able to attain farms and laboratories and we see that she's ruthless in her dealings because of the "scraps" she leaves her enemies. Like other narcocorridos, this song isn't the voice of the poor. The woman in this corrido is incredibly wealthy and doesn't at all represent the average disenfranchised Mexican woman.

Like male narcocorridistas, Rivera has purposefully assembled this artificial image to make it into the mainstream music scene. Though it may seem like an improvement to have strong female figures in corridos, one has to question the intention behind these characters. It appears that the attempt may be feminist, but really, these women simply perpetuate patriarchy and capitalism. "La Chacalosa," for example, has inherited her career from her father and she immediately takes on masculine characteristics. In an interview Rivera said that she writes corridos because she's trying to make a living. While corridos were once a means to transmit history, now they have become a means to make money.

I think that we need a thorough understanding of the source of the narcocorrido rather than simply blaming the genre for propagating violence. The tension between defiance and contribution to capitalism will remain until either the narcocorridistas decide to radically change their content or until there is no need to traffic drugs. It's obvious that both are unlikely to happen anytime soon. Every day we read some terrible headline about the violence ravishing Mexico. In some ways it seems that social and economic conditions almost make this paradoxical genre inevitable. But I still hope for the peace in Mexico that will make this genre obsolete. I'm ready for more songs about valiant acts, stolen horses, and fatal car wrecks.