Somos Mas Americanos:
Music and Civic Participation
How can music shape the way we think about ourselves? Our histories? And, our national narratives?
Los Tigres del Norte are legends of Mexican-American music. Since they formed in the late 60s they have released over 50 albums, sold over 21 million records, and been nominated for over a dozen grammy awards, winning five of them. Writing in the journal Transforming Culture, Mariana Rodriguez writes:
Formed by the brothers Jorge, Hernán, Eduardo, and Luis Hernández, and their cousin Oscar Lara, in the late 1960s, Los Tigres del Norte started playing at weddings and social gatherings in the town of Rosa Morada in Sinaloa State, Mexico, in order to make money after their father had an accident. In 1968, after playing in Mexicali, Baja California, Los Tigres traveled to San José, California, where, it is popularly claimed, a promoter hired them to play at either a dieciséis de Septiembre or a Cinco de Mayo party.
It is said that Los Tigres adopted their name because immigration officials called them “little tigers” due to their young age, ranging from 10 to 17 years in 1968. Los Tigres del Norte were eventually “discovered” by the Englishman Art Walker, also known as Arturo Caminante, who produced their three first albums through his company Fama Records. The band released a few records that mixed cumbia, ranchera and bolero styles. However, when Walker and Jorge Hernández went to Los Angeles looking for new material they heard a mariachi singer called Joe Flores singing “Contrabando y traición” (“Contraband and Treason”). After a few attempts at cutting and recutting the song, they finally released an album, Contrabando y traición, characterized by the Hernández brothers’ harmonies and nasal sound. Los Tigres mainly sing corridos [a ballad in a traditional Mexican style, typically having lyrics that narrate a historical event] but they also play a mix of cumbias and slow tempo rhythms, all driven by the powerful northern Mexican accordion sound.
Central to the music of Los Tigres del Norte is their storytelling. The band members, all naturalized U.S. citizens, were born in Mexico but live in the United States and their lyrics reflect the experiences of Mexican immigrants. Their lyrics often reveal aspects of life that are either unrecognized or invisible to many non-immigrants.
Below is a video of one of their most famous songs, Somos Más Americanos (We are More American). The 2001 song, sung, like most of Los Tigres music, is in Spanish and is from their second number one album, Uniendo Fronteras (Uniting Borders). We’ve linked to lyrics in Spanish and English here.
Another song, characteristic of Los Tigres del Norte’s message on Mexican immigration, is “Los Hijos de Hernandez.” This song illustrates the hardworking nature of Mexican and Latin American immigrants and their history of serving to fight for the US. The song, summary, and lyrics can be found here.
- Before listening to the songs, ask students to think about the music they listen to. Who are their favorite artists? What do they sing about? How do those performers want their audience to feel? What do they want them to do?
- Transition to an introduction of Los Tigres del Norte and the two songs, Somos Más Americanos and Los Hijos de Hernandez. Use the overview above and here to craft your introduction and then play either the songs or the videos. A good resource to use to guide listening is the U.S. National Archives sound analysis template. The purpose of the graphic organizer is to help students interpret the meaning of a recording, including a song. We have linked to it here.
- Los Tigres del Norte sing in Spanish. What might that tell us about their intended audience?
- Look at the words of the songs, in either English or in Spanish. What can you learn about their intended audience from the words they use? What messages were they trying to send?
- To wrap up the lesson, you might invite students to write a short review of the songs, integrating their interpretation of the meaning of the lyrics with observations about the music or you may choose to focus the discussion on the form of expression used by Los Tigres del Norte: music.
- Consider the power of music to convey social messages. How effective is it? Can students think of examples of music that has influenced how they think about the world? Has music ever helped them cross borders, introducing them to another world? If so, what did they learn through music that they might not have learned through other forms of media?
- Some people feel that social messages get in the way of their enjoyment of music, while other’s feel that the social content of the music is central to their taste in music. Ask students where they fall on that spectrum. One strategy to facilitate the discussion is called the barometer. We have linked to an explanation of the strategy from Facing History and Ourselves here.