The term “murder ballad” always sounded somewhat comic to me. I’m not sure the first time I ever heard that term. I’d known about “corridas,” which people tell me are different, though “murder ballads” are considered “Corridas.”‘ Huh? Now you know how I feel parsing the English to Spanish dichotomies that are like night and day on the border. Corridas are not unique to Mexico. Almost every culture has them, including my own. One needs to look no further than the lovely Irish weepie, The Long Black Veil to see what I mean. Death songs are not uncommon the world over.
Death songs by the murderer himself? Bragging and justifying his actions? The corridas of gangs and the criminal cartel culture started showing up some 20 years ago in the LA gang culture. The Mexican Mafia and MS 13 were known to traffic and trade them amongst their membership, along with “ponyos,” sometimes beautiful drawings made on handkerchiefs by Hispanic inmates in prisons throughout the Southwest.
Law enforcement were horrified by the murder ballads; at least in America they were. Mexican authorities, not so much. They’d seen death cults and ritual as a matter of cultural course pretty much their whole lives.
The Day of the Dead, or as the Catholic religion calls it, AAll Souls Day,” is a big deal in Mexico and the dead come back and drink, fornicate, and dance over their own graves. It is a colossal “fuck you” to the great beyond and, some will tell you, to the idea of a deity itself. It is celebrated with tequila, skulls made of sugar, and dancing skeletons. The corazon and calavera present everywhere in sight. In Latin cultures, death is as important as birth and its visitation is sometimes viewed as the coming of an old atavistic friend. . .or at least this is what the folktales and old stories attempt to weave into the mythmaking.
The murder culture so prevalent in Mexico right now is not part of any musical or poetic narrative. It is a full-on war and the country is losing itself. The murders of thousands of women, cops, citizens and witnesses that happen with utter impunity hints at a greater madness–a plague of sorts. Years ago, the great Spanish novelist, Jose Saramago, wrote a novel called, Blindness, in which a whole city lost its sight at the same time; with one exception. It was damn near the kind of thing that the great Stephen King has perfected in fiction; an arresting and somehow almost plausible fictional device.
This is what Juarez now brings to mind. It is like something out of a Stephen King novel come to life, except it is all actually happening. People calmly walk up to others on busy streets, in broad daylight, and blow their fucking brains out. . .and walk away. In Juarez, it sometimes takes the cops two hours to show up and claim the body. There are NO investigations. In fact, there is know human count, no official record of the dead and the disappeared. I overheard one law enforcement officer say out loud, “It’s mutts killing mutts. It’s bugs eating bugs. Who gives a fuck?” This was a Chicago policeman, who are in fact known for the tender mercies they extend to the local citizenry here.
Can you imagine if this happened in Malibu? Or Westchester county? Or Lake Forest? Of course you can’t. The reason it’s happening at all is because it’s happening to people of color, who happen to be poor. And it happens within spitting distance of America.
I saw my friend Penn Jillette in the last few days. Penn is the reason I was able to start my etching studio 20 years ago. I’d just been famously ripped off by the dealer Vrej Baghoomian and was broke with a three-week old son. I called Penn and told him if he backed me in Big Cat Press, I’d give him an etching every time I made one for the rest of my life. He replied, “How much you need, Baby?” I told him and the next day I had the money. He now has one of every etching I’ve ever made and will get one every time I make a new one.
Penn and I are very different politically, but the one thing we agree on is we ought to just open the borders. Anyone who wants to be an American should just come on over; we both believe this, as well as anyone who wants to leave, should do so. Penn is more Libertarian than anything else, but not in a doctrinaire way. I just believe what we wrote on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your poor, your tired, your hungry. . .” I don’t believe there are words written about our country anywhere else that make me as proud to be an American than those words on that Statue. Beyond this, Penn and I disagree on other principles politically, but on the big important issue of who gets to be an American, we agree completely. I think if you can look at the Brooklyn Bridge or the Grand Canyon or the skyline of my beloved Chicago. . .if you can look at those things and see yourself as part of it, well, this is all of the birthright one need have. Come on over, take our hand, make this stolen property we live on a better place for your fellow man.
What I’m getting at is we should give sanctuary and comfort to our neighbors from Mexico. If we believe the words we wrote on the Statue of Liberty; then let the light of freedom shine.