Duranguense: Mexico Meets the Midwest The popularity of Duranguense music has made the link between Chicago and Durango, Mexico, more visible. But the connection is deeper than most creators and fans of the music know.
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Duranguense: Mexico Meets the Midwest

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Duranguense: Mexico Meets the Midwest

Duranguense: Mexico Meets the Midwest

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

A new style of Mexican music is burning up the Latin Billboard charts. The music is called Duranguense and in the past year, it has occupied as many as five of the top 10 spots. The popularity of Duranguense has taken the Latin music world by surprise. In the United States, most homegrown Spanish-language music comes from California or Texas. Duranguense is from Chicago. And in yet another unlikely twist, the music is inspired by one of Mexico's least-populated states. Producer Melissa Giraud found that to understand the Duranguense craze, you have to have one foot in Chicago and the other in far-away Durango.

MELISSA GIRAUD reporting:

The first big Duranguense hit in Chicago was called "Road to Tepehuanes." The song is about a man on a road trip who goes deep into the Mexican countryside and high up to the mountaintop town of Tepehuanes.

(Soundbite of "Road to Tepehuanes")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in Spanish)

GIRAUD: The traveler describes what he sees as his truck climbs the road connecting neighboring mountain villages. He tips his hat to the people he passes and stops to let school children cross. He's returned home to the northern state of Durango after many years away. `Here,' he sings, `there's a friend behind every door.'

(Soundbite of "Road to Tepehuanes")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in Spanish)

GIRAUD: This song is just one of many that tell a story about Durango, a place that most Americans have never heard of. In and around Chicago, there's a kind of Durango fever. You see it at the record store where kids pass over their once-favorite rap artists for Duranguense CDs. You also see it at the Western clothing shop where young men walk in wearing long T-shirts, jeans and sneakers and walk out wearing button-down shirts, chunky buckle belts and cowboy boots. And, says Pam Norma Perez, the most important item.

Ms. PAM NORMA PEREZ: Which is not the typical Mexican sombrero, it's the drink, it's the sombrero which is all smashed up like a Taco Bell.

GIRAUD: The sides of the hat are surprisingly high like an American-style taco.

Ms. PEREZ: So we call them the Taco Bell sombreros.

(Soundbite of radio)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

GIRAUD: Duranguense is everywhere on the radio, like this announcement for Chicago's Viva Mexico Festival, which promoters promise will be a hundred percent Duranguense.

As the popularity of Duranguense music rises, so does the cachet of everyone with ties to the state of Durango. Jaime Burasa's(ph) parents are both from there.

Mr. JAIME BURASA: Before, people would say, `Hey, you know, where you from?' `Durango.' `Oh, all right. Whatever,' you know, and now, they're `Where you from?' `Durango.' `Shut up. You're not. You liar. You're just trying to be cool.'

(Soundbite of Duranguense music)

GIRAUD: What's surprising is how little fans of the music actually know about Durango, even kids whose parents are from there. And there isn't much help in the history or travel section of the local library. The Lonely Planet Mexico guide book devotes four pages out of a thousand to the entire mountain state. The little that people here do know seems to rely on heavily on symbol and myth. Jaime Burasa and Norma Perez try to discourage stereotypes about Durango, like the one about Durango's state symbol, the scorpion or (Spanish spoken). They say it's common for people in Chicago to assume that all people of the Sierra are alike, that Duranguenses are scorpions.

Ms. PEREZ: She's a (Spanish spoken). Be careful with her because she's dangerous and people from Durango are dangerous and they're violent and they have poison and, you know, a lot of it is just dumb stuff.

Mr. BURASA: You hear about people from La Sierra and that they're really bad (Spanish spoken), they're really bad people, the ones that cheat on their wives, you know, `Oh, those are the womanizers. They don't--be careful. Don't go there,' you know? `Don't drive in'--like if you're going to La Sierra, you know, or you're going to pass La Sierra, if your car breaks down, you're done for, like, you're done, that's it, that's the end of it.

GIRAUD: The people of Durango have always been thought of as tough. After all, the legendary general Pancho Villa was a native of the region. He's remembered as a ruthless fighter, a revolutionary, a womanizer, and a Robin Hood figure who wanted to redistribute land to the poor. Duranguense fans in Chicago may not know much about Pancho Villa but they respect his values.

(Soundbite of rap music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Rapping) The revolutionist, Pancho Villa himself. Who? Mexican ...(unintelligible) robbin' the wealth. ...(Unintelligible) this band of bandits ...(unintelligible) whatever came about, he was always nailed for the crime. ...(Unintelligible).

GIRAUD: If Pancho Villa were alive today and visited a Duranguense dance in Chicago, he might recognize the marching band-style drumbeat at its core.

(Soundbite of Duranguense music)

GIRAUD: This drum is called a tamborazo and it was a popular instrument during the Mexican Revolution. The tamborazo makes noise from every side. From left and right comes the drumbeat, from above the crash of two cymbals. It is the heartbeat of Duranguense. Pancho Villa would also appreciate the outlaw as a running theme in Duranguense music. Chicago's Duranguense musicians make subtle references to the drug trade in their songs. At concerts, there's always a handful of mysterious young cowboys who make a show of carrying considerable cash. They wear expensive outfits, tailored leather suits, fine ostrich-skin boots, black cowboy hats and lots of gold. They order bottles of tequila for the tables around them. Whether they're real outlaws or posers, they give the scene a dangerous macho vibe.

