Jesus "Chuy" Negrete
With a guitar, a harmonica and a sweet croon, Jesus "Chuy" Negrete brings to life the history, culture and political movements of Mexico with folk music. He'll explore Mexican labor songs in a free presentation at the Madison Labor Temple on Nov. 21.
Oral historian Studs Terkel dubbed Negrete "the Chicano Woody Guthrie" because of his performance style and his focus on social justice. Negