Paulino Vargas: Chronicler of the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands

Juan Mora-Torres Publicado 2014-08-20 03:40:29


As a sub-genre of Mexico’s rich ballad tradition, the corrido of the borderlands has left a record of how the “big” developments of the U.S.-Mexican political economy influence the actions of fronterizos on both sides of the boundary in different historical moments. Corrido themes have ranged from banditry, rebellions, protest, labor, and gender relations to contraband and migration. Unlike the so-called “objective” reporting of the press, corridos report on individuals, events, and news from the point of view of working class Mexicans. With guitar in hand, the corridistas were the “journalists” and storytellers of the fronterizo laboring classes, a population that until six decades or so ago was largely illiterate or semi-illiterate. Given the oral tradition of this musical genre and the fact that many of the balladeers were illiterate, only a few corridos survived the 19th and early 20th century.

Some of the most consistent corrido themes address the contraband of goods and Mexican immigration to the U.S. There is a historical reason for the constancy of these types of corridos. The illegal movement of people and goods across the U.S.-Mexican border are as old as the line itself. Northward bound migrants have crossed the Río Grande en masse, following the footsteps of the first indentured peons that escaped from Mexican haciendas to Texas in 1848. Billions of dollars in illegal goods have crossed this line in both directions beginning with the smuggling of textiles into Mexico.

Stated another way, contraband and migration have historically bonded the U.S., the land of abundance and wealth, with Mexico, the land of want and poverty. In this unequal union, contraband and migration are the troubled children of the US-Mexican political economy. They will not go away as long as this economy continues to reproduce the vast gap in wealth that separates Mexico from the U.S. An 1885 Mexican government report concluded that, “contraband will exist as long as there is a dividing line that is so easy to cross and in which the price of goods on one side are higher than on the other. Thus, contraband will increase or decrease in mathematical proportion with the differences in prices between one side and the other.”

This statement also applies to migration if we substitute “immigration” for “contraband” and “wages” for “the price of goods.” The same also applies to violence if we substitute it for “contraband” and “living standards” for “cost of goods.” The corrido “Pistoleros famosos” summarizes the role of violence in the borderlands; “en los pueblitos del norte, siempre ha corrido la sangre.” Violence is part and parcel of the contraband corrido and migration ballad.

Violence in all of its manifestations-subjective (visible), objective (systemic), and symbolic (the everyday modes of cultural and social domination) — has been inherent in the history of the borderlands and in the development of the U.S.-Mexican political economy. Violence created and enforced the U.S.-Mexico border. Once the boundary legally divided the former Mexican north, the early images of violence in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands included banditry, lynchings, forced removals of unwanted peoples (Indians and Mexicans), wars against the indigenous (including scalpings), filibuster raids (pirates on horseback), federalist rebellions against the Mexican government, and contrabandistas confronting government authorities, especially the rinches, the hated Texas Rangers and the Mexican custom guards. “¡Muera el contrarresguardo y viva el contrabando!” (Death to the custom guards and long live contraband!), became the war call of Mexican smugglers.

Today’s images of violence include the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, the thousands of deaths caused by the drug cartel wars and law enforcement agencies, clandestine mass graves, the hundreds who die every year crossing the Sonoran desert of Arizona, incarcerated Central American children fleeing from violence and poverty, and the more than two million forced evictions of undocumented people under the Obama administration. 

The contraband and migration corrido have endured because contraband and migration are two issues that have evolved to affect millions of people. Thousands of individual and collective stories can be found in the acts of migration and smuggling. The illegality of contraband and (much of the) migration means that violence is a part of the smuggler and migrant experience. There has been no shortage of material for the corridistas to mold into corridos.

The corrido fronterizo reached larger audiences with the mass production of records and the radio. Besides benefiting from the advances in technology, the corrido also adjusted itself to the changes in music. In the 1940s the corrido cross-pollinated with the emerging conjunto tejano sounds grounded in the accordion and bajo sexto. Originating in San Antonio and South Texas with Narciso Martínez, “El Huracán del Valle,” and Santiago Jiménez in the 1930s, the conjunto sound crossed the Río Grande to the Mexican northeastern states during the 1940s and 1950s where new groupings appeared such as Los Alegres de Terán and Los Montañeses del Álamo. The guitar and drum would later be added (and saxophone with a few groupings) to the conjunto and norteño sound.

