How Corridos Keep Mexican History Alive and Singing

Dusty ballads called corridos sing tales of love, loss and rebellion. One young gun, Arnulfo, faces a trigger-happy sheriff in a wheat field showdown. Bullets fly, a dove whispers farewell, and life's beauty blooms amidst the dust.

How Corridos Keep Mexican History Alive and Singing
From bullets to boleros: Music becomes a battle cry for national pride during the Mexican Revolution.

Imagine a Mexico teetering on the precipice of change. The year is 1910, and the iron grip of President Porfirio Díaz is finally starting to slip. Cracks of discontent snake through the country, fueled by both political unrest (Francisco I. Madero's audacious challenge) and intellectual rebellion (the Ateneo de la Juventud questioning imported ideologies like positivism). It's a heady cocktail, and Mexico, like a tipsy señorita at a fiesta, is about to stumble into a glorious, messy reinvention.

Out with the old, in with the muy mexicano: Madero's revolution may not have united all the revolutionaries – enter the likes of Zapata and Villa, each with their own bandoleers and dreams for the country. But amidst the bullets and ballads, a powerful undercurrent emerges: a search for a uniquely Mexican identity. This wasn't just about throwing off foreign shackles; it was about digging deep into the country's soul, unearthing its vibrant colors, its raw emotions, its gritos del corazón.

And where do you find the soul of a nation in upheaval? In its art, of course! Music, once a “popular” diversion, became a battlefield of national pride. Composers like Manuel M. Ponce and Rubén Campos wove Mexican melodies into their symphonies, their fingers moving across the ivories to the rhythm of a revolution. Architecture shed its European petticoats and donned sombreros, buildings sprouting with bold arches and sun-drenched patios. Paintings erupted in a riot of colors – think Frida Kahlo's unflinching self-portraits, Diego Rivera's monumental murals pulsating with history, and José Clemente Orozco's canvases bleeding with social commentary. Even the macabre prints of Guadalupe Posada, with their grinning calaveras, became emblems of a Mexico confronting its mortality and laughing in the face of it.

The Mexican Revolution wasn't just about changing governments; it was about changing souls. It was a nation casting off a borrowed cloak and stepping out into the world in all its vibrant, flawed, beautiful glory. And the world took notice. The Mexican Renaissance, as it came to be called, sent shockwaves through the art scene, influencing artists from Picasso to Pollock.

Dust-swept Mexican town, wheat fields, lone figure with guitar, sunset, corrido ballad.
“Where whispers morph into myths and truth gleams like mirages,” the corrido sings of heroes and loss in Mexico's dusty plains.

A Corrido's Tale of Love, Loss, and Gunpowder

Corridos are sung stories, ballads that tell the story of an important event in a specific place. A corrido interprets, celebrates and dignifies events that are known to the audience; its theme can be love or a commentary on the political situation. The lyrics may refer to some heroic figure, for example a general, a president or a bandit, or they may tell the story of an ordinary person who is known locally. The events recounted in a corrido have a special value for the community. The corrido is characterized by the following traditional poetic form:

a. Verses in quatrains (with four lines).
b. An A, B, C, B rhyme pattern.
c. Some have a four-line refrain.

The corrido story also follows a traditional format:

  1. Formal opening: a call from the corridista (singer or composer of corridos) to the audience.
  2. Introduction: description of the setting: place where it takes place, date and name of the main character of the corrido (note stanzas 1 and 2 of the corrido provided below).
  3. Action: The protagonist's arguments are reported by the narrator in a “face-to-face” conversation (stanzas 2, 4 and 6). An observer tells the story in the third person.
  4. The message (stanza 9).
  5. The protagonist's farewell (stanza 10).
  6. Despedida: The corridista's farewell (stanza 11).

The corridos change from one region to another and most do not use all the elements. In the frontier, for example, the opening is not as important as the despedida, and corridistas often skip the introduction and immediately move on to the action. Common phrases such as Ya con esta me despedido (With this I say goodbye) and Vuela, vuela palomita (Fly, fly little dove) are obvious signs of the farewell (stanzas 10 and 11).

