It rides on air and infiltrates our bodies and minds. It mixes and recombines styles and genres, replicating through similarity and difference, location and kinship. It crosses boundaries, brings people together. It pierces the stupid walls of idiot men.
Arhoolie Foundation's Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings comprises over 125,000 commercially produced recordings of music spanning from the early 1900s to the 1990s. With funding from Los Tigres del Norte Fund and hosted on the UCLA Digital Library, the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and UCLA Library partnered with Arhoolie to bring their digitization project online and make it more widely available for research and preservation. This collection is the largest repository of its kind in existence. This exhibition highlights the breadth of the collection, discussing the history of music and the ways history is represented in music. Utilizing materials from over a dozen of the CSRC’s archival collections, the exhibition offers a gateway to the Strachwitz Frontera Collection’s vast and invaluable holdings.
Exhibition curated by Doug Johnson, organized by Xaviera Flores and Matthew Vest, and supported by the UCLA Music Library and the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. Exhibit design by Matthew Vest. Yuri Shimoda developed the digital exhibit and design, Nick Carlozzi contributed to the exhibit case installation and digital editing, Doug Daniels managed the exhibit materials printing, and Jonathan Wilson configured the listening station.
Corridos are narrative ballads chronicling the lives and deaths of the famous and infamous, as well as elevating common people to the status of folk hero. They function as oral history, committing important events and personages to song. They are one of the Frontera Collection’s most vital and well-documented genres. The history of this music is replete with this music as history.
One of the most significant examples of a person being immortalized by a corrido is Gregorio Cortez, a Texas farmer who killed a sheriff in self-defense and then evaded authorities for several days. He was the subject of several songs (the Frontera Collection has about 30 different versions) and a 1982 feature film starring Edward James Olmos. A 1929 rendition by Trovadores Regionales was added to the National Recording Registry in 2005.
Listen on the Frontera website: "Gregorio Cortez" by Trovadores Regionales
During the Great Depression, white resentment in the wake of economic calamity, coupled with a racist president’s calls for deportation, led to what is known as the Mexican Repatriation. As many as 2 million people of Mexican descent moved “back” to Mexico, though perhaps 60% of these were U.S. citizens by right of birth. Some of these mass deportations bore the veneer of voluntary migration, though most were certainly coerced. Musicians of the era documented this sad, shameful chapter of U.S. history that seems to be on the verge of happening again. In the 1930s, they at least let the families stay together.
Listen on the Frontera website: “El Deportado” by Los Hermanos Banuelos
"Deportee Carlos Tamborrell with his children Mary Louise and Carlos Jr., Los Angeles, 1935” from the
Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library Special Collections
From the Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1932
Pedro J. Gonzalez was a veteran of the Mexican Revolution who emigrated to Los Angeles, where he became a musician and a popular radio personality. His tireless civil rights activism made him the target of the Anglo establishment, which managed to frame him for rape, for which he was sentenced to 50 years in San Quentin. His unjust imprisonment put him in an unusual position: he became the subject of corridos, as well as a performer of them. In a recording of “Corrido de Pedro J. Gonzalez,” his band, Los Madrugadores, plays a tribute to him written by the Los Angeles-based composer Felipe Valdés Leal.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Corrido de Pedro J. González” by Los Madrugadores, Part 1 and “Corrido de Pedro J. González” by Los Madrugadores, Part 2
González was released from prison in 1940, after serving six years, on the condition that he be deported to Mexico.
Items from the Pedro J. Gonzalez Papers, UCLA CSRC Archives.
In 1942, the United States and Mexico devised the Bracero Program, under which migrant farm workers were promised good living conditions and fair labor practices. During the 22 years of the program’s existence, some 5 million people were employed. The braceros’ lives became the subject of many songs expressing homesickness, hardship, and humor. Film idol Pedro Infante recorded the mournful “Canto del Bracero” close to the start of the program
Listen on the Frontera website: “Canto del Bracero” by Pedro Infante
while Lalo Guerrero, often called the “father of Chicano music,” wrote the jaunty, wry “Que Vuelvan Los Braceros” near the program’s end.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Que Vuelvan Los Braceros” by Lalo Guerrero
“Mexican migrant workers disembark in Los Angeles, 1942” from the Los Angeles Daily News Negatives Collection, UCLA Library Special Collections.
“Braceros loading their belongings onto a bus for trip home to Mexico, El Centro, January 1, 1965” from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library Special Collections.
Lalo Guerrero (third from left) with his band Los Carlistas in the 1930s. From the Dan Guerrero Research Collection, UCLA CSRC Archives.
