La Causa Cantada: Singing to the Movement

Russell C. Rodríguez, Ph.D.

By the time of the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, the Chicano community had already established a political bloc that had been called into action to support many local campaigns throughout the Southwest, as well as Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. From the political rallies, protests, and marches in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s emerged the powerful political voices of Reies López Tijerina, Rodolfo “Corky” González, Dolores Huerta, and of course César Chavez. From these events also transpired vibrant soundscapes of chants, gritos, prayers, poetry, and music — music that created ambience, focus, and documentation. As scholar George Lipsitz explains, music serves as a “repository of collective memory, as a site for moral instruction . . . as a process in which communities are called into being,” providing footprints that lead us to the hidden histories of specific places and times. The songs produced for these gatherings by groups such as El Teatro Campesino and Teatro Aztlán and the musical ensembles Flor del Pueblo, Los Alacranes Mojados, Conjunto Aztlán, and Los Alvarados drew attention to the struggles that were taken up by the Chicano community in locations such as San José, San Diego, Austin, and Denver. The songs functioned as counternarratives to the hegemonic powers that marginalized the members of these communities into the military, low-income housing and schools, racist healthcare institutions, and a second-class citizenship in general. Hence, the music highlighted the resilience of these aggrieved communities, how they maintained culture, promoted consciousness, celebrated, and preserved dignity.

The Chicana/o artists and composers drew from different cultural foundations to develop the unique musical form of the Chicano movement song. Residing in the United States their access to singers, musicians, and composers such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Woody Guthrie provided specific lessons on labor and introspective social critique of US society. The cultural connection to Mexico and Latin America exposed Chicanas/os to artists like Carlos Puebla, Suni Paz, Inti-Illimani, Victor Jara, and Oscar Chávez who offered global perspectives from “below.” Neighboring communities also offered soul and affirmation through the talented local artists and international popular singers like Marvin Gaye and James Brown to name a few.

With this polycultural foundation Chicana/o musicians engaged in an effective practice of using popular songs and rewriting lyrics to address the issues of cheap labor, education, health, and war. A prime example of this was the Teatro Campesino’s piece “El Picket Sign,” where the melody of the popular cumbia “Se va el caimán” was employed to host new verses “Desde Tejas a California, Campesinos están luchando. ¡Los rancheros a llore y llore, De huelga ya están bien pandos!” (From Texas to California farm workers are struggling. The ranchers, crying and crying, The strike has made them spineless.) Then replacing the well-known chorus “Se va el caimán, se va el caimán, se va para Barranquilla” with “El picket sign, el picket sign, lo llevo por todo el día. El picket sign, el picket sign, conmigo toda la vida” (The picket sign, the picket sign, I carry it all day. The picket sign, the picket sign, with me all my life.) Developing new lyrics, or translating songs from English to Spanish, to existing popular melodies was a “cultural organizing strategy” to enhance audience participation (Azcona and Rodríguez, 4).

Chicana/o musicians also composed new music, featuring Latin American instruments that illustrated the stories of barrio life and illuminated hidden sentiments and “other” American experiences. Composers such as Agustín Lira, Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez, Eduardo Robledo, Enrique Ramírez, Chuy Negrete, and Daniel Valdez layered the sociopolitical themes over the acoustic textures of the guitar, the jarana jarocha, the Peruvian quena, the Cuban tres, the vihuela, and the guitarrón. Sung in Spanish, English, or Nahuatl in the form of a ranchera, corrido, or pop folk song, the Chicano movement song today provides a significant snapshot of a historical moment in which members of the Mexican American communities together with other aggrieved communities stood up for their civil rights as citizens and members of this society.

Opposite (page 35) are the lyrics to an original song, “Poco a poco” composed by Eduardo Robledo in 1974, which was recorded by the San José, California, ensemble Flor del Pueblo on their LP Música de Nuestra América in 1977. The Tejano ensemble Conjunto Aztlán included the song on their self-titled CD Conjunto Aztlan in 1999. A live version of this song performed by Flor del Pueblo can be heard on the Internet site From the Vault, a repository of live performances from the Pacifica Radio archives.

For further reading see:
Steven Loza. Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Rolas de Aztlán: Songs of the Chicano Movement. Compiled, annotated, and produced by Estevan César Azcona and Russell Rodríguez. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW40516, 2005.