The borderland corrido fussed well with norteño and conjunto music. Braceros, undocumented workers, and migrant farmworkers extended the reach of conjunto and norteño beyond its South Texas and Mexican northeast stronghold. In the case of Texas, conjuntos followed what some called the “taco circuit,” performing at the different migrant worker concentrations. Meanwhile, braceros and immigrants returning to Mexico took their norteño and conjunto records with them, introducing these sounds to their home communities.

The 1970s represented a new era in how corridistas interpreted the meanings of contraband and migration. At least three noticeable developments in the 1970s informed these interpretations and changed the face of the borderlands to what it is today. First, the ending of the Bracero Program in 1964 coupled with the Immigration Act of 1965 increased legal and unauthorized Mexican immigration and consequently led to the rapid growth of the Mexican population in the U.S. Second, the industrialization of the Mexican north, especially along the boundary, led to the rapid growth of cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez where women made up the majority of the norteño working class (and served as the main household breadwinners). Third, the mass consumption of narcotics in the U.S. turned illegal drugs into a big business.

While these developments unfolded, the nature of norteño music underwent one major change. Up to the early 1970s, groups from within the San Antonio-Monterrey axis dominated norteño musical production, such as El Conjunto Bernal and Los Alegres de Terán in the 1950s and 1960s, and Los Relampagos del Norte and Los Cadetes de Linares in the early 1970s. At the beginning of the 1970s new norteño bands emerged, especially along the Sinaloa-California corridor, that gained a large following on both sides of the borderlands. Los Tigres del Norte, an outfit of four brothers and a cousin from Sinaloa, exemplified the shift in norteño music away from the Texas-Mexican northeast region. As teenagers in 1968 they left Rosa Morada, Sinaloa for San José, California. Undocumented for a few years, they played at community fairs, cantinas, family gatherings, and small ballrooms.

Los Tigres del Norte emerged onto the popular music scene in 1974 with their rendition of “Contrabando y traición,” the first popular narcocorrido of the post-1970 borderland era. As the most prominent musicians interpreting the experience of Mexicans in the borderlands, they have made a good living interpreting narcocorridos and migration songs. Having gained international recognition over the past four decades, performing for as many as 100,000 people and touring throughout the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and Japan, Los Tigres del Norte, more than any other norteño group, contributed to making norteño/conjunto music “respectable”.


Paulino Vargas

If Los Tigres del Norte are the musicians who have best captured the Mexican experience of new borderlands, than Paulino Vargas (1941–2010) is the corridista of the post-1970 era and of this region. Vargas and Los Tigres first established their partnership with Vargas’ “La banda del carro rojo” (1975), and “La tumba del mojado” (1976), two songs that reinforced the cornerstones of Los Tigres del Norte’s musical identity: the narcocorrido and the immigrant experience. Their partnership ended with the death of Vargas in 2010. Regarded as “el maestro” of the corridistas, Vargas’ understanding of the borderlands was formed early in his life when he labored as a migrant worker and musician on both sides of the border.

Vargas was born in 1941 in Promontorio, Durango, a small and isolated mining community in the sierra located near El Espinazo del Diablo, the name of the road that crosses the Sierra Madre Occidental and connects the city of Durango and Mazatlán. After the death of his father, eight-year-old Vargas ran away from home, settling in Reynosa, Tamaulipas where he shined shoes to survive. According to Vargas, he crossed the Río Grande on his way to San Antonio, but was returned by U.S. border authorities. After two years in Reynosa Vargas’ mother found him and brought him home. He was an “hijo desobediente” and ran away for a second time, landing in Ciudad Juárez where his mother found him again.