In the male-dominated music industry of the 1940s, Eva Quintanar was an anomaly. Though a talented vocalist, she never recorded her voice for commercial purposes. Instead, she focused on composing and conducting. For a time, she directed the house orchestra of the Los Angeles record company Taxco, as evinced by this 78rpm record billed as “Te Voy a Querer by Ruben Reyes accompanied by the Taxco Orchestra under the direction of Eva Quintanar.”
Listen on the Frontera website: "Te Voy a Querer" by Ruben Reyes, composed and conducted by Eva Quintanar
From the Candelaria Mendoza Collection, UCLA CRSC Archives.
In 1942, nine Mexican American youths were railroaded and convicted of murder in the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case. The Anglo community became increasingly suspicious of pachuco culture, with its flamboyant zoot suits and cryptic patois. During the summer of 1943, mobs of U.S. servicemen, emboldened by an encouraging press and a complicit police department, began hunting down pachucos and savagely beating them in what would be known as the Zoot Suit Riots. In 1979, playwright Luis Valdez offered a glimpse of the period with his play Zoot Suit, which, peppered with the music of Lalo Guerrero, would eventually move to Broadway and a film adaptation.
From the David Damian Figueroa Papers
Items from the Luis Garza Papers.
Lydia Mendoza, “La Alondra de la Frontera” (Lark of the Border), was a Texas singer and guitarist who began her recording career in 1928, at the age of 12. The Frontera Collection has nearly 700 recordings featuring her, including her 1934 hit “Mal Hombre,” which was added to the National Recording Registry in 2010.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Mal Hombre” by Lydia Mendoza
In 2001, artist Ester Hernandez paid tribute to the musician with her print “Con Cariño, Lydia Mendoza.”
From the Self-Help Graphics & Art Collection, CSRC
The 1940s and 1950s constitute the core of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Many of its stars also became recording artists and, conversely, many prominent musicians were able to find additional fame on the screen.
At a young age, Guillermina Jiménez Chabolla adopted the stage name Flor Silvestre, borrowing the title of a seminal 1943 film starring Dolores del Rio. Specializing in the ranchera genre, she gained fame touring and performing for the radio before beginning her recording career in 1950. That same year, she starred in Primero Soy Mexicano, playing the lover of a U.S.-educated doctor trying to suppress his Mexican identity.
She is featured in almost 300 recordings in the Frontera Collection.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Cielo Rojo” by Flor Silvestre
In the 1962 film Animas Trujano, Silvestre starred opposite Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune, who was playing an eccentric indigenous Mexican. Mifune’s cinematic border crossing provides an interesting counterpoint to the odd Orientalism that occasionally pops up in these songs.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Chon Chon Chon” by Los Panchos
Pedro Infante was perhaps the most renowned male star of the era. Tizoc, costarring fellow icon Maria Felix, is a tragic story of interracial love, rendered even more poignant by the fact of Infante’s death in a plane crash weeks before the film’s 1957 release. Tizoc became an international hit. In this image from a poster, its original title is overshadowed by the French and Dutch release titles.
Earlier in the decade, Infante recorded “Cien Años.” The song would find renewed popularity decades later when it was recorded by Tejano superstar Selena.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Cien Años” by Pedro Infante
From the Anthony Beltramo Collection
The Frontera Collection’s scope is far greater than its name suggests, as it includes music from many places other than the U.S.-Mexico border. It has artists from across Latin America, spanning from Puerto Rico to Argentina. Humberto Cané, primarily a bassist, was a Cuban artist who became an important figure in the Mexico City and Los Angeles music scenes. He played in a number of different bands and collaborated with such legendary figures as Arsenio Rodriguez and Beny Moré. He also made frequency appearances on Mexican television, as these photos attest.
Listen on the Frontera website: "Métete Teté" by Conjunto Yeyo y Cane
Salon Los Angeles is a Mexico City nightclub that was founded in 1937 and still exists in the same location.
In 1954, The US government instituted a program called, with astonishingly candid racism, Operation Wetback. Seeking to restrict legal immigration to the bracero program, it dramatically increased border patrols, and over a million people were deported in the first year alone. The lives of undocumented workers, and the relentless persecution of them, became the subject of many songs. A search for the word mojado in the Frontera Collection database returns a startling number of results, suggesting an attempt to reclaim, in song, the pejorative epithet.
“Undocumented Mexican workers board buses for deportation, Los Angeles, 1954” from the Los Angeles Daily News Negatives Collection, UCLA Library Special Collections.
Detail of an inscription on the negative of the above news photograph.
The duet Los Alegres de Teran are represented in the Frontera Collection more than any other musical act. One of the over 800 recordings in the collection is “Las Redadas.”
