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Narcocorridos: An Ethical Reading of Musical Diegesis

Hermann Herlinghaus

The present study discusses an analytical and ethical understanding of "narcocorridos", which differs from approaches whose main concern is that of textual (re)presentation. The concept of 'intermediality' helps to address conjunctures of narratological inquiry and cultural music studies, related to questions such as: How does music narrate? How can the affective dimension of (musical) texts be approached without opposing it to their reflective quality? How does an 'ethics of affectivity' become thinkable? Alongside these and other inquiries, the study intends to provide new and uncommon insights regarding the controversial phenomenon of narcocorridos, especially those that have accompanied the cultural success story of the group Los Tigres del Norte.

Este artículo presenta un acercamiento ético y analítico al fenómeno de los narcocorridos y difiere de aquellos acercamientos cuyo objetivo principal es el de la (re)presentacion textual. El concepto de intertextualidad nos ayuda a abordar los puntos de unión entre cuestiones narratológicas y los estudios culturales de la música relacionados a preguntas tales como: ¿Cómo narra la música? ¿Cómo puede uno aproximarse a la dimensión afectiva de los textos (musicales) sin crear una oposición de ésta con sus dimensiones reflexivas? ¿Cómo puede pensarse una "ética de lo afectivo"? Además de estas preguntas, este estudio propone abordar elementos nuevos e inusuales sobre el controvertido fenómeno de los narcocorridos, especialmente aquellos que se refieren al éxito cultural del grupo Los Tigres del Norte.

Among the cultural agents of what can be called the global corrido phenomenon, Los Tigres del Norte have probably been the most influential group. The pervasiveness of their music that originated in Sinaloa accounts for the breakthrough beginning in the early seventies, that has made corridos on both sides of the hemispheric border a transnational style. Residing since the 1970s in San Jose, California, they have been the first regional Mexican group that has become internationalized while exclusively singing in Spanish. Secondly, the work of Los Tigres has enforced a double dimension of collective experiences that have become so stunningly characteristic, expressed in the simultaneous presence and interaction of migration corridos and narcocorridos. Thirdly, rather than merely producing a variety of stories on border crossing and drug trafficking which rely on the commercial effectiveness of a typical pattern, these corridos emerge out of and feed back into a wide repertoire of Mexican and border culture that has not lost a single bit of its dramatic intensity. Sam Quiñones formulated in 1997 that Los Tigres del Norte personify the “unarticulated and unpublicized” dimensions of the Mexican immigrants –they became “their chroniclers, spokesmen for a community that remains largely voiceless in Mexico and the U.S.” (Quiñones 2001: 29).

Los Tigres’ repertoire is dedicated to the heterogeneous, often unarticulated narrative that marks the post-national, massively deterritorialized drama of Mexican working-class life. Migrants and immigrants are experiencing drug trafficking daily as they cross the border. However, and contrary to the statements of conservative and Catholic spokesmen on both sides of the border, the stories told and embodied by Los Tigres have never been showing the face of an affirmative ‘culture of drug trafficking’, or a celebration of violence (Quiñones 2001: 7). Speaking more specifically, although myriad new corrido ‘bandas’ have emerged during the last decades, joining in the rise of what has become a global mass communicative phenomenon, Los Tigres have maintained a special sympathetic tone that has been seldom achieved by other groups. Paradoxically, having kicked off a massive commercial craze, Los Tigres have continued to cultivate a style more distinct and diversified than the one of the great majority of their followers. This has not just been a stylistic issue but rather the way of working through immanent social knowledges as well as pressing conflicts and violent encounters.

