Performing Migration: Corridos, Mexican Masculinities, and American Empire (1917-1932)

by guest contributor Monique Flores Ulysses

Growing up as the child of a Mexican mother, when I heard Alejandro Fernández’s rendition of the popular corridoPaso del norte” blasting out of our old speakers on a Saturday morning, I knew it was time for my least favorite childhood activity: cleaning the entire house from top to bottom. As I got older and moved away from home, I stopped having to worry about those dreaded Saturday morning wake up calls. They come to me now as intermittent waves of nostalgia. Despite my best efforts as a kid to roll my eyes and pretend I was too cool for la música de mi mama, I could never deny the power behind corridos, rancheras, and música norteña. And so over the years, I have found myself constantly revisiting the music of my childhood—out of pleasure, but also out of academic interest.

Corridos are the Mexican ballads popular today throughout all of México and the vast Mexican diaspora. They can serve as beautiful renderings of historical storytelling that originated “por y para el pueblo“: for and by the people of México. In many of the corridos from 1917 (the year the current Mexican Constitution was signed) to 1932 (when American deportations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were at their height during the Great Depression), a racialized, migrant hetero-masculinity takes center stage. This occurs against the backdrop of negotiated dynamics of power between the expansion of American imperial ambitions and an impoverished, weakened Mexican state. Between 1917 and 1932, Mexican migrants used music, specifically corridos, as a broadly accessible vehicle of storytelling that allowed them to engage in this negotiation. The corridos reveal how migration and the relational experiences of policing and farm labor affected the performance of various forms of Mexican masculinities.

Corridos, as a specific genre of Mexican music, are characterized by restrictions on who is generally viewed as an acceptable performer. In A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border, Mexican-American author and folklorist Américo Paredes notes that although women “were important in the transmission of songs” they were, however, “not supposed to sing ‘men’s songs’ such as corridos and rarely did so in public.” While the borderlands/fronteriza culture allowed some transgressions of this patriarchal performance structure, the gender identity of the migrants in the following corridos is always implicitly that of a heterosexual Mexican man who engages in manual labor (xix).

Songs such as “Despedida de un norteño” (222-24) provide a glimpse into what the migration from México to the United States could entail, focusing specifically on the internal journey from Salvatierra, Guanajuato to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua as told through a difficult, protracted goodbye to “mi madre querida/ la Virgen Guadalupana (my beloved mother/ the Virgen de Guadalupe),” “mi patria amorosa/ Republica Mexicana (my beloved land/ [the] Mexican Republic),” and the speaker’s biological mother. By focusing on three central aspects of an assumed Mexican femininity that in the narrator’s view need protection, his masculine duty has been fulfilled. The narrator makes clear that while it is his obligation as a man to leave for where there is work to be done, it is also, conversely, his duty to stay with the three mothers (national, familial, and religious) so long as he is able to afford it. The narrator’s masculinity is therefore upheld despite leaving for the United States, as it is the only way he can fulfill his national, familial, and religious duties to México. If he were a richer man, this would have been done from the comfort of home.

In other corridos, relationships with Anglo-American women are central to the performance of Mexican migrant masculinity. In one version of “Bonita esta tierra,” the narrator sings of the sheer amount of wealth found in the United States, with part of this bounty being access to Anglo-American women—if not in reality, at least through fantasy (Paredes). In another corrido, “Consejos a los norteños,” the narrator concentrates on items of clothing as signifiers of newfound wealth in the United States, while singing about Anglo-Americans, especially women, in mocking and sarcastic tones (Guerrero, 1957). The narrator at one point tells the audience that “las güeras de allá/ no se enamoran (the blondes [American women] from over there/ don’t fall in love)” with Mexican men, so one should make sure to bring one’s wife to the United States. “Bonita esta tierra” and “Consejos a los norteños” each grapple with the tense relationship Mexican migrants felt in relation to American wealth and race relations, and both corridos also tie in with larger themes relating to gendered experiences of migration and acceptance in the United States. Each song gestures towards the male narrator’s relationships, or lack thereof, with Anglo-American women as central to these tensions.

