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Article Mexican American Song

"Mexican girls, San Antonio, Tex." Alan Lomax, Photographer. Prints and Photographs Division.
"Mexican girls, San Antonio, Tex." Alan Lomax, Photographer. Prints and Photographs Division.

The relationship between Mexico and the United States, which share a border that is close to 2,000 miles long today, is a complex one.

A number of Spanish colonies north of what is now Mexico were attempted by the Spanish before 1600, but many of these failed. Among the settlements that succeeded to the present day, was a colony in what is now southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, settled in about 1600. These settlers were relatively isolated from both the settlements in Mexico and from other European pioneers moving westward. This resulted in a distinctive culture. The descendants of these settlers regard themselves as Spanish American, rather than Mexican American, because of their unique history. In 1940 folklorist Juan Bautista Rael documented the songs and sung folk dramas of the descendants of these settlers, who had preserved examples of early songs and singing styles over many generations. He sought out elderly performers, many of whom would have learned the songs in the nineteenth century. [1]

Because vast areas of what today belongs to the United States were once Mexican property, the earliest Mexican musical styles in the United States come from these colonies. Missions established in what is now New Mexico and California during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a hotbed for choral activity, with Mexican composers like Manuel de Sumaya (1680-1756) writing liturgical works along European lines that employed indigenous folk instruments like drums to accompany the voices. In what is now New Mexico and Colorado, the Spanish priests left after Mexico became independent in 1821, leaving the colonists to their traditional expressions of their Catholic faith. Juan Bautista Rael documented songs from traditional religious plays as well as other religious folk songs preserved in this region, such as this song sung after a wake for the dead when dawn comes: "Dios te Salve, Bella Aurora," performed by Luis Montoya and Ricardo Archuleta in 1940.

Texas rebelled against the government of Mexico and declared itself a separate republic in 1836. The United States annexed Texas in 1845 with the approval of Texas voters. Mexico had refused to accept the independence of Texas and this annexation resulted in a war between Mexico and the United States. When the Mexican American War ended in 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico surrendered roughly half of its territory, which today comprises Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, to the United States. Mexico also relinquished any further claim to Texas. The vast majority of Hispanic populations that lived in these areas chose to stay and become United States citizens.

The first notable wave of Mexican immigration to the United States following the treaty of 1848 occurred during the Gold Rush in California in 1849. Because the border was open to virtually everyone until the establishment of the United States Border Patrol in 1924, the migration of Mexicans into the United States was unchecked.
With an economy that depended upon slave labor to raise and harvest cotton, Texas seceded from the Union to become part of the Confederacy in 1861. A song that survives from that period is "La Chinaca," sung by Manuela Longoria, whose father was among a group of Confederate soldiers who composed the song.

During the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrant workers made their way north. A combination of factors led to this exodus. The Reclamation Act of 1902, which funded irrigation projects for twenty states in the American West, galvanized a need for more labor. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the ensuing years of political instability caused people to flee for their safety. Mexican Americans brought with them songs about Mexican history and Mexican life. An example from this period is "Corrido Villésta de la Toma de Matamoros," a song concerning taking of the city Matamoros, Mexico by the revolutionaries in 1913 during the Mexican revolution. Many townspeople escaped across the river to Brownsville, Texas during this event, making it a ballad of the history of that border.

Because of the low level of European immigration during the first World War, there was a demand for inexpensive labor that prompted greater immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America to southwestern states. During the war, the government actively sought Mexican laborers, as this work force helped to free United States citizens to join the military. Following the war, the United States attempted to curtail this flow of workers from its southern borders, while still severely restricting immigration from Europe. So the demand for unskilled labor caused by these policies led many Mexicans to continue to seek work in the United States despite the restrictions.

After the first World War, economic growth in the United States in the 1920s drew many immigrants to jobs in agriculture, ranching and mining in the West and Southwestern states, while others headed to the Midwest for employment in the railroad, steel, and meat packing sectors. The Immigration Act of 1924 greatly reduced all immigration into the United States, including immigration from Mexico. The demand for unskilled labor, coupled with this new law, led to crackdowns on illegal immigration in the later 1920s.

Legal immigration of Mexicans to the United States slowed around the Great Depression, though many did cross the border during the drought and Dust Bowl of the 1930s that had a devastating effect on both countries. Mexicans were often blamed for the joblessness during the Depression. The United States enacted legislation aimed first at assisting their return with the Mexican Repatriation Act, then actively barred their entry and deported Mexicans in great numbers. In 1948, a plane carrying twenty-eight Mexican farm workers who were being deported crashed at Los Gatos canyon in California, killing all on board. Woody Guthrie composed one of his most enduring songs in response to this tragedy, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)."

As had happened during World War I, a demand for Mexican labor to replace United States laborers lost to the war effort brought about a new immigration of workers. Pressure from growers to maintain this inexpensive unskilled work force kept the policy of importing Mexican Labor in place even following the war. The United States government instituted the "Bracero Program" in 1942, which allowed workers to come into the country provided that they had a work contract and returned when the contract was up. At that point they could be hired on a new contract and return. But when legal immigrants came in insufficient numbers, growers actively sought illegal immigrants to harvest crops. So the United States began "Operation Wetback" in 1954, deporting approximately one million illegal immigrants. During the 1960s Chicano workers in the West, whether citizens or illegal workers, became frustrated with the push-pull of United States policy towards Mexican immigration. They united to launch a civil rights battle to raise awareness and to gain better treatment for themselves and their children.[2]

Immigration levels of Mexicans have remained high, despite federal legislation in the second half of the twentieth century that has made it both difficult and dangerous for many Mexican immigrants to live and work legally in the United States. The availability of jobs in the United States, coupled with high rates of unemployment and periodic economic sluggishness south of the border, have abetted the ongoing migration northward.

The corrido is a type of socially relevant narrative ballad that served in Mexico as the main informational and educational outlet. For example, "Corrido de Leandro Rivera," sung by Atanviro Hernandez in 1939, is an example of a ballad about a bandit-hero in the Republic of Texas in 1841. Corridos continued to serve the same function in the United States. For example, "Corrido de las Elecciones de Brownsville," sung by José Suarez in 1939, tells a story about the lynching of an outlaw and Texas politics of the 1890s.

Corridos were also sung to draw attention to social issues of Mexican American farm workers and the Chicano Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Another generation revived the Chicano Movement in the 1990s in response to events in California and Mexico. A webcast of Chicano songs performed by two groups in concert at the Library of Congress is available in this presentation. The performers include the group Agustí n Lira and Alma, who perform songs from the 1970s and by Quetzal, who perform songs related to the Chicano revival.

Rancheras, literally "music of the ranches," are traditional songs usually accompanied by guitar and/or horns. Examples include "La Rancherita," sung without accompaniment by Manuela Longorita, "Caminito," performed by Julio Gomez and Ben Figueroa, and "Las Margaritas," performed by Mrs. Madariaga and Julio Gomez's Orchestra. All are ethnographic recordings made in 1939.

John Avery and Alan Lomax, who lived in Texas, documented many Mexican American traditional songs in that state. They were also among the first folkorists to take an interest in making sound recordings of game songs sung by children. In San Antonio, Texas, in 1934, they recorded a song sung by Mexican American Girls, Josephine and Aurora Gonzalez, Pearl Manchaco, Lia Trujillo, and Adela Flores, singing a game song "Hijo, Hijo, Mira Esta Muher".

The merging of European and indigenous Mexican musical traditions has long been a hallmark of Mexican American music beyond the church. Corridos gave rise to other forms of music such as Tejano (literally "Texas music"). Tejano music, the name given to several different forms of folk music developed by the Mexican American community in Texas, combines the waltz and polka stylings brought to Texas in the mid-nineteenth century by northern European immigrants with Spanish-language songs that originated south of the border and were passed down through generations of Mexicans.

Singer Lydia Mendoza (1916–2007) was the first interpreter of rural popular Tejano and border music to become a star through her many recordings. The Grammy award-winning Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla Perez (1971-1995), best known as Selena, achieved international fame at the time of her murder in April 1995. A contemporary heir to the corrido tradition is El Vez, an old school punk rocker and Mexican American Elvis impersonator who takes classic Elvis Presley songs and turns them into revolutionary political music.

Habanera music is also found among Mexican Americans. It has a meter influenced by the music of North Africa and is found throughout the Spanish speaking world today. An example of a song using the Habanera rhythm is an untitled autobiographical composition with the first line "Yo Cuando era niño - Mi Padre Querido," composed and performed by José Suarez in 1939. He tells of picking cotton with his father as a boy and the hardship caused by the boll weevil infestation.

Conjunto music is one of the dominant dance music forms of Mexican Americans today. Related to Tejano music, its roots lie in South Texas at the end of the nineteenth Century, following the introduction of the button accordion into Mexican working-class communities along the Texas-Mexican border by Northern European immigrants. The accordion-based musical form was used to accompany celebrations of all kinds. Thanks to a strong recording history from the 1920s onwards, conjunto grew to become the most powerful musical symbol of Mexican American working-class culture.

Mariachi music is perhaps the most well-known Mexican American folk music form, having gained wide popularity throughout the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century mostly through its promotion in school bands and at mariachi festivals. The popularity of the "comedia ranchera" (ranch comedy) movies of the 1930s and 1940s, a genre that prominently featured mariachi music, helped to grow the music in the United States. In the late 1980s, the pop singer Linda Ronstadt, a Tucson native of Mexican American heritage, stoked the interest of a new generation of young Mexican Americans in the music of their forebears when she toured with and recorded an album entitled Canciones de me Padre (Songs of my Father).

Mariachi originated in rural Mexico in the nineteenth century and, like Tejano, was eventually influenced by the polka and waltz. The typical mariachi ensemble consists of violins, accordions, trumpets and guitars. Mexican folk harps are also sometimes employed. There is generally no lead singer. All players sing choruses and take turns singing the lead. Mariachi vocalization, which emphasizes an operative quality, encompasses a romantic "bolero" sound, falsetto singing, and a more aggressive style known as son jaliscense.

Son Jarocho is another well-known Mexican music style that has gained popularity in the United States. Fusing Spanish and African elements, much of it is syncopated, combines instrumental music with improvised and fixed oral poetry along romantic or bawdy themes, and is sung in a call-and-response format. The instrumentation usually includes a large diatonic harp (arpa), a small, eight-stringed guitar (jarana) and a four-stringed guitar (requinto).

The most well known son jarocho is "La Bamba," which the Mexican American pop singer Ritchie Valens (1941-1959) popularized. Son Jarocho has become part of the fabric of the work of an array of contemporary Mexican American pop and rock singers including Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, Los Lobos and Lila Downs.


  1. See the biography "Juan Bautista Rael (1900-1993)." [back to article]
  2. See the article, "The Chicano Civil Rights Movement," for more information and links to recordings. [back to article]


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  • Mexican American Song


  • -  Immigration and Migration
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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