Historical Songbook: “Los Hijos de Hernández” (1986)

Los Tigres del Norte are the most famous and accomplished conjunto band in Mexican musical history.

Their own story spans the border between California and Mexico (the group came together in San Jose, CA), and does so while playing norteño music that has a lot of cultural significance for Mexico’s north and the US Southwest (especially Texas). In short, they are emblematic of so much of the transnational character of Mexican American history.

Los Tigres are famous for their style of corridos, a Mexican folk tradition that often communicates the particulars of everyday life of most mexicanos, including their social/political struggles. For Los Tigres, their narco-corridos—songs that detail aspect of the illegal drug industry—are some of their most famous. Hardly confined to the dramas of the drug wars, they are a politically and socially-conscious group for a host of other issues as well.

In 1986, they released a song that demonstrates their both their radical sensibilities and its artistic expression, “Los Hijos de Hernández.” The song tells the story of an encounter at the border between a man and a border agent. Here is a quick translation:

Returning from my land,
and crossing the border,
an officer asks me
to fulfill my duties.
That if I had papers
I have to show to them.

And while he was reviewing them
I heard him murmur
something that made me angry.
That with so many emigrants already
many North Americans
can not work.

I told him very angrily
that which you murmured
has a lot of truth.
Latin Americans,
in the view of many Americans,
have taken away their place.

If we work very hard
and are not “chicken” either,
if life must be risked
in the fields of combat,
they have advanced us
because we know how to fight.

My children were born here,
ignoring the prejudice
and the discrimination
their homeland claimed,
and on the battlefield
they showed heart.

There no one noticed
that the Hernández’s they signed up
were cannon fodder.
Maybe my sons took
the places not filled
by the sons of some Saxon.

If on the payroll
look you in disgust
at my name in Spanish,
you will see on another list,
that upon reviewing, are missing in action.

While this he shouted,
the migrant wept,
and he said with emotion:
you can cross the border
anytime you want.
You have more valor than me.

Though the song is from the 1980s, and about the 1980s, it is also all about the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. It testifies to the widely-held belief that Chicanos and mexicanos were disproportionately sacrificing their lives for a nation that denied them substantive equality in most other sectors. In this way it is a reflection of the ways the Vietnam War remained such an unsettled event, both for the wider US society as well marginalized communities within that larger whole (like that of Mexican immigrants).

Or maybe its a tale that reflects the hidden ways the US did grapple with the lessons of Vietnam. After Vietnam, the US armed forces were all-volunteer, with the hugely unpopular draft coming to a formal end just before the conclusion of US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Among the many strategies the military would come to employ to assure a ready supply of able-bodied, trained soliders, would be to create new targeting strategies to attract more young men of color.

“Los Hijos de Hernández” reflects the contradictions of this increasingly “brown” army. Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike would often be coveted and welcome into the US military while still forbidden entry or effectively marginalized within the US.

“Los Hijos” is a fantastic song in so many ways. Among its more powerful qualities is its desire to voice an experience that is so true, often (and tragically) unifying within the ethnic Mexican community, and yet almost completely absent from the mainstream US imagination. As a snapshot of the mid/late 1980s, the song also unifies the narratives of (im)migration, labor, war, and memory in a very powerful way.

“Somos Más Americanos”

Here’s the best and most famous Norteño/conjunto band in the world–Los Tigres del Norte. They are performing their song “Somos Más Americanos” (We are More American), from their upcoming MTV unplugged special. They are joined by Zack de la Rocha.

As the lyrics go: Aunque le duela al vecino (Though it hurts our neighbor) / Somos más americanos (We are more American) / Que todititos los gringos (Than absolutely all the gringos).

I don’t know how long the video will be up since the others have been pulled down. So get it while it’s hot!