His name was Chalino Sánchez. His singing career lasted just four years and he was killed when he was only thirty-one, yet he’s one of the most influential musical figures to emerge from Los Angeles or from Mexican music in decades. “When we were small, we always wanted to fit in, so we’d listen to rap. The other kids were all listening to rap, so I guess we felt that if we listened to Spanish music, we’d be beaners or something,” says Rodriguez. “But after Chalino died, everybody started listening to corridos. People want to feel more Mexican.”Six years after his death, Chalino Sanchez is a legend, an authentic folk hero. L.A.’s Mexican music scene and Mexican youth style were one way before Chalino Sanchez. They were another after him. After Chalino, guys whose second language was an English-accented Spanish could pump tuba- and accordion-based polkas out their car stereos at maximum volume and pretty girls would think they were cool.
Chalino renewed the Mexican corrido. In the Mexican badlands, where the barrel of a gun makes the law, for generations dating back to the mid-1800s the corrido recounted the worst, best, and bloodiest exploits of men. Corridos were the newspaper for an illiterate people in the days before telephones and television. Corrido heroes were revolutionaries and bandits—people who had done something worth singing about.
In Chalino’s hands, the corrido came to reflect the modern world. The corrido became the narcocorrido, the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap, with themes of drugs, violence, and police perfidy and an abiding admiration for the exploits of drug smugglers. And because of Chalino, Los Angeles, an American city, is now a center of redefinition for the most Mexican of musical idioms. Chalino democratized the genre, made it modern and American, and opened it to the masses. In Los Angeles almost anyone can have a corrido about him written, recorded, and sold. “In L.A., without exaggeration, 50 percent of the [Mexican] music that’s recorded here is based on the legacy he left,” says Angel Parra, the engineer who recorded most of his albums.
It boiled down to this, in the words of Abel Orozco, owner of El Parral nightclub in South Gate: “Chalino changed everything.”
Ever since I saw his interview with Ray Suarez on the NewsHour, I thought Quinones might turn into my new favorite writer on Mexican–American relations. My wife is reading his latest book, and I’m reading his earlier one, both of us enthusiastically.