Skip to main content

A Field Guide to... The Borderlands

A Field Guide to... The Borderlands
A Field Guide to... The Borderlands | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Explore and learn about the world of sound and music found in the Smithsonian Folkways collection from the comfort of your little device. A Field Guide to… the Borderlands was curated by National Heritage Fellow, author, ethnomusicologist, and former director of Smithsonian Folkways, Daniel Sheehy.

Apple Music

Listen on Pandora here

Track Notes

Up until the middle of the 20th century, the U.S.-Mexico border region was more a site of bi-national unity rather than separation. Local people easily crossed the political borderline as if it barely existed, visiting family and friends, shopping, selling their goods, and traveling north or south with ease. Today, as the physical borderland barriers grow taller and longer, and as immigration along the border has become a political hot potato, local residents still hold much in common, even as they struggle to negotiate dehumanizing forces of national difference and political grandstanding. Since music is a simultaneously public and intimate parts of people’s lives, it is only natural that music becomes a reflection of the lives they are living.

Over the past half century in particular, many have embraced music as a way to express their commonality, declare their personal identification with Greater Mexican culture regardless of their citizenship, honor their heroes of cultural resistance in the face of a dominating majority culture, and insist on focusing on the beauty and inherent value of a culture heritage that binds them together in the midst of mainstream dissonance promulgated via the mass media and national politics.

While today people of many different cultural backgrounds call the U.S.-Mexico border region home, this playlist spotlights sounds, traditions, cultures, and artists that draw directly from the centuries-old borderlands experience. Musical expressions both old and new draw from the experience of being family, neighbors, or cultural cousins. Mexican Americans, mexicanos from Mexico, Tejanos, and Indigenous peoples play and participate in music either as a way of consciously asserting themselves in the broader cultural body politic or as a way of simply being who they are in their songs, sounds, and social life. And of course, as society evolves and changes, music changes along with it, so some of the tracks drawn from the Folkways collections were new a century ago but are thought of today as old-time tradition, and others are recent creations reflecting either a bilingual baseline or a borderlands abyss.

Accordion-driven polkas and other dance rhythms drawn from the 19th century, corrido ballads telling stories of borderlands heroes and events, songs from the Mexican música ranchera mold, fiddle music from pre-accordion times, and songs with English lyrics are the building blocks of the list. The Spanish-dominant communities on the north side of the political border are most present, though some tracks are included intentionally to imply a broader, more diverse presence of people united by both togetherness and a resistance to separation. With all of this in mind, we hope that we offer something new to learn about, but above all, we hope that you enjoy the music!

Track 1

La chicharronera (The Pork Crackling Maker)
By Narciso Martínez
From Norteño & Tejano Accordion Pioneers 1929-1939

“La Chicharronera” is one of the earliest recorded Texas Mexican polcas, published by Ideal Records in 1936. It was composed by accordionist Narciso Martínez of San Benito, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley and performed by Martínez with his longtime bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida. Both Martínez and Almeida went on to receive National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowships in their later years. The recording’s historical significance was honored by its addition to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2019. Note its up-tempo pace, in contrast to slower Tejano polcas recorded in the 1950s and beyond.

Track 2

Benjamín Argumedo
By Los Pingüinos del Norte
From Conjuntos Norteños

This corrido from the era of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) helps set the stage for the forging of Texas Mexican music. Argumedo was a military leader and protoganist in the complicated currents of the revolutionary warring. His fearlessness was commemorated in this corrido, cast in the waltz meter popular in the times. Los Pingüinos del Norte (The Penguins of the North) based in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas, offer this rootsy rendition of this classic.

Track 3

El corrido de Gregorio Cortez (The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez)
By José “El Patrullero” Moreno
From El Fidelero Del Valle

In 1901, Mexican-born Gregorio Cortez killed Sheriff W.T. Morris in an altercation apparently prompted by a misunderstanding of Spanish as to the ownership of a horse. After a massive manhunt by the Texas Rangers and other officers of the law, Cortez was tried and convicted of stealing the horse. His impressive resistance to the “rinches cobardes” (“cowardly Rangers,” as many Mexican Americans called them) and his stirring courtroom defense earned him a place as one of the earliest prominent resistors of Anglo domination over Texas Mexicans. The polka-rhythm setting reflects the shift toward up-tempo songs and away from the slower waltz meter.

