The rise of Chalino Sánchez could be attributed to a confluence of events. Of course, his unique and raw vocals made him stand out in a crowded field of ranchera balladeers. But he was able to become “El Rey del Corrido” because he was at the right place, at the right time.
The “Nieves de Enero” singer from Sinaloa, Mexico was coming of age at the same time that drug trade was also growing in the 1980s. It was also around that time that there was a wave of migrants crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. escaping violence sparked by drug cartels. Sánchez was also an immigrant who had settled in Inglewood, California and hustled to make a living selling his own cassettes out of his car’s trunk. He sang narcocorridos — a musical genre that some argue glamorizes drug crime — which narrated a lifestyle that seemed relatable at the time for many on both sides of the border.
“His music represented a lot of the stuff that was happening in our lives,” says L.A.-based writer and producer Erick Galindo. He’s also the host of an eight-part podcast titled Idolo: The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez. “Both Mexico and the U.S. were seeing the impact of the things he was singing about. You had figures like Pablo Escobar in the consciousness of people. All of us are obsessed with antiheros and he was singing about them. That’s why his music connected on both sides of the border.”
Earlier this year marked 30 years since Chalino Sánchez was murdered in Mexico. When he was shot and killed at 31 years old, he was starting to tour in Southwest U.S. states and in Mexico, and he had just signed a deal with regional Mexican indie label Cintas Acuario, which was founded by Pedro Rivera and was the label home to his kids Lupillo and Jenni Rivera.
To this day, his music is streamed by millions and his music is still being played by Spanish-language radio stations. His influence on popular culture is as strong as ever, with Snoop Dogg referencing his music, podcasts being produced that honor his legacy, and tribute concerts that pay homage to his corridos and ballads like “Alma Enamorada,” “Prenda del Alma” and “Los Chismes,” which became anthems to multigenerational Latino homes.
“Chalino had success in the U.S. and Mexico because our culture is tied to music. Whenever he sang, there was a clear pride in his roots,” says Marisela, the singer’s widow. “Throughout the years, Chalino has [crossed] borders, genres and generations thanks to his music, and his sincere and special way of interpreting all of his corridos.”
Like gangster rap idols such as 2Pac and Biggie, Sánchez catered to a specific community when no one else was doing it. And, he was doing it in their language, adds Galindo: “He seemed very real, as opposed to a lot of the other people like Cantinflas, Don Francisco or Gloria Estefan. They were like on pedestals — but not Chalino. He was a guy from the neighborhood, and somehow had made it. He was this person who didn’t fit in and somehow managed to make his own road. For us, that meant everything.”
He also wasn’t the best of singers — but the sincerity in his vocals in lyrics is what made him even more real to his fans. His unique voice will also be part of his legacy. “A lot of the newer generation sings like that,” says Galindo. “They don’t have a beautiful voice, but they sound real and authentic. He created a genre that anyone could sing in and not have that beautiful voice.”
Corridos singer Lili Zetina remembers clearly the first time she heard Sánchez’s distinctive voice. “I was like eight years old and my neighbor was listening to a song by Chalino, and at the same time he was crying,” she shares. “I realized his idol, Chalino, had been killed, and that’s why he was crying. Since then, I never forgot that voice I heard that was being blasted by my neighbor.”
Sánchez has inspired a new generation of artists, including Zetina, and many will be performing at a tribute concert set to take place July 22 at L.A.’s YouTube Theater. The Que Buena- and Estrella Media-produced event will feature acts such as Tito Torbellino Jr., Jesús Ojeda Y Sus Parientes, El Coyote and Arley Perez, among others.
“Being part of this concert fills me with pride and I feel honored,” Perez says. “Chalino’s legacy is almost inexplicable because his legacy can be traced beyond corridos. Many of his songs weren’t corridos, they were ballads that he recorded as covers but managed to make them his own.”
Pepe Garza, Estrella Media’s head of content development and A&R for Estrella Media Music Entertainment, said he became a fan after hearing Sánchez’s version of “Nieves de Enero,” months after he was killed. “His voice really moved me, and I found him absolutely original,” he recalls. He adds, “Chalino didn’t name himself the ‘King of Corridos’ — that’s a name his fans gave him because his life story lets us know that he was REAL.”
Sánchez was shot and killed after a concert in Culiacán, Sinaloa in 1992 where he was handed a note from the crowd believed to be a death threat. In the morning, he was found dead. He is survived by his daughter. His son Adán Chalino Sánchez, also a recording artist, died in 2004 in a car crash.
“I want to make sure that people understand that Chalino was not perfect but that doesn’t mean that his story doesn’t deserve to be told or he doesn’t deserve these 30 years of fandom,” offers Galindo. “I think it’s easy for us to be afraid to show all aspects of Latinidad because we’re worried that we’ll be judged. Chalino did great things and I’m happy he still connects with people.”