Paulino left home for the third and last time at the age of twelve, never looking back. This time he wandered with Xavier Nuñez (1924–1991), a sort of older brother, best friend, and companion in goals and adventures. Music was in his blood. Although his father, a gambusino (mine worker) played the accordion, he refused to teach Paulino how to play it. Seeking to become a musician, Paulino learned the accordion and with Xavier on the bajo sexto, they formed a Norteño duo. Making a living from their music was difficult, forcing the two to labor in the farms and fields of La Comarca Lagunera (Coahuila-Durango region) and Texas to make ends meet.

One of Vargas’ earliest musician stints included performing at a popular cantina in Ciudad Juárez. He found a father figure in the cantina owner who was later imprisoned in the U.S. for attempting to smuggle marijuana in his car. Vargas found a story in this episode and composed his first corrido, “El contrabando de Juárez,” a song Los Alegres de Terán later recorded. Within a few years word of the talented duo spread to different parts of northern Mexico.

Seeking greater financial security from music and fame, Vargas and Nuñez went to Mexico City hoping to land a recording contract. They recorded a few sample tracks for Peerless Records but, short on money and unsure of whether Peerless Records would record their songs, they left Mexico City for the north. While picking cotton in Texas, they heard two of their tracks, “Paso del Norte” and “Ausencia eterna,” performed on the radio by the unknown norteño group Los Broncos de Reynosa. The two believed that they had been cheated by Peerless and Los Broncos de Reynosa, but that was not the case. The recording company had baptized Vargas and Nuñez with a new name in their absence. With a record in hand, they never had to work in the fields again.

In 1955, at age 14, Vargas had entered the limelight of a small but growing norteño music audience. Los Broncos de Reynosa toured both side of the borderlands during the late 1950s and 1960s. Always a showman, Vargas became known for his flamboyant showmanship, incorporating taconazo dance moves into his handling of the accordion and playing the instrument over his head and behind his back. Until a few years before his death, Vargas was the frontman of Los Broncos de Reynosa, one of the hardest working norteño bands in the business. 

Even though he had composed a few corridos before 1970, Paulino considered himself first and foremost a musician. Illiterate, he learned to read and write at the age of 25. He eventually became an avid reader and dedicated more time to corrido writing (in spite of his fame as a much demanded songwriter, he continued to perform with Los Broncos de Reynosa until a few years before his death). For reasons that are not clear, he also spent a brief time in prison in the late 1960s where he became more familiar with the world of the Mexican criminal underground. (He claimed that he went to prison because he wrote a corrido critical of General José Lopez de Santa Anna, a distant relative of the then President Díaz Ordaz. This is highly unlikely.)

Chronicler of the Borderlands

Paulino Vargas’ early experience as a migrant worker and wandering musician provided him with an acuity for descriptions of place, people, and events. This sensitivity for la frontera and fronterizos grew as he aged. Besides touring with Los Broncos de Reynosa and performing for their working class audiences, Vargas also performed at private parties of the powerful in Mexico, from presidents (Ernesto Zedillo) and businessmen to the jefes de jefes of the narcotraficantes. He performed at private events attended by Amado Carillo Fuentes (“El Señor de los Cielos”), Rafael Caro Quintero, and Pablo Acosta, the mentor to many narcos and the jefe who controlled smuggling operations in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area in the early 1980s. Acosta was the first narco to build a sophisticated network for smuggling large amounts of cocaine to the US. 

Like many self-taught individuals, Vargas had an excellent memory for events, the many people from all cross of life he came to know, and the different ways people expressed themselves. After learning how to read and write, his passion for reading helped develop his literary description of region, people, and events, which led to a stronger framework for writing corridos. First, Vargas would research people and events by way of newspapers, public records, site visits, and interviews with his subjects and their relatives. He told Elijah Wald, the author of Narcocorrido (2001), that “a good corridista must also be a good reporter. I investigate the story . . . I have to be sure that it is factual. . . it has to be true.”

Second, Vargas never wrote corridos about the living. In spite of requests he received from big time narcos to write corridos on them, he only wrote about them after their death such as “El zorro de Ojinaga” (Pablo Acosta) or after they had disappeared, like “El águila real (Amado Carrillo Fuentes).” A hook was needed to make the corrido more interesting to the audience, what he called “a bit of the morbo (morbid).” Quite a few of his corridos became Mexican movies. 