The Corrido of Arnulfo

De Allende said goodbye
at the age of 21,
he left fond memories
to the people and to the rural people.
Arnulfo was sitting (A)
and at that moment a rural man passed by; (B)
He says to him: "Hey, what do you see in me?" (C)
"The view is natural." (B)
The farmer, very angry
(B) hit him in the face,
with his pistol in his hand
with the threat of death.
Arnulfo stood up,
calling his attention to him:
"Hey, friend, don't go,
my answer is missing."
They shot at each other,
they grabbed each other face to face,
Arnulfo with his pistol
Arnulfo fired three shots at the lieutenant.
But alas! says the lieutenant,
he was almost in agony:
"Hey, friend, don't go away,
finish killing me".
Arnulfo went back
to shoot him in the forehead,
but when he turned around
the lieutenant hit him there.
Arnulfo, badly wounded
he was hanging in a cart,
When he arrived at the hospital
Arnulfo was in agony.
How beautiful are the men
who kill each other breast to breast,
each one with his gun,
defending their rights!
Fly, fly little dove,
stand in those wheat fields,
go tell Lupita
that Arnulfo Gonzalez died,
he took a little head
of the rural lieutenant.
With this I say goodbye,
peaceful and prosecutors,
here ends the corrido
of the lieutenant and Gonzalez.
A watercolor sunset over a vast landscape, evoking the nostalgia for a bygone era.
Nostalgia for a bygone era, where retired and active railroad workers gather with guitars to compose heartfelt corridos.

Nostalgia, Rebels, and Corridos in Mexico's Railroad Chronicles

Carlos Eduardo Benítez Suárez highlights the presence of railroads in Mexico not only as a means of transportation and economic development, but also as an inspiration. The elements stand out:

The elements that integrate the railway technology, machines, rails, sleepers; the characteristics of the trades, the social condition and even the degree of labor exploitation of the railroad workers; in the risks, details or events of travelers and crews on the way; in railway accidents of sad memory; and assaults carried out by villains of criminal anthology, such as the fearsome Jesus Mosqueda.

Of course, there is no shortage of compositions dedicated to the raids, barracks raids, riots, deliberate derailments, destruction of stations and infrastructure and other violent events that characterized the revolutionary era. Nor are there few melodies dedicated to famous people of the trade, with a place of privilege for Don Jesús García Corona, humble machinist of the mining company The Moctezuma Copper Company of Nacozari, Sonora, who, according to the lyrics of one of the corridos that have been dedicated to him, was one of the most famous of them all:

He turned his steam train around
because it was uphill,
and before reaching kilometer six
that's where his life ended.

The interesting thing about the corridos is that they promoted social gatherings, since they were generally sung

with much feeling and commendable displays of enthusiasm, speaking with the parishioners of the pulquería, the plazuela, the estanquillo, the market, strumming hard on the guitarrón and releasing the great spurt of voice on the corners of those streets of God, which corresponded to the great cities of the time (Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, Monterrey, Veracruz), Guadalajara, Puebla, Monterrey, Veracruz), without forgetting the itinerant troubadours of the vast Mexican province, finally communicated, although marginally and selectively, by the “iron horse”, the “crazy machine” or the “portent on rails”, also nineteenth-century called locomotive or railroad.

In the 20th century, songs with a railroad theme continued to be sung, although influenced by the new musical trends in vogue, which ranged from the traditional corrido to the rock ballad (El trenecito, performed by Leda Moreno) and songs dedicated to children, such as La maquinita Puch Puch, by Francisco Gabilondo Soler, Cri-Cri.

Other railroad corridos deal with the armed struggle, such as Corrido del ataque a la Estación de Pedernales that recalls the defeat of the Maderistas in that Chihuahua station at the hands of General Juan N. Navarro, between December 16, 1910, and January 13, 1911. Another one that stands out is La retirada de Carranza, Combates de Apizaco, San Marcos and La Rinconada, by Melquiades C. N. Martínez. La huelga de Nueva Rosita and La Rielera are two of the best known.

Even so, the “real” troubadours and provincial lyricists continue to cultivate this genre with passion and deep inspiration, as well as some retired and active railroad workers, to whom a watercolor sunset, the nostalgia for the land, or the memory of those times of engines and trains, is enough to call with guitar chords to that sensitive part of inspiration, and try to compose a corrido, or any other melody with a railroad theme.

