“Welcome to Matehuala” reads the monumental cement arch that greets visitors. Truth is, this fall morning, there’s little to welcome you to this mournful city. There are two inns -- El Trailero (The Truck Driver) and Las Infieles (The Unfaithful Ones) -- as well as junkyards, old tire lots, and mounds of trash and litter that an old farmer sorts through so his goats can chew on the thin slivers of grass that sprout from the nooks and crannies on the sidewalks and road.
A little over two years ago, when it was still peaceful here, journalists from countries as far-flung as Holland, Brazil, Germany, and Argentina would travel thousands of miles to set foot in this city in San Luis Potosí, a state in northern Mexico.
Amid a region that’s been sterilized by drought, their cameras focused on a colorful extravagance: Los Parranderos, Los Socios, and other teen groups who had popularized a genre of music known as tribal guarachero -- a mix of electronica, cumbia, and pre-Hispanic sounds -- with dances held at private clubs. Along with the music, among the scene’s most appealing characteristics were the dancers’ “pointy boots,” whose tips, up to six feet long, were used in intricate choreographies.
But now, those quirky stories out of Matehuala compete with news steeped in misfortune, as is common in Mexico: The morning of August 12, the city’s newly-elected mayor, Edgar Morales Pérez, left a wedding held at the Club de Leones. He was intercepted by armed men and murdered.
We take the desolate La Dichosa Road, south of Matehuala, to find Los Parranderos (The Partiers). Under a furious sun a blue Grand Caravan truck, old and run-down, veers off the road, raising a cloud of dust, and stops. When Pascual Escobedo, the leader of the group, opens the window to greet us, the car’s stereo booms with norteño accordion, the chun-ta-ta of the drums and a refrain that says: “You make me feel butterflies in my stomach when my cell phone rings and I see it’s you.”
Pascual, Miguel, Jonathan, Erick, and Luis -- the first group to break out with the choreographed tribal guarachero dance in northern Mexico -- step out of the car. They’re in front of Mesquit Rodeo, an imposing club in the middle of the desert where three years ago -- dressed in identical, all-blue skinny jeans, T-shirt, pointy boots, and hats -- they won their first tribal disco contest. From that night on, they became tempting fruit for hordes of women who gather to watch and maybe even sample when they appear at fairs, discos, and rodeos.
That’s why they don’t bat an eye when two girls walk up -- who knows how they found out that they would be here for a photo shoot? Lucy Méndez, an outgoing girl from Texas, poses for shots with her idols, showing off the attributes that emerge from her revealing black top. “For Mexicans in the U.S., tribal is our hip-hop,” says the 30-year-old, who gazes raptly at her Parranderos as she whispers with the other fan. Mayra Rivera, 23 years old, wearing Bermuda shorts and a white smile, sneaked out of her job as a store clerk just to catch a glimpse of them.
“They look tough but they’re sweet, and with those tight pants, I get excited,” she laughs, blushing as she surreptitiously checks out her five temptations, decked out in black and pink pointy boots and T-shirts stamped with giant beer bottles. Like veteran cowboys, Los Parranderos walk alongside the bar, the dry ground arid under their feet.
They pose for the picture hooking their thumbs over their pockets, with tough-guy faces, laughing at some innuendo and looking at the camera sideways, like TV heartthrobs. “Women,” brags 18-year-old Erick Castillo, hair spiked up with gel, “look for us in hotels all the time.”
“They kiss us, they hug us, they grab at us -- you don’t know how to get them off you,” adds Escobedo.
But soon, that reality that blends desire, dance, music, dames, and money -- in other words, the dream of a better life -- could disappear: Drug-war violence is encroaching, severely curtailing nightlife across the region. Pushed northward along with others in search of shelter, the tribal movement has crossed the Río Bravo to plant roots in Texas.
“I LIKE YOUR BOOTS”
With his pants clinging to his meaty thighs and a golden cross hanging around his neck, Joel carefully watches the packed dance floor at Kalúa, a club in northern Dallas. He’s serious, unflappable, oblivious to the dozens of succulent women twirling around him on the prowl for brave macho men. His gaze is brusque. “Why are you wearing those boots?” I ask, pointing at his black “pointys.” He answers disdainfully: “Maybe it’s because the girls say: ‘I like your boots.’ ” His three friends, standing silently by with their feathered hats, nod as if this were a universal truth.
“Let’s hear it for Tamaulipas … Zacatecas … Chihuahua!” a voice shouts over the PA, and the crowd that on this Saturday night came to Mexico -- even if it’s in Texas -- answers with loud screams every time they hear the name of their town. Up in the sound booth, the DJs lower the volume of romantic norteño singer Julión Alvarez to push up a mix of DJ Tetris and 3BallMTY, the group that put tribal music on the map.
