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One of my most salient memories of growing up involves being outdoors with my family as my father grilled carne asada with potatoes while Los Tigres del Norte’s song “Jefe de Jefes” (“Boss of Bosses”) blared through portable speakers. Through music and my family, I have come to realize that there are few things more Californian than the experience of being a working-class immigrant from Latin America. In fact, the immigration experience is written into the very name of the band Los Tigres del Norte.
On a temporary visa, bandleader Jorge Hernández and his brothers were on their way to San Jose, California, when they first entered the United States in 1968. To help support their families, they had been vagabonding between their hometown of Rosa Morada in Sinaloa, Mexico, to the port city Los Mochis, and as far away as Mexicali to play norteño music for small change inside clubs and restaurants. In a stroke of luck, Jorge, the eldest of the brothers, who was 22 years old at the time, was contracted to play with the then-unnamed band for the Hispanic inmates of Soledad, a prison about 60 miles south of San Jose. At the border crossing, an immigration agent, impressed with the group’s youth and ambition, called the group of musicians “little tigers.” The moniker stuck, and Los Tigres del Norte, or Tigers of the North, has since become one of the most influential bands in Latin America as well as the Spanish-speaking community of the U.S.
Los Tigres are made up of brothers Jorge, Hernán, Eduardo, and Luis Hernández, and their cousin Oscar Lara. Characterized by the accordion and the six-string bass, their music is a mixture of norteño, corrido, cumbia, bolero, rock, and modern polka music. In the tradition of norteño music, the ensemble performs socially conscious songs that intimately portray the lives of the working class. “All of our songs are about real stories that occur in our communities,” said Jorge, who is the band’s lead vocalist and accordion player. Often referred to as the “voice of the pueblo,” Los Tigres del Norte address in several songs the enduring hardships that Latin American immigrants face when they come into the U.S., in particular, the ambivalence that comes from having to navigate a dual identity as Mexican and American. “What good does money do me,” asks one song’s lyrics about an undocumented immigrant, “if I am a prisoner within this great nation?”
In a career that has lasted more than four decades, Los Tigres del Norte have released more than 50 albums and recorded more than 500 songs. They’ve won widespread recognition and countless awards, including seven Grammy and eight Latin Grammy Awards. Amid an increasingly hostile political environment for immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, the work of Los Tigres del Norte could not be more timely. “There are songs that we recorded 30 years ago that talk about issues [in the Latino community] that still persist to this day,” said Jorge. “It makes me realize the little progress we have made.” After decades of storytelling and activism, Los Tigres continue to serve as the conscience, as well as documentarians, of the country’s turbulent history when it comes to immigration from Latin America. Now 65, Jorge Hernández sees promise that young people might enact change for the Spanish-speaking community. “We have great hope that the young people, especially those that can speak English and Spanish fluently, will take on leadership roles within politics and Latin-American society,” he said.
For their part, the godfathers of norteño music will continue telling the stories of the downtrodden and voiceless to “bring joy to the community and continue forward.” In February 2019, Los Tigres del Norte will release a new, yet-to-be-titled album. “It is a very beautiful album that touches on very Mexican concepts,” said Jorge. “I am sure we will touch a lot of hearts.” My parents, Mexican immigrants who cross the border from San Diego to Tecate, Mexico, every weekend, will not miss them when they play November 29 and 30 at the Chumash Casino.
Los Tigres del Norte play Thursday-Friday, November 29-30, at the Chumash Casino Resort (3400 E. Hwy. 246, Santa Ynez). Call 686-3805 or see chumashcasino.com.