Track 4

Joaquín Murrieta
By Luis Méndez and Guadalupe Bracamonte
From Heroes and Horses: Corridos from the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands

Joaquín Murrieta was born in Sonora in northern Mexico, and around 1850 followed his fortunes to northern California in the Gold Rush days. There, he was the victim of racial discrimination and violence, to the point that he turned outlaw. Over time, he was idolized in California as an early protagonist of Mexican resistance to Anglo domination and abuse. This corrido, still active in contemporary repertoire, tells of his life and daring before death at the hands of vigilantes. Performers Luis Méndez and Guadalupe Bracamonte were natives of Caborca, Sonora, located right across the border from the Arizona Tohono O’odham reservation.

Track 5

Mexico Americano (Mexican American)
By Los Pingüinos del Norte
From Corridos de la Frontera

From the 1960s forward, the Chicano civil rights movement stirred pride, resistance, and songs among many Mexican Americans. Border composer Rumel Fuentes penned this example, one of several interpretations found in the Folkways collections. “Por mi madre yo soy mexicano, por destino soy americano. Yo soy de la raza de oro. Yo soy mexicoamericano.” (I am Mexican on the part of my mother, American by destiny. I am from the golden race. I am Mexican American.)

Track 6

Son Matache (Matachín Melody)
By José Moreno
From El Fidelero Del Valle

Before the accordion was imported into the borderlands region in the late 1800s, the violin reigned supreme as the lead melody instrument. José “El Patrullero” Moreno of the Rio Grande Valley region keeps this sound alive, here performing music to accompany the ritual dancers known as matachines.

Track 7

San Javielpo Chu’kuy Kwi (Black Mountain in San Xavier)
By Francisco Molina
From Borderlands: From Conjunto to Chicken Scratch

The Yaqui people in southern Arizona and across the border in Mexico maintain the generations-old borderlands fiddle sound. Fiddle, harp, and guitar were key instruments brought to the Mexican region during the colonial period 1521-1810. This melody accompanies the dancers know as pascolas (old men of the fiesta), a regular sight and sound at Eastertime festivities.

Track 8

Al Oidak Polka
By Gu-Achi Fiddlers
From Borderlands: From Conjunto to Chicken Scratch

The international popularity of the polka in the 1800s left its mark throughout the borderlands region. The Tonoho O’odham of southern Arizona incorporated it into their social dance repertoire, part of the waila (from Spanish baila, dance) tradition. This 1988 rendition by the Gu-Achi Fiddlers is a thread of musical continuity from Mexican colonial and 19th-century times.

Track 9

Amor bonita (Pretty Love)
By Lydia Mendoza
From Tejano Roots: The Women: 1946-1970

Female singers left a major mark on border music. Lydia Mendoza (1916–2007), known as “La Alondra de la Frontera” (The Meadowlark of the Border), and “La Cancionera de los Pobres” (The Songstress of the Poor) was the most influential of all. In Following her first major hit recording in 1934, “Mal Hombre” (Evil Man), her own song “Amor bonito” (Pretty Love) became one of her enduring signature hits.

Track 10

La pajarera (The Bird Vendor)
By Lydia Mendoza
From Tejano Roots: The Soulful Women Duets of South Texas

Rosita Fernández and Aurelia Segovia were a leading example of the borderlands female duet prominent during the middle years of the 20th century. This track represents well this niche of música tejana. It also illustrates the surging popularity of the saxophone, often joining the button accordion as a lead melody instrument.

Track 11

La que sea (Whoever Comes Along)
By Hermanas Cantu
From Tejano Roots: The Women: 1946-1970

In Texas and northern Mexico, singers often took popular waltz-rhythm canciones rancheras (country music) recorded with mariachi accompaniment and cast them in an upbeat polka rhythm with an accordion-driven conjunto. “La que sea” (Whoever Comes Along) is one of these, written and recorded by actor-singer superstar Miguel Aceves Mejía and transformed to suit Tejano tastes by the Cantú sisters Ninfa and Nori and accordionist Paulino Bernal’s conjunto.

Track 12

Tequila es mala yerba (Tequila Is a Weed)
By Beto Villa
From Father of Orquesta Tejana, Vol. 1

Beto Villa (1915–1986) is considered to be the Father of Orquesta Tejana. Leading with his saxophone, he combined the Tejano sound with the big band orchestra popular in the 1940s and 1950s. His sound went on to influence many Tejano music makers.

Track 13

By Tony De La Rosa
From Atotonilco: 24 Original Hits 1950-1960

The rest of this playlist brings us into the “modern” sounds found among Mexican American borderlands communities. In “Atotonilco,” accordionist/bandleader Tony De La Rosa exemplifies the modern conjunto instrumentation of button accordion, bajo sexto, string or electric bass, and drumkit. His staccato accordion style in “Atotonilco” became a standard ingredient of the conjunto Tejano sound.