A song that appears, at first glance, straightforward and unidimensional can help raise complex questions. Elijah Wald, in his remarkable study Narcocorrido, remembers Contrabando y Traición in the following way: “In 1972, a new record swept Mexico. It featured a bunch of unknown teenagers called Los Tigres del Norte, who sang with the raw, country twang of the western Sierra Madre, backed by a stripped-down, accordion-powered polka beat, and it had a lyric unlike anything else on the radio” (Wald 2001: 12). The extraordinary rise of a group whose special value seemed to be, at first glance, nothing more than the complete typicality of Mexican norteño (country) music sprinkled with timely adventure stories, continues to puzzle the critics. The ethnomusicologist Helena Simonett, who characterizes Los Tigres as one of the “most influential binational bands,” writes, “Although the group succeeded in capturing with its bitter-sweet immigration songs the imagination of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans living in ‘el otro Mexico’ [the North], it initiated its career with Contrabando y Traición (Contraband and Betrayal), a corrido about drug smuggling”. The author then expresses a prejudice explaining, on the one hand, that Los Tigres’ appeal is due to their “migration-related corridos and border-crossing themes,” which are seen as expressions of “widely shared experiences.” On the other hand, Simonett maintains, “the production of its songs is based not on emotional and sentimental consideration but rather on unrelenting calculated commercial interests” (Simonett 2001: 228). And narcocorridos would have to be taken as responsible for the commercial side. This distinction between narcocorridos and migration corridos seeks to carve out a ‘secure’ terrain through which the critic can still walk without risk. However, the trajectory of Los Tigres tells a story that is as controversial as it is anachronistic. Market distribution does not suspend the articulation of “widely shared experiences;” there is even a component to the history of narcoballadry’s distribution that relies on “rebel elements” in the way corrido composers and performers have confronted, during the seventies and eighties, the stratifying power of music and media industries.[1] Communications, in one form or another, is unlikely to be avoided. Yet it can be contaminated and used for different purposes.

Those “shared experiences” can become notorious to the degree that the question of their ethical stance, albeit uncomfortable, has to be carried further and explored within uncommon aesthetic settings. “Shared experiences” start building up at the point where affect meets figuration in particular ways. Asking how to make distinctions at the level of affection can help to reinforce the diegetic interest in the musical style of corridos. But again, can the affective side of music be accessed in figural ways? Let me anticipate my hypothesis. Los Tigres del Norte have turned narcocorridos into a subtle yet startling apparition, allowing an ‘affective consciousness’ to take shape. The group’s music has thus enabled, among a widely heterogeneous public, the possibility of an awareness of violent conflicts whose consequences are predominantly ‘tragic’ but are not allowed to bear a legitimatory tragic code. Looking at corridos in a Spinozist manner, an ‘affective awareness’ should be addressed, under certain circumstances, as a reflective one.

When Contrabando y Traición was first released in Mexico in 1972, something started emerging that opened a passageway between atavism and an aesthetically and ethically active stance. Let me evoke the last stanza:

Emilio le dice a Camelia, hoy te das por despedida,
Con la parte que te toca ya puedes rehacer tu vida.
Yo me voy pa’ San Francisco, con la dueña de mi vida.
Sonaron siete balazos, Camelia a Emilio mataba …

A melodramatic pattern is used but inverted. Melodrama is first alluded to at the level of the plot structure, but soon suspended as an aesthetic resolution by Camelia’s violent act, directed at attaining self-justice or revenge –the shooting of her business partner Emilio. Due to the lack of any signs that could indicate the more specific, ‘subjective’ motives of the woman, the corrido makes an aleatory point. The aleatory character of the narratives that relies on ‘immanent knowledge,’ in order not to be meaningless, ‘refers back’ to what can be called diegetic common sense: women’s transgression of modern melodramatic terrain and moving into different plottings of gendered subjectivity. Although this feature has not come to be a dominant marker of gendered storytelling within the global ballad phenomenon, it has notably influenced the corridos’ entering a new, post-national wave of cultural imagination.

If “narrational knowledge” can be understood, according to Hayden White (White 1999: 22), as a culturally influential forcefield, the undermining of the melodramatic mode gives way to a different dispositif. However, the question is not only paratactical balladry’s opposing melodrama, but also the ability of the corrido to resonate in accord with an equally powerful social fantasy. The capacity of post-traditional corridos successfully to compete with modern melodrama requires reexamining the affective side. Melodrama, the way it is understood as a matrix through which affective meaning is drawn from social experience, can be discerned as an intrinsic part of subaltern borderland imagination. Gloria Anzaldua provides a well-known case. In Borderlands /La Frontera (1987), the naming and heightened expression of suffering serves as empowering strategy: “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture” (Anzaldua 1999: 25). In Anzaldua’s poetic and essayistic account, Mexico is symbolized as female agency, invaded, occupied, and forced “to give up almost half of her nation” (29) in the U.S.-Mexican War. Since then, border crossing has become the crucial figure of her ongoing suffering –a melodramatic odyssey. The dismembered Mexican territory has become a melodramatic scenario, and the female narrator turns into an agency whose suffering body lends itself to serve as a bridge between two conflicting worlds:

Yo soy un puente tendido
Del mundo gabacho al del mojado
Lo pasado me estira pa’ ‘tras
Y lo presente pa’ ‘delante,
Que la Virgen de Guadalupe me cuide
Ay ay ay, soy mexicana de este lado. (25)