Listen on the Frontera website: “Las Redadas” by Los Alegres de Terán
Virtuoso accordionist Flaco Jimenez performed his song “Mojado sin Licencia” for the 1976 Les Blank film Chulas Fronteras, which was produced by Chris Strachwitz and is currently viewable on the streaming service Kanopy, which is available through UCLA and the Los Angeles Public Library.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Mojado sin Licencia” by Flaco Jimenez from Chulas Fronteras
The emergence of rock and roll provided another musical outlet for Mexican American youth. East LA’s Thee Midniters were one of the more successful early Chicano rock bands. Though they sang in English, they retained a keen sense of ethnic identity. In 1967, they released the single “Chicano Power.”
Listen on the Frontera website: “Chicano Power” by Thee Midniters
The struggles of workers have been a common subject for this music even before the bracero program. The rise of the United Farm Workers union in the 1960s galvanized these personal stories into collective action and provided musicians new heroes to sing about.
UFW cofounder Cesar Chavez sings with members of El Teatro Campesino.
UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta.
Photographs by Jesus S. Treviño from the Rosalio Muñoz Papers, UCLA CSRC Archives.
From the Lupe Anguiano Papers, UCLA CSRC Archives
Songs chronicled the tumult and tragedies of the 1960s. The assassinations of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King prompted dozens of musical lamentations, evincing the shared struggle of Chicanos and African Americans for social justice. Robert Kennedy, especially, had sought to cultivate a powerful alliance with Mexican Americans. He even met with participants in the East L.A. Walkouts just weeks before his murder.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Corrido al Senador Kennedy” by Elena y Nando and “El Corrido de Martin Luther King” by Gregorio y Maria
From the The Fire of Life: The Robert Legorreta - Cyclona Collection, UCLA CSRC Archives.
A sequence from an untitled campaign film from the Ralph Arriola Papers, UCLA CSRC Archives. Signs for the United Mexican American Students can be seen in the crowd
On August 29, 1970, the National Chicano Moratorium March opposing the Vietnam War took place in East Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department descended on the peaceful protest in force. Journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by a deputy who shot him with a tear gas canister.
Lalo Guerrero recorded two songs in Salazar’s honor: “Homenaje a Ruben Salazar” and “La Tragedia del 29 Agosto.”
Images from the La Raza Photograph Archive, UCLA CSRC Archives.
For their first album, the band Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles included a version of the old warhorse “Cielito Lindo,” probably known to many as “The Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay Song.” But they immediately followed it with a version in the Son Huasteco style, demonstrating both their virtuosity and their familiarity with different idioms. The band would soon shorten its name to Los Lobos and go on to mainstream success.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Cielito Lindo (Cancion) / Cielito Lindo (Son Huasteco)” by Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles
From the David Damian Figueroa Papers
In the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt was famous as one of the most eclectic talents in music (and as the girlfriend of Governor Jerry Brown). In 1987, she released the album Canciones de Mi Padre, which would become the biggest non-English language hit in U.S. music history.
Listen on the Frontera website: “Corrido de Cananea” by Linda Ronstadt
The 1961 Japanese song “Ue o Muite Arukō (“I Look Up as I Walk”) by Kyu Sakamoto, was released in the United States in 1963 with a stereotypical and recognizably Japanese name that had nothing to do with its lyrics. It became a number one hit. In 1990, Selena released her version of the song known internationally as “Sukiyaki.”
Listen on the Frontera website: “Sukiyaki” by Selena y Los Dinos
Selena's 1995 murder brought attention to Tejano music from the mainstream media, and the 1997 motion picture biography was a pop culture phenomenon before it was even filmed.
A publicity photograph of Jennifer Lopez from Selena, with retouching notes. From the Moctesuma Esparza Papers, UCLA CSRC Archives.
From the David Damian Figueroa Papers, UCLA CSRC Archives.
The Frontera Collection’s scope ends in the mid-1990s, about the time the battle over Proposition 187 began in California. That notorious anti-immigrant legislation was a precursor to the current moment, when the demonization and persecution of Mexicans and other Latinx people has reached horrific levels. Immigration has been used as an issue to inflame the fear of racist whites, and to direct their anger and violence at ethnic others, rather than at the corporate overlords that are truly responsible for their subjugation. What music will emerge from this dark time?
This sign is an artifact from an Arizona voter registration drive, circa 2012. Do not text to the number shown. But do register to vote. And then…VOTE!
Records and ephemera are drawn from the following collections: the Anthony Beltramo Collection, the Humberto Cané Record Collection, the Sal Castro Record Collection, the Chicano Studies Research Center Record Collection, the Fire of Life: the Robert Legoretta/Cyclona Collection, the Pedro J. Gonzalez Papers, the Ruben Guevara Records and Papers, and the Candelaria Mendoza Music Collection.