The Mexican Corrido

by Daniel Harvey Pedrick

© 1998

The Mexican Corrido is a form of musical folk ballad that has been a typical expression of Mexican life for well over a century.(1) The corrido encompasses three generic sub-types or qualities: lyric, epic, and narrative. The epic type relates the deeds of its protagonist in the tradition of the classical writers of antiquity such as Homer and Virgil. The narrative character of the corrido is demonstrated by the fact that it sings its tale in the first or third person and reflects the popular sense of notable events effecting Mexican society such as violent murders and other spectacular crimes, the daring feats of revolutionary soldiers and bandits, natural catastrophes, train wrecks, love affairs, political intrigues, various humorous episodes, etc. But the lyric quality is what distinguishes the corrido from other forms more than any other for it is the voice of the people singing from the heart, most often accompanied by the lyre's modern Mexican equivalent: the Spanish guitar.

The corrido presents an opportunity for the study of popular musical influences in Mexico as well as for the recent history and psychology of Mexican society in general. In this brief paper I will attempt to define the corrido in terms of its historical derivation, meter and musicality. I will also present an example for illustrative analysis, pointing out where it corresponds to the classical archetype and where it departs from it, and the historical and social significance of the lyrics.

The term corrido comes from the Spanish word correr--to run--and refers to the fact that the words of each of the stanzas of four eight-syllable lines characteristic of this genre are sung through without any interruption.(2) The corrido derives from the well-known romance(3) tradition of Spain which it resembles in a number of ways. For example, the romance contains an indetermnate number of octo-syllabic lines alternating in pairs with asonant rhyme scheme in the even lines and none in the odd. The classic corrido form also consists of octo-syllabic lines alternating in pairs (and sometimes with asonant rhyme scheme in the even lines and none in the odd) but, unlike the romance, are rendered into the above-mentioned strophes of four quatrains. Duvalier explains,

"It is established that the romance corrido, corrida, corrido o carrerilla, is nothing more than the Spanish romance itself sung and played in a special way. The song is "corrido" because the thirty-two musical notes that correspond to the thirty-two syllables of the octo-syllabic quatrain are sung without any interruption." (4)

Duvalier's interpretation may characterize a good number of early corridos but does not strictly apply to every example, as over time they have acquired, and continue to acquire, an ever greater flexibility and variety of form.

The musical characteristics of the corrido demonstrate a simple folksong style in contrast to the form's classical antecedents. Tempos vary from lento to allegro and may reflect the spontaneous requirements of the audience (5) as much as the song's thematic mood. Time signatures are most often 4/4 or 2/4 but may also be 3/4 or 6/8. Stress or accents show considerable variability from example to example and are usually determined by the requirements of accommodating the lyrical lines. A vocal glissando or melisma technique is frequently used to achieve this accommodation as well, usually occuring at the end of the second and/or last line of a strophe.

The tradition of the corrido in Mexico has been maintained through spontaneous performance and, significantly, by means of printed song sheets sold by individual composers as well as by publishing houses which have often printed collections. These cancioneros, still a very popular item in the bookstalls of contemporary Mexican marketplaces, have resulted in the preservation of many examples of corridos that might have otherwise been lost.

The following example of a traditional corrido offers a suitable starting point to introduce the process of analysis as it clearly demonstrates several classical characteristics and the melody is widely familiar. "La Cucaracha," a revolutionary-era tune from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, was the marching song of the forces of "PanchoVilla" (Doroteo Arango) whose accomplishments included a successful military raid into U.S. territory.

The song begins with an estribillo (chorus), which is sung after each of the following verses. The number of verses is potentially limitless as each singer makes up new ones and there are many regional variations. I will select only a few for the purpose at hand.


La cucaracha, la cucaracha

ya no quiere caminar;

porque le falta, porque no tiene

marijuana que fumar.

We may infer from the title and the first and oft-repeated line of the chorus that the experience of marching with the villistas probably left a lot to be desired as far as creature comforts were concerned.(6) The cockroach may be seen as symbolizing the pestilential aspect of life in a military campaign.(7) It would also seem that marijuana was a popular diversion among the soldiers, as this verse also suggests:

Un panadero fue a misa,

no encontrando que rezar,

le pidió a la Virgen pura

marijuana que fumar.

In the verses of "La Cucaracha" we see the classic octo-syllabic structure (more or less) rendered in quatrains. The rhyme scheme varies considerably as is to be expected in this example so dependent on spontaneous composition.

This verse...

Con las barbas de Forey

voy a hacer un vaquerillo,

pa'ponerselo al caballo

del valiente don Porfírio.

...actually portrays a period well before the revolutionary era. Forey was a French military commander during the short reign of the Emperor Maximilian. Perhaps this verse was popular with the villistas because of the symbolic parallel with the defeated foreign invader (France in the 1860s vs. the U.S. in 1916). "Don Porfírio" refers to Porfírio Díaz who later became Mexico's longest reigning dictator before fleeing the country on the eve of the revolution in 1910.

This verse presents another image of re-making the beard hairs of a foe (in this case, rival revolutionary Venustiano Carranza):

Con las barbas de Carranza

voy a hacer una toquilla,

pa' ponérsela al sombrero

de su padre Pancho Villa.

As in the previously cited verse about the beard-hairs of márechal Forey, the villistas are going to manufacture something more useful to themselves from this material--in the former case a piece of decorative horse tack, in the latter a hatband for their leader.(8)

Sex, in addition to drugs and politics, was another preoccupation of the rank and file villistas as we see in this envious verse tinged with a pinch of misogyny:

La cucaracha, señores,

siempre fue una mascotilla

y además linda muchacha

que llevaba Pancho Villa.

In this verse misogyny is much more explicit:

Las mujeres son el diablo,

parientes de lucifer,

se visten por la cabeza,

se desnudan por los pies.

On the same theme, the southern state of Jalisco is represented as possessing the most readily available women:

Para sarapes, Saltillo:

Chihuahua. para soldados:

para mujeres, Jalisco,

para amar, toditos lados.

But the biggest surprise to the un-sophisticated cowboys of Chihuahua must have been the welcome they received from the bold girls of the big city:

Las mujeres de mi tierra

no saben ni dar un beso,

en cambio las mexicanas

hasta estiran el pescuezo.

The historical fact of female combatants was also a part of the revoltionary era and the theme of many corridos. The real-life soldaderas became the stuff of legend, but later commentators(9) decried the sexist response of their male comrades-in-arms as seen in this fragment:

Que bonitas soldaderas

cuando bailan el fandango.

In this verse the corridista pines for the latest technology in order to arrive in Mexico City in time for the famed meeting between the two revolutionary leaders, Villa and Zapata.

Necesito un automóvil

para hacer la caminata

al lugar donde mandó

a la Convención Zapata

The two famous figures(10) made their grand entrance on horseback, however, a scene represented in an original film clip in the video Corridos.(11)

As in many examples of Mexican artistic sensibility, Death is the final victor and this corrido is no exception:

En la mina todo brilla

debido a sus minerales,

ya murió Francisco Villa:

general de generales.

And in this verse even the pitiable cockroach croaks, but not without appropriate ceremony (and imagery reminiscent of "The Simpsons"):

Ya murió la cucaracha,

ya la llevan a enterrrar,

entre cuatro zopilotes,

y un ratón de sacristán.

But the corridista must have the last word:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha

ya no puede caminar,

porque no quiere y ya no quiero

tantas plagas aguantar.


The Mexican corrido tradition continues to express the social and historical consciousness of the Mexican people with a constantly widening scope of forms, styles, and themes. Purists and scholars may be appalled by some recent examples and trends (e.g., corrido-rap) but the process of corrido development is clearly beyond the control of any emotional response other than the genre's own demiurgic compulsion to sing itself as it always has--without pretension of learning or any great regard for its own history but ever overflowing with the frothy experience of life.


Castañeda, Daniel. El corrido mexicano: Su técnica literaria y musical. México, D.F: Editorial "Sucro", 1943.

Espinosa de los Monteros, Orlando. Introduccion a la poesia. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Concepto, S.A., 1977.

Herrera-Sobek, María. The Mexican Corrido - A Feminist Analysis. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Short, Ken, dir. Corridos. (Video production adapted from original stage play written by Francisco Gonzalez and produced by Charles H. Duggan and El Teatro Campesino). San Francisco: KQED-TV, 1987

Simmons, Merle E. The Mexican Corrido as a Source for Interpretative Study of Modern Mexico (1870-1950). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.

Simpson, Lesley Byrd. Many Mexicos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

Friedman, Edward H; Valdivieso, L. Teresa; Virgilio, Carmelo; (Eds.). Aproximaciones al estudio de la literatura hispánica. New York: Random House, 1989.

1. Merle E. Simmons, The Mexican Corrido as a Source for Interpretative Study of Modern Mexico (1870-1950, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), vii.

2. Many examples of corridos do not necessarily conform to this pattern but it is considered the definitive classic one by scholars such as Casteñeda and Duvalier.

3. The etymology of the word romance, of course, stems from the epic tradition of Greco-Roman antiquity, as previously noted.

4. Armand Duvalier, "Romance y corrido." Crisol, revista mensual publicada por el Bloque de Obreros Intelectuales de Mexico, XV (September, 1937), 10; quoted in Simmons, pp. 8.

5. For example, in performing a popular corrido for a group of listeners that has gathered for the purpose of dancing, considerations of tempo would necessarily be tailored to suit that activity and could conceivably differ from a purely concert performance.

6. Judson Lewis, my uncle and a trooper in the forces of Gen. John J. (Blackjack) Pershing, participated in an expedition into the state of Chihuahua in pursuit of Villa's army after the bold invasion of Columbus, New Mexico, by the guerilla leader in March 1916 in which nineteen persons were killed. On more than one occasion I heard Lewis describe the hardship of that campaign as they rode across the harsh terrain of Chihuahua in a futile attempt to destroy Villa's forces. Ironically, the U.S. troops consoled themselves in their misery by singing "La Cucaracha."

7. The word "roach" when used as a euphemism for a partially smoked marijuana cigarette is very likely derived from this source. "La Cucaracha" is such a popular song that it is known round the world. In my own experience I first encountered it printed in an elementary school songbook. The phrase "marijuana que fumar," interestingly, had been replaced with "dinero para gastar," perhaps chosen by a censor as the lesser of two evils. But the effort to change the character of this popular corrido proved fruitless as the playground rumor mill of my day delighted in setting the record straight at every opportunity.

8. The vaqueros of Chihuahua are known to this day for their skill in plaiting useful artifacts from horsehair.

9. For a discussion of the soldadera's various manifestations from historical figure to romanticized love object see Herrera-Sobek, 77-116.

10. Villa and Zapata both were later assassinated, which dramatic events have furnished the theme for many more corridos as well as inspiration for would-be revolutionaries in Mexico of the present day.

11. Ken Short, dir. Corridos.

>Hi Dan. You know, I really like your article on the Mexican corrido, except from what I studied, I was told that the corrido is a ballad form which has NO "estribillo", or refrain, or chorus. The song you first exemplify, La Cucaracha, is in fact a "ranchera" simply because it has a chorus refrain. I want to link your article to my mariachi general information/article page, but now I have some reservation as I don't totally agree with your analysis (only on that level). Could you explain? Sincerely, Laura Sobrino
Hola Laura,
...and thanks for your interest in my paper. The truth is I haven't thought much about it lately but I think that making the existence of a chorus a disqualifying feature might eliminate many examples of what a lot of people regard as good corridos. Having said that, I think you may well be correct--strictly speaking--and in retrospect I might have chosen a better example with a pedigree of greater purity. But if you look around I think you will find that some songs generally known as "corridos" have a chorus and some do not. But before you attempt to define the genre in strict terms, what about the word "corrido" itself? Like the word "Flamenco" there are a number of theories besides the one I mention. Some are rather silly, perhaps, but cannot necessarily be ruled out. I mean, is "corrido" a style, a form, a tradition, or all of these? To quote from my paper,

"The Mexican corrido tradition continues to express the social and historical consciousness of the Mexican people with a constantly widening scope of forms, styles, and themes. Purists and scholars may be appalled by some recent examples and trends (e.g., corrido-rap) but the process of corrido development is clearly beyond the control of any emotional response other than the genre's own demiurgic compulsion to sing itself as it always has--without pretension of learning or any great regard for its own history but ever overflowing with the frothy experience of life."
Thanks again for your interest.
Anybody else care to join in?

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