San Jose grassroots band raises awareness of plights of immigrants

October 17, 2019 — by Marisa Kingsley

On Sept. 13, Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, CA, gave the key to the city — one of the city’s highest honors and token of gratitude — to local band Tigres Del Norte (Tigers of the North) for their support of organizations including the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN), and longtime advocacy for the rights of immigrants. 

At the ceremony, councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco was one of many who praised the band.

“These brothers and musicians are the epitome of success, and to us here in San Jose, they are our hometown heroes,” Carrasco said in a story in The Mercury News. 

Los Tigres Del Norte is made up of brothers Jorge Hernández, 66, (lead vocals, accordion), Hernán Hernández, 61, (bass, vocals), Eduardo Hernández, 54, (accordion, saxophone, bass, vocals), Luis Hernández, 45, (bajo quinto, vocals) and their cousin Oscar Lara, 69, (drums). Together, they’ve been creating norteño music — a genre originating from Northern Mexico — for over 40 years, selling over 40 million albums worldwide. 

Considered to be Mexico’s version of the Beatles, they have recorded over 500 songs on 60 albums and accumulated many awards, including the Latin Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, seven Grammys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Their success did not come easily, however. The band faced a plethora of obstacles as they fought for recognition. 

The band took up residence in the east San Jose in 1967, initially making music as a means to earn money for their family in their hometown of Rosa Morada, Sinaloa, Mexico, after their father could no longer work. 

The band was only recognized locally until the 1970s. However, that quickly changed once they became the first band signed to Fama Records, a label conceived by Art Walker, who heard the band on a live radio presentation recorded in San José. 

Under Walker’s guidance, the band developed a modern, more electric sound, along with a refined approach to songwriting which highlighted the social motifs that were common to Mexican-Americans. In 1972, their breakthrough hit, “Contrabando y Traición” (Contraband and Betrayal), portrays  the true story of a drug-trafficking couple whose exploits get them murdered. 

Despite their music often dealing with drug trafficking and other criminal acts, the band has never tried to glamorize the subject matter, thereby earning them a respectable reputation. This has allowed their music to resonate with a myriad of demographics, with some dubbing them the “Jefes de jefes” (Bosses of bosses). 

Furthermore, Los Tigres Del Norte has earned a reputation as grassroot activists by telling the stories of the adversity and endurance of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike. 

In 2005, music critic Chuy Varela wrote a feature story about the band in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“For more than 30 years they have lifted up a music once looked down on for its lower-class roots, making norteño a commercially viable pop music. Yet there is a higher sense of purpose to what they do,” Varela wrote. “Los Tigres give strength to people who feel marginalized and under attack in these days of widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.” 

Their activism goes much further than their music. 

In 2000, the band donated $500,000 to the UCLA Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican-America Recordings which seeks to commemorate North America’s Spanish-language heritage with over 125,000 musical recordings. 

In April 2018, the band performed at Folsom Prison in Folsom. This performance came in the footsteps of country music idol Johnny Cash’s famed performance at Folsom Prison 50 years earlier. The band sought to emphasize the shifting incarcerated population since Cash performed, including a Spanish interpretation of Cash’s song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” 

The band partnered with Netflix to create a documentary of their performance that was released in September of this year, during Hispanic Heritage Month. 

Although Los Tigres has gained an international following and continue to tour globally, San Jose locals continue to treasure  the band’s distinguished legacy. 

“People in this city have so much pride and connection to this musical group, which has transformed Latin music and spread it throughout the world,” Carrasco said.

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