Lalo Guerrero: 1916 to 2005
Growing up an Arizona girl, I once asked my musician father why American music always seemed to be changing while all kinds of Latin music stayed essentially the same. The answer was some windy thesis on the evolution of western civilization, but the gist was that Mexican culture had found its music, and we were still looking.
Lalo Guerrero’s popularity spanned that of that of Rudee Vallee, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Nirvana and 50 Cent, and his impact among Latinos was very nearly as great as theirs in every era. He was also the Chicano Pete Seeger, passionately documenting in song Cesar Chavez’s labor movement and the plight of Mexican immigrants.
Most significantly, Guerrero, who died March 17 at age 88, all but invented Chicano music, the music of that part of Mexico that was stranded in California statehood and the Gadsden Purchase. The soul of the territory — the source of its vitality, charm and color, the reason even that its rock and blues and country music is different — is still with Mexico. Guerrero wrote and played that soul, and sang it to make you weep, or laugh, in any language.
Guerrero’s legacy includes more than 300 original songs across the range of Latin music: songs for every kind of dancing, songs whose lyrics tell about historic events and today’s news, even rock and blues songs. He was the first to incorporate Pachuco culture and slang into music. His “Ardillitas” (squirrels), a Latin version of the Chipmunks, were as popular as Sesame Street to generations of Mexican youngsters who grew up listening to their records.
Then there is the cultural universality of his songs “Nunca Jamas” and “Cancion Mexicana” (informally, the Mexican National Anthem), both known to every mariachi in the world. He wrote the latter at age 17, and Mexico’s most beloved artists have been covering it ever since.
The Smithsonian Institution declared Guerrero a National Folk Treasure and President Clinton awarded him a National Medal of the Arts, but, perhaps inevitably, he’s generally been overlooked in the rush of American music to capture the whim of the next 18-24 age group. But his limelight glows in the affection of Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt, Los Lonely Boys, Freddy Fender, even Calexico — and in Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine, which features the last three songs Guerrero recorded.