In this case, intercultural suffering and endurance are the symbols through which border crossing is named and imagined as an empowering experience. Melodrama expresses protest as it heightens suffering and body metaphors. Ethically speaking, melodrama claims legitimacy for a non-sovereign, non-universal yet collectively and sexually identified agency called “border culture” (25) related to the ‘subjects’ of massive immigration, and especially the most desperate and victimized ones – “las mujeres indocumentadas” (see 34). A dramatic, “expressionist aesthetics of the body” is directed against violence and exclusion in their totalizing instrumental logics. Within the critical realms of Chicano and Latino culture, melodramatic depictions have been developing an affective consciousness that seeks identification with the desperate subjects of border existence rather than obeying the paradigmatic types of travel narratives. Now, corridos foreground a different affective strategy, one that opposes melodramatic aesthetics. One of the reasons for this affective difference pervading imagination may consist in the predominance of migration experiences in contrast to immigration and transculturation. However, contemporary corridos that deal with violence attack ‘good taste,’ a world of ‘universal’ rules, and the values of the neoliberalist state in their own way. This leads us back to the ‘sympathetic style’ of Los Tigres. The differences from, and the closeness to, Anzaldua’s narrative politics helps looking into paradoxes of subaltern affectivity.

In the cases of Contrabando y Traición, La Banda del Carro Rojo, Una Camioneta Gris, and numerous other narcocorrido songs, the music is characterized by close harmony, a short-driving rhythm guided by the monotonous strumming of a “low-tuned twelve-string guitar known as bajo sexto,” and “sprightly accordion breaks” (Wald 2001: 14). The minimalism of these features in dozens of songs is literally memorable – the sober and straightforwardly iterative ballad groove seems unchanging. The de-melodramatizing gesture becomes rigorous, something that bears a conscious aesthetic note since the plot structures of corridos refer to adventures and crime stories. Despite the overtly dramatic matter, the narrative outline is anticlimactic and laconic. Referring back to an exhorbitant balance of harrassment, violence and also death that accompanies the contemporaneity of border crossings, these ballads produce the impression of stoically taking stock of this reality. Remembering the first stanza of Contrabando:

1 Salieron de San Isidro,
2 procedentes de Tijuana,
3 traían las llantas del carro
4 repletas de hierba mala,
5 eran Emilio Varela y Camelia la Tejana.

The singer maintains his voice at low pitch. He seems to show no emotion, so that his inclination seems at best “notarial.” The singing is as short-driving as the rhythm, while the rhyming bears two basic elements: first, a ‘cuarteta’ through which the action unfolds, and a subsequent fifth line which provides a resuming statement. Through the statement, a slight rhythmic change is conveyed. In vocal terms, the fifth line comprises two isolated extensions: the words “Varela” and “Tejana” are sung in a chant-like sort of extension –“Vareeeelaaaa” and “Tejaaaana”—, so that the broken yet monotonous mode of singing is charged, after every four lines by a counterpoint. The four ‘cuarteta’ lines, together with the fifth line, conform a stanza. The vocalizing extension of each name, “… Varela” and “… Tejana,” is followed by an accordion break, respectively. The accordion thus adds up to the counterpoint that is exercised in the fifth line, producing two measured acoustic up-beats in each stanza. The result is a sober, somewhat monotonous insistence in the resounding presence of a story, similar to the one aroused by shamanic songs, but ominously intercalated by the described elements of vocal isolation, together with the cheerful accordion breaks in every fifth line. Even during the vocal counterpoint that is repeated twice in every fifth line, the singer does not raise his voice. The instantaneous reaching beyond ‘monotony’ introduces a difference into the performance of the ballad: it resembles an anamorphotic change. The challenge is to find out what this anamorphotic change, a musical counterpoint, –continously setting in after the first four lines of a stanza– may be all about.

It is this curious, accordion-powered strain on the vocal flow, performed in each stanza in the fifth line, which suspends the aesthetic possibility of melodrama: if melodramatic expression relies on excitement and overstatement, then hyperbole meets its ‘affective other’ in the non-hyperbolic musical counterpoint. Does this change in the musical flow, which would obviously remain secluded at the level of the text, reveal an affective movement at all? It does, and there would be no question about this for those who listen to the music, but how can it be understood? We have to continue examining the possibilities of “musical diegesis.” On the one hand, an obsessively reiterative rhythmic mode in corridos reduces extreme affectedness of the characters to the level of non-tragic sensation. Non-existent are the aesthetic values of noble sacrifice, pathetic suffering, and auratic agony associated with certain distinctly male connotations of the tragic spirit. Corridos rely aesthetically, not on the dialectical opposition constitutive of the sublime spirit (the opposition between a violent destiny, and a universal claim of subjectivity). Instead, corridos’s is a non-dialectical, earth-bound, discomforting insistence. But they also construct a space of experience and desire different from that in which melodramatic heightening takes place. Both categories, the tragic sublime but also the melodramatic, find a counterpart in corridos’ devious stoicism – extreme in the sense of being located beyond the scope of dialectical thinking as well as hyperbolic expression.