Brightly-dressed norteño band playing on a neon-lit stage, crowd dancing with energy.
From revolution to reggaeton, corridos keep evolving! Grupero bands like Los Tigres del Norte blend tradition with a modern beat, keeping the corrido spirit alive.

How Corridos Keep Kicking (and Singing) in the 21st Century

Some contemporary applications of the corrido are found in the work of urban chronicler Chava Flores and in the popular children's songs that appear in SEP textbooks from first through sixth grade of elementary school. Among Chava's compositions we find: La tertulia, Dos horas de balazo, La boda de vecindad, La Bartola, La interesada, Un chorro de voz, El gato viudo, Ingrata pérjida and Llegaron los gorrones.

Since corridos are songs, they are language, they are syntax and semantics, they can also be studied as a form of expression of the Spanish language. For example, we find the presence of Mexican popular song in national cinema.

As Carlos Monsiváis mentions in his article Ahí está el detalle: el habla y el cine mexicano:

…It is up to the popular song to provide phrases that collectivities retain and elaborate as personal speech:

Everyone says it's a lie that I love you,
because they've never seen me in love before.
You have the perfume of an orange tree in bloom, the haughty bearing
of a majesty, you know the filters of love,
you have the spell of lightness.
You thought you could not find love like the one I gave you,
I pulled it so far that I don't even remember you.
Oh, how much I like the taste, and the taste likes me,
and whoever doesn't like the taste, doesn't like me either.

Notwithstanding the above, the dominant version of popular speech is considered clumsy, convoluted, lacking in grace, denied any musicality, confined in the prison of a few words and offensive to the ear.

In any case, in 1997, as in 1947, popular speech is transparent and reaches its most lucid levels in “relajo”. This seems inevitable to me, never a collectivity recognizes itself so clearly as when it is in the heights of the verbal party and the “choteo” because if it resorts to solemnity it has a risk: to dissolve in the melodrama. But how do 99 percent of Mexicans -including the ruling class- communicate today if not through popular speech?

Moreover, often included in the corrido category are the songs made famous by well-known “gruperos” such as Los Tigres del Norte. From ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari to the drug traffickers of Ojinaga Chihuahua, they have their corrido. Some protagonists are heroes, others — abusers, but in one way or another they are still alive in popular expressions.

It is important to highlight that the oral tradition of towns and cities throughout Mexico has brought us corridos and songs to this day. It is still common to see those adorable old men from the towns who sing, without forgetting a single couplet, the experiences of yesterday.

Lively cantina crowd singing along to a Mexican revolutionary corrido.
Beyond textbooks and dusty archives, Mexican history comes alive in the raucous rhymes of corridos. These ballads, sung in smoky cantinas, hold the secrets of a past far richer than any document can tell.

Letting Corridos Lead the Way Through Mexico's Raucous Past

History, much like a stubborn mule, can be a fickle beast. Textbooks trot out their well-worn narratives, but occasionally the most vibrant truths lie hidden in dusty attics and forgotten corners. Enter the corridos, those rowdy rhymes whispered by the wind across the plains, sung in smoky cantinas, and scribbled on tattered flyers. Yes, these bawdy ballads, the can-can of Mexican history, hold the key to unlocking a past far richer and kinkier than any dry tome could ever dream.

Sure, the National Institute of Historical Studies of the Mexican Revolution (INEHRM) might be a heavyweight in the ring, and those state Cultural Institutes pack a punch. But let's be honest, sometimes the best gossip comes from the back alley, not the grand salon. And that's where the corridos swagger their stuff. Take Carolina Figueroa's “La Revolución Mexicana a través de sus corridos,” (The Mexican Revolution through its corridos) a prize-winning essay that waltzes through 90 corridos from Porfirio Díaz's dusty reign to Obregón's swaggering ascent. It's like watching history unfold in a raucous cantina, tequila shots firing facts, every verse a brushstroke painting the vibrant chaos of the times.

But don't mistake these corridos for history textbooks in sombreros. They're not here for dry dates and dusty speeches. They're here to spill the beans, sing of bravery and betrayal, love and loss, all with a wink and a nudge. They'll tell you about Pancho Villa's dashing smile and Zapata's fiery spirit, but also about the whispers of dissent, the sting of betrayal, and the quiet tragedies that are often drowned out by the trumpets of official narratives.

