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In El Paso's wake, a corrido honors the dead and points fingers at the villains

August Brown, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

EL PASO, Texas -- Two young musicians stood outside the El Paso Walmart, guitars in hand. Days earlier, 22 victims had been gunned down at that store in what officials described as a racially motivated terror attack against Latinos.

But as their community tried to recover and mourn the dead, the two musicians turned to a small crowd around them, and Josue Rodriguez began to sing a mournful corrido.

The first verses recounted the ghastly, heartbreaking events from days before. "At Walmart by Cielo Vista / People walked peacefully / But they never imagined / Their lives would be changed."

But by the end, the song was a statement of resilience and resistance.

"It was a terrorist act that this monster perpetuated," Rodriguez sang in Spanish. He wore casual clothes while his bandmate, dressed in a full black mariachi suit, accompanied him on guitarron. "He was trying to break our people, but failing to do that, we're actually more united than ever before."

A USA Today photographer, J. Omar Ornelas, captured their impromptu performance and shared it widely on social media.

 

The young musicians' instinct to document the tragedy in song fits into a centuries-old tradition of Mexican and Chicano songwriting. The corrido, a form of folk ballad, is a first draft of history. It praises heroes, names villains and makes a ledger of valor and loss.

In times of tragedy, it's often the first place the affected turn.

"It's a cultural need that happens right away," said Steve Loza, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA and a composer of politically salient Latin orchestral music. "It's a way of paying tribute and honor and respect to people, be they a political hero, a baseball player or people who have been killed through a politically related hate crime. The people who died are considered to be heroes. The corrido is a form of acknowledging the people who died for their cause and their culture."

The corrido, as a narrative story-song, stretches back to the mid 19th century. Early examples extolled the rebellions of Pancho Villa and Benito Juarez. They were written quickly by professionals or amateurs, adapted locally in the heat of big events. Songwriters used them to remember history, satirize politicians or just serve as a gripping campfire tale.

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