The corrido and the canción are two important types of vocal music that occupy a special place in the musical lives of Mexican Americans, especially those living in the southwestern states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The corrido is a ballad that traditionally features the call of the corridista to his audience and mention of the date, place, and cast of characters. The canción is a song with more lyrical qualities, usually on the topic of love. The corrido and the canción-corrido hybrid emerged as powerful cultural expressions in the Hispanic Southwest during the twentieth century, especially the years leading up to World War II. Through their lyrics, the corrido and canción-corrido address more directly than any of the ensemble styles (salsa, conjunto, orquesta) the social and ideological issues faced by Latinos in their often difficult adjustment to American life.
Between 1848 and 1860, the modern corrido emerged out of an ancient musico-literary form that had been introduced from Spain in the sixteenth century — the romance. And it was evidently in Texas, and not in Michoacán, Durango, or Jalisco, as once thought, that the first corridos were composed. The climate of conflict that grew out of the Anglo invasion and subsequent annexation of what became the American Southwest at the end of the Mexican-American War (1848) was the ideal setting for the birth of an expressive culture that would key in on this conflict. The folklorist Américo Paredes has argued that the Mexican corrido actually originated along the Texas-Mexico border, since the earliest corrido collected in complete form comes from Texas — "El corrido de Kiansis" ("The Ballad of Kansas"; 1860s). In the early corridos, the conflict is generally placed in terms of professional rivalries, without expression of violence.
Later, "El corrido de Juan Cortina" ushered in what has been called the hero corrido. This type of corrido invariably features a larger-than-life Mexican hero who single-handedly defies a cowardly, smaller-than-life gang of Anglo-American lawmen. Hero corridos were written until the 1920s in Texas and elsewhere, including such classics as "Joaquín Murrieta and Jacinto Treviño," but perhaps the most memorable is "El corrido de Gregorio Cortez", the story of a folk hero who fled for his life after killing an Anglo-American sheriff in self-defense.
Historically, the corrido and canción are two distinct genres or musical forms. However, in the Hispanic Southwest they have at times experienced considerable overlap, especially since the 1920s. Of course, this convergence is never complete; some corridos retain enough of their "classical" narrative features to stamp them unmistakably as corridos, while most canciones remain purely lyrical expressions of love.
Beginning in the 1920s a number of canción-corrido hybrids made their appearance when the first of the famous Mexican American troubadors — singers of the canción and corrido — attained widespread popularity throughout the Southwest. Many of these troubadors were composers of the canción-corrido as well. From the 1920s through the 1940s they produced a steady flow of canciónes-corridos that depicted life in the Hispanic Southwest with great feeling and accuracy, describing in vivid detail both the sadness and the humor of life in the borderlands. Especially moving are those compositions that address the long-standing conflict between Anglos and Mexicans and the oppression endured by the latter.
The troubadors and others left a rich legacy of canciónes-corridos, music so poetically charged, its cultural power can be felt to this day. For example, "El deportado" ("The Deported One"), a canción-corrido recorded by Los Hermanos Bañuelos in the early 1930s, depicts the bitter experiences of a Mexican immigrant in his encounter with American officials. Another canción-corrido hybrid, "El lavaplatos" ("The Dishwasher"), also recorded by Los Hermanos Bañuelos (reissued by Archoolie/Folklyric, 1975), recounts with more humor the adventures of a poor Mexican who immigrates to the United States in search of the glamorous life of Hollywood, only to find himself drifting from one backbreaking job to another.
Around the time of World War II a new type of corrido emerged — the victim corrido. The victim corrido celebrates a new kind of protagonist, one who is usually portrayed as a helpless victim of Anglo oppression. This shift in the corrido coincides with fundamental changes in Mexican American society. The newer corridos appeared at the precise moment when Mexican American culture was moving from rural to urban, from folk to modern, and from worker status to a more diversified social organization.
After World War II, Mexican Americans began to rethink their relationship with the dominant Anglo majority and to demand more economic and political equality (as well as acceptance). The Anglos, however, were not yet ready to accept the Mexicans as equals, and friction between the groups persisted. In this atmosphere of heightened political awareness, the victim corrido played an important role. According to Manuel Peña in Aztlán Journal of Chicano Studies (1982), "a corrido is more likely to elicit an active response, i.e., outrage and group mobilization, if it depicts a helpless victim rather than a potent, larger-than-life hero."
"Discriminación a un mártir" ("Discrimination Against a Martyr"), one of the first and an outstanding example of the victim corrido, tells the story of a Texas funeral home that refused funeral service for a Mexican American soldier killed in action in World War II. A later victim corrido, "El 29 de Agosto" ("August 29"), written by the legendary folksinger-composer Lalo Guerrero, tells the true story of a police shooting of a Mexican American journalist during a protest rally in the 1970s.
Both the hero and victim corridos have a long and auspicious history in the Mexican American oral music tradition. The former was prevalent at a time when conflict between Anglo and Mexican was rampant and undisguised. The hero corrido peaked in the early twentieth century, when Mexican Americans reached the lowest point in their history of oppression in the United States. As they gained political and economic power and a new sense of cultural pride during and after World War II, the victim corrido appeared and gained ascendancy. Both types of corrido have survived into the late twentieth century, but their presence in the musical repertory of Mexican Americans today is sporadic. They tend to surface only during moments of intercultural crisis — usually when the still-dominant Anglos commit a blatant act of discrimination.
Source: Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997; Multicultural America, Gale, 1999.