Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica

By Herrera-Sobek, Maria | Western Folklore, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica


Herrera-Sobek, Maria, Western Folklore


Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica. By John H. McDowell. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 251, photographs, maps, notes, bibliography, index, CD. $39.95 cloth)

Both Vicente T. Mendoza and Americo Paredes, noted Mexican ballad scholars, predicted in their writings the impending demise of corridos (ballads). John H. McDowell took this as a challenge and traveled to the interior of Mexico in the early 1970s in a Quixotic quest to find a living corrido tradition. He struck gold in the state of Guerrero, in the Costa Chica area near Acapulco. There, in the rancherias (villages) between the Sierra Madre mountains and the Pacific Ocean, McDowell found a thriving ballad tradition among a heavily Afro-Mexican population. He proceeded to make friends and to listen attentively to the lyrics of the songs that narrated tales of valor, of love, of betrayal, of friendship, and of violence. He became fascinated with what he perceived to be a disjuncture between poetic expression and violent behavior. Fortunately for us, this fascination led him to the writing of the book Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico's Costa Chica. In this superb study, McDowell sets out to examine the production of corridos in the aforesaid Afromestizo community. His scholarly enterprise began with fieldwork in the early 1970s and continued up until 1996. Through a series of interviews with corrido composers, singers, and men in the community in general, he was able to structure three central theses in corrido production: the celebratory thesis, the regulatory thesis, and the therapeutic thesis. The celebratory thesis examines the ballad in its celebratory mode of honoring the valiant deeds of the protagonist(s). However, in celebrating these valiant deeds there is an element of "celebrating" violent, aggressive acts. The regulatory thesis tries to "regulate" this apparent celebration of violence by encoding messages within the text that serve to moralize against violent be havior. Finally, the therapeutic thesis posits the psychological benefits for family and friends of recording the deeds of ballad protagonists who meet a violent death.

Poetry and Violence is divided into eight chapters. It includes an "Introduction" and a "Note on the Recording." In addition, McDowell has included a CD with eleven samples of the songs recorded in situ. These samples are but a few of the hundreds of performances he witnessed. The photographs included in the book of composers and musicians add an extra dimension to the scholarly study since much of the text is devoted to interviews or conversations with these men and women. Placing a face to a voice certainly adds to the enjoyment of the book and humanizes the interviewees and subjects of study. …

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