I will argue that Los Tigres’ narcoballads make resonate a sense of time which is an immanent part of their affective language, which can be even understood as a particular mode of ‘caring about time’. Let me briefly alude to Heidegger’s notion of care, which can be read as an investment of philosophical thinking in the problem of affectivity regarding the constitution of human life. It is probably fair to say that, for Heidegger, “care” (Sorge), as the center of an ‘ecstatic’ temporality charges temporal experience with affect; yet, the claim for an ‘authentic’ ‘being-towards-death’ produces the ontological abstractness that immobilizes affect in the unhistorical realm. One might perhaps wish to do away with Heidegger altogether. However, a philosophical-hermeneutic approach to an affective temporality could be rescued under certain premises. The notion of ‘care’, introducing a mode of ‘caring about time’, expresses a reckoning with time in life, which is thought of as an interplay of ‘intentionalities’. Ricoeur calls these intentionalities regarding past, present, and future, “memory, attention, and expectation” (Ricoeur 1991: 100-101), with ‘care’ signalling an ontological connectedness beyond or beneath any rational attempt at tracing dialectical boundaries between present, past and future.

For Heidegger, “care” was not a metaphysical but an ontic concept whose affective basis derives specifically from an attitude towards death. A finite, and thus unified structure of time arises from the recognition of the ‘centrality’ of death, or of being-towards-death. But does not the concept of ‘care’ suggest an affective interplay of ‘intentionalities’ whose limitation to a general ontological condition is not at all a convincing argument today? In other words: can this concept of time experience which once mobilized a new ontology against modernity’s metaphysical spell, be imputed to ballads? The issue that is at stake in this unusual case of comparison, which helps us to further illustrate the differences regarding tragic as well as melodramatic modes, is the ethical status of death at the point at which death is reckoned with as aesthetic-affective experience. Corridos, in their aesthetic posture as it has been shaped by Los Tigres, ‘take care’ of disturbing the “wholeness” of time experience “towards death.” This holds for both narcocorridos and migration corridos. They disturb the ontological ‘normality’ (authenticity) of the finite human life. Suggested is thus a different dimension of affective time shaped by what we will call –when referring to the music– an anamorphotic presence of death.

Contemporary corridos, as a ‘notarial’ form of narration and embodiment have absorbed experiences of border crossing to an extent and in a way, that the Heideggerian ‘being-towards-death’ appears thrown into ‘being-with-death’, referring to neoliberal globalization’s destructive effects on ontological ‘normality’. Regarding the sentiment of ‘fear’, Heidegger has spoken of “fear as a distinctive conditioning of being”[2]. Now, if something like ontological fear as part of our temporal being in the world exists, then –I would argue– narcocorridos do not draw on this affective disposition but intercept it by virtue of a different affective ‘statement’. What is important is rather death’s becoming immanent, not by ontological fear but by the power of historical and geopolitical realities over the conjunctions of violence and every-day life. A social and cultural ‘immanence’ of death, as it is articulated by narcocorridos and migration corridos, is not proportionate to a sentiment of fear that one might expect to result from the huge amount of instrumental violence that is carried out daily at the hemispheric border. Rather than capitalizing on fear, as is often the case of hegemonic media, contemporary corridos foreground a sentiment of ‘affectedness’ which reaches far beyond the ‘referential violence’ as it emerges from the depiction of the ocurrences of low-level drug traffic.

Admittedly, the popularity of Los Tigres poses tricky questions. At the same time, their strategy is clearly not celebratory neither of the narcotics business nor of particular criminal behaviors[3]. Besides the bold peripeties of contraband, betrayal, atavistic survival and loss of life, what have corrido heroes to say when they enter public imagination? The majority of corridos’ listeners obviously does not share the heroes’ immediate adventures and destinies. Paraphrasing a formulation of Hannah Arendt, they seem to ‘look over the protagonists’ shoulders from a close, yet aesthetically mediated, distance. When they do this, what is it that they perceive and “care” for? Can we think of an active awareness that works against ontological fear as well as mediatized ‘low-level fear’? (Massumi 1993: 24). Let me insist that implicit in corridos such as Contrabando y Traición is an affective sensation of time – future, past and present being fused into a single painful sentiment: a sentiment in which a relapse of ‘expectation’ (regarding the furture) into a narrative-performative ‘attention’ (re the present) takes place. This attention can be characterized as an awareness in which not only a memory of death is present, but in which a memory of death is actualized as such. It is a kind of memento mori that can translate into an ethically charged perception.

