Hispanic Magazine
July/August 2004

Los Tigres del Norte: Music With a Social Conscience

By Leila Cobo

It’s hard to say when Los Tigres del Norte became more famous than the characters they sing about in their fabled corridos.

What’s certain is that in a marketplace overflowing with norteño bands, Los Tigres del Norte are the undisputed kings of the genre; a group that’s recorded more than 30 albums and sold over 32 million copies in an astounding 35-year career that’s spawned numerous sound-alikes and look-alikes, down to every single black hat.

But despite their Grammy award, multiple nominations and seven gold RIAA albums (for sales of over half a million copies each in the U.S. alone), Los Tigres del Norte aren’t just another popular musical act.

Instead, they’re widely viewed as the voice of the people, capable of making you dance to a cumbia one instant, weep the next with a woeful immigrant’s tale or grip the edge of your seat as bullets whiz by heads of drug dealers and heroes immortalized in their songs.

And if everything they sing about rings true, that’s because it is.

“Since the beginning of our career, we’ve sung what people live, what’s currently happening,” says bass player Hernán Hernández. “And the audience themselves gives us the stories. They’re the ones who say, ‘Sing about this. No one else dares to do so.’ ”

Nowhere is this direct connection to reality more apparent than in Los Tigres’ latest album, Pacto de Sangre (Fonovisa Records).

Released last spring, it spent several weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Latin Albums chart, and includes several tracks that address contemporary and explosive circumstances. One is “José Pérez León,” a hauntingly arranged corrido about a young man who suffocates inside a truck as he attempts to cross from Mexico into the U.S. The song directly references the October 2003 case in which 16 immigrants suffocated inside a truck in Texas.

It contrasts with the call to arms attitude of “Las Mujeres de Juárez,” which pointedly criticizes government and police inaction surrounding the unsolved brutal murders of over 300 women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez since 1993. “We want the families of these women to be heard,” says Hernández. “Maybe a song can’t resolve a problem, but you can at least let people know about what’s not being done. More people can hear a song than will read a newspaper.” In their long and storied career, Los Tigres have quite often come up against the establishment and some of their most critical songs have been banned altogether from Mexican radio.

“They definitely are the most respected norteño group,” says Mexico City music critic and radio commentator Teresa Aguilera. “Although corridos date back to the Mexican Revolution [in the early 20th century] they usually dealt with historic figures. Los Tigres, however, gave them a twist, daring to speak on subjects that other people wouldn’t touch.”

The daring comes in part from their own experience. The group, originally made up of brothers Jorge, Raúl (since then replaced by younger brother Luis) , Hernán and Eduardo—along with cousin Oscar Lara, came to the U.S. in 1968. Jorge, the eldest, was only 14 but intent on getting gigs in California. The pay there was better, and the boys wanted to send money back home to their father, who had suffered a farming accident that left him permanently disabled.

Impressed by the boys’ pluck, an immigration official dubbed them “The Little Tigers,” and the name stuck. Los Tigres made their rounds and quickly signed a record deal with independent label Discos Fama. Their big break came in 1972 when they recorded “Contrabando y Traición,” the tale of a fearless drug dealer called Camelia La Tejana. Listeners fell in love with the gun-wielding Camelia, and Los Tigres were suddenly famous.

But as it turned out, Los Tigres would soon find out that they weren’t just cut out for entertaining. In 1978, the group recorded “Vivan Los Mojados” (Long Live the Wetbacks), their first song dealing with the plight of illegal immigrants. The song, says Hernández, was a turning point.

“We never imagined people would look at us as spokespersons; as the people who would say what no one dared to say,” he recalls. “But suddenly, we were going to interviews, and people were writing that we were ‘the voice of the silent people.’ ”

Being political, says Hernández, isn’t Los Tigres’ aim, nor has it ever been. The group’s choice of songs, he stresses, are driven by their fan base, which is largely made up of immigrants, like Los Tigres themselves. Los Tigres don’t write their own songs. They commission many of them, based on what people request.

Often, Los Tigres have gone as far as recording tracks that fans hand over to them in cassettes during shows.
“I think they’re the most popular Spanish-language group in the U.S.,” says Chon Noriega, director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California in Los Angeles. “And I think what makes Los Tigres so effective is, often what they’re doing is just describing the way things are. A lot of their songs are about the travails of the working class. You can take it as political or as an accurate description of the way the majority of the people in this country experience their day-to-day lives.”

But Los Tigres’ influence goes well beyond the U.S. and Mexico.

Most surprising has been the group’s newfound popularity in Spain. There, best-selling author Arturo Pérez Reverte wrote his hit novel, La Reina del Sur (See Hispanic June 2004 book review), based on the character of Camelia La Tejana.

A year later, Los Tigres returned the favor, titling their 2003 album La Reina del Sur and touring Spain for the first time. Now, a film is in the works.

“I like the stories,” says Los Tigres’ lead singer Jorge Hernández, talking about his penchant for corridos. “Whether the protagonist is good or bad, it speaks the truth. It has character, strength.”

Los Tigres are largely credited with popularizing the narcocorridos, those tales of drug, blood and money that have made headline news for decades now. In Los Tigres’ hands, the genre found new respect.

So much so, that Los Tigres may be the one of the few Mexican bands around that’s been honored by rock bands and scholars alike.

In 2001, Latin rock’s top bands got together for “El Más Grande Homenaje a Los Tigres del Norte,” a collection of rock renditions of Tigres songs, and the following year, Los Tigres’ history and paraphernalia were part of “Corrido Sin Fronteras,” an itinerant exhibit put together by the Smithsonian Institute.

Beyond mere words, however, Los Tigres routinely put their money where their mouth is. Most impressive of all has been their $500,000 contribution to create the Los Tigres del Norte Foundation for the preservation and support of traditional Mexican and Mexican American music forms.
The actions, and the songs, says Hernán Hernández, are an integral part of Los Tigres del Norte. For all their fame and fortune, they’re still a group of brothers who crossed the border in search of a better life.

“It’s part of what we can give because we know someone will listen,” he says. “Maybe we sing what the people want to tell their government,” says Hernández. “We know the sacrifice it entails to come here. And I do believe that more artists, more bands, should pay a little bit more attention to these issues. Because there are many things that don’t get done or resolved because those of us who can make a difference don’t do anything.”