It was during a retreat in Juarez, Mexico in 2009 that Jorge Ochoa, SJ, first listened to the narcocorridos.
He was instantly drawn to the music.
The popular narcocorridos, or Mexican drug ballads, are a rollicking type of folk music that often glorify Mexico’s drug lords and gang violence—a Times magazine columnist likened it to “polka pumped up on meth.”
The fast-paced polka combines traditional and cheerful melodies, accompanied by old-fashioned sounds of accordions and tubas, with violent messages: “I just wanted a normal life, / but death came and I learned / that good people suffer the same” (from La Moneda, by Latin Grammy Award nominee Gerardo Ortiz).
Narcocorrido music videos feature all the standard props of a 1990s American gangster rap video: fancy cars, guns, girls, and tequila bottles.
And it was behind these hard-partying, grisly lyrics, filled with references to war, that Ochoa found God.
The Berkley-based priest had traveled to Juarez—where drug war violence has killed more than 9,000 people since 2007—to present a healing, arts-based retreat.
Ochoa, 42, offered art and sculpture classes to help those who were mourning for family and friends killed in the drug war. The Jesuit saw a desperate need for reconciliation, and began asking around for what else he could do.
Ironically, Ochoa, a musician himself, found that while he helped others heal from violence, the narcocorrido music promoting the violence would provide a key to healing.
Jorge with friends from the Jesuit School of Theology.
As Ochoa studied narcocorridos, he realized they embodied the migrant experience. The songs combined instruments from different regions: guitars from northern Mexico; brass horns from the west; electronic music from the U.S. This was music born on the road.
“Behind the mixing sound lies the horrible reality and inequity in Mexico,” Ochoa said.
During the 1950s, when the Mexican Revolution was raging in the cities, peasants and farmers in the countryside were largely forgotten. As time went on, poverty drove many to drug trafficking, which allowed violence to be an unfortunate fixture in their lives, Ochoa said.
In the same way an archeologist might study artifacts to gain insight to a culture, Ochoa discovered that studying the narcocorridos would reveal more details about the largely unknown culture of drug trafficking.
“The music was kind of expressing the connection between the horror they experienced as a culture between decades of immigration, and the terror they are able to provoke now,” he said.
Ochoa feels the art of the music can help outsiders hear their pain.
“We can use this music to see that they are offenders and they are victims,” he said.
Finding God’s Presence
He wondered where God was in all of this, and began to pray with the narcocorridos. And as he prayed, Ochoa questioned how to resist the music’s “hatred and despair,” and follow Christ.
Ochoa started to do some research on the Spiritual Exercises, and noticed that the Third Week, which focuses on Jesus’ death, deals with the same darkness he was feeling in the music. That’s when Ochoa found God’s presence in the music.
“In the Third Week, Christ is there, but he’s dead,” Ochoa said. “When our senses are numbed or thwarted by terror and horror, we cannot see or listen to God. But darkness and blindness itself is the place where God is.”
The shock of finding God in these dark songs helped Ochoa realize God’s message.
“I think God is calling us to reflect on our responsibility in all this mess. We let is happed for decades. We ignored human being and their dignity,” he said. “It’s a call to mercy and also a call to foster justice.”
Ochoa wrote his 100-page thesis paper for the Jesuit School of Theology on the narcocorridos as a way for people to better understand these drug traffickers and work toward reconciliation. He currently is waiting to hear from his provincial about where he’ll be sent in Mexico. Ochoa hopes to bring his work to schools and retreat centers in the U.S. and Mexico to begin work toward reconciliation.
“There’s a lot of wounds in our country, and the Church can do something about it,” Ochoa said. “Church and faith are maybe the only places where we can handle these contradictions between victims and victimizers and mercy and justice.”