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The Poet Laureate Joins an AFC Workshop on Corridos

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At AFC, we’re excited about the Library’s new Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Juan Felipe Herrera. He’s a fascinating person and a great poet, and he has a deep interest in folk culture. All this led him to join an AFC workshop, and to perform the result during his inaugural reading this September.  We’d like to thank the Poet Laureate [2015-2017] and the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center for making AFC a part of their activities!

Laureate Guitar
Juan Felipe Herrera playing Burl Ives’s old Hauser guitar. When musicians visit the AFC reference center, curator Jennifer Cutting usually offers them a strum! Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.


Our time with Herrera began on September 9, when he visited with several AFC curators, including me. (I discussed our Juan B. Rael Collection of Spanish-language hymns and folk dramas with him.) Herrera was even filmed talking with several of us about AFC collections, and the results will be webcast on the Library’s website.  We’ll have guest blogs from some of those curators soon–stay tuned!

Laureate on Camera
AFC curator Todd Harvey (far left) shows Juan Felipe Herrera unique manuscripts in Woody Guthrie’s handwriting, including Woody’s birth announcement for his son Arlo. The Library of Congress camera crew, Jim Cannady and Clay Foltz, look on. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

During his visit, we told Herrera about some programs we had planned for September 15 and 16, and he graciously agreed to participate in them. In particular, he joined the first event AFC has ever run entirely in Spanish, a workshop on writing corridos.  Corridos are ballads typical of the Mexican-American border region, which narrate tragic tales based on true events, often honoring folk heroes who stand up for their rights against injustice.

Herrera y Dies Blog2
Juan Felipe Herrera (left) and Juan Díes On the Coolidge Auditorium stage, rehearsing for their performance. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

Ethnomusicologist and musician Juan Díes, along with musicians from his GRAMMY™ nominated Sones de México Ensemble, led the workshop, in which a group of students learned to write a corrido from scratch. The Poet Laureate participated, adding his wisdom and skill as a poet to the proceedings. For the subject of their corrido, the students chose the recent case of Sandra Bland. Starting with the facts of the case, and using the conventional language of corridos, they came up with the following song, intended to be sung to the tune of “Corrido de los Pérez.”

Participants in the corrido workshop composed the song communally on this large paper hung on the wall. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

El Corrido De Sandra Bland

1. Voy a cantar un corrido
de una mujer que murió
Se llamaba Sandra Bland.
Dicen que se suicidó.

2. El 10 de julio en Texas
un policía la arrestó
por no señalar la vuelta
a la cárcel la llevó.

3. Era una negra valiente;
sus derechos conocía.
Era una gran activista;
desafió a la policía.

4. Brian era hombre soberbio
un oficial prepotente.
De Sandra Bland abusó.
¡Ahora lo sabe la gente!

5. Sandra sabía los peligros
de la discriminación
y decía que Black Lives Matter.
¡Esa fue su perdición!

6. Cuando Brian dijo a Sandra
que su cigarro apagara,
ella le dijo que no,
porque en su derecho estaba.

7. Brian, bastante molesto,
de su carro la sacó
con violencia y empujones
a la fuerza la arrestó.

8. Estuvo presa tres días.
No se supo que pasó.
Con una bolsa de nylon
dicen que sola se ahorcó.

9. Tengan esto muy presente:
la violencia seguirá.
Aunque se grabe en video
eso no te salvará.

10. Vuela, vuela palomita:
      This isn’t our last stand
Aquí se acaban los versos
de la grande Sandra Bland.

If you want to read more about the Corrido workshop, two of the participants, Alexia Fernandez Campbell and Emily Jan, published an online article in the National Journal’s “Next America” section on October 7th called “How To Write a Mexican Corrido in 8 Steps.”  It features a short article, a slide show, and the lyrics.  Find it at this link!

Later that night, the Poet Laureate gave a triumphant inaugural reading in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium.  As part of the proceedings, he and Díes performed the corrido in both Spanish and English, in the Poet Laureate’s translation. Herrera described the workshop as follows:

This afternoon we wrote a tragic ballad. We went around the room and asked for different ideas. And the room — the consensus was that we would do a corrido about what happened to Sandra Bland. And, you know [Juan] led the class in such a way that everybody put up the themes they wanted to talk about, the issues they wanted to talk about on the wall, on paper. And they chose the story and the tragedy of Sandra Bland. And then they started working with a meter, with the lines, with the verses, with the rhyming pattern, with the changes in tone and tragedy all in one workshop.

Herrera also described his own connection to the Mexican ballad tradition:

I grew up with corridos. My mother sang corridos when I was a tiny little kid and child. And the first corridos were about the borderlands and the issue of being legal or not being legal, issues of migration and immigration. And that’s how I grew up with this sound and this — those rhymes and that feeling, that feeling. That beautiful feeling of people talking about the people, about our experiences, in this beautiful form called the corrido, the ballad. And I’m so happy that we had Juan Dies and the beautiful workshop here at the Library of Congress.

The Poet Laureate’s translation ran as follows:

This diablito, or little devil, made an appearance during the Sones de México Ensemble concert. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

The Corrido of Sandra Bland

1. I’m going to sing a ballad
About a woman who died.
Her name was Sandra Bland.
They say she committed suicide.

2. It was the tenth of July in Texas.
The police arrested her
Just because she didn’t blink the lights right
And took her to jail.

3. She was a brave African-American.
She knew her rights.
She was a great activist
And she stood up against the police.

4. Brian was a mean man.
He thought too much of himself
And he abused Sandra Bland.
And now everybody knows.

5. Sandra knew about all the dangers
Of discrimination.
She shouted out, “Black lives matter,”
And that was her doom.

6. When Brian told Sandra
“Put out that cigarette,”
She said, “No, sir,
I know my rights.”

Violin player, singer, and dancer Juan Rivera is one of the stars of Sones de México Ensemble. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

7. Brian was so upset
He just yanked her out of the car.
And with violence and with pushes
By force he arrested her.

8. She was in jail for three days.
No one knew what happened to her.
With a plastic bag
They say she committed suicide.

9. Please, everybody, you know,
Violence is going to continue. (Think about it.)
Even though you have a video
It may not save you.

10. Fly, fly, little dove.
This isn’t our last stand.
Right here the verse ends
Of that great Sandra Bland.




You can watch the entirety of the Poet Laureate’s inaugural reading in the player below.  Juan Díes comes out to help perform the corrido about 40 minutes into the video:

After the reading, AFC wasn’t quite finished celebrating Hispanic Heritage.  On the following day, September 16, Díes’ band, Sones de México ensemble, performed a lovely concert highlighting musical traditions from all over México.  That concert is available as a webcast.  I’ve put a few of my photos above and below!

Sones de México Ensemble (l-r): Juan Díes, Lorena Iñiguez, Juan Rivera, Gonzalo Cordova, Eric Hines, Zacbé Pichardo. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.
Sones de México Ensemble (l-r): Juan Díes, Lorena Iñiguez, Juan Rivera, Gonzalo Cordova, Eric Hines, Zacbé Pichardo. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

Related Resources

Juan Díes, “Corridos: A Mexican Ballad Tradition About Outlaws & Heroes,” illustrated lecture at the Library of Congress, September 15, 2015, (video).

Sones de México Ensemble, webcast of the performance at the Library of Congress, September 16, 2015.

Stephanie Hall wrote this blog post about corridos in AFC collections to coincide with the corrido workshop.

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