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Tear Down the Wall

The border-busting banda sound of Dallas' Las Palmas de Durango.
by Published on

It was a frigid Saturday night just before Christmas, and there was a fiesta going on at Plaza de las Americas. Inside an abandoned retail space rented out for parties in the otherwise vacant South Dallas strip mall, abuelos y padres, hermanos y tios, primos y ninos, y mas otros celebrated Karina’s quinceañera, the traditional coming-of-age 15th-birthday party for Hispanic girls.

It was going on midnight, and teenage boys outfitted in white-and-pink tuxedo combos whispered in the ears of their female counterparts, who had abandoned their pink gowns for jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with “Quince Años de Karina” in homage to the jovencita wearing the tiara.

Some of Karina’s 200-plus guests sat at tables littered with cans of Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Modelo Especial. Others wrangled the little ones chasing balloons around the venue. Some danced arm in arm in a circle like a giant spinning wheel, the men dipping their female partners in the elaborate move at the heart of the dance called la quebradita.

The bailadores were moving in time to the music of Las Palmas de Durango, a seven-piece group that plays modern takes on banda, a century-old, marching-band style of music native to the northwestern Mexican states whence most of Las Palmas’ members migrated to Texas. Banda is an obscure style-at least relative to more popular north-of-the-border Mexican genres like mariachi, conjunto, and Tejano-distinguished by its dearth of strings and accordion in favor of a rapid-fire combination of horns and drums. Las Palmas updates the genre by using it as a platform to rail against increasing border security.

They knocked down a wall in Berlin, and now they want to build another in their country, begins their signature song, “El Muro” (“The Wall”). … As if a wall could fix their faults, as if that could straighten all their sins.

Las Palmas on stage

Laura Magdaleno delivered the lyrics in Spanish while shimmying alongside her saxophone-playing sidekick, Maggie Gutierez. Las mujeres bonitas wore identical getups: black, short-shorted jumpsuits, black stockings, and black high heels that matched their long black hair.

Now it’s called the Wall of Shame because it affects my Mexican countrymen, a bitter joke for man, an offense to God, because He wanted us all to live as brothers.

Magdaleno’s and Gutierez’s compañeros sported the vaquero look. There was Jose Vitela, father of Gutierez’s child, also on sax; Eric Garcia on sax, trumpet, and trombone; Servando Nunez on drums; Rolando Fuentes on a bass drum with an upturned cymbal that he clobbered with its handheld match; and rounding it out, a stand-in manufacturing a tuba sound with a keyboard. Like the majority of men at Karina’s quinceañera, they wore cowboy hats, incredibly pointy cowboy boots, and gaudy belt buckles.

Just the same, we’ll scale wired fences as we would a wall, even if it reached the clouds.

Juan Ramirez, the band’s manager, stood stage left, compulsively checking his cell phone.

We don’t come here because we like this ground. Many of us come hoping for the day we can return. As long as there is misery in our hometowns … we will have no choice but to keep coming, even if it means we get deported or thrown in prison.

In other words, F-you, George Bush, for signing the Secure Fence Act of 2006, in effect green-lighting a 700-mile, 15-foot-high fence between Mexico and the U.S., making it that much harder for the undocumented to infiltrate the land of opportunity.

“The worst thing is …” Juan Ramirez said of the wall, before changing his mind: “The best thing is they got Mexicans doing it.” Beat. “Cheap labor.”

Before the quinceañera, members of Las Palmas, all in their 20s, had gathered in the living room of the Grand Prairie house that Ramirez, 42, built when he wasn’t otherwise occupied with his full-time job as an air-conditioning electrician. Arranged in front of a fireplace, its bricks bearing a poster of narcocorrido singer Lupillo Rivera, their instruments awaited a post-interview, pre-quinceañera practice session.

Immigration policy has polarized Americans, regardless of their proximity to the border. There are those who have come to appreciate hardworking, family-minded laborers, and others who perceive only cultural threat and resource strain. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, their influence is undeniable. In January the Dallas Morning News named “The Illegal Immigrant” its 2007 Texan of the Year.

“Everybody went through it one way or another,” said Jose Vitela, Las Palmas’ musical director. “They crossed the border or have friends who did, or family members. That’s why we picked these kinds of songs.”

Audience at OK Corral

“El Muro” is one of two politically charged canciones written for Las Palmas by Dallas songwriter Ramon Melendez, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Los Tigres del Norte. Another such song in Las Palmas’ repertoire is a remake of Marco Antonio Solis’ “Los Alambrados” (rough translation: “Illegal immigrants caught in the barbed wire of the fence at the border.”) The band isn’t exactly activist, but performs incendiary songs that draw attention to Mexicans as underdogs.

“What they do [to] Mexico, why don’t they do [to] Canada,” Ramirez asked. “I mean, why one side and not the other side?

“A lot of people already know what’s going on,” Vitela added. “But our people, they don’t know. The people who are like us, like regular workers, regular people, they don’t know much about it. They just know they’re trying to get us out.”