Although he wrote on a variety of themes, Vargas became best known for his narcocorridos, starting with “La banda del carro rojo,” a song that Los Alegres de Terán recorded in 1972 before becoming a big hit for Los Tigres del Norte in 1975. “La banda del carro rojo” closely followed the format of the traditional corrido. It dealt with courage (Lino Quintana and his men), a violent encounter (“la banda’s” shootout with “los rinches de Texas” in San Antonio), betrayal (“el soplón,” the government informant), and death.

“La banda del carro rojo” was the first product of Vargas’ ability to modernize the contraband ballad by placing the song’s story within the emerging world of drug contraband. Vargas introduced four new elements to the traditional form. First, the ability of contrabandists to smuggle large amounts of narcotics (Lino Quintana and his men were transporting 100 kilos of cocaine). Second, he introduces cocaine as the most profitable of the smuggled drugs. (Cocaine entered the vocabulary of corridos in the 1930s, according to Juan Carlos Ramirez Pimienta, a leading authority on corridos and popular Mexican culture). Third, Vargas introduced the “M-16” semi-automatic rifle as a weapon that smugglers used in their defense and for settling accounts. The number of deaths in corrido reporting increased. Lastly, Vargas presented Chicago, a major trade center in the U.S, as the destination point of contraband. He added “lo morbo,” the hook: “De los siete que murieron/ sólo las cruces quedaron/ cuatro eran del carro rojo/ los otros del gobierno/ por ellos no se preocupen/ irán con Lino al infierno.”

Vargas strongly adhered to his belief that a good corridista had to be a good reporter in order to connect the corrido with the audience. He respected the audience who could tell whether a corrido was “true” or a “tale.” A good example of the corridista engaged in the craft of the journalist is his composition of “Lamberto Quintero,” a corrido that Antonio Aguilar, “El charro zacatecano,” popularized and took to the big screen. This song was well researched. It follows the corrido tradition related to family blood feuds (for example, “Las tres tumbas”) in that it presents courage, gun battles, and death as the final outcome of rivalries. Vargas uses Lamberto Quintero to tell a version of the story of the family rivalries between the Quinteros of Badiraguato and Lafargas of San Ignacio. (Badiraguato is the know famous town that gave birth to many well known narcos, including “el Chapo Guzmán.” The town has produced marijuana and heroin for almost a century). Feuding over drugs, women, power, and misunderstandings, these type of clan disputes had been going on in Sinaloa since the 1920s. Culiacan was known in the 1950s as a “Chicago con gangsters de huarache.”

The Quintero-Lafarga rivalry reached the climax when Lamberto Quintero was gunned down in an ambush and died at Santa María Clinic on January 28, 1976. Two days later dozens died in various shootouts in Culiacan. The family feud ended that day with the extermination of the Lafargas. In eliminating their rivals, the Quinteros become one of the most powerful narco families in Sinaloa.

In “Lamberto Quintero”, Vargas demonstrated his gift for combining journalism and rich literary imagery. Even though Vargas does not mention drugs explicitly in the corrido, listeners clearly understood that narcotics were behind the death of Lamberto and the violence that followed. “Lamberto Quintero” could be read as a dress rehearsal of what was next to come — a dramatic increase of violence in Culiacan and Sinaloa, in which drugs played a central role. These family feuds later reached other parts of Mexico such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.


The final lines of this corrido immortalized Lamberto Quintero; “Puente que va a Tierra Blanca/ tú que lo vistes pasar/ recuerdales que a Lamberto/ no se le puede olvidar/ yo por mi parte aseguro/ que hace falta en Culiacán.” This type of veneration is the dream of narcos, many of whom have paid corridistas generously to buy “immortality”. According to Vargas, he never accepted a cent or gift for writing corrido on a narco.

