Imagine having a songwriter accompany you through life — follow you from one country to the next — and sing of your trials and victories, your history. That’s what Jesus “Chuy” Negrete did for Mexican immigrants and their children.
The treasured folk singer was dubbed “the Chicano Woody Guthrie,” and for decades the troubadour of Chicago’s barrios and the Chicano movement sang his heart out at protests and picket lines, festivals and Latino studies conferences nationwide.
Negrete is being remembered this weekend at the National Museum of Mexican Art. He died May 27 at the age of 72.
Listen to music from Jesus “Chuy” Negrete:
People who met Negrete never forgot him. His guitar and harmonica were like extensions of his body. He was full of jokes and stories — in Spanish, English and Spanglish — all set to song. His specialty was the corrido, Mexican folk ballads he used to document the Chicano experience and highlight social and political causes.
“You’re in a sense an oral historian with song,” legendary Chicago radio host Studs Terkel told Negrete in a 1997 interview.
Negrete frequently talked about the role of the corrido in the Mexican Revolution, how it functioned like a newspaper.
“Because in 1910, the Mexican population was basically 80% illiterate,” Negrete told Terkel. “So they used this oral tradition to keep alive their history, and to make political commentary. It was their story, their history books. … The corrido then is to the Chicano — the Mexican American — what the blues is to the Black man.”
Negrete’s lyrics were full of Mexican humor and frequently involved foibles around learning English or figuring out American society. He poked fun at the powerful and always gave the little guy the last laugh. He could have crowds laughing hysterically, and at the same time deliver biting critiques of cultural imperialism, exploitation of farmworkers or the state of education for Latino youth.
In one of his songs, Negrete tells the story of how teachers changed Mexican students’ names:
If your name was Felipe? Phil! Humberto? Bert. Domingo? Sunday. If your name was Domingo Nieves — Ice Cream Sunday!
Later in the song, Negrete says the nun at “Our Lady of Perpetual Racism” school decides not to shorten his cousin Facundo’s name. “I think we’re going to have to call you Joe,” she says.
Wherever there was a protest, Chuy was there
Negrete lived the experience he sang about. He was born in Mexico and ferried across the Rio Grande as a baby. He spent his early years in Texas, where his parents were migrant workers. When he was seven, his family moved to South Chicago for work in the steel mills.
Labor issues — in particular farmworker issues — remained a motivation and theme in his music throughout his life.
“Wherever there was a protest, Chuy would be found there,” said Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who knew Negrete for decades. “Whether it was in the back of a pickup truck, in a parking lot. He would be there and he would play his heart out.”
Negrete was brilliantly spontaneous. If he was singing on a picket line, his lyrics would mention strikers right there walking the line. At the Fiesta del Sol, he’d incorporate the señoras making enchiladas into the song. If a kid toddled by, he’d work him in too.
“He would say, ‘Hey mocosito, how are we doing?’” remembered Garcia. “[He’d] play with the kid and then get back to the story that he was telling. He was just able to just pluck people out of their situation, bring them into the song and then go back to the larger storytelling. That was one of his gifts and he was so good and so comfortable at it.”
Negrete grew up hearing the classic Mexican music his dad played when he came home from work at Republic Steel. He learned to perform at nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. And by his early 20s, he was organizing other young people — including his three younger sisters — into theater and singing troupes that toured the country and highlighted Chicano culture and history.
One of Negrete’s presentations went through 500 years of Chicano history, starting in pre-Hispanic times and running through Mexican independence, the Mexican Revolution and generations of migration north to the U.S. One of his corridos goes through the American states, naming all the jobs Mexican immigrants come north for:
Vámonos para el norte, vámonos a trabajar.
Vámonos para el norte, vámonos a trabajar.
Pisqué cherries en Minnesota, cuidé perros en North Dakota, Wisconsin también conocí.Y el algodón en Oklahoma, las minas en Arizona, y hasta California me fui.
Using music to educate
Negrete viewed himself as a scholar and an educator. He lectured at universities across the country and was often invited by Latino student groups hungry to learn more about their history and culture.
He believed folk music was integral to political struggle.
“Music is one of the elements that is most utilized by our people,” Negrete told host Linda Fregoso in 1980 on a University of Texas at Austin radio program. “We listen to it, we sing our children to bed with it. Music is a very important element in our cultural world, in our folklore world. So … you utilize the element that is most utilized by the people. … You educate people, they educate themselves. You mix the political with the cultural.”
Negrete was a key part of the Chicano movement nationwide. He worked with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and the national Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Actor Edward James Olmos was a friend; he once crashed on the floor of the family’s home on 91st and Houston.
Negrete’s family saw him straddle two worlds. “Important to a large population, inspiring to a large population — completely unknown to a larger Anglo society,” said Rita Rousseau, Negrete’s wife, who met him in 1988 at the National Museum of Mexican Art’s annual Day of the Dead show, where Negrete was crooning to the crowds looking at the art.
“He’s so beloved within his community and part of so many cultural touchstones and points in history in the United States,” said Negrete’s older son, Joaquin. “He’s the most famous unfamous person.”
Joaquin said his dad would constantly run into people he knew — no matter where he was — but that wasn’t a prerequisite for a long conversation.
“Sometimes we’d be on family vacation, we’d be at a restaurant having dinner … and he would spot someone. [Or] sometimes he would just disappear,” Joaquin said. The family would invariably find him talking to the waiters or dishwashers about their life and work — material for more corridos.
Negrete loved to perform. As his health declined over the past few years — and then during the pandemic — he turned to his radio show, Radio Rebelde, which aired on Loyola University’s small station. He broadcast from his dining room table, and of course he wrote corridos about the coronavirus, memorializing essential workers who were disproportionately dying from COVID-19. (Negrete died of congestive heart failure.)
Chicago’s City Council is expected to honor Negrete with a resolution later this month. Negrete’s family is organizing a community celebration of Chuy Negrete this Sunday at the National Museum of Mexican Art. And they’ve been pulling together his many songs, which together document a half century of political struggle and cultural pride for Mexican Americans in Chicago and beyond.
Thank you to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and the family of Jesus “Chuy” Negrete for the use of audio.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.