On the Phenomena of Narcocorridos and Narcoculture

Review of
José Manuel Valenzuela: Jefe de Jefes. Corridos y narcocultura en México, México: Plaza & Janés, 2002, 346 pages.
Elijah Wald, Narcocorrido. A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, New York:
HarperCollins, 2001, 333 pages.


The so-called "narcocorrido" presents itself as a tremendous anachronism that has emerged on the Western hemisphere since the seventies, and especially during the eighties and nineties of the last century, a cultural form and a way of telling, singing and performing that has become widely notorious on both sides of the hemispheric border. Contrary to the assumptions of academic corrido specialists, the corrido which has evolved as a medieval Spanish ballad style, reemerging in the New World especially in the northern border regions since the Mexican-American War (1848) and achieving huge popularity during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), has not arrived at its predicted decline. Instead, it has lived a vibrant revitalization within contemporary dynamics in technology, geopolitical space, and an ever increasing economic, social and coercive violence between the Americas. Having once served as an agency of orally transmitted and socially empowering consciousness under varied circumstances of border history, the corrido tradition has been mainly acknowledged by scholars in terms of subaltern expression, spontaneous democracy and alternative memories. Does the narcocorrido challenge these assumptions, or rather, are they still relevant at all? If the figure of the undocumented migrant, for instance, has intensely nurtured a subcultural imagination of the border, shouldn't there also be an existential claim to the endeavors of "el narcotraficante" who acts out a lack, taking the U.S. American myth of the aggressive adventurer at face value and trying to become rich and powerful 'from dusk till dawn'? In short: narcocorridos may well bring violent and illegal behavior to the fore, obtaining spectacular success on the media market. However, one question remains: why and how does narcotraffic from the south to the north find its laconic, non-dramatic, and often lamentful magnification through the rebirth of a ballad style that traditionally belonged to the ways of dreaming and surviving of the underprivileged people?

Not many authors have been addressing the problematics of drug traffic from a non-officialist perspective—one that frames "narcoculture" in terms of representation and enactment.. And only a few critics have confronted the anachronisms of the corrido's new popularity, which appears linked to the avatars of the cross-border drug traffic. Elijah Wald, a musician and writer who has based his ethnographic inquiry into the Mexican-American narcocorrido on testimonies of metier given by the mostly unknown composers deep in the local areas of the Mexican border states, affirms that "many corridistas are still rural artists whose popularity scarcely extends beyond their home villages." (Wald, 2) Despite having mutated into a transnational and mass cultural phenomenon that nowadays accounts for millions of record sales and has been taken up by hundreds of bands and singers on both sides of the border, 'drug ballads' being written and performed in Spanish have not crossed over to Anglo fans: "their style is based on accordion-driven polkas and waltzes—not generally considered a sexy sound [...]; their music is old-fashioned and rurally rooted, a style disrespected by most trendsetting intellectuals." (ibid.) Wald's testimony makes vividly clear how the provincial ballad style has undergone a movement of hybridization within today's music business without becoming metropolitan or 'national'.

José Manuel Valenzuela, based at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Tijuana/San Antonio) situates the narcocorrido within a framework of cultural analysis, raising the question of radical transformations of the border imaginary where long-standing tropes and metaphors are rewritten and re-staged in unforeseen ways. Jefe de Jefes sets out from three premises. There is the assumption that drug traffic, its networks, together with the dramatically uneven modernization of the Western hemisphere, have generated in countries like Mexico, Colombia, and also in considerable parts of the U.S. a ubiquitous "narcoculture" whose effects on social imagination and identities have become surprisingly intense. Secondly, this phenomenon escapes the imperial terminology of a "war on drugs" as well as officialist approaches unwilling to admit that legitimate institutions and political as well as legal agents in both Mexico and the U.S. are considerably involved in the matter (not legalization but prohibition of drug consumption as well as U.S. American politics of "certification" of other countries' efforts to fight the drug business have generated unbelievable levels of rentability. [Valenzuela, 152, 174, 175]). Thirdly, narcocorridos are Janus-faced and highly creative. They oscillate between apology and admiration towards the figure of "el narcotraficante" who has become the globalized and commodified substitute for the social bandit, and an astonishing repertoire rendering intelligible a living flux of experiences that are related to the everydayness of violence and hope for survival and social success.

