As Violence Rages on in Mexico, a Cultural Renaissance Emerges

Louis E.V. Nevaer


MEXICO CITY – Mexican youths living in border cities from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez are reclaiming civil society via cultural movements emerging on the heels of a six year, government-led "War on Drugs" that has left many Mexican border communities ravaged by violence.


The new wave of border music


In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s deadliest city, where the drug war has been exacerbated by a well-documented (and still unsolved) wave of violence directed against women, a growing number of young people are using music as a platform to raise their voice against the culture of violence, fear and apparent impunity enjoyed by the drug cartels and those shadowy criminals responsible for the wave of femicides.


Since 1993 more than 700 women have been murdered or sexually assaulted in Ciudad Juarez, just a few miles from the mild-mannered suburbs of El Paso, Texas. The violence has been well documented by, among others, Teresa Rodriguez, a Univision reporter whose 2008 book, The Daughters of Juarez, gave voice to the city’s many women who live in daily fear.


The new music being fashioned by young people on the border – the genre has come to be known as “Nueva Ola Fronteriza” (new border wave) -- stands in sharp contrast, both lyrically and sonically, to "Narco Corridos” (drug ballads), a genre of music that glamorizes the exploits of the drug cartels. Those ballads, which spin tales of drug lords such as Ciudad Juarez's Amado Carrillo Fuentes (known as the Lord of the Skies) and Tijuana's Arellano-Felix brothers, who controlled the drug routes between Tijuana and San Diego, are now held in disdain by many Mexican youths. Their attitudes are perhaps best summed up by a popular Youtube video depicting young people ridiculing legendary narco-corrido groups such as Los Tigres del Norte as "so last decade."


In Ciudad Juarez, the popularity of Nueva Ola Fronteriza music is clearly gaining acceptance, even to the point of becoming mainstream. One band, Maldita Vecindad (Damned Neighborhood, roughly translated) is so popular that it has garnered major corporate sponsorships, including from Corona beer. Another local band, Pajaros Sin Alas (Birds Without Wings) eschews the style and narrative of the Narco Corrido groups by creating music with a modern electronic beat and lyrics that speak not of drug deals gone bad, but of Zen and peace. Yet another popular group, Caifanes, has hundreds of thousands of fans and plays to sold-out stadiums. And quiet arguably it is Diego Antillon, of the group Airek, who best exemplifies the impulse of Nueva Ola Fronteriza to forego words altogether – consider their song “Magic” -- in favor of a more evocative and less literal approach to the music.


While the Nueva Ola Fronteriza movement surges along the Mexican side of the border, less certain is whether the new music, and the message it contains, will resonate in the U.S. southwest, where Narco Corridos have been wildly popular for more than a decade. In 2004, just a short time after Narco Corridos had crossed over to a U.S. audience, the BBC reported that: "In the U.S. the market for Mexican regional music, including narco corridos, is worth about $300 million a year, with Los Angeles being the hub of the narco corrido industry. Los Tigres' most recent album sold nearly 500,000 copies in the U.S. alone.”



But the Narco Corrido craze is ancient history to today's youth – they were in diapers when Los Tigres del Norte first made a splash in the impoverished barrios of East L.A. -- who are filling stadiums across northern Mexico, and whose music is redefining the cultural scene in Ciudad Juarez.


Meanwhile, a different cultural movement is afoot to reclaim public spaces for visual and culinary art that is changing the way people think about Tijuana, another Mexican border town deeply scarred by cartel violence.


Tijuana’s mean streets re-imagined


All it took was The New Yorker magazine praising Javier Plascencia, chef and owner of Tijuana’s Mision 19 restaurant in January, 2012, to shift all eyes to the famed Baja, California border city as a hotspot of culinary innovation. "Unlike other Mexican states, whose food traditions go back hundreds of years and are rigidly codified, Baja has no established regional cuisine," wrote Dana Goodyear in the article. "Plascencia’s mission is to… turn Tijuana into a site of gourmet pilgrimage. Given the city’s recent history, this is a particularly challenging task. Mexico is regarded as the world’s kidnapping capital and even though conditions have improved, the popular perception of Tijuana as unsafe remains." As a result of Goodyear’s review, well-heeled San Diegans are now prepared to wait weeks for a reservation and trek to Tijuana to have Plascencia prepare them dinner.


Since then, Tijuana has been singled out and praised in various media outlets for the revival of its murals, the renovation of its public spaces, for going green by planting thousands of new trees, and even for inspiring a signature "look" for tattoos.


Reporter Jill Holslin praised "the new, hip Tijuana" in the pages of At The Edges, heralding the revival of two public spaces – Pasaje Gomez and Plaza Madero -- that until recently had been virtually abandoned out of fear of violence. Both places now attract middle-class Mexicans -- and Californians -- who appear as relaxed, easy-going citizens enjoying afternoons of leisure, without a care in the world.


The result of the recent changes is electrifying, and exemplifies the resilience of Mexican border communities that have for so long been terrorized by violence. The reality of Tijuana’s recent triumphs sits in contrast to the hysterical portrayal of Tijuana in last year's film by Oliver Stone, Savages.


There's a saying for this in Spanish, of course: “No hay mal que cien años dure,” meaning, “There is no evil that will last a hundred years.” A generation of young Mexicans living along the border is proving that proverb right.


Photos: Mexican music group, Pajaros Sin Alas. Image from

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