Remembering Chicago Folk Singer Jesus Chuy Negrete

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Imagine that a songwriter accompanies you throughout life – follows you from country to country – and sings your trials and your victories, your story. This is what Jesus “Chuy” Negrete did for Mexican immigrants and their children.

The darling folk singer has been dubbed “the Chicano Woody Guthrie,” and for decades the troubadour of the Chicago barrios and the Chicano movement has sung with all his heart at demonstrations and picket lines, festivals and conferences. Latin studies all over the country.

Negrete is remembered this weekend at the National Museum of Mexican Art. He died on May 27 at the age of 72.


Listen to the music of Jesus “Chuy” Negrete:


The people who met Negrete have never forgotten him. His guitar and harmonica were like extensions of his body. It was full of jokes and stories – in Spanish, English and Spanish – all set to music. His specialty was corrido, Mexican folkloric ballads that he used to document the Chicano experience and shed light on social and political causes.

“You are in a sense an oral historian with the song,” legendary Chicago radio host Studs Terkel told Negrete in 1997. maintenance.

Negrete often spoke of the role of the corrido in the Mexican revolution, of its functioning as a newspaper.

“Because in 1910 the Mexican population was fundamentally 80% illiterate,” Negrete told Terkel. “So they used this oral tradition to keep their story alive and make political comments. It was their story, their history books. … The corrido is therefore for the Chicano – the Mexican American – what the blues is for the Negro.

Negrete’s lyrics were full of Mexican humor and frequently involved weaknesses in learning English or discovering American society. He laughed at the powerful and always gave the little guy the last laugh. He could make crowds laugh hysterically, and at the same time deliver biting critiques of cultural imperialism, the exploitation of farm workers, or the state of education for young Latinos.

In one of his songs, Negrete recounts how teachers changed the names of Mexican students:

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 that the nun from the “Our Lady of Perpetual Racism” school decides not to shorten her cousin Facundo’s name. “I think we’re going to have to call you Joe,” she said.

Wherever there was a protest, Chuy was there

Negrete lived the experience he sang. He was born in Mexico and crossed 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 to work in the steel mills.

The problems of work – especially the problems of farm workers – remained a motivation and a theme in his music throughout his life.

“Wherever there was a protest, Chuy was there,” said Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had known Negrete for decades. “Whether it’s in the back of a van, in a parking lot. He would be there and he would play with all his heart.

Courtesy of Stéphanie Weiner

Negrete was brilliantly spontaneous. If he was singing on a picket line, his lyrics mentioned strikers marching on the line. At the Fiesta del Sol, he incorporated the señoras making enchiladas into the song. If a kid came by, he would make him work too.

“He was like, ‘Hey mocosito, how are we doing?’ Garcia recalled. “[He’d] play with the child, then return to the story he was telling. He was just able to take people out of their situation, get them into the song, and then go back to the bigger storytelling. It was one of his gifts and he was so good and so comfortable with it.

Negrete grew up listening to classical Mexican music his father played when he came home from work at Republic Steel. He learned to perform in the nearby parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And in his early twenties he was organize other young people – including his three younger sisters – in theater and singing troupes that have toured the country and showcased Chicano culture and history.

One of Negrete’s presentations spanned 500 years of Chicano history, beginning in pre-Hispanic times and spanning Mexican independence, the Mexican revolution, and generations of migrating to the north of the United States. immigrants come to the north to:

Vámonos para el norte, vamonos a trabajar.

Vámonos para el norte, vamonos a trabajar.

Cherries picked in Minnesota, cuidé perros in North Dakota, Wisconsin also conocí.Y el algodón in Oklahoma, las minas in Arizona, y hasta California fled from me.

Using music to educate

Negrete saw himself as a scholar and an educator. He has lectured at universities across the country and has often been invited by groups of Latino students eager to learn more about their history and culture.

He believed that folk music was an integral part of the political struggle.

“Music is one of the most used elements by our people”, Negrete Recount host Linda Fregoso in 1980 on a University of Texas at Austin radio program. “We listen to it, we sing our children to sleep with it. Music is a very important element in our cultural world, in our folklore world. So… you are using the item that is used the most by 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 Work Organization Committee. Actor Edward James Olmos was a friend; it once crashed onto the floor of the family home in 91st and Houston.

Photo by Chuy Negrete
Folk artist Chuy Negrete photographed in 2013. Armando Ibarra of the University of Wisconsin Extension / Courtesy of the Negrete family

Negrete’s family saw him straddling two worlds. “Important for a large population, inspiring for a large population – completely unknown to a larger Anglo society,” said Rita Rousseau, wife of Negrete, who met him in 1988 at the annual Day of the Dead at the National Museum of Mexican Art, where Negrete sang to the crowd viewing the art.

“He is so loved within his community and is a part of so many cultural landmarks and points in US history,” said Negrete’s eldest son, Joaquin. “He’s the most famous unsung person.”

Joaquin said his father was constantly meeting people he knew – no matter where he was – but that wasn’t a prerequisite for a long conversation.

“Sometimes we were on a family vacation, we were in a restaurant having dinner… and he noticed someone. [Or] sometimes it just just disappeared, ”Joaquin said. The family invariably found him talking to the waiters or the dishwashers about their life and work – material for more corridos.

Negrete loved to play. As his health declined in recent years – and then during the pandemic – he turned to his radio show, Rebel radio, which aired on Loyola University’s little station. He broadcast from his dining room table and, of course, he wrote corridos on the coronavirus, commemorating essential workers who were disproportionately dying from COVID-19. (Negrete died of congestive heart failure.)

Chicago City Council is expected to honor Negrete with a resolution later this month. Negrete’s family gets organized a community celebration of Chuy Negrete this Sunday at the National Museum of Mexican Art. And they’ve collected his many songs, which together document a half-century of political struggle and cultural pride for Mexican Americans in Chicago and beyond.

Thanks to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and the family of Jesus “Chuy” Negrete for the use of the audio.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Am here @lindalutton.



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