Violence is at stake, as many connoisseurs of the Latin American situation avidly affirm, but what does this really mean in terms of cultural analysis? Valenzuela's formation as a sociologist accounts for the emphasis he places on how narcoculture contributes to suffocate the potentials for an active civil society and a democratic consciousness in Mexico and other Latin American countries through a climate of fear paired with fascination, a fascination that even draws on real alternatives to the depravations of poverty and unemployment as for an upward social mobility that is associated with successful participation in the drug business. In this sense, drug ballads contribute to enact a powerful mechanism of desire, narrativizing an experience that is as vertiginous as it is brutal and dangerous. Yet this interpretation would turn narcocorridos into an affirmative agency of drug traffic from the south to the north. The author is aware of this shortcoming; he concedes the ballads together with an enormous variety of topics and peripeties, a differential status which is circumscribed as an eventful movement of imaginatively entering and leaving the drug business, of simultaneously staging fascination, moral alert, and resignation to the avatars of unrestrained violence. It is here, in intuiting the narcocorridos' metamorphotic, ephemeral, doubling and ambiguous condition that Jefe de Jefes renders a space for performance-oriented readings.

However, and for the sake of considering a wide panorama of examples, Valenzuela gives priority to the referential dimension of narcocorridos, remaining bound to a search for what drug ballads have to 'say' in discursive terms instead of also considering what they are capable of 'doing'. What remains unaddressed is the ancient yet perplexing mechanism where 'narrating' is performed as 'acting': narcocorridos are capable of shaping figurative modes of space and social life; they enact an imagination that equals modes of longing and belonging, as well as travelling back and forth across the border. This is why these ballads resist a fixed categorization as discursive knowledge, 'truth', or 'realistic' tales. Their 'realness' is inscribed in the mimetic mechanism of recounting collective desires for enchantment in often hopeless circumstances. There is the fascinating power of ordinary, Spanish-speaking heroes and their atacking rules and order, whether their actions be invented, copied from the press or a film story, or simply reproduced as oral tale. As far as violence is concerned, narcocorridos display a unique versatility to unravel the dominant canon of good and evil, be it sustained by legal institutions or gigantic networks of corruption. This gives the drug ballads their documentary laconism and their rarely optimistic tone.

We may well speak of a phantasmic situation that requires reading Lacan in geopolitical terms. Narcocorridos seem to serve a hidden cause, one whose 'realness' consists in an ongoing narrative and performative displacement of a collective desire in which the hemispheric inequalities as well as the most insane neoliberal promises have come to drastically resonate. Drug ballads affect collective fantasies through the imaginary suspense of the longing, always displacing it to another story, even if the recounted drug deal is successful. The suspense implies a way of connecting to many people's destinies and illusions: the corridos are stoic, drastic, and sad accounts of defiance, dubious morals of bravery, criminal acts of heroism against a detested law or a doubtful moral order. They are at the same time rich in compelling and ambiguous peripeties, staging not only excesses of machismo but also of women's becoming active subjects of violence.

In his study "Corridos and Narcoculture in Mexico", Valenzuela remarks that corridos contribute to teach people a sort of daily living in a world that is brutally close and abysmally distant, a world insufficiently dealt with by official discourses and media both in Mexico and in the U.S. (Valenzuela, 325) We may add that the way in which this is done requires further thought on narcoculture's specific lessons of empowerment. The controversial issue at stake is imaginary transgression, if desire is being actually transformed into a 'force' of action. In other words, besides the longing for a safe and happy world to live in, the 'lack' enacted by narcocorridos can also be perceived from the other end: extreme depravation and fear pervading normality can push the imaginary work of survival towards the actions of the violent survivor—the trafficker. What are the cultural, conceptual and political consecuences of that sort of mimetic look into the underworld of existence, a possibility that has come to pervade the imaginary of entire regions of the Western hemisphere? And who may really teach us a critically active and culturally empowering stance in view of a booming narcoculture?

Hermann Herlinghaus is Professor of Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a co-editor of the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. His latest book publications are: Narraciones anacronicas de la modernidad. Melodrama e intermedialidad en America Latina (Santiago de Chile, 2002) and Renarracion y descentramiento. Mapas alternativos de la imaginacion en America Latina (Frankfurt/Madrid 2004) He is the editor of the e-misferica book review section.