The trio of DJs who popularized tribal guarachero have taken the sound everywhere, becoming one of the most popular acts in Mexico and even garnering a Latin Grammy nomination in 2012. Six years ago, Erick Rincón, Sheeqo Beat, and DJ Otto played at parties for teens in their city, Antiguo de Monterrey. But their local scene started dimming in 2011. “One day,” says Rincón, “I was going to play at the Arcoiris bar, and I couldn’t make it because drug dealers blocked the road with a bus.”
Fortunately, the world opened up for them recently with the video for their song “Inténtalo,” and now, at 19 years old, 3BallMTY (short for Tribal Monterrey) have performed at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Worldtronics in Berlin, and El Zócalo in México City. It was their ticket out of the violence that surrounded them.
Back in the club, women are clinging to men’s necks and unlock their hips as they continue their ritual tribalero dance: The couples dissolve, and now all the dancers gyrate counterclockwise around the perimeter of the dance floor. They advance in slow motion, elbows bent, a Corona with lime wedge in hand. They take tiny steps, as if not to disturb with expansive moves the addictive flow of this electro-cumbia that travels through their bodies.
“Regional Mexican used to be hat, banda, and corrido; tribal modernized it,” says DJ Nando, his hands over the console. “With tribal, women are more forward,” adds DJ Shaggy, who leads the night in this sea of hats full of sweaty girls who -- punished by the effects of American fast food -- gasp for air. There are 8 million people of Mexican origin in Texas -- 30 percent of the state’s population -- and it doesn’t take much to attract throngs of Tex-Mex teenagers from Dallas and the suburbs to the tribal contest.
The rotation goes on. No one laughs, no one shouts, no one loses form. Once in a while some young guy with the Virgin of Guadalupe embroidered on the back of his black shirt ambles to the center of the floor and takes a couple of dance steps. And although the ambience is Mexican, the law is American. At 2 a.m., the party ends.
“THIS IS WHAT I SOWED”
The F-150 Ford, Ram 1500, and other flashy trucks that pack norteño disco parking lots at night, prowl down dusty Harry Hines Boulevard, Dallas’s major thoroughfare for Mexican commerce during the day. They often stop at number 11253, Gómez Western Wear.
“So, you’re the one with the e-mails?” asks Vladimir Gómez, the young owner from Michoacán, as soon as I set foot inside. “I threw them away. Everything that comes from Mexico I throw in the trash.”
“Why?” I ask.
“The way things are over there, you never know who you’re dealing with,” he answers.
Every inch of the store -- walls, floor, stands -- is packed with product designed to make Mexicans dress “like Mexicans.” In two words: boots and hats. On a vertical shelf, 40 pairs of Innovation pointy boots make up a brilliant tower of color, the only bright spot in a store dominated by brown leather. There are purple, silver, red, and blue pointys, made of satin and sequins, with lights, golden hooks, rhinestones, and fake diamonds.
Gómez was a waiter up until 2000, when he started selling pointy boots. A pair can fetch up to $800, and the quality is evident in two attributes: On one side, he uses tanned calf leather, which makes the point firm and flexible; on the other, he uses calfskin, which makes the shoe ductile and comfortable. The length stretches as far as the imagination: “I’ve made up to 6 feet,” he says, “so you can grab the tips without leaning down.”
“Why are Mexicans so ostentatious?” I ask.
“The American Dream Mexican can have what he would never have in Mexico: A good truck and a good pair of boots. When you buy them and wear them, you’re saying: ‘Look, this is what I sowed.’ ”
“YOU HAVE THE STYLE”
Three years ago, Los Parranderos began weekly rehearsals in the dusty streets of their neighborhood. They were getting paid to do wedding gigs and quinceañeras (Sweet 15 parties), and they soon became rock stars in and around Matehuala. One day in 2011, 3BallMTY’s Rincón wrote them a message on Facebook: “Guys, I want to do a video with you. América Sierra and El Bebeto will sing. You have the style.”
Days later, Los Parranderos traveled to Monterrey. Fabled producer Toy Selectah gave them a sophisticated look for “Inténtalo,” a sexy video that has more than 31 million views on YouTube. Things exploded: Together with 3BallMTY, they packed bull rings in Coahuila, Nuevo León, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí. “Tribal in the street, tribal in the stores, tribal on radio, tribal on TV,” says Escobedo.
“And girls would only look at you if you were wearing the boots,” adds Rincón.
Tribal has since traveled to Central and South America, where 3BallMTY plays live: “These people all get our music via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube,” says Rincón. “It’s interesting: They feel a new calling for traditional music, because, for example, we blend in punta from Central America or cumbia villera from Argentina. They see themselves reflected in tribal and they get hooked.”
“WE WANT OUR VISA”
The pointy boots echo loudly inside the huge, dimly-lit Mesquit Rodeo, with its cowboy chairs, Tecate logos, and wagon wheels on the walls. But there’s no party atmosphere as Los Parranderos get ready to rehearse. They’re serving as a musical diversion in the midst of the war against drugs that has wounded San Luis Potosí, flagbearers for a fad that in its way has brought joy to a terrorized community. “If you spend your time dancing, you think less about joining organized crime,” says Escobedo. And even though Matehuala radio stations air tribal music daily, the dance shows have dropped dramatically.
