Toma Té: Corridos give my undocumented dad a sense of belonging

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

On most mornings, my mom would whip up a licuado for my dad. He’d drink it, dressed already in his paint-stained pants, worn-out long sleeve shirt and steel-toed boots. He and I would then head out to his beat-up pickup truck, in which my dad, a construction worker, would drive to work.

Once in the truck, he’d turn on the ignition and accordion music would blast through the speakers. I would grimace, heavy-eyed, and turn the volume down.

My dad would listen to norteño artists known for their corridos — as Urban Dictionary defines the music genre, “some real ass music.” In actuality, corridos are songs that narrate the story of a prominent figure from beginning to end. Whether they’re about La Reina del Sur, a notorious female drug lord, or about César Chavez, a prominent labor activist, corridos tell both beautiful and often tragic stories of real-life heroes and villains. 

Norteño bands, which are known for their corridos, began in the area of northern Mexico where my parents grew up before they crossed the border into the United States. The bands tend to be small, featuring a guitarist, an accordionist, a bassist and, in some cases, a saxophone player.

My dad loves norteño music. On our drives, he would jump between everyone from Los Cadetes de Linares and Ramón Ayala to Los Invasores de Nuevo León and Los Tigres del Norte, which became my favorite group. He’d try to whistle along, off tune, and would sometimes belch the lyrics he personally related to.

While as a child the music embarrassed me, as I grew older, I began to appreciate the corridos he would play more and more. Every song told a story, and if I listened intently, I could understand why my dad loved this music so much.

Despite the lively background music that sets Los Tigres del Norte’s music apart from other ballads, the group is known for telling stories about undocumented immigrants who come into the United States for a better life. In every way, these were the stories of my parents. Established in San José, Calif. where I grew up, this band became famous for telling “las historias de la gente,” (the stories of our people).

In classics like “La Jaula de Oro,” the band poses the question, “¿De qué me sirve el dinero si estoy como prisionero dentro de esta gran nación?” (What’s the point of money, if I’m a prisoner in this grand nation?)  The song describes the story of a man who feels trapped in the United States in a “golden cage” — his kids deny their Mexican heritage and don’t speak Spanish, he can’t return to Mexico and he can’t even try to become a citizen because of the harsh and outdated immigration laws. Aside from his son denying his Mexican heritage, this song was about my dad.

Mi papá would sometimes wipe a tear as he drove his truck, listening to these tunes. He, too, was in a similar situation, stuck in a country he chose to immigrate to over 20 years ago with no way of returning to his México lindo. He’d wake up early every morning to work at an arduous job that paid him much less than what he was worth because to the United States los mexicanos les valemos madre. (Honestly, how do I even translate that?)

Los Tigres follow a similar narrative in their song “El Emigrante” as well. “Soy emigrante como extraño a mi pais, a mis hijos y hermanos, a mi madre idolatrada,” the group sings. (I’m an immigrant like a stranger to my land, to my children and brothers and to my idolized mother.) The tune, accompanied by a somber accordion and guitar, tells the story of a man in the U.S. stuck far away from his home country and away from his ailing mother. Again, this story is about my dad.

When my abuelita Rosita passed away four years ago, my dad and his seven siblings gathered around a laptop to watch her funeral through a Skype call from California. None of them were able to say goodbye in person before her passing because they were stuck here. If any decided to make the trip, they would be unable to return.

They spent all day, despite their often-machista personalities, solemnly peering at a damned screen with their late mother displayed.

In so many ways, the songs by Los Tigres parallel my father’s heartbreaking immigrant experience, one that is all-too-familiar to undocumented people.

Los Tigres provide relatability many artists can’t achieve. While I am a natural-born U.S. citizen and did not face the same experiences as others who relate to the band’s most popular songs, their messages have brought me closer to my father. They’ve allowed me to empathize with his struggles and made me grateful for the opportunities I only have because he left Mexico.

While I’m away at college, I sometimes blast the accordion-filled corridos from my own speakers and remember the times I complained when “Contrabando y Traición” played in my dad’s truck. As I listen, I’m reminded of my father’s sweat, tears and sacrifice and moved by the fact that all of it has been for me.

Tomás Mier is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Toma Té,” runs every other Friday.