Photo of Los Tigres del Norte live at the Factory by Courtney Dowdall
I should have worn jeans if I wanted to fit in. I took the wrong cues and based my short-dress-and-cute-tights outfit on the glitz and formality I saw in Los Tigres del Norte, who always appears in coordinated blazers. But that’s the wrong detail to focus on—it was the jeans that were the key. The Factory on Friday night was a sea of cowboy hats and denim in all shapes and sizes: tight and black, loose and faded, distressed, bedazzled, sometimes matched with a denim jacket. My biker boots were passable, as the jeans often came with boots, but cute club shoes and tennies were just as common. As I stood shivering in line outside The Factory, my legs barely covered, I cursed my choice of attire for multiple reasons.
Folks filtered into their seats slowly, after grabbing drinks and congregating at one of the many bars throughout the venue and browsing the merch options, which were many and varied. In addition to the standard tour tees and sweatshirts, the band brought soccer scarves, stuffed tigers, flowers, airbrushed cowboy hats, tiny sombrero keychains, and koozies. If you missed the merch booth, vendors later wandered through the crowd with armloads of tees and flashing light bouquets.
This was my third time at The Factory, and so far, it was the most packed I have seen it. Even in the balcony seats, in the fourth-from-last-row in the whole venue, we were all sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. What had been open floor space on my previous visits, on either side of the General Admission folding chairs, now had more folding chairs, and those were full, too. The audience spanned ages, with a family ladies-night behind me, a co-ed group of friends in their thirties to my left, and a multigenerational group of family/friends in front of me. And though the music was entirely in Spanish, the conversation amongst the audience—family gossip over the phone and pre-show small talk about local politics—seemed more likely to be in English than not.
The show started about 20 minutes late–“Mexican time,” as the Mexican woman behind me commented—and lasted for a solid two hours. With no opening act, Los Tigres, including primarily original members who’ve been entertaining more than fifty years now, many in their late sixties, worked the stage pretty much the entire night. They had a short break when Alma de Mexico St. Louis was first introduced, but otherwise they ran from start to finish like a well-oiled hit machine.
The band, several of whom are brothers, also looked the impeccably coordinated machine, with their signature blazers—some with a muted gold metallic finish, others in matching yellow camo print, and individual trademark styles: mustaches, cowboy hat, and classic mullet. They walked end to end, sometimes grabbing phones to take pics for the audience, sometimes pairing up to sing in tandem. Six colorful accordions waited on the risers for one of two players to pull the squeezebox and reveal the tiger stripes and tiger images hidden among the folds of the bellows. Sometimes they played together! Two accordions at once! And the drummer cheesed ear-to-ear for the camera each time it approached him, projecting his beaming smile on the three overhead screens. The light show behind them was bold, elaborate, and constant, setting the perfect backdrop for Los Tigres’ sound.
The hits were glorious. As expected, the overwhelming majority of songs came with a chorus of audience members singing along and holding all the long notes, with “La Puerta Negra” and “La Mesa Del Rincon” getting the greatest audience participation—that is, of the songs Los Tigres performed alone. Because about halfway through the show, we were treated first to a mariachi band filing out in the traditional embroidered black three-piece suits and giant sombreros, with trumpets and violins stretching from one end of the stage to the other. Next, a troupe of jarabe style dancers paraded out: ladies in full-length, long-sleeved, technicolor ruffled dresses covered in satiny ribbons and men in elaborately embroidered black suits with silver buttons and neon sarapes. If the audience was enthusiastic before, this addition had them positively electric.
It reminded me of an essay by James Baldwin titled The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American, on a revelation he had while living in Europe: “I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas GI… Even the most incorrigible maverick has to be born somewhere. He may leave the group that produced him—he may be forced to—but nothing will efface his origins, the marks of which he carries with him everywhere. I think it is important to know this and even find it a matter for rejoicing, as the strongest people do, regardless of their station… the fact that I was the son of a slave and they were the sons of free men meant less, by the time we confronted each other on European soil…”
In that moment of baile folklorico, folkloric dance ratcheted up the love for Mexico to new heights of exuberance. The singing was never so loud all night as it was while the trumpets were blaring and skirts were swirling. There was no floor space for dancing, but couples here and there still managed to two-step around their chairs. The start of each song was a collective exclamation of “¡Que viva Mexico!” and various Mexican state names. I learned from his shouts of joy that the guy sitting next to me was from Jalisco, and he was so thrilled at the addition for Alma de Mexico St. Louis that he insisted I wear his cowboy hat for a song. A stage hand brought around Mexican flags to drape over the shoulders of Los Tigres, and some people a few rows in front of us waved a Colombia soccer scarf. Each move brought new gritos from my neighbor beside himself with joy.
It was through this expat/immigrant lens that I thought about the distinct pride and elation of the folks gathered that night for Los Tigres del Norte. The marks of one’s origins, the thing that is untranslatable, that insider quality of finally being the one to say, “I guess you had to be there,” brought everyone together. It was the quintessential image of Mexico, and the audience was so there for it. My neighbor seemed pleasantly surprised to have two gringos seated next to him. He periodically engaged me in curious conversation, and reveled in the singular thrill of being the explainer for once in a long time. “Do you like Mexican music? Do you understand what they’re saying?” Answers: Yes! And – a little bit – singing is harder than conversation. He gave me a little coaching to understand the ladies’ and gentlemen’s roles in a bit of audience participation and asked for the occasional fist bump when he was really feeling the moment.
In their final number, Alma de Mexico St. Louis returned to the stage in new, varied attire, presumably representing the range of styles and identities across the states of Mexico. The response was ecstatic. The thrill of understanding and being understood, that sense of belonging, brought a tremendous crowd to The Factory that night to sing along and bask in the sights and sounds of something far away but still so close to the heart. Many of the details may have been lost on me: I didn’t know what all those outfits represented, and I didn’t follow the nuance and double-entendres that I know are there in the language. But for me, it was enough to enjoy the cultural pride and heartwarming thrill of someone who does know and understand all of this, and probably hadn’t experienced it in a long while. | Courtney Dowdall