Many of Paulino Vargas’ narcocorridos have been censored in Mexico. Government censorship has meant that his songs did not receive radio play which, in the end, turned out to be to Vargas’ advantage. As the introduction to Los Tigres del Norte’s most popular narcocorrido, “Jefe de Jefes” postures, “A mí me gustan los corridos porque los hechos son reales de nuestro pueblo.” A second voice adds, “Sí, también a mí me gustan porque se canta la purita verdad.” The corrido represents an alternative to the mainstream press’ reportage. Given the fact that the mainstream media has been discredited for being a lap dog of the Mexican government, many people tend to believe story from a corrido more than a report from the media.

This seems to be the case with Varga’s corridos. Take for example, Los Tigres del Norte’s “Corridos Prohibidos,” an album that was censored in Mexico. Besides being one of the artistic directors for the album (the other was Enrique Franco), Vargas wrote half of the songs. After Los Tigres del Norte’s “Jefe de jefes,” “Corridos Prohibidos” became the largest selling album in the history of norteño music without having any big radio “hit.” Such is the power of censoring narcocorridos in Mexico.

Inspite of his large production of narcocorridos, Vargas did not consider narcos heroes in the vein of Pancho Villa and Lucio Cabañas, the guerilla leader of the late 1960s and early 1970s about whom he also wrote a corrido. Heroes were a thing of the past for Vargas, immortalized by the already abundant corridos on them. In the absence of contemporary heroes, Vargas wrote ballads on people who “valen la pena,” mainly narcos who he viewed as people from the lower classes who chose to engage in the drug business as the means of getting ahead. Vargas presented narcos as people of humble upbringing who used courage as their main quality for upward mobility in a status-based society. They were simply responding to opportunities that opened up due to the incessant demand for drugs in the U.S. Becoming “someone” required courage because social mobility brought respect and respect could only be acquired by being trigger-happy. Narcos also acknowledged that eventually their path ended in prison or in a violent death. One of Vargas’s rules was to only compose corridos on narcotraficantes who has already met their unhappy fate.

Vargas was well aware that narcos operated within a political economy of drugs, a multi-billion dollar industry with many international political and economic linkages. Narcotics passed through many hands before ending in the street corners of cities, starting with the production of the raw material in an isolated area of the world. Because of the billions dollars at stake, the drug business enjoyed the protection of powerful politicians, law enforcement agencies, and government institutions. This relationship is manifested in Vargas’ “Los super capos,” a corrido on the CIA’s trafficking of cocaine to fund the Contras’ attempts to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinistas regime during the Reagan administration. It is a commentary on the hypocrisy of the U.S. foreign policy of condemning enemies (Cuba, Iran, Palestinians, Manuel Noriega of Panama) but using drugs to achieve political aims.


In addition to his skilled story telling and wordplay, what made Paulino Vargas a unique corridista was the diversity of themes he addressed. He wrote about love, religion, imprisonment, history, heroes, immigration, and contemporary issues, not to mention narcocorridos. Vargas wrote one of the best prison songs, “Con la tinta de mi sangre” — a song comparable to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in its mastery of capturing the feeling of imprisonment, loneliness, and pain caused by the absence of a mother to console a prisoner’s suffering. Written in the form of a letter, the song reads, “En un papel que de una cesta he recogido/ pongo estas letras dedicadas a mi madre/como estoy preso y no tengo pluma ni lápiz/ por eso escribo con la tinta de mi sangre.” It ends with, “yo les suplico me perdonen si no firmo / pues desconozco el apellido de mi padre.”

Vargas wrote on many contemporary themes related to U.S.-Mexican borderlands, including the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, (“Mujeres de Juárez”) and immigration. He had the intellectual capacities for connecting such themes to the larger political economy of Mexico and the U.S. In “La tumba del mojado” Vargas associates labor illegality (and death) to global capitalism’s domination over Mexico: “La cerca de la tortilla es ofensa para el pueblo/ En México se pasean franceses, griegos y chinos/ y algunos americanos son caciques de los pueblos.” “La cerca de la tortilla” was a reference to the Tortilla Curtain, the construction of border walls in the mid-1970s at the main crossing points of undocumented immigration.

