Artist Spotlight: Chalino Sánchez

The only solid information available on the legendary Rosalino “Chalino” Sánchez is engraved into his tombstone: August 30, 1960 – May 16, 1992. However, given what little we know about the late singer’s life, someone may have to travel down to his resting place of El Rancho Los Vacitos in the small town of Las Tapias and chisel “citation needed” into the marble. Chalino, an undocumented migrant who spoke no English, was perhaps the most influential L.A. musician of his generation. But his past prior to becoming a recording artist is murky, unknown except for tales that differ from storyteller to storyteller.

Here’s an amalgamation of what’s been told: Sánchez was born into a life of poverty in a very small community known as a rancho in Sinaloa, a village about 20 miles east of Culiacán. His father, Santos Sánchez (who died when Chalino was six), and mother, Sannorina Felix, had eight children: Armando, Chalino, Espiridión, Francisco, Juana, Lázaro, Lucas, and Régulo. When he was a child, after a local mafioso raped his eldest sister Juana, Chalino vowed that he would seek revenge when he came of age. When he was 15, Sánchez saw the rapist at a party, walked up to him without saying a word, and shot him to death. To escape authorities, he illegally immigrated to California with the aid of a human trafficker known as a coyote.

Chalino took up residence with an aunt in Los Angeles, and began working the scorched fields of Coachella Valley as well as performing various odd jobs. He made $10,000 selling buttons for the 1984 Summer Olympics. During this time, Juana introduced Chalino to Marisela Felix, who would later give birth to his two children, Adán and Cynthia. He became a coyote himself, smuggling drugs and people across the borderline with assistance from his brother Armando. In 1984, Armando was shot and killed in Tijuana. Chalino wrote his first corrido, a folksong about struggle against oppression and injustice, shortly afterward in memory of his brother.

A few months later, Sánchez was arrested for a felony and spent a few months in jail. To pass the time, he wrote songs about his fellow inmates, trading his ballads to their names in return for favors and money. He turned out to have a remarkable knack for songwriting, and upon his release found himself in high demand among the scum of Baja California. He wrote songs for clients (mostly about drugs, guns, and girls) in exchange for cash. In this area, where literacy wasn’t a guarantee, many of Chalino’s clients didn’t want a written lyric, but instead a cassette with their song performed by a band. He did not consider himself a singer, so he hired a local ensemble, Los Cuatro del Norte, to record his first batch of “singles.” Once they began recording, however, Chalino put himself behind the microphone.

Pedro Rivera, a friend: “They had no idea how to sing a corrido, so Chalino got angry and said, ‘Give them to me, I’ll sing them myself.’ He got up and sang them the way he thought they should be sung, and that’s how they were recorded for all time.”

Chalino was not a good singer, but he could deliver his own lyrics well and was comforted by the fact that not many people would be listening to these tapes. “The second recording he did with the Los Guamuchilenos,” Rivera says. “And the engineer said to him, ‘Listen, the trumpet is out of tune there, and you’re out of tune there.'”

Chalino responded, “No, loco, it’s fine like it is. I don’t want to sell this, it’s just so each cabron (rough translation: dude) can hear his corrido and so I’ve got it recorded.”

This was his creative process: Chalino would record 15 songs (the most a cassette could hold), each custom-made for some valiente (brave man or tough, depending on who’s translating), make one copy for each of the fifteen, and wait for the next round of requests. By the third go-around, his customers were ordering extra copies for their friends, and the studio owner, Angel Parra, suggested doing a professional release of 300 cassettes. These were sold quickly By Chalino himself at bakeries, butcher shops and swap meets. The requests continued, so Sánchez became a musician full-time. The rise was slow: he began recording in 1986 or 1987, and it would be several more years before he began drawing massive crowds with his unique style.

Chalino was nothing like the music stars of his era, the MTV generation. Most of his appeal came from his anti-star persona. He was not an entertainer, but he was real. His lyrics served as an oral history of the lives millions of Latinos were living. He possessed a raw, untutored voice reminiscent of Bob Dylan–in the respect that it contained a lot of pain. His own assessment of his voice is said to have been, “I don’t sing. I bark.” This supposed liability was among his greatest assets: when people heard him, they trusted him. His voice was unmistakable, and its griminess suggested that the singer had lived a tragic life. This was not a manufactured pop star in a neon cowboy outfit singing about wuv, it was the voice of human traffic. Of dark men in pickup trucks with secrets to hide.

Chalino was in the right place at the right time. In 1988, popular band Los Tigres turned away from flamboyant cowboy suits and traditional soft rock, and released a collection of crime ballads called “Corridos Prohibitos” (“prohibited corridos“). It showed the band on the cover as a group of street guys in a police lineup, and the title boasted of the fact that their songs were banned from radio airplay. By some reports it was their most popular album to date (since corridoalbums sell largely in bootleg versions, there is no way to establish sales) and, although they returned to lavish tiger suits, it showed the spirit of the times. Just as rap was forcing American pop to confront the harsh realities of the streets, corridos were becoming the rap of modern Mexico.

Los Tigres understood the younger generation, but Chalino became their God. Like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, or Nirvana, his style marked a turning-point in music after which nothing would sound the same. Many people hated his records, attacking them as grating and toxic, but his fan base grew far beyond the laundromats of L.A. where he sold his first tapes.

Corrido fans in the Sierra Madre were attracted by the same thing that jumpstarted punk and rap: a vicious, true chronicling of the world around them. Chalino’s voice and lyrics were the antithesis of Spanish radio, but his accompanying band was quite traditional. He did the impossible by making tubas, accordions and clarinets hip instruments, so much so that young Latino kids would blast polkas from their trucks as they cruised low and slow through the barrios of southeast L.A. In 1990, he played a concert at El Parral, a notorious club managed by the South Los Angeles street gang Florencia 13. So many people showed up that the owners had to lock the doors, a major safety hazard, to prevent overflow.

Still, by this point he was only well known in southern California, the border, and in his hometown. His brief breakthrough into the mainstream came on January 20, 1992. That night, he was singing in a club in Coachella, California, when a fan came up to the stage to make a request, then pulled out a pistol and shot Chalino in the side. Chalino happened to be carrying a gun of his own and returned fire. When the chaos ended, the failed assassin had been shot through the mouth, one of Sánchez’s bandmates had been shot in the thigh, and at least five other people were wounded, including one man who bled to death as his friends drove him to the hospital. It is generally believed in Sinaloa that the death toll was higher, because many of the lives lost belonged to illegal immigrants without proper identification.

The shooting made both English and Spanish newspapers, and even got time on ABC’s World News Tonight. Chalino’s sales skyrocketed and got lots of airplay. At his next appearance, El Parral had to close its doors by 6:00 P.M., some five or six hours before he was due onstage. According to those closest to him, Chalino was not cheerful about his success. He began to fear for his life, and in the next few months he portioned out his gun collection among friends and signed a huge recording contract with Musart, relinquishing the rights to all his songs and giving him enough money to buy a house for his wife and children. This deal, reportedly 350,000 pesos (roughly $115,000), made perfect since when the ink was wet, but proved to be a disastrous decision. The contract gave away all rights, with no royalties, and Chalino’s family had no share of the millions Chalino’s name was about to earn.

As he suspected, Chalino’s fate soon arrived: On May 15, four months after the Coachella shooting, he played a rare hometown gig in Culiacán. He received a death threat earlier that morning. The show was a huge success. Chalino drove away from the club with two of his brothers, a cousin and several young women. They were pulled over at a traffic circle by a group of armed men in Chevrolet Suburbans, who flashed state police IDs, took one of the brothers out of the car, then told Chalino that their superior wanted to see him. They talked a bit more, and then Chalino agreed to go along with the men, getting into one of their cars while the others followed behind.

One day later, on May 16, 1992, two peasant farmers found the body of Chalino Sánchez near an irrigation canal. He was blindfolded, and his wrists had rope marks. He had been shot twice in the back of the head.

Chalino became to Spanish equivalent of Tupac Shakur: death elevated him to fame he couldn’t possibly achieve in life. Chalino’s widow believes there are over 150 corridos dedicated to her late husband. Meanwhile, Musart rushed out a bunch of “new” Chalino albums, reusing his vocal tracks to create mariachiversions of his songs, and faking duets with dead Texas idol Cornelio Reyna. Ipso facto, they dug up his corpse and made him dance. Within a couple of years numerous youths, dubbed Little Chalinos, flooded the corrido scene—each trying their hardest to look and sound like their hero.

Though Chalino continued being dead, his story slowly became a legend. While piecing together the details of the singers’ life for a book about corridos, American reporter San Quiñones discovered that Chalino never had a sister by the name of Juana. His poverty may have been exaggerated. He never sold the Olympic buttons. There is no prison record. Chalino’s entire legacy up to the point of his notoriety is one giant, upside-down question mark. Still, video recordings prove he existed; he lived a short, tragic life that thousands of aspiring entertainers dream of having.