“We go out scared,” admits Escobedo. “No one drinks alcohol. We’re always together; we always travel on main streets. We hear about murders, bodies, and we think, ‘What if something happens during the show?’ You live in uncertainty.”
The atmosphere in Matehuala is subdued; most people never speak out loud. To escape the fear, you only have to drive 210 miles north to Texas -- the new tribal guarachero paradise. In the last few years, some 160,000 from San Luis Potosí have taken that route. “In one YouTube video,” says dancer Miguel Hernández, “a thug says: ‘Leave these little guys alone. They’re from my country, Matehuala, and thanks to them, Matehuala is doing better.’ But we want our visa. People are waiting for us on the other side.”
On the steps of the rodeo at Club Rio in Dallas, there’s a steady sale of snow cones, tacos de pastor, and nopal tortillas. The Sunday afternoon party is full of children. Even so, the host, “Don Pepe,” a big man with a red shirt and a double chin, can’t help taking a few digs at Mexico’s current situation: “The band that’s playing today doesn’t have a Grammy nomination, but a gram nomination, hahaha.”
He lifts his beer toward a cowboy with a black hat, sideburns, and on his chest a giant medal of Jesús Malverde, a folk hero known as a “narco-saint” who aided the poor.
“Boys, ’til cirrhosis do us part,” Don Pepe jokes. The man lifts his Corona in reply. He laughs and hugs his friends.
In this ring in Arcadia Park, the five Dallas cops who patrol the area don’t bat an eye at what they see or what they hear: “At 17, he already organized his army in school, he already had his BlackBerry, he’s backed by El Cheyo, bullet against bullet, the brain behind the bills,” are the words to “La Plomería,” a narcocorrido that plays minutes before the sun goes down.
Like every Sunday evening, dozens of youngsters listen to tribal on the dance floor inside the enormous hangar. They can do one of two things: Play tag or try their little dance steps. If their boots don’t grab the slippery floor, they’ll trip and hurt their knees. But they’ll never lose their hats, which they immediately grab and put back on as soon as they fall: A tribalero kid must look the part.
Take Carlos Zaragoza, 9 years old and six-time winner of the Kiddie Tribal contest. Overweight and all, he dances with the agility of a cat. And there he is, winning $100 here and there to make his dream come true: “I’m saving my money so I can grow up rich and buy a blue Lamborghini,” he says excitedly.
Matehuala is a breeding ground for tribal groups. Between police operatives, sirens, and the silent fear of its inhabitants, the booted ones defend their right to do great things with their long, colored feet.
THE KING OF TRIBAL
Payasos, Plebeyos, Alterados, Socios … Matehuala is a breeding ground for tribal groups. Between police operatives, sirens, and the silent fear of its inhabitants, the booted ones defend their right to do great things with their long, colored feet. Today, for example, Fernando Martínez, leader of Tribal Matehuala, has parked his spectacular black convertible Pontiac in the middle of the city.
“Can I take a picture of you on the hood?” asks the photographer when she notices him -- muscular thighs, cologne, skin-tight T-shirt -- walking by with his fluorescent pointy boots.
“Too many lookie-loos,” he complains, but still agrees to do it with a nonchalance that quickly disappears. From the crowd that forms to see him pose steps out Karla, a black-eyed beauty in tight pants. She looks at him flirtatiously, and he responds by inviting her to pose with him. She smiles and collapses into his firm biceps.
“With my boots and this,” he says, slapping the car, “they can’t resist.”
But with Tribal Matehuala, Martínez breaks rank. “The original tribalero with shirt, feathered hat, and pointy boots is gone. Let them criticize us. That makes us famous,” he says. Martínez refuses to wear hats, often switches his boots for “tribal sneakers,” and his group includes two women, which refutes the taboo that only men can dance tribal.
Martínez, like Los Parranderos and other local bands, are survivors not only of the musical genre but of the violence and the drought of opportunities that afflict all northern Mexico. What they do is link to a more normal life, far from drug lords and danger. At least while they dance.
A few blocks from here, in the same place where earlier we encountered 30 armed policemen looking for suspicious activity, we’re meeting Los Parranderos to take the last photos. On the lonely corner of Juárez and Cinco de Febrero, young brothers Ángel, Isaac, and Itzel are surprised to see the group putting on their boots on the sidewalk outside their house.
“It’s Los Parranderos,” whispers their mom, Rosario, from her doorstep.
A minute later, as the dancers pose in front of a graffiti-painted wall, 3-year-old Ángel hands me a cell phone. It’s playing a video: “Look how you dance this rhythm/with a foot here and there/with these long boots, that’s how you dance, dance tribal,” goes the song by El Rey del Tribal, featuring Los Parranderos.
Dirty and snot-faced, the little boy looks at me and begins to gyrate with his arms and feet: He wants me to see that he, too, dances tribal.
Check out the January 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands December 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.