He also dealt with borderland history. The corrido “Caminos de Sacramento” accuses General José López de Santa Anna’s of committing “treason” for “selling” Mexico’s northern territory. The corrido notes that, because of the “sale” of California, the new Anglo settlers became rich during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. The song mentions Joaquin Murrieta, the social-bandit hero who resisted the abuses committed on Mexicans. For him, the loss of California was still alive in the memory of Mexicans, “mi corazón se revela al verte en manos extrañas/ porque yo nunca he aceptado que te vendiera Santa Ana.” Briefly, Mexicans were not foreigners in this state. 

Among his most politically charged corridos is “Crónica de un cambio,” one of the best songs of Los Tigres del Norte that came out immediately after the Vicente Fox administration took hold of Mexico. It was censored in Mexico. The corrido deals with the social and political conditions that led to the defeat of the PRI in the 2000 elections. It implied that the victors, the PAN, would be no different than the government it replaced, a prediction formulated by common sense and later became true. He concludes this corrido with the following lines: “Hoy se dio el cambio/ brindemos con Coca-Cola/ porque los buenos son azul y blanco/ si calzas botas y te agencias a un establo/ sigue la flecha y llegaras a diputado.” Vargas demonstrates his mastery of wordplay in this corrido: Fox was the CEO of Coca-Cola’s Mexico division (Mexico has been the largest consumer of soft-drinks in the world) and he created the image of himself as a horse-riding vaquero, wearing cowboy boots and residing in a ranch; the “azul and blanco” is a reference to the colors of the PAN. 

Paulino Vargas passed away in 2010. He wrote hundreds of songs interpreted by ranchera, grupero, norteño, and banda musicians. All these genres are grouped together into “Mexican Regional Music,” the highest selling category encompassing “Latin music” in the U.S. He should be recognized as one of the great composers of popular music in Mexico, one who belongs in the same league of José Alfredo Jiménez, Felipe Valdez Leal, Agustín Lara, Juan Gabriel and a few others.

What separated him from these composers was that many of his songs had a clear political and social content, two important elements of the traditional borderland corrido. He left us with many memorable songs. Many of his admirers have a favorite Paulino Vargas song. In my case, it is “Reproches del Viento,” a song that encapsulates his personal philosophy of life that he developed over the years. It has been interpreted by a who’s who of norteño and banda artists. The best rendition is by Vargas and Los Broncos de Reynosa, mainly because this song is so personal to him and central to describing the motives and actions of the people whom he wrote corridos about.

The song is structured like a personal prayer, “Dime Dios mío por qué reniego, por qué conforme no puedo estar/ Si me molesta mira pa’ arriba por qué me diste un bajo lugar.” It is followed by how, the praying individual, a member of the lower classes, perceived his station in life and what needs to be done in order to get ahead, “Por ser de abajo me despreciaron y pisotearon mi dignidad/ Más vale un año de vacas gordas que cien de perro en cualquier lugar/ El amor y el dinero no se logra nunca sin riego/ sin jugar he perdido y yo quiero arañar el cielo/ y lo voy a lograr o en la batalla me muero/ Dios mío dame tu mano si me quieres ver regresar.”

Vargas noted that he was “muy miedoso” and for that reason he wrote corridos about people who demonstrated courage. He measured courage as acts of individual direct action, usually with pistols in their hands. Courage could also be measured by the pen and Vargas wrote many songs that involved personal courage, songs that offended people in power (he claims that Mexican law enforcement agents on a few occasions roughed him up in their attempts to gather information on the narcos he performed for). Vargas was not afraid to write songs representing his political and social views. That is one of the reasons why his corridos were so popular. More than any other songwriter of present times, Vargas was the chronicler of the borderlands, an intellectual “del pueblo” who articulated the feeling and experiences of working people and placed them within the broader picture of the ties that bind Mexico and the United States.



Juan Mora-Torres. History professor at DePaul University and author of The Making of the Mexican Border. I would like to thank Juan Carlos Ramirez Pimienta for reading this article and making valuable comments. 

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