Given that corrido narratives are imbued with straightforward, laconic features (a diegetic ‘downsizing’ of the dramatic content), one might not be able to decipher the aforementioned emotive potential without considering the ‘surface’ of the sound. It is here that, together with the elements of the verbal matter, a particular kind of figurative element comes into play. We will call it “prolepsis,” borrowing and rephrasing a term used by Hayden White when addressing issues of musical-rhetorical analyses” By “prolepsis” (anticipation) we mean a figurative effect by which a sense of narrative ‘attention’ is aroused, an attention that is directed, as has been described before, toward the fantasmatic presence of death. If music is capable of ‘narrating’ through prolepsis and other figures, and not only by making verbal sense, says White, then music “utilizing the figure of prolepsis can be said to project a possible story” (White 1999: 152). Interpreting the corridos of Los Tigres, we are using the term “prolepsis” in a somewhat different manner. Stories are told through the lyrics of the songs, and the music’s inducing a proleptic moment would not necessarily require it to project a story of its own. The proleptic effect is rather an intermedial effect, one that makes affective sense in relation to the verbal matter.

Regarding Contrabando y Traición, we have mentioned a counterpoint regularly appearing at the end of each stanza. This anamorphotic strain on the otherwise unchanging relationship of rhythm and voice generates, together with the rhythmic intensity and narrative laconism of the performed song, an anticipatory effect (prolepsis). In fact, the way the singer’s voice indulges, from the very beginning, in a vocal anachronism anticipates the counterpoint created in every fifth line. The lamenting voice already carries a double emphasis that is placed, on the one hand, on monotonous and laconic performance, and on the other, on a sensation of foreboding (which, in certain songs, can acquire an ironic overtone). This tension between what we could call an archetypical ballad ‘groove’ and a ‘diegetically active’ counterpoint is what marks the intermedial character of the song. It is that which makes narcoballads so ominously ‘timely.’ Prolepsis in corridos signals a foreboding of death, however, not of the specific death that occurs to the hero of the story but of death as an immanent experience that resonates through corridos’ peculiar aesthetics. If a non-verbal repertoire is activated by corridos, it might indeed connect with an underlying narrative consciousness on the part of the public that consumes corridos –a public whose main characteristic is not that it partakes in drug trafficking, but that it shares a sense of the conditions of drastically increased violence. We are dealing with a participatory awareness of death as a form of resistance to violence from a point of view of multiple affectedness. Herein lies the paradox of Los Tigres’ music: it relates how violent death takes place on a daily basis in the scenarios of cross-border drug traffic (as well as undocumented migration), but it enacts a language whose affective assumption is the reassurance of life. The precarious reflexivity of global ballads pays ethical attention to border crossers who, with their very bodies and fantasies, have made the ‘non-citizen’ of neoliberal globalization a permanent transnational figure. And there may be a point at which these corridos can teach us more about life and violence today than those moral codes or legalists claims whose pretention is to hypocritically hold violence at bay.


  • [1] See Edberg (2004: 95).
  • [2] In German: “Angst als eine das Dasein auszeichnende Befindlichkeit.” (Heidegger 1993: 184).
  • [3] See Valenzuela (2002).


  • Anzaldua, Gloria. 1999. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. Paul Ricoeur, Paul. 1991. “The Human Experience of Time and Narrative”. In: A Ricoeur Reader, ed. Mario Valdés. Toronto-Buffalo: The University of Toronto Press.
  • Edberg, Marc. 2004. El Narcotraficante, Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1993. Sein und Zeit, Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.
  • Massumi, Brian (ed.). 1993. The Politics of Everyday Fear. Minneapolis-London: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Quiñones, Sam. 2001. True Tales from Another Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Simonett, Helena. 2001. Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Valenzuela, José Manuel. 2002. Jefe de Jefes. Corridos y Narcocultura en México. Barcelona: Plaza&Janés.
  • Wald, Elijah. 2001. Narcocorrido. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • White, Hayden. 1999. Figural Realism. Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore&London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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