Corridos in Migrant Memory

Chew Sánchez, Martha I. Corridos in Migrant Memory. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. pp. 246 34 halftones, 4 maps, index. Paper $29.95.

Heather A. Vrana
Indiana University

Since the informal declaration of war between the drug cartels and the U.S. and Mexican states, the border zone at El Paso and Ciudad Juarez has become the obsession of gangs, federal police, local police, civilian vigilantes, NGOs, journalists, and academics. Corridos in Migrant Memory apprehends this border region not by spatial practice but by representational space and the song form of the corrido. Following earlier work on Mexican folk song by Américo Paredes, Vicente Mendoza, John McDowell, and Guillermo Hernández, Martha I. Chew Sánchez considers the function of corridos in migrant experience.

The corrido shapes migrant memory and identity through the figure of the heroic protagonist who confronts structural injustice against enormous odds. In her analysis of interviews with performers, composers, and audiences of corridos, Chew Sánchez discovers that the songs enable migrants to refashion the exploitation, surveillance, and dehumanizing experience of border crossing into tales of brave cunning in collective memory.Further, the songs become a means by which disparate migrant communities can share current events and customs across militarized nation-state boundaries (71).

The monograph includes an introduction, five thematic chapters, an afterword, and an appendix with a collection of corrido lyrics. Chew Sánchez’s Introduction and Chapter 1 situate the text in a lineage of postcolonial scholarship and method including Michel Foucault, Homi Bhabha, and Emma Pérez. Chew Sánchez follows Paul Gilroy and James C. Scott in tracing the violence of racial representation. Corridos become the collective biographies of immigrant communities against the symbolic violence of Mexican stereotypes and as such a particularly useful weapon of the weak (7-9).

Chapter 2 embarks on a narrative analysis of the corrido lyrics of the super group Los Tigres del Norte. This chapter works for breadth rather than depth and includes a rich collection of corridos rather than a very close read of any single song.  Chapter 3 addresses the reception of corridos in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez region. Chapter 4 details the performance aesthetic of corridos. Chew Sánchez argues that the spaces of performance take the contradictions of the migrant experience – violence, belonging, vulnerability, and community – and create a migrant corrido aesthetic of inclusion (165-266). Chapter 5 turns from corrido texts to the transborder music industry. The short sections on representations of narcocorridos and censorship are particularly interesting. The monograph ends with an autobiographical afterword on corrido reception among Chinese-Mexican migrants.

Since few scholars have taken on monographic work on the corrido, Chew Sánchez must cast a wide net. Folklorists will find the text helpful for its account of the effects of migrant corridos on family relationships and community history. At the same time, some readers will desire a deeper engagement with many of the text’s initial theoretical gestures. For example, why doesn’t the author challenge Halbwachs’ notion of the collective and the individual through the figures of individual corrido protagonists and corrido performers? Further, if the author is inspired by Lefebvre’s Production of Space, then how does the militarized border challenge Lefebvre and, even more interesting, how is corrido circulation a type of globalization that at times exceeds the economic form and reveals the distinctiveness of migrant temporal and spatial lenses?

As the specter of violence further stigmatizes the Borderlands and the people who live there, Chew Sánchez’s work offers a new lens through which to understand migrant space. The author’s approachable narrative style, clear structure, and wide theoretical net make Corridos in Migrant Memory an excellent introductory study of corridos for a wide audience and undergraduate teaching. If migrants use corridos to push back against the structures that divide our communities, Chew Sánchez proves to be the politically-engaged scholar who is equipped to teach us how to hear them.

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