Corridos in Migrant Memory

By Martha I. Chew Sánchez. 2006. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 230 pages. ISBN: 0-8263-3478-4 (hard cover).

Reviewed by María Herrera-Sobek, University of California, Santa Barbara

[Review length: 1049 words • Review posted on December 12, 2007]

Martha I. Chew Sánchez’ book, Corridos in Migrant Memory, provides us with a brilliant, in-depth analysis of contemporary --mainly 1990-2003-- Mexican-immigration-themed corridos or Mexican ballads. Her insider status, as a woman who grew up listening to corridos within the confines of her family, relatives, and friends in the New Mexican and Chihuahua geographic areas, allowed her to enter the world of the corrido and explore its multiple perspectives and multidimensionality. Thus her work encompasses ethnographic interviews with composers, performers, and audiences of corridos, literary analysis, and fieldwork both in the United States and Mexico.

Corridos in Migrant Memory is divided into five chapters, an introduction, an afterword, and an appendix in which she cites several migrant-themed corridos. Her preface orients the reader as to the personal connection she had and continues to have with corridos since, even as a child, her parents were great admirers of this folk song tradition and often played corrido records and CDs, and also sang them in the confines of their home. She notes, however, that it was not until she lived in England as a student that she realized the importance of Mexican ballads in identity formation, collective memory, and ethnic community cohesiveness, particularly in strange and foreign lands.

The introduction contextualizes the historical, social, and ethnographic vectors in which migrant-themed corridos arise. It maps out the three main geographic corridors of transnational migratory movements (eastern, middle, and western Mexico--sidestepping the Sierra Madre mountain range) and highlights the importance music has in the formation and construction of personal and cultural identity of the migrant workers.

The first chapter, “Collecting the Debris of History and Reshaping Identity,” continues to inscribe the corrido within Mexican and U.S. history, such as in the U.S.- Mexico War of 1848, and the consequences this history has had on the perception of Mexican and Mexican Americans, the lingering stereotypes and negative representations Anglo Americans constructed during their colonization and settlement movements and the counter-discourse the corrido provided to the dispossessed and marginalized ethnic group. The corrido, according to Chew Sánchez and others interviewed, is an important archival document that records not only the history of the Mexican and Mexican American people but includes, aside from historical facts, the emotions, feelings, and other issues and concerns not found in official histories.

Chew Sánchez’ second chapter, “Romper con el canto la Frontera: Narrative Analysis of Corridos about Migration,” further elucidates corrido historiography. It introduces the conjunto norteño--a generally small group of musicians who perform corridos and other borderlands music--as well as genres related to the corrido, such as the canción ranchera (rural song). This chapter showcases Los Tigres del Norte, who will appear and reappear in subsequent chapters, attesting to their importance and popularity in contemporary Mexican and Mexican American populations. In this fairly long chapter, Chew Sánchez also features a sensitive narrative analysis of several corridos, such as “La Jaula de Oro,” “Mis Dos Patrias,” “Sin Fronteras,” and other popular migrant-themed corridos.

Chapter 3, “Voy a contarles la historia: Migrants’ Perceptions of Corridos,” brings the focus back to the voices of the migrants themselves. The author undertakes fieldwork in both the U.S. and Mexico and captures the voice of the people and their own conceptualizations, views, and reactions to corridos and the corrido tradition. Chew Sánchez is able to enter the intimate world of the corrido and those who sing them, write them, and listen to them. The ethnographic interviews provide a forum through which we hear the voice of the people as they articulate their own thoughts about corridos and the importance these cultural artifacts have in their own personal lives.

While chapter 3 focuses on analysis and ethnographic interviews, chapter 4, “De parranda con el Diablo: Performance and the Aesthetics of Conjunto Dance Music,” describes the conjunto style of music as well as various musical groups and musicians who perform corridos. Dancing styles and the public forums where conjunto musicians perform their music (such as rodeos and horse-racing events) are also highlighted in this chapter. In addition, the clothing styles of both men and women (although focusing mostly on men) are featured. The dress of the vaquero or Mexican cowboy is described in great detail and several photographs are included in the chapter.

Chapter 5, “De paisano a paisano: Negotiating and Resistance Between Migrants and Cultural Industries,” examines the relationship between corridos and conjuntos as commodities that can be and are used to sell products. Such is the case with Los Tigres del Norte, who appear on television commercials and advertisements. Their appearance on advertisements for MoneyGram is amply analyzed. Chew Sánchez details the intertextuality between culture and tradition and its use in selling consumer products. In addition, the author analyzes radio and its influence in affirming and disseminating Mexican and Chicano culture. Corridos and other types of traditional music are often played via radio programs since these tend to reach large geographic areas, including mountainous regions not readily accessible by other means. The radio, therefore, becomes an important vehicle of communication.

The “Afterword” returns Chew Sánchez to personal family history since it has been of great significance in her research on the corrido. That is to say, family members were excellent sources of information and also offered her other contacts for interviewing both in urban and rural areas. Of further interest is the author’s racial heritage since she informs us that she is Chinese Mexican, which affords her insights regarding being perceived as “other” both in Mexico and the United States. Chew Sánchez feels that being of Chinese-Mexican extraction has made her particularly sensitive to constantly being perceived as exotic, strange, alien, just like the migrant workers she has been interviewing. Her status as a professor in an eastern city near the U.S.-Canada border further links her to nostalgic Mexican workers who yearn for the idealized, romanticized Mexican homeland.

Martha I. Chew Sánchez has written a highly readable, deeply sensitive, and theoretically sophisticated study of the Mexican/Chicano corrido and its relationship to identity construction. It is a marvelous book to read, full of hard facts and poignant realities, and it adds to the rich trajectory of corrido studies set forth by Américo Paredes, Vicente T. Mendoza, John McDowell, José Limón, Guillermo Hernández, Enrique Lamadrid, Elijah Wald, and other corrido scholars.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.