This tradition of using music to locate oneself in a long history of migration and to document the journey millions of Mexicans have taken to the United States rests upon songs that have fallen if not into anonymity, then into such localized transmission that they are difficult to trace for outsiders. Just as Jorge Negrete sang of a longing for “México lindo y querido” in the mid-twentieth century, so too have contemporary twenty-first-century singers continued to sing of an idealized México to which those in el México de afuera long to return, if not in life then in death.

In 1995, when Alejandro Fernández released his album Que Seas Muy Feliz with various classic corridos and rancheras, one of them was the popular corrido “Paso del norte” that served as my Saturday morning alarm. Even into the late twentieth century, Fernández’s rendition of “Paso del norte” and its extreme popularity among Spanish-speaking audiences worldwide conveys the continuing importance of the experience of migration, of being far from el interior (México), and of upholding machista masculinities to the collective memories of Mexicans across the world. Yet despite this song emphasizing the masculinity of “el hombre/ [que] anda ausente/ muy lejos ya de su patria (the man/ [who] is absent/ [and] very far from his homeland),” the song also makes clear that though Mexican men may be forced to uphold patriarchal ideals of (heterosexual) manhood, there is space for them to publicly acknowledge their emotions. This public acknowledgement of sadness and sensitivity comes through the very performance and reception of corridos such as “Paso del norte,” wherein the narrator sings of how the tragedy of a man longing for México is so terrible he wishes to “ponerme a llorar (start to cry).” The tough exterior of heterosexual Mexican migrant masculinities are therefore ironically upheld through the very music that gives them the space to challenge these conceptions of what it means to be a man.

The questions with which all of the corridos of migration dealt remain unanswered, despite the volume and urgency of migration increasing to the United States from México and other Latin American countries. This is often due to policies enacted in these nations in order to further secure American imperial and capitalistic ambitions. The tensions involved in leaving your home country due to socioeconomic circumstances beyond your control, only to do so by seeking out a livelihood in the very nation that has worsened these circumstances, continue to be sung about on both sides of la frontera/the border. Central to this tension are questions of negotiating migrant masculinities in patriarchal and machista contexts, couched within larger questions of imperialism, dispossession, and economic imbalances.

Thousands of Mexicans migrated northward in the years after the Mexican Constitution was signed in 1917. Their recollections form a collective body of individual experiences. Though the corridos of Mexican migration cannot recount every emotion felt along the journey to the United States, they can direct us towards a greater understanding of how thousands of individuals negotiated the power dynamics at play between México and the United States from 1917 to 1932 and how they used music to make sense of their lived transnational experiences. Corridos prove fruitful grounds for interpreting how cultural forms served as unifying forces of storytelling during a time when both México and the United States, and Mexicans and Americans, were shaping their fraught relationships with each other. Though corridos of migration exemplify the painful and often humiliating effects of the strengthened policing of la frontera/the border by American officials, they also serve in preserving the voices of those who found dignity through the shared music of their communities. The narratives that have been passed down through these corridos serve as a reminder of the power of a genre of music “por y para el pueblo.” Through these corridos, many of which are almost one hundred years old, the voices of contested boundaries remind all people who have a stake in these borderlands that the constructing of migrant masculine identities across fronteras continue to echo in our shared histories.

Monique Flores Ulysses is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of History at Yale University. Monique is interested in the cultural history of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans on both sides of la frontera/border, with particular interest in divergent understandings of race in relation to marginalized femininities and masculinities, the role American Empire has played in shaping music, fashion, performance, and physical culture, and in the use of popular culture as resistance to oppression. Previous to beginning her studies at Yale University, she received a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Victoria in History and Environmental Studies, and a Master of Arts from McGill University in History.

3 comments

  1. Terrific stuff.

    Though I want to ask: is the term “hetero-masculinity” necessary? That is, can we speak more broadly about these clearly national masculinities as they apply not just to “straight” actors but as well gay and female actors? If not, why?

    Again, thanks very much for this.

    Like

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