Border Ballads

Corridos! Ballads of the Borderlands

At El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista.

Reviewed by Carlos Morton

Is it a play, a variety show, a play with music, or a musical?
El Teatro Campesino’s recent production of Corridos! Ballads of
the Borderlands
defies description. Corridos are Mexican
ballads that tell a story and/or speak of human relations — love,
death, sex, power, and violence. This production pushes the
envelope of what a “corrido” is by injecting elements of hip-hop,
techno-banda, rock ’n’ roll, and even songs of Chinese origin.

I saw a version of this show 35 years ago while a student at the
University of Texas, El Paso. The show inspired me to run away from
home and dedicate my life to the theater. Actually, I moved to San
Juan Bautista to work with the famous company, and shared a house
there with local Santa Barbara musician and actor Luis Moreno. I
left after a few months to pursue my own path, while Moreno stayed
and worked for another 17 years with the troupe.

The protagonist of this show, played by co-author Luis Valdez,
is a professor of ethnomusicology who collects a trunk full of
songs and narrates the action. We discover he has a grandchild, a
Tejana played with passion by April Diaz, who is searching for her
father, a punk rock musician who fried his brains using drugs. The
professor and his granddaughter together create the tension that
drives this theatrical engine. A strange subplot involves the
mother (Sylvia Gonzalez) who went mad, and thus performs most of
her numbers in a straitjacket.

Along the way, we encounter traditional, narco, rock, hip-hop
and pachuco corridos. There’s even a wonderful version of “Lil’ Red
Riding Hood.” Sometimes the show gets a little carried away, as in
the opening number, “Yo Soy El Corrido,” which approaches the
manner of dinner theater, or when the band breaks into Bob Dylan
and Beatles songs.

The direction by Kinan Valdez (who shares co-author credit with
his father) is crisp and vigorous, and makes full use of the Teatro
Campesino style. Standouts in the production include Diaz and
Freddy Avila, who appears in just about every number. Avila easily
switches from English to Spanish in such numbers as the new song,
“El Circo,” about corruption in Mexico.

The show changes every time one sees it. This production was
developed and commissioned by the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Another version of the Corridos appeared during the 1990s
and starred Linda Ronstadt. Luis Valdez was criticized for
showcasing ballads that smacked of sexism and machismo. Here, he
answers his critics by embracing a post-modern interpretation of
the genre.


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