- Música Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation between Nations
Like the narrative corrido that is at the center of Cathy Ragland’s discussion of música norteña, this book reads like a story, answering all of the questions one may have asked oneself, at one time or another, and raising many other issues never before considered about this “music from the north” of Mexico that has become emblematic of the Mexican migrant, especially the illegal migrant in the United States. Ragland’s research spanned ten years (1995–2005), in Texas, Washington, and New York and in the northern Mexican states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. [End Page 380] Ragland recounts both a border musical history and a migrant experience that are largely invisible, often allowing the most important norteña musicians to tell it in their own words. At the same time, she expertly weaves in a good combination of contemporary critical perspectives from a variety of important scholars. The preface and introduction provide insights into her fieldwork as a music journalist and then as an ethnomusicologist at work in an area that is typically off limits for a woman. In some ways it seems that Ragland’s Música Norteña picks up where Helena Simonett’s Banda, Musical Life across Borders (2001) left off. The access to migrant culture that these two women—as outsiders (and independent of one another)—have been able to accomplish is impressive.
This book is unified around a number of discussions that take on new meanings depending on the cultural context. The most important of these are the following. (1) Following the end of the Bracero Program (1942–64), norteña developed in response to a growing militarization of the border, which has had the effect of preventing undocumented laborers from returning to Mexico. Música norteña helped to define a mexicanidad that is independent of geographical borders: “Taken collectively, the songs describe the making of a nation between nations” (6). (2) Tejanos and Chicanos are part of an upwardly mobile middle class and distance themselves from norteña because of its association with the impoverished and backward mojado, “wetback,” but the popular media doesn’t differentiate between their respective musics. The musical style and texts of música norteña differ from those of conjunto, the music of the upwardly mobile Tejano (Texas Mexican American), although the instrumentation may be the same or similar: “[A]s opposed to the set beat of conjunto . . . the instruments clearly not only maintain the rhythm for dancing, but also provide an interactive framework for the song text that is the hallmark of norteña style” (129). (3) Música norteña has survived because it tells the stories of undocumented laborers who must break the law to protect their families. The migrant’s voice is heard in the corridor, a heroic ballad genre with a long history of celebrating resistance to oppressive authority, starting with heroes of the Mexican Revolution like Pancho Villa: The mojado “confronts authority, racism, displacement, and economic misfortune, emerging triumphant as a result of his bravery and self-sacrifice, two traits that were central to both heroic and conflict corridos in the border region” (10). (4) The narcotraficante is likened to corrupt Mexican politicians, “both having the power and wealth to control and destroy the lives of individuals, one group legally and the other illegally” (11). The narcocorrido has emerged as a controversial element of norteña, and in spite of Ragland’s assurances that the rights to freedom of speech would prevent it, the Mexican government has recently declared them illegal.
Ragland synthesizes the work of the significant scholars of music on the Texas-Mexico border (Vicente T. Mendoza and Américo Paredes, and contemporary scholars such as José Limón and Manuel Peña) as well as the corrido and Mexican migrant music in general (María Herrera-Sobek...