And hey, if you get a hankering for a taste, why not join me in belting out the “Corrido de la toma de Zacatecas” (The taking of Zacatecas)? Just be warned, once you start dancing with the corridos, there's no going back to the dry waltz of traditional history.

A black and white photo of Pancho Villa, a tall man with a thick mustache and a bandolier, walking confidently through a dusty street in Zacatecas.
Viva Villa! The revolutionary rooster swaggers through Zacatecas, his victory as flamboyant as his mustache.

Pancho Villa's Corrido Crows Victory in Zacatecas

Dust swirling, bullets singing, hearts thumping like mariachi bass drums – welcome to the Battle of Zacatecas, amigos, a corrido as spicy as salsa verde. But first, let's get a perspective what it was about.

Imagine the scene: June 23rd, 1914. A hungover Huerta nursing his defeat while Francisco Villa, revolutionary rooster of his own volition, prances into Zacatecas like a peacock on parade. Surveying the battlefield, Villa clucks his orders: cannons to crackle a morning serenade, troops to strut their stuff, and a promise to whip those “pelones” (Federals) faster than a Chihuahua donkey race.

But this ain't no fiesta, compadres. Blood paints the streets redder than a matador's cape, bodies pile up, and Federals run around in borrowed petticoats – the ultimate sartorial surrender. Villa crows with glee, swaggering through captured positions like a rooster king in a henhouse.

Now, here's where the story gets spicier than habaneros. While some whisper “Maderistas looted Zacatecas,” Villa bellows, “Nay, amigos! Blame that mess on Huerta and his rich cronies, those cackling coyotes who ransacked their own nest!” This ain't just a battle, it's a telenovela with plot twists thicker than mole poblano.

Days melt into a haze of triumph. Guns are seized, cannons stacked like firewood, and twenty-two big boys (cannons, not bandits, mind you) unearthed from beneath a bombed-out hacienda. Pancho Villa struts victorious, chest puffed up like a mariachi trumpet, declaring, “No gachupín left standing! Not a single cockroach!”

This ain't just about Villa's victory gait. This corrido's got layers like an onion dip. It's a cautionary ballad, a reminder that war's a two-stepping devil, leaving hearts stomped and cities weeping. The corrido croons, “Oh, Zacatecas, look how they left you!” a lament for the beauty scarred and the lives lost.

This ain't your dusty textbook history, it's a fiesta of words, a spicy salsa of truth and legend, served piping hot from the streets of Zacatecas. ¡Viva la Revolución! And remember, compadres, when the next battle comes, hold onto your sombreros and keep the music playing, even if it's a corrido of blood and tears. And don't forget the pork rinds! They're always the best part of any revolution.