Track 14

Lo dudo (I Doubt It)
By Valerio Longoria
From Texas Conjunto Pioneer

Valerio Longoria broadened the versatility of the Tejano accordion style as well as the repertoire. His bolero “Lo dudo” is a good example of the expanding range of harmonies, percussion, and musical genres played by the conjunto tejano. The bolero had been played in Mexico since the 1920s and achieved enormous popularity in the late 1940s and 1950s, making it an essential part of the repertoire of musicians playing for dances and concerts.

Track 15

Mi único camino (My Only Path)
By Conjunto Bernal
From Tejano Roots: Raices Tejanas

Accordionist and bandleader Paulino Bernal further expanded the conjunto Tejano sound with lush, three-part vocal and accordion harmonies, as heard in this 1959 recording. Bernal became a superstar of Tejano music before he chose a different path in the 1970s of becoming a Christian evangelist and performing Christian music.

Track 16

Ay te dejo en San Antonio (I’ll Leave You There in San Antonio)
By Flaco Jiménez
From Best of Flaco Jiménez

Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez plays the title song of his Grammy-winning album of the same name. His father Santiago Jiménez and his brother Santiago Jiménez, Jr. all took the accordion music of the previous generations and created new music in older molds. Over the past half century in Texas and beyond, there has been no conjunto music more popular than the canción ranchera cast in a polka rhythm. “Ay te dejo en San Antonio” typifies the common ranchera theme of romantic betrayal, as the protagonist’s girlfriend leaves him for another. Flaco’s signature voice and accordion style say, “This is música tejano,” “This is Tejano music.”

Track 17

Corrido de Río Arriba
By Los Reyes de Albuquerque
From Rolas de Aztlán: Songs of the Chicano Movement

The 1960s brought the Chicano Civil Rights Movement marked by demonstrations for social justice, pride in Mexican American cultural, and new musical expressions of Mexican identity. In 1967, Reies López Tijerina led members of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants) in storming the courthouse of Tierra Amarilla with the intention of freeing some of their members who had been jailed. The issue was that Anglo landowners and collaborators had violated Spanish land grant agreements that had been reaffirmed in the wake of the Mexican American War and its culminating Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In resisting the unjust land grab, López Tijerina became a regional symbol of resistance to Anglo injustices. Roberto Martínez, originally from Mora, New Mexico penned this corrido, performed by his group, Los Reyes de Albuquerque.

Track 18

Chicano Park Samba
By Los Alacranes Mojados (with Chunky Sánchez)
From Rolas de Aztlán: Songs of the Chicano Movement

In 1970, San Diego’s Chicano community of Logan Heights rose up to protest the city’s decision to use land in their community for a highway patrol substation. They wanted to use this plot of land located underneath the Coronado Bay Bridge as a community park. The local musical group Los Alacranes (The Scorpions), led by singer/songwriter/Chicano activist Chunky Sánchez led the successful efforts to seize the land for their own use. Today, Chicano Park is an historic property, and Chunky Sánchez was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow.

Track 19

Mojado sin licencia
By Flaco Jiménez
From Un Mojado Sin Licencia and Other Hits from the 1960s

As border immigration controls tightened in the latter half of the 20th century, the theme of crossing the border without proper documentation rose in prominence in Tejano music. In “Mojado sin licencia” (Wetback Without a Driver’s License) Tejano accordion great Flaco Jiménez interprets his father Santiago’s composition telling the tragicomic tale of a man crossing the border at Laredo, on his way to marry his girlfriend Chencha in San Antonio. In the end, the lack of a driver’s license lands him in jail, and the man from the driver’s license office runs off with his girlfriend!

Track 20

Composed by Woody Guthrie
Performed by Los Texmaniacs
From Cruzando Borders

Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie was moved by a news article reporting the plane crash in which Mexican farm laborers were killed in a plane crash as they were being returned to Mexico. The article omitted mention of their names, leaving them to perish in anonymity.

Track 21

Across the Borderline
By Los Texmaniacs
From Cruzando Borders

This popular English-language song speaks to the dreams and disappointments of those looking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Texamaniacs leader Max Baca interprets.

Track 22

Las nubes (The Clouds)
By Los Texmaniacs and La Marisoul, feat. Little Joe Hernández
From Corazones and Canciones

Tejano music superstar Little Joe Hernández joins Marisol Hernández and Chris Rivera in singing “La nubes” (The Clouds), a signature song of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, especially in Texas. Little Joe and his group La Familia transformed this little-known piece into a musical flag of Mexican American identity.