The Hidden Language in Mexican Ranchera Music


Collage by Jenna Mason; record images courtesy of the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings at the University of California-Los Angeles/Southern Foodways Alliance



Mexico has its own version of the blues, music that is “heavy on the pathos and irresistible beats,” writes Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly editor and the author of the ¡Ask a Mexican!column. These corridos and rancheras are popular with the immigrant farmworkers in the United States, and they often illuminate favorite foods or life in the fields, Arellano tells us on this week’s episode of Bite podcast. “Kind of like gangster rap,” Arellano explains, “corridos would tell you the stories of repressed communities.”

Now, read Gustavo’s great piece on the rancheras and corridos inspired by Mexican farm work in the United States. The story was originally published as “Song of El Sur” by Southern Foodways Alliance and Gravy

Southerners have long celebrated Mexican foodways in song. You know the hot tamale hits: the Dixieland standard “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man,” Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot,” and “Molly Man” by Moses Mason. These classics, recorded long before Mexicans settled in the region en masse, are barn-stompers—their lyrics and beats each testaments to the good times that norteamericanos tend to associate with Mexican anything.

Historically, the feeling hasn’t gone both ways. For the past 80 years, corridos (ballads), rancheras (songs extolling the rural life), and other Mexican folk-music genres have offered bitter tales of backbreaking labor and racism in a South that’s not home—the antithesis of those tamale tunes. The following songs are the Mexican blues, heavy on the pathos and irresistible beats. They’re listened to on the radio and records but best live, the better for their target audience—Mexican immigrants far from home—to dance and drink the pain away.

The oldest known Mexican song set in the South is “Enganche del Mississippi,” (roughly, “The Mississippi Job”) recorded in the 1930s by Dúo San Antonio and on file at the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings at UCLA. It’s a simple effort—just two high-pitched singers and two guitars. But “Enganche del Mississipi” stands as an extraordinary account of Mexicans in a place and era barely documented by academics, let alone depicted in popular culture.

True to the corrido form, the song tells a short story. A group of Texans of Mexican heritage flee the cotton harvest of South Texas for better, unnamed opportunities in Louisiana. After changing trains in Houston, the friends ask an enganchista (labor contractor) whether they’re still going to Louisiana. Much to their disappointment, the enghanchista replies that they’re passing right through the Bayou State and “straight to Mississippi.”

~~~  MAS  ~~~

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