Out of Mexico's Violence, New Cultural Expressions Emerge Along the Border

Out of Mexico's Violence, New Cultural Expressions Emerge Along the Border

Story tools

A A AResize


Photo (above): Ciudad Juarez-based electronic music artist Rodolfo Ramos Castro, aka Pájaro Sin Almas.

MEXICO CITY – Mexican youths living in border cities from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez are redefining the narratives in their respective cities via distinct cultural, musical and culinary movements that are emerging on the heels of a six year, government-led "War on Drugs" that has left many Mexican border communities ravaged by violence.

A new wave of border music

In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s deadliest city, where the drug war has been exacerbated by a well documented (and still unsolved) wave of violence directed against women, a growing number of young people are using music as a platform to raise their voice against the culture of violence, fear and apparent impunity enjoyed by the drug cartels and those shadowy criminals responsible for the wave of femicides.

Since 1993 more than 700 women have been murdered or sexually assaulted in Ciudad Juarez, just a few miles from the mild-mannered suburbs of El Paso, Texas. The violence has been well documented by, among others, Teresa Rodriguez, a Univision reporter whose 2008 book, The Daughters of Juarez, gave voice to the city’s many women who live in daily fear.

The new music being fashioned by young people on the border – one of the more intriguing genres has come to be known as “Nueva Ola Fronteriza” (new border wave) -- stands in sharp contrast, both lyrically and sonically, to "Narco Corridos” (drug ballads), a genre of music that glamorizes the exploits of the drug cartels. Those ballads, which spin tales of drug lords such as Ciudad Juarez's Amado Carrillo Fuentes (known as the Lord of the Skies) and Tijuana's Arellano-Felix brothers, who controlled the drug routes between Tijuana and San Diego, are now held in disdain by many Mexican youth. Their attitudes are perhaps best summed up by a popular Youtube video depicting young people ridiculing legendary narco-corrido groups such as Los Tigres del Norte as "so last decade."

In Ciudad Juarez, the popularity of Nueva Ola Fronteriza music is clearly gaining acceptance. Pájaro Sin Alas (Bird Without Wings), the one-man band of Rodolfo Ramos Castro, is one group at the forefront of the new genre, which eschews the style and narrative of the Narco Corrido groups by creating music with a modern electronic beat and lyrics that speak not of drug deals gone bad, but of Zen and peace. Ramos Castro recently explained to El Pais: "This [music] is rather ironic because it would be fun to make music in a city that usually has a violent stigma.”

Diego Antillon, of the group Airek, also associated Pájaro Sin Almas and the Nueva Ola Fronteriza genre, exemplifies the impulses of the post-Narco Corrido music toward a more evocative, less literal approach to music. Consider the instrumental track, “Magic,” with its dreamy imagery.

The local popularity of other more mainstream Mexican bands, such as Maldita Vecindad (Damned Neighborhood, roughly translated), indicate that youth are moving away from the sounds and lyics of Narco Corridos. That band, which classifies its style as an evolution of rock blending traditional Mexican music with the rhythms of Ska, is so popular that it has garnered major corporate sponsorships, such as from Corona beer.

While the new electronic and rock infused music surges along the Mexican side of the border, less certain is whether the music, and the messages it contains, will resonate in the U.S. southwest, where Narco Corridos have been wildly popular for more than a decade. In 2004, just a short time after Narco Corridos had crossed over to a U.S. audience, the BBC reported that: "In the U.S. the market for Mexican regional music, including Narco Corridos, is worth about $300 million a year, with Los Angeles being the hub of the narco corrido industry. Los Tigres' most recent album sold nearly 500,000 copies in the U.S. alone.”

But the Narco Corrido craze is ancient history to many of today's youth – they were in diapers when Los Tigres del Norte first made a splash in the impoverished barrios of East L.A. -- who are listening to electronic music created on laptops or filling stadiums across northern Mexico.

Meanwhile, a completely different but no less transformative kind of change is afoot -- the reclamation of public spaces by visual and culinary artists -- that is changing the way people think about Tijuana, another Mexican border town deeply scarred by cartel violence.

Tijuana’s mean streets, re-imagined

All it took was The New Yorker magazine praising Javier Plascencia, chef and owner of Tijuana’sMision 19 restaurant in January, 2012, to shift all eyes to the famed Baja California border city as a hot spot of culinary innovation. "Unlike other Mexican states, whose food traditions go back hundreds of years and are rigidly codified, Baja has no established regional cuisine," wrote Dana Goodyear. "Plascencia’s mission is to… turn Tijuana into a site of gourmet pilgrimage. Given the city’s recent history, this is a particularly challenging task. Mexico is regarded as the world’s kidnapping capital and even though conditions have improved, the popular perception of Tijuana as unsafe remains." As a result of Goodyear’s review, well-heeled San Diegans are now prepared to wait weeks for a reservation and trek to Tijuana to have Plascencia prepare them dinner.

Since then, Tijuana has been singled out and praised in various media outlets for the revival of its murals, the renovation of its public spaces, for going green by planting thousands of new trees, and even for inspiring a signature "look" for tattoos.

Reporter Jill Holslin praised "the new, hip Tijuana" in the pages of At The Edges, heralding the revival of two public spaces – Pasaje Gomez and Plaza Madero -- that until recently had been virtually abandoned out of fear of violence. Both places now attract middle class Mexicans -- and Californians -- who appear  in a recent video as relaxed, easy-going citizens enjoying afternoons of leisure, without a care in the world.

The result of the recent changes is electrifying, and exemplifies the resilience of Mexican border communities that have for so long been terrorized by violence. The reality of Tijuana’s recent triumphs sits in contrast to the hysterical portrayal of Tijuana in last year's film by Oliver Stone, Savages.

There's a saying for this in Spanish, of course: “No hay mal que cien años dure,” meaning, “There is no evil that will last a hundred years.”

A generation of young Mexicans living along the border is proving that proverb right.