Anyone who has taken a bus in Guadalajara is familiar with the phenomenon: the wandering troubadours who jump aboard to sing songs of broken-hearted love in exchange for a few pesos.
In May of last year, a clip of one of these singers went viral online. Yet the video, titled “The Idealist of the Buses” features a young man singing ballads of protest rather than unrequited love.
The busker, Alejandro Reynoso, takes aim at the federal government.
“How many poor children could you feed with the money a politician earns in a month? It is our taxes that finance their luxuries and plane trips,” he sings in “The Reforms.”
Alejandro, who is 29, and the father of two young daughters, started singing when he lost his salesman job. He blamed “the tax reforms implemented by this current government” and composed songs in reaction.
“On television they keep selling us the idea that the reforms are going to solve all our problems, which is not true. We’re in the third year of this government and nothing has changed.”
The response from the public was overwhelming positive.
“Very few ignored my singing. There are lots of singers in Guadalajara but I took people by surprise. Often, they even applauded,” he says.
Over time, he expanded his repertoire, writing songs such as “The Handsome Prince,” a satirical attack on President Enrique Peña Nieto, and “Just Another Mexican,” about the distractions of consumerism.
The reaction was never hostile, except for one occasion when a woman defended the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). According to her, she had benefited from the alleged irregularities in the run up to the 2012 general election.
“A woman told me she disagreed with me because the PRI had given her money and gift cards. She said it in front of everyone. So I said, ‘Señora, that why I’m singing, because the PRI are taking advantage of people and encouraging them to sell their vote.’”
Despite his popularity, daily busking took its toll. After a year on the buses, health problems forced Alejandro to look for another job.
“I didn’t just get on to sing, I went to perform with my whole body,” he says. “It’s incredibly tiring. The sun, the traffic.”
While Alejandro traces his influences to rock groups such as The Doors and the Creedence Clearwater Revival, his act is very much part of a national protest tradition.
Oscar Chavez and Jose de Molina are the best known examples of this movement, yet Alejandro’s music is funnier and cruder than the sedate, metaphorical style of these artists. His music has more in common with corrido singer Andres Contreras.
Known as the “Minstrel of the Roads,” Contreras, now in his early sixties, has spent the past few decades wandering across Mexico with a beat-up guitar. He has no fixed abode.
Andres has mixed with the likes of Subcomandante Marcos and late leftist Bishop Samuel Ruiz. His best known performance was for the documentary film “Gimme the Power,” about the rock band Molotov.
Yet he has never been signed to a label and lives off the proceeds of the CD’s he peddles in public squares around the country.
Unlike Alejandro, he has drawn plenty of negative attention.
“I’ve lost count of the number of death threats I’ve received,” he says, speaking with a slight lisp. “Even priests have threatened me. I have had guns pointed at my head.”
Andres has been thrown in jail more than 50 times, arrested for promoting terrorism but never formally charged.
He became a protest singer after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the state of Chiapas.
When the news broke that a masked indigenous army had seized state capital San Cristobal, Andres headed south.
After several months in the jungles of Chiapas, he headed to Mexico City. Like his late friend and hero Jose de Molina, he took to singing daily in the city square in support of the Zapatistas.
When the National Guard advised him to stay away one morning, he wisely did as he was told. It was May 5, 1997, and U.S. President Bill Clinton was visiting.
For Jose de Molina, who always attracted a large crowd, the decision was not so easy.
“The National Guard went up to him as well and asked him to leave.” Andres says. “But when you have people there, they don’t let you say no. If I had been in the same situation, surrounded by people, I would have stayed and the same thing would have happened to me.”
Molina was kidnapped and tortured. Having survived the massacres of Tlatelolco and El Halconazo, he died of complications arising from his injuries.
In keeping with his calling to follow unrest and injustice, recently Andres has been visiting the southern city of Iguala, where 43 student protestors from Ayotzinapa school were disappeared by the police. “Aytozinapa is my favorite rural school because they are great activists, very combative and conscious,” he says.
Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who ordered the kidnapping, was already known to Andres. In fact, he sees that fateful night as an inevitable occurrence.
“There were antecedents to this. My friend in Iguala, the engineer Arturo Hernandez Cardona was killed by this man. His family told me. When I went to Iguala, they put me up in their house. It was always difficult.”
It is a message he reiterates in song:
“The governor knew, the president as well, the press knew and the people knew better, Iguala was governed by narcos and kidnappers.”
Andres speaks contemptuously of singers who glorify the violent.
“I have received offers of support from people but on the condition that I write different songs. One time the owner of a record company in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, wanted to help me but only if I composed narcocorridos about Maya Zamabada and Chapo Guzman.”
Andres refused but suffers for his idealism. “To make money in this, you need to let them domesticate you,” he says.
Grammy Award-winning music historian Elijah Wald profiled Andres for his book “Narcocorridos.”
“There are a lot of people making a lot of money as songwriters who are not more talented than Andres because they’re not dedicating themselves to doing stuff as politically dangerous as what he’s doing,” he told the Mexican Labyrinth. “I don’t think there are a lot of people who would be doing the same if the money wasn’t luring them away. I think what he’s doing honestly requires a lot of courage.”
In his book, Wald makes a memorable and accurate observation about his subject. “He exemplifies and exaggerates all of the characteristics of the medieval juglar, or minstrel, the man who wandered into town on market day, sang rowdy, topical songs to attract the small coin of the peasantry, then blew his earnings in the tavern.”
As Wald points out, the analogy with medieval performers is not only made by university professors, but by singers like Andres and Alejandro themselves. Their attachment to this image reflects a broader obsession with the past.
“Mexican culture has a very, very strong respect for history and for ancestry and for family. The idea that you descend from a great lineage, be it a genetic lineage or a cultural lineage,” Wald says. “History means a lot to Mexicans.”