(Soundbite of Duranguense music)

GIRAUD: But what appeals most to fans like 20-year-old Lisandra Navarez(ph) is the music's sensitivity to the underdog.

Ms. LISANDRA NAVAREZ: It represents so much of what I like to fight for, the working-class Mexican. In Mexico, there's a really big separation between classes. And they just--they dress differently, they talk a hundred percent differently and they listen to completely different music. And this kind of music would be more working-class. It's just what I'm about. I mean, my family did come here, and all other families have come here because obviously it wasn't going that well over there.

GIRAUD: Lisandra's right. Things weren't going well in Durango when Pancho Villa lived there or when her parents left. To find out what life is like there today, you have to go to Durango. You have to make the long trip down to north central Mexico.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

GIRAUD: The Durango countryside is stark and beautiful. Small towns built of adobe and cement dot dusty inclines and high plains. The towns are so sparsely settled, the earth so thirsty, that to see Durango is to know it's never been easy to live here. And you may have seen Durango. Its landscape has been a central character in a number of old Westerns.

(Soundbite of "The Sons of Katie Elder")

Mr. JOHN WAYNE: (As John) Billy.

Unidentified Man #4: (As Billy) Hello, John.

Mr. WAYNE: (As John) You ought to have better sense than that, coming up behind a man.

GIRAUD: This classic John Wayne scene is from his movie "The Sons of Katie Elder." Like so many other Westerns, it was shot among the peaks and dusty roads here. Durango made him and other Hollywood Western stars look tough.

(Soundbite of voices)

GIRAUD: Durango native and scholar Javier Guerrero sees the influence that extreme geography has had on the area's history. The Sierra Madre mountain range runs through the state and cuts it off from the rest of Mexico. The mountains also isolate one town from another.

Mr. JAVIER GUERRERO (Durango Native; Scholar): (Through Translator) This isolation shaped the character of the people of Durango, strong and determined. They had to be to survive. They don't trust outsiders and see them as the enemy. But once a person is accepted, they're part of the family.

GIRAUD: Another element that shaped the people of Durango is immigration. The state has been cursed with cyclical droughts that drives people away. In the early 20th century, they were also lured away by American railroad companies who had hired Mexican workers to lay tracks, prepare roadbeds and work as mechanics. Again, historian Javier Guerrero.

Mr. GUERRERO: (Through Translator) Durango was one of the states in Mexico that had the most railroad development before the Mexican Revolution. When the railroads were finished, so were those jobs. We believe many workers headed to Chicago, originally because they had worked with Midwestern railroad companies in Durango.

GIRAUD: And later Duranguenses headed to Chicago for jobs in the steel industry and in the slaughterhouses. The effect of so many departures is striking.

(Soundbite of fire)

GIRAUD: Seventy-three-year-old Leonarda Gonzalez de Serrano(ph) stirs a large pot over an outdoor fire at her home in La Jolla, Durango. Over the past three decades, she's watched the town empty out.

Ms. LEONARDA GONZALEZ de SERRANO: (Spanish spoken)

GIRAUD: `Almost all the houses are empty,' she tells me. `We don't have neighbors like we used to, just Senora Marta and her husband next door. Her kids have all left, too. People start to return in November for the holidays but they don't stay long. The town is very sad and very lonely. That's how we live now.'

Ms. GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

GIRAUD: Driving through rural Durango, you pass many deserted communities. Little houses of cement lay like opened gift boxes, their tin roofs missing. Coca-Cola signs signal which homes once sold groceries. Fields are left undisturbed. Senora Gonzalez encourages her kids and grandkids to stay in the US. She says the future is there.

Ms. GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

GIRAUD: `It's over there in the US,' she tells me, `that our community can move forward. Here there's nothing for us.'

Ms. GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

GIRAUD: Senora Gonzalez has no idea how right she is. The original Durango has lost much of its population. But the borders of Durango have also expanded and now include a major US city. And that brings us back to Chicago, where the leader of one of the most popular Duranguense bands calls this new community Durango, Illinois. It includes all of Chicago and surrounding towns like Stone Park, Aurora, Joliet and Elgin.

(Soundbite of Duranguense music)

GIRAUD: At The Alamo, a dance hall in Aurora, Illinois, fan Julia Mendez(ph) says she didn't even speak Spanish or hang out with other Mexican-Americans before Duranguense hit. Now she comes to these dances all the time and has met other fans on the Internet, too. A single soundtrack holds it all together. It's heard here and at other dances, in church basements and streaming out of car windows and boom boxes.

(Soundbite of Duranguense music)

PARAISO TROPICAL: (Singing in Spanish)

GIRAUD: This song is by the group Paraiso Tropical. It celebrates a ranchito in Durango where people are good and utterly sincere. `Tonight,' the song says, `let's sing about our home with pleasure and love and with our hearts,' words shaped by Mexico and now heard in two Durangos--Durango, Mexico, which you can find on a map, and Durango, Illinois, which you have to listen for.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Giraud.

(Soundbite of Duranguense music)

PARAISO TROPICAL: (Singing in Spanish)

(Credits)

KAST: This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon returns next week.

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