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The Tigers' Tale

Los Tigres del Norte Is an All-American Success Story, Starring Hard-Driving Mexicans From Sinaloa

December 16, 2001|SAM QUINONES | Sam Quinones is the author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lunch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press). His last story for the magazine was on politics in South Gate

During most shows by Los Tigres del Norte, there comes a moment when a certain ecstatic clarity is achieved by those ready to receive it. The heart is warm and generous, troubles are forgotten and you feel like hugging whoever is closest. This moment comes for Martin Yanez and Guillermo Valdenegro about three hours into a Los Tigres show at the Carta Blanca baseball stadium in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, an agricultural state on Mexico's northern Pacific coast. Yanez is a truck driver, and Valdenegro is an agronomist. Out on the outfield grass, they have been approaching young women, fearlessly pleading their case with noticeable insistence and an equally noticeable lack of luck. Yet they are undaunted. For the two young men are feeling that sublime vibe found at the confluence of Tecate beer, the warm, late-night Culiacan air and the high-energy music Los Tigres is pumping out over 15,000 people on the baseball field. Life is good. Nothing--not even the adamant refusal of Culiacan's best-looking young women to dance with them--can mess with that.

Onstage, Los Tigres del Norte are garbed in tiger-striped, coffee-colored fringed leather suits. The band has already played "Agua Salada" (Salty Water), about a man who tells the young woman who loves him that he is too old for her, kissing the tears that roll down her cheek. Now, as if that weren't enough melodrama, the band launches the bass run known to virtually every Mexican alive as the opening to "La Camioneta Gris" (The Gray Truck).

The song is a ranchera with an accordion fluttering over the rollicking bass. It's about a couple on a honeymoon in a gray truck filled with cocaine, who, surrounded by federales, drive into an oncoming train rather than surrender. That kind of love prompts Yanez to let loose a yelp, raise his beer to toast the sky and chortle, "This is the best of Mexico."

He's only half right.

Seeing Los Tigres del Norte in Sinaloa is like seeing Elvis play Memphis. The band is from Sinaloa. Mexican drug smuggling began here. Sinaloa also sends many immigrants to the U.S. And these two themes--drug smuggling and immigration--have been the foundation for the band's career.

But the story of Los Tigres del Norte is really an American story. The members of Los Tigres are immigrants--legal U.S. residents, but not U.S. citizens--and a product of the possibilities that bring Mexicans to the United States. Mexico has been a country where power and prestige are revered, and little people are generally ignored; the millions of those people who leave for the United States are proof of that. Los Tigres understands that better than anybody. It is the most enduring binational band today because, in a very un-Mexican way, it hears the humble.

To date, Los Tigres del Norte has made 33 records, 14 movies, won a Grammy and reinvented Mexican popular music. Still, the band tours 44 weeks a year. Every night band members respond to dozens of requests in notes passed to the stage, and take photos with fans during their break. Every record sells a million copies, more than 60% of those in the United States. Its logo is as well known in Mexican communities as Coca-Cola's, and the band has played recently in Germany, Chile, Japan and Guatemala.

Yet Los Tigres, whose members live in San Jose, Calif., are as unknown to non-Mexican America as the immigrants to whom they sing. Their children are American, working as airline mechanics and school-district bureaucrats and married to people of other races. But Los Tigres remain Mexican citizens and hold tight to their Mexicanidad--their Mexicanness.

Los Angeles has long held a core Los Tigres audience. In 1999, the band donated $500,000 to UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center to create the Tigres del Norte Fund, in part to pay for the digitalization of 17,000 78-rpm records of early 20th century Mexican popular music. The mural shown on the album the group released last year, "De Paisano a Paisano," has been replicated on a wall in East L.A.

Los Tgres del Norte emerged from an unnoticed side of the 1960s. As America's rebellious children were turning to drugs and music, working-class Mexicans began coming to the United States. They were rebelling, too. They were leaving Mexico, which never gave a poor man a chance, for a future in gringolandia. But they missed the pueblo, a girlfriend, mom.

Some Mexican government officials and intellectuals have suggested that people who immigrate to work in the United States have turned their backs on Mexico. But really the opposite is true. In this foreign land, immigrants ached for Mexico, though it had mistreated them. With so much of Mexico in the United States yearning for home, it's not surprising that music a young man could call "the best of Mexico" would be created here, too.

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