To be a zacatecano in Southern California—someone with roots in the central Mexico state of Zacatecas—is to belong to one of the oldest, largest, and yet most unassuming diasporas in the region.
We’ve been going back and forth between here and our motherland for over a century now to the point that there’s at least half a million of us in the Southland alone. We’re all across SoCal’s landscape: Hollywood (Jessica Alba, my third cousin once removed), literature (Helena Maria Viramontes), media (Pulitzer Prize-nominated cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, L.A. Taco editor Javier Cabral), and political scandal (disgraced ex-L.A. councilmember Jose Huizar, who was born in the rancho—village—in between those of my mom and dad).
Our culture, however, remains largely a mystery to outsiders, barely filtering into Southern California’s conception of what a “Mexican” is. Our songs don’t make it onto movie soundtracks, like son jarocho does from Veracruz. Non-Mexicans flock to Oaxacan restaurants, are increasingly sipping on sotol from Chihuahua, or gorge on Michoacán-style carnitas and Sonoran flour tortillas — but rarely to our food.
As my dad once put it, we’re never the charros; we’re always the chalanes—the help.
I’ll take it!
Among Southern California’s Mexican diaspora, we’re known for our work ethic, our unapologetic bootstrap mentality, our love of the sharp, stinky orange-tinted cheese lovingly nicknamed queso de pata (foot cheese), and our fondness for partying. My childhood was a moveable feast of weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, birthdays, and funerals spread across the diaspora’s main SoCal hubs: Anaheim, Montebello, and the San Fernando Valley. College graduations and baby showers were added to that mix once I became an adult. Nowadays, we’re also celebrating landmark anniversaries for our elders, like the 80th and 79th birthdays my dad’s side of the family held for my Tio Gabriel and Tio Jesus, respectively, and the 100th birthday of my grandma Angelita, who we said goodbye to this summer, last year in Uptown Whittier.
I barely go to any of those parties anymore—though by “barely,” I mean I go to one or two a month. When I do, the soundtrack to those Saturday afternoons and evenings is like a time machine whirlpool, taking my pedacito de patria (little piece of the motherland) to my childhood and back and ready for the future.
“Marcha de Zacatecas”
Sometimes called Mexico’s second national anthem, this bombastic instrumental is the traditional song of entry for VIPs—visiting dignitaries about to be acknowledged at one of our hometown benefit association banquets, or newlyweds about to make their grand entrance, the way my wife and I did for our big day in 2014. It’s such a standard that I’ve heard high school marching bands perform it at halftime shows, which always draws a roar from the zacatecanos in the crowd, applause from the other Mexicans, and a look of déjà vu from everyone else because they have heard the melody in their Southern California life but just can’t place when and where. Great performed by a mariachi, but sounds even better with the might of a banda sinaloense.
“Un Puño de Tierra”
For nearly 60 years, the Aguilar clan has delighted audiences across Southern California with a traveling road show featuring family members singing, horse tricks, PG-rated jokes, and more. Ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar and his wife, Flor Silvestre, started the tradition at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown L.A. in the 1960s, where both of my parents saw them when Mami and Papi were in their 20s. Aguilar and Silvestre graduated to bigger venues—the Anaheim Convention Center, the Pico Rivera Sports Arena—as the Zacatecan diaspora grew, incorporating their sons, Antonio Jr. and Pepe, almost as soon as they could walk. My parents saw Pepe grow from a toddler to a teen to a ranchera icon in his own right to the man who took over his family’s cavalcade and transformed it into Jaripeo Sin Fronteras, which now includes bull riding competitions and features his kids, Leonardo and Angelica.
The song that unites the three generations of Aguilars is “Un Puño de Tierra,” a rancho libertarian call to live life while it lasts. While Antonio made it famous, and Pepe sings it with his children as the finale to their shows, the best version remains when Pepe performed it at a USC Latino Alumni Association event in 2014 backed by members of the Spirit of Troy marching band. Zacatecas and the Trojans—can’t get more SoCal than that!
Spanish-language AM radio station
Since zacatecanos have come and gone from L.A. for over 100 years, that means our elders have been listening to rancheras and corridos on AM radio for almost as long—in the car, but especially at home. Our great-grandparents would’ve listened to Pedro J. Gonzalez and Los Madrugadores on KMPC, our grandparents, Pedro Infante and Javier Solis on Radio KALI. My earliest memories of listening to the radio are of my dad blasting Aguilar and Ramón Ayala on KWKW La Mexicana in his big rig; today, I’m the old man, and my station is KFWB 980 La Mera Mera, which I have on my car or immediately switch on when I stop by my parents’ house for a quick lunch even when no one else is there. The warmth of the crackle of the AM signal puts me in communion with my grandparents and especially my mami, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2019 and whose transistor radio we still have.
A jaunty standard of tamborazo, a type of banda music that features a trumpeter, a trombonist, a saxophone, and unrelenting snare and bass drums. This genre is almost always just instrumentals, the better to have it as background music at a family gathering or at the baseball games people from Zacatecas have held at Excelsior Park in Norwalk for nearly 50 years. The title is also a subtle nod to the poverty that drove away so many of us from Zacatecas in the first place.
A swaying, if minor, corrido covered by notable acts like Los Caminantes, Las Voces del Rancho, and La Auténtica de Jerez. But it gets jerezano buzzing because, besides “Marcha de Zacatecas,” it’s one of the few Zacatecas-specific songs to have gone somewhat mainstream. It deals with the life of a man accused of stealing a horse and summarily executed by the federal government. “Lino Rodarte” shouts out my mother’s rancho of El Cargadero, and family lore always maintained that my great-great-grandfather Sabás Fernandez wrote it. I’ve got the thrice-photocopied lyrics to prove it, folks.
Trying to focus on English-language songs that represent SoCal zacatecano life is difficult, because what we listen to depends on where we live. Growing up, my cousins in East L.A. preferred New Wave, hip-hop, and oldies but goodies; my O.C. cousins were all about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and grunge and hometown heroes No Doubt and Rage Against the Machine. None of those genres really stuck with their children, but one song somehow connects us all: “Santería,” the swan song of the late Bradley Nowell. That damn song hits you like a bolero! The unrequited love. Nowell’s soulful wails. The use of Chicano Spanish like heina (chick) and sancho (cheating man). It’s an LBC jam that’s nearly 25 years old at this point, but sounds simultaneously new and timeless, the way any great ranchera should.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the Beatles
The Beatles is my favorite group of all time—“Twist and Shout” is one of the earliest English-language songs I remember, and I’ve been listening to “Breakfast with the Beatles” since the days of the late Deirdre O’Donoghue. My nephew is now a Beatles fan, but the appreciation for the Beatles never trickled up to the older generations save for one person: My dad. And really, one song: For years, he would tell me that when he snuck into the United States in the trunk of a Chevy that went from Tijuana to Hollywood in the late 1960s, the hippie girl that drove the car was blasting a Fab Four song whose lyrics stated, “Tony/En San Antonio.”
Paul did sing once about a Jojo in Tucson, but that’s about all the Southwest representation the Beatles got (although George did marry a Chicana!). Then one time, my dad and I were driving somewhere, and “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the breathless acoustic track by Paul from the “Help” album, played from my iPod.
“¡Esa es la canción!” my dad exclaimed, when we got to the chorus “Falling/Yes I am falling.” That’s the song! And he began to sing “Tony/En San Antonio.”
From Liverpool to Mexico to Anaheim, the zacatecano dream in SoCal remains.