Now you are drunk, Huerta
your heart is already beating,
knowing that in Zacatecas
Barrón was defeated.
On the twenty-third of June
I speak with those most present,
Zacatecas was taken
by the insurgent troops.
When Francisco Villa arrived
his measures he was taking
and each one in their posts
well, he was taking possession of them.
They had already had a few days
they had been holding each other
when the General arrived
to see what was going on.
General Villa told them:
The plaza is tough,
I'll bring you some roosters
that I think are of good breed.
On the twenty-second said Villa,
already after examining:
tomorrow at ten o'clock
the general attack.
Then he ordered everyone to go
each one to his place,
that the next morning
everyone would have to fight.
To General Felipe Ángeles,
chief of the artillery
he sent him to set up the artillery pieces
with which he would fire.
The sign that Villa gave them,
to all in formation,
to begin the combat:
It was a cannon shot.
General Raul Madero
with lieutenant Carrillo,
asked Villa for leave
to attack: for El Grillo!
To Mr. Rosalío Hernández
as brave as he was formal,
it was his turn to attack the mochos
of the Cerro de San Rafail
He went through Las Mercedes
General Ceniceros,
with General Rodriguez
as good companions.
Robles and Maclovio Herrera,
both with their battalions,
entered through the station
chasing the pelones.
It was the turn of Arrieta, Urbina and Natera
Arrieta, Urbina and Natera,
because that was the place to be seen
the good for their flag.
At the head of a cannon
as they had agreed
the combat began hard
on the right and left side.
Colonel Garcia of the Madero Brigade
of the Madero Brigade
was seen to fight well
because he was the first.
All the streets were
were covered with dead bodies,
and so were the hills
that looked like flocks of sheep.
The Federales were walking around
who could no longer find anything to do,
borrowing petticoats
to dress as women.
Pity the generals
of loops and stripes,
for they are of no use to them
if they are all just runners.
General Villa used to say to them:
throw old Barrón at me!
I think they all fit me
I think they all fit me as well as my pants.
And they began to take away
and positions,
they began to get off
(Note: In the original there is a line missing)
That same day in the afternoon
they had them so solid
that at seven at night
almost everyone gave up.
That same day in the afternoon
the woodworkers entered
and all the people happy
his heart was glad.
They ran to the churches
to ring the bells
and in the streets the bands
They solemnized with targets.
Oh! Beautiful Zacatecas
look how they left you,
The cause was the old Huerta
and so much evil rich.
They removed machine guns,
good number of cannons
a warehouse was found
packed with ammunition.
Zacatecas was sacked
by the federals themselves,
do not believe that the Maderistas
have done these evils to them.
When the hairs come out
Tuesday morning
They bombed the big estate
that they named it: Customs.
Beneath this great estate
there were many hairs left,
many weapons and more park
and twenty-two other cannons.
Villa told Natera
when he triumphed and saw the end:
give the order, that right now
I don't have a gachupín left…!
Ah! Said General Villa
He leaves for Chihuahua, then:
Let's take Zacatecas,
but it was with blood and fire!
Well, the order I give you
They must respect it,
because those who get to see
I will have to shoot them.
Two thousand five hundred bales
They were the ones who held on,
They took them to the ranks
but none of them were killed.
How will you be old Huerta?
You will make the legs more crooked!
Knowing that Pancho Villa,
he has taken Zacatecas!
You can now compose yourself
with all your hair,
do not get scared:
Wait, the pork rinds!
Split image: traditional mariachi band on one side, modern rock band on the other.
From mariachi magic to rockin' revolutions, Mexican music tells a story. Dive into corridos, the epic ballads that chronicle triumphs, tragedies, and endless swagger.

Ignite Your History Passion with Corridos

Mexico's history is as rich and vibrant as a perfectly spiced mole, and like any good dish, it's best enjoyed with a side of music. In this case, we're talking about corridos, the epic ballads that chronicle the country's triumphs, tragedies, and, of course, its revolutionary spirit.

Think of corridos as Mexico's rock 'n' roll, infused with storytelling magic and beats that'll make your hips wiggle even as your brain absorbs all that historical goodness. Want a taste of the corrido's magic? Here are a few gems to get you started:

  • “La Cucaracha” — A classic tale of a rebellious cockroach that's as catchy as it is subversive.
  • “El Corrido de Pancho Villa” — A rousing ode to the revolutionary hero, perfect for a rousing singalong.
  • “La Ley del Monte” — A corrido that gives a glimpse into the Mexican Revolution, but with a killer beat.
  • “Cielito Lindo” — A tender ballad of love and longing that's sure to melt your heart.
  • Dive into the music: Listen to the soaring strings of Silvestre Revueltas or the earthy charm of Chavela Vargas.
  • Read a revolutionary tale: Martín Luis Guzmán's “La querella de México” or Mariano Azuela's “Los de abajo” offer firsthand accounts of the chaos and the soul-searching.
  • Get your art fix: Check out the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City or browse online collections of Mexican modernist masters.
  • Did you know that some corridos are so popular they've made it onto the silver screen? Check out “La Bamba” or “El Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata” for a taste of corrido-infused cinema.
  • Want to learn how to sing a corrido like a pro? Look for “corrido escuelas” in Mexico – they're like karaoke bars, but with way more history and cultural significance.
  • And if you're feeling adventurous, try writing your own corrido! Just remember, the key ingredients are a catchy tune, a good story, and a healthy dose of Mexican swagger.

Let Mexico's revolution ignite your own creative spark.

In-Text Citation: Analicia Villanueva González, El corrido de la Revolución, Correo del Maestro. No. 54, pp. 43-50.