I’ve recently taken a small diversion from Flamenco and electronic music to explore the realms of Border music. I think it has to do with my ongoing nostalgia for the Southwest. A few years ago, I took trips to Arizona and New Mexico to do some genealogical research and left feeling connected to that geographic area, the roots trailing behind me on the highway home. Unfortunately, I no longer have immediate family in the region, but I’m sure Tucson is filled with distant relatives I will probably never meet. These trips and my on-going genealogical investigations inspired my new found interest in border music.
These emotions were stirred up recently when I watched the Arhoolie produced video, Chulas Fronteras.
“’Chulas Fronteras’ provides a magnificent introduction to the most exciting Norteña (“Northern” Texas-Mexican border) musicians working today: Los Alegres de Teran, Lydia Mendoza, Flaco Jimenez and others. The music and spirit of the people is seen embodied in their strong family life and sheer enjoyment of domestic rituals preparing of food and eating, celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary, gathering in the backyard with friends. At the same time Blank does not overlook the hardships, in particular the Chicano experience of migrating from state to state with the seasons for work in the fields. He makes clear the role that music has in redeeming their lives by giving utterance to collective pain. For music, politics and life are integrated in this film in a way that is both enchanting and unsettling.”
Narciso Martinez from Chulas Fronteras
The opening scene shows some Tejanos on a make shift ferry (basically what looked to be a raft of wooden pallets) pulling their truck across the Rio Grande/Bravo. Rope is strung between the shores, which the men use to pull the ferry and the truck, across by hand. The DIY ingenuity continues during a scene of a bar-b-que tardeada showing these same men as they prepare, for what looks to be, a fine meal. While one grinds chiles in a molcajete, the other improvises and uses his beer bottle and bucket as a mortar and pestle to pulp roasted tomatoes for his salsa. There’s also a great scene of legendary Lydia Mendoza (RIP) making tamales in her kitchen. This is a music documentary mind you, but these small vignettes of Tejano life are what make the music and the subjects so compelling.
As for the music itself, there’s plenty of corridos, norteños and rancheras to accompany the various life scenes. All the lyrics are translated too. I particularly enjoyed the scenes of the live performances and the dancing couples in Tejano salons and niteclubs. (I consider my life somewhat tragic for never having learned to properly dance to corridos, nortenos or for that matter, any other dance that requires a partner.) Perhaps if I watch the documentary enough, I can pick up a few steps!
I’m grateful for filmmakers like Les Blank who had the foresight to capture these cultural moments in time and create audio visual treasures like Chulas Fronteras.
The video is generally available on the internet and at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Chulas Fronteras with:
Lydia Mendoza, Flaco Jiménez, Narciso Martínez, Los Alegres de Teran, Rumel Fuentes, Don Santiago Jiménez, Los Pinqüinos Del Norte, Ramiro Cavazos (Canción Mixteca)
Filmed in South Texas.