One of the best sources for current information on the culture, lifestyle, and fads of criminal street gangs is gang music.
And if you want to know about gang music, you can contact my good friends Ron Stallworth (“Hip Hop Cop”) from Utah (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ernest Cuthbertson of the Greensboro (N.C.) Police Department (Ganginformer@aol.com) who specialize in African-American gangs and gangsta rap or Gabe Morales from Washington DOC and the Gang Prevention Services organization, who is the most knowledgeable cop I know on the subject of Hispanic gang music. Asian Gangs also have their own style of rappers, and Skinheads have Oi!.
Anyone interested in the Hispanic migration from south of our border and the violence of drug and human trafficking organizations (gangs) should be familiar with the music of Chalino Sanchez and the Narcocorridos.
Marijuana has always flourished in the hills of Sinaloa, Mexico. In the late 1800s Chinese immigrants brought the opium poppy to the area. As Mexico’s Medellin, Sinoloa is synonymous with narcotics trafficking. One young Sinaloan once explained it to me this way: “We are poor farmers living in harsh conditions in tiny ranchos raising corn. The government buyers pay us nothing for our crops, expecting us to eat dirt or starve. I don’t want to be a 'contrabandista,' but I won’t see my children starve either.”
Rosalino Sanchez was born in 1962 in the little ranchito of Las Flechas (the Arrows) in Sinaloa. There, about 20 miles from the city of Culiacan, he grew up, the youngest of seven brothers and one sister. While Rosalino preferred the name Chalino, he was also known as Marcelino, El Pelavacas (cow skinner), El Indio (the Indian), and Compa Chalino (Buddy Chalino) to his friends. Having the benefit of only three years of formal schooling, he was quiet and sometimes described as shy. He also had the reputation of being a young valiente (valiant tough guy).
When Chalino was only eleven, his sister Juana was raped by local bullies. One of them was “El Chapo” (Shorty) Perez. Four years later, Chalino shot and killed Chapo Perez at a party celebrating the Mexican Revolution. Perez’s two brothers, who also carried pistols, shot it out with Chalino. He was forced to flee Mexico. He crossed the border to become another “bracero” or “campesino” or undocumented migrant worker in the fields of California and Oregon.
He eventually left the fields and settled in the city of Inglewood, near the Los Angeles International Airport. Over the years he struggled to earn a living in any way he could: He washed cars, dabbled in small time drug dealing, worked as a driver for a restaurant owner in Bell Gardens, and joined his brother Armando as a “coyote” (illegal alien smuggler). In 1984, his brother was found shot to death in a Tijuana hotel. Later, his boss in Bell Gardens, Rigo Campos, was murdered by drug dealing rivals of the restaurant owner.
After his brother’s murder, Chalino found himself in “La Mesa” prison in Tijuana charged with several small crimes. The short eight-month sentence became Chalino’s crossroads. Imprisoned with his cousin Ismael, he began putting down corridos, the stories of valientes the prisoners told, which he sung accompanied by his cousin on the guitar.
A corrido is a ballad in which someone’s life story is sung. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the songs were the common people’s way to learn of the exploits of good and bad men without the ability to read newspapers, listen to radio, or watch television. These corridos often told the story of Mexican Revolutionary heroes and infamous bandits and corrupt policemen. They were sung to the music of polkas and waltzes by mariachis. My parents and grandparents knew these songs by heart and played them often when I was a kid.
But after Chalino Sanchez, corridos became Mexico’s and the American Latino’s equivalent to gangsta rap and they became super popular. Chalino wrote about his brother, Armando, and his boss, Rigo Campos. He wrote about the good, the bad, and the ugly. He sang about men who overcame impossible poverty to survive and prosper (for a while) as men of means and power, as valientes. They lived and died by violence in a corrupt system standing up for their own dignity.
Upon his release from prison, Chalino returned to Los Angeles. The word spread around LA’s Hispanic communities that Chalino would write corridos on commission. In keeping with the underground economy, he would be paid in barter. In exchange for gold chains and watches and fancy pistols with ornate grips, he wrote ballads to make these men immortal. It was not his singing voice (critics humiliated him), it was the subjects and pathos of the lives he wrote about that made his songs popular with the common folk.
Recording in 1987 with the “norteno” band (referring to a Northern Mexican music style, not Northern California street gangs) “Los 4 de la Frontera” (The Four from the Border), he produced 15 tapes with 15 songs on unmarked cassette tapes. Too crude and primitive for radio or the big labels that controlled the Hispanic music industry, the tapes were sold from racks at car washes, on street corners, from trunks of cars, and at swap meets. They were called corridos prohibidos (prohibited ballads) and narcocorridos because the heroes were often drug traffickers.
This music began to appeal to even Americanized Hispanics. Latino kids who listened to rock, hip-hop, or gangsta rap and rarely thought about where their grandparents came from began buying Chalino’s tapes and listening to his paisa (countrymen) corridos. Even cholos (Hispanic gang members) began trying to speak more Spanish and get in touch with their Mexican ancestry.
In 1991, Chalino performed his first legitimate concert at Abel Orozco’s El Parral night club in South Gate, Calif. Unlike the traditional mariachis, Chalino wore the dress of a valiente from a Mexican rancho: A white cowboy hat cocked to one side, fancy stitched belt with a large cowboy buckle, exotic cowboy boots, gold chains and watches, and a loaded pistol tucked in the waistband of his black jeans.
He was a smash, and “El Parral’s” doors had to be shut because of the overflow crowds trying to get in to see Chalino. He also sang at Emilio Franco’s “El Farallon” night club in Lynwood. Like American hip-hop performers, Chalino enjoyed giving “shout outs” in recognition to friends in the audience. His nightclub appearances drew huge crowds, and he was paid $10,000 to $15,000 a weekend. Soon Hispanic kids from cities like Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, South Gate, Cudahy, Compton, Long Beach, and Paramount were playing Chalino tapes and dressing like Sinaloan cowboys.
In January 1992, Chalino Sanchez was hired to sing at Los Arcos night club in the desert city of Coachella about 20 miles from Palm Springs. During his performance to the packed crowd, Eduardo Gallegos, high on heroin and booze, jumped up on stage and began firing a small .25 caliber pistol into Chalino. Chalino pulled a 10mm pistol from his waistband and began a running gun battle chasing Gallegos. Seven people were hit in the exchange, including Chalino. A local man was killed, and Gallegos was wrestled to the ground by a bystander and shot in the mouth with his own pistol. He was later convicted and sentenced to prison and is serving 15 years to life.
The final verse in Chalino’s corridor was sung on May 16, 1992, only four short years after his career began. He had accepted an engagement to return to Mexico and the Sinaloan capital Culiacan. The people of Sinaloa wanted their beloved folk hero to return home and they were willing to pay $20,000 to hear him perform. But Culiacan can be a dangerous place, especially for a valiente like Chalino. In the city of La Presita near Culiacan at the “Salon Buganvilias” Chalino made his appearance. It was filled to capacity with over 2,000 people. His performance was cheered by the adoring crowd, and things appeared to have gone well.
After the concert near midnight, Chalino left the Salon with his brothers Espiridion and Francisco, his cousin Carmelo Felix, and several young women. A few blocks away at the city’s traffic circle, two Chevrolet Suburban police vehicles pulled Chalino’s vehicle over. Several armed men surrounded the vehicle and one man showed state police identification. Camelo Felix said, “Maybe one or two were policemen. The others might have been madrinas.” (Literally meaning “godmothers” or “bridesmaids,” but referring to the corrupt system where thugs are employed as policemen to do dirty work for the authorities or their drug cartel bosses.)
“My commandate needs you,” the state policeman told Chalino. He pled with the madrina gunmen not to take any of the others, and Chalino was driven away in one of the Suburbans. A few hours later, Chalino Sanchez’s body was found dumped in an irrigation ditch north of town. His hands and wrists had rope marks and his eyes were blindfolded. Two bullets had been fired into his head. No motive was found and no suspects were arrested, a very common ending within the Mexican justice system.
In Mexico and in the U.S. the reaction was immediate. People mourned and wept in the streets. His informal cassette tape network spread the word of Chalino’s death; it was announced internationally on Spanish language radio. Everyone played Chalino’s corridos. His murder did not silence Chalino; it turned him into a folk hero. Since his death more than 150 corridos have been written and sung about Chalino. This is more than those written for the Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa.
Coyotes, drug cartel members, Hispanic street gang members, dope dealers, Mexican criminals of every type, and even common paisa campesinos all listen to narcocorridos. Take some time and learn about Chalino Sanchez and the stories the corridos tell; it could be well worth it.
Much of the information I used in this article is from the book, “True Tales from Another Mexico,” by Sam Quinones, a Los Angeles Times staff writer. One of the chapters of this book is titled “The Ballad of Chalino Sanchez.”
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