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As I’ve said many times before, I was born old.
I was listening to oldies but goodies as a child, got into Bill Monroe by 8th grade, and began to study ranchera music in college. I’m so old that I still listen to terrestrial radio, but to just one station: KFWB-AM 980 “La Mera Mera” (I’m so old that I was listening to that frequency when it was still News 98 haha), which plays nothing but rancheras going back to Lucha Reyes.
And if you listen to this station as much as I do, you quickly realize: There are a lot of beautiful songs about Mexican states.
Some states get more shine (Jalisco, Michoacán) than others (Campeche, where you at?), but all are hymns to distinct regions, reflections of musical styles, culinary traditions and even the personality traits of its residents.
So what makes the best ones?
They have to be a rola — a jam. They have to paint the picture of the state in the way I mentioned above. They’re ambassadors of the state in all of its glories. So as much as I love “La Marcha de Zacatecas,” it tells you little about my parent’s native state other than we like tamborazo (and the actual lyrics say less), so that doesn’t make this list.
So which songs do? ¡Música, maestro!
10. “Yo Soy de San Luis Potosí”
This Jorge Negrete classics has one of the most thrilling choruses in ranchera, one that’s in the DNA of anyone from el rancho. Caíle, güey: “YO SOY DE SAN LUIS POTOSÍ…” But the rest of it is a letdown that really doesn’t say much about the central Mexican state or its people other than list the states it borders, and that it’s part of La Huasteca (which we’ll get to in a bit). But that chorus alone sneaks it onto this list, albeit at the bottom slot.
“9. Pueblos de Guerrero”
I still want to know why Gerardo Reyes didn’t become more of a star than he was — maybe because his voice and songs seem ultimately slight compared to his contemporaries? You can sense it in this song, where he drops the names of Guerrero songs in a rate that I think is a record in this genre — 19 pueblos in total! You do get a sense of the largesse (and largeness) of the state. But like the previous entry here, not TOO much about guerrerenses themselves other than Gerardo once bought a sombrero in Tlapehuala. Um, okay…
8. “Caminos de Michoacán”
One of the most famous Mexican-state songs, and a hella enjoyable track — a duet on the chorus, an accordion that evokes rumbos a God-knows-where, and a joyous mariachi, along with a bunch of towns roll-called. But, again, little in the way of describing the character of Michoacán. In many ways, “Juan Colorado” is more illustrative of the michoacano spirit — peleonero, mythic, and even a mention of charanda, the state’s rum-like liquor — but only the michoacanos can appreciate THAT one, so we’ll go with Federico Villa, who also deserves more fame than he actually achieved.
7. “Camino de Guanajuato”
One of the most famously melancholy ranchera — and that’s saying a LOT — this standard takes listeners on a trip from León to Dolores Hidalgo and paints the landscape of Guanajuato complete with Christs on top of cerros, city fairs, and the faithful via José Alfredo Jiménez’s sparse, gorgeous lyrics. It feels like a pilgrimage of pain — and if you know people from Guanajuato, you know they tend to be more serious than most mexicanos.
6. “Mi Lindo Nayarit”
Just played during Game 1 of the World Series to commemorate Tuxpan native (and Los Angeles Dodgers reliever) Victor Gonzalez, this one spins out the Pacific state in just over two minutes through a litany of towns and beach scenes. And unlike most of the canciones here, you can dance to it, as emoted here in this version by Banda El Recodo when it was led by Julio Preciado. Nayarit has only recently begun to assert itself in the Mexican American diaspora in the United States, so it was great to see Cora twitter erupt for for their paisano‘s soundtrack.
5. “Sonora y Sus Ojos Negros”
A sonorense ballad in SO many ways, from the lilting voices of Miguel y Miguel to the plucked arpeggios of the sierreño-style guitars (back when the genre was mountain music instead of narco bullshit) to the buses that crisscross the vast state. You can see all the cities that the buses pass through, and feel the 14-hour unrequited romances that develop on them. And of course, Sonora’s women and those ojasos negros that enchant (as someone married to a half-Sonoran, I can attest to that haha). One of my favorite songs, period, on this list. But it only ranks at #5 because…
4. “El Jaliscience”
…a Jalisco song HAS to be high on this list. No state has more songs dedicated to it, mostly because of the charro fantasy that long had a grip on Mexican national identity. A lot are legit — “Ay Jalisco No Te Rajes,” “Ojos Tapatios,” “El Tapatio,” and a bunch of songs to different pueblos (that’s a whole other listicle that I’ll write soon enough). But I defy anyone to find a Jalisco tune better than this one.
You get Vicente Fernandez at his roaring best. He speaks to criticism of jalisciences as “malditos,” and praises cities for specific reasons (“Pa’ caballos, San Miguel/mariachi, Tecalitlán”), and also Jalisco’s regions, from Lake Chapala to Los Altos to La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos. And a female mariachi singer matches Chente in bravura, if only for a line. A thrilling tour of the state that almost makes Jaliscan bragadoccio acceptable. Almost…
This is a cheat of sorts, since it talks specifically about one part of Oaxaca and not the entire state (besides, the unofficial state song is “Diós Nunca Muere,” which says nothing about the southern Mexican state at all). But in terms of conjuring a region, this is like a postcard. The opening lyrics set up the tropical scene and marimba music of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, with a slow, melancholy burn.
Then halfway through, “Tehuantepec” transforms into a dreamy-eyed waltz dedicated to the region’s tehuanas, the legendary women who run the markets of the namesake city, they of the “toasted skin” and distinctive dresses and “Southern soul” that seems like “they descended from a retablo.” Gorgeous region, gorgeous women, gorgeous song. Gorgeous.
2. “Las Tres Huastecas”
Yet even more beautiful is this son huasteco classic by Nicandro Castillo, the Hidalgo native who mainstreamed the bluegrass of Mexico for countrywide consumption. In this case, he takes on his native Huasteca, a cultural region of Mexico that touches on multiple states but is mostly centered around Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, and Veracruz. Only one city is mentioned in this song; instead, Castillo lays out a soaring melody and flutes that illustrate the food — carne seca, mezcal, even cigarrilos — and stunningly diverse landscape (from the foggy forests of San Luís Potosí to the mountains and beaches of Veracruz) that marks his homeland. See the images in this YouTube clip above, and you have the answer to what makes a great state song: one that’s an auditory PowerPoint.
- 1. “Corrido de Chihuahua”
So if you take the new criteria I just offered, this is the best Mexican state song of them. There are gritos to cities in this corrido, yes. But here’s what matters to people from Chihuahua: its place in el norte, mines, apples, Hereford cattle (known as “cara blancas” in the state), sun-blasted days and moonlit nights, and sotol, the liquor of Chihuahua. Long-eared hares! Pine trees! For crying out loud, this song shouts out CHEESE (from Villa Ahumada, of course). Even we in Zacatecas don’t get down like that.
More importantly, the tone of the song is like the people: simultaneously boastful and humble and proud of their land, as best recorded by Lucha Villa, who works it like the proud chihuahuensa that she is.
Gustavo Arellano loves to write about music but doesn’t much anymore — discuss.