Ramon Melendez

Like the guests at Karina’s quinceañera, Las Palmas is more or less una familia grande. Ramirez and Vitela befriended each other at work; Melendez’s brother is a co-worker; Vitela used to play with Melendez in another band. The other players-the men work in landscaping, the oil patch, and metalsmithing; the women in banking and car-detailing-connected mostly through their origins in the Mexican state of Durango. It’s a place full of palm trees, where many of them left family behind. It’s a place they miss.

“Everybody here has a dream, you know, to go back to their hometown,” said Ramirez, who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years.

Melendez said, “Sometimes we have to stay. Like me, my family has grown up here, my kids were born here-they’ve made friends here, they go to school here-but we are still hoping to return.”

With his black goatee, black jeans, black sweater, black leather jacket, black cowboy hat, and tan ostrich cowboy boots, Melendez exudes an aura that keeps you from wanting to cross him. Still, the fortysomething brother to 17 siblings, all of whom are back in Mexico, maintains a soft-spoken manner.

“Mostly,” he said, “what I’m trying to say [in 'El Muro'] is, we’re not here by choice. When I can work here, I have no choice.” Beat. “The dollar counts more than the peso. That’s why we are here.

“I’m not saying I don’t like this country,” he added. “I like this country. I mean, I love this nation. It’s a great nation. And I find the opportunity to succeed. But I’d rather be in Mexico. I mean, I love my country.”

It should come as no surprise that Las Palmas’ patriotism is made manifest in a strain of music that’s deeply rooted in the group’s culture. All but one of the six permanent players, plus Ramirez and Melendez, were born in Mexico (the other was born in the U.S.), and of those only Laura Magdaleno and Melendez don’t hail from either Durango or Chihuahua, Mexican states that join Sinaloa as banda’s birthing grounds.

Originally, banda groups were roving house bands for the towns there.

“They used to, back then, they would play on the streets,” Maggie Gutierez said. “That’s how it was born-on the streets, walking and going different places.”

“It was sort of like a marching band, a high school band,” Vitela said. “They used to have, I don’t know, 25, 30 musicians.”

According to San Antonio journalist Ramiro Burr, who authored The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music (Billboard Books), European immigrants who settled in South Texas and northern Mexico at the close of the 19th century brought big bands that influenced the Mexicans and planted the seeds for banda. Lack of documentation in its infancy, however, makes it difficult to connect the folk music’s dots. “The danger,” Burr said by phone, “is that misinformation gets repeated, and it just becomes like folklore.” For example, it’s unclear whether the original banda groups even included singers.

It is certain that banda became a commercially viable format in the middle of the 20th century. That was around the time that Banda el Recodo de Cruz Lizarraga, a multigenerational group from Sinaloa, came into its own. The group remained the exemplar of the style until the 1990s, when technobanda, a fast-paced subgenre largely substituting keyboards for traditional instruments, became the craze.

Ramirez likens Las Palmas to a hybrid of Banda el Recodo (for its use of mostly nonelectronic instruments in the classic style), Grupo Montez de Durango (a technobanda group that uses keyboards in a modern style), and Los Horoscopos de Durango (which, like Las Palmas, features two female singers). The sound is a loud, unrelenting whirl of woodwinds, brass, and percussion that moves like an upbeat jazz funeral on the streets of Laredo.

Imagine a few thousand Mexicans-couples, singles, old, young-packed into a miniature Billy Bob’s replete with disco lights, giant TV monitors broadcasting Univision, and a taco cart called El Toro Loco Taco. That was the scene a few weeks ago at Fort Worth’s OK Corral, where Las Palmas wowed the crowd with a set that culminated in an encore of “El Muro.” Occasional performances at similar venues in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Houston, and East Texas are currently about the only way to hear Las Palmas’ brand of banda, save for the occasional one-off show like Karina’s quinceañera.

Steve Satterwhite, an Anglo music producer who’s worked with Americana songwriter Jim Lauderdale and pop singer Shawn Colvin, hopes to change that. He’s taken the band under his wing by helping them record a forthcoming debut CD, and by enlisting John Merchant, who’s worked with the Bee Gees and Barbra Streisand, to mix “El Muro” as a single. (Satterwhite, an Observer contributor, also took the photographs for this article.)

Satterwhite has but one beef with “El Muro.” He thinks it targets the wrong market: Spanish-speaking countrymen likely to understand and support its message, not pro-wall Americans who’d more likely be incensed if they had a clue about the song’s meaning.

“I told them, I said, ‘One of the things you guys have gotta do is piss some people off,’” Satterwhite said.

He wants the band to sing its lyrics in English. He wants el hombre blanco to hear them loud and clear.

But that would necessitate Las Palmas playing for an Anglo crowd, which so far hasn’t happened. For now, the band is focused on letting its natural audience know what they’re up against on the border. If that knowledge pisses them off, all the better.

Michael Hoinski is an Austin-based freelancer whose writing also appears in The New York Times, Village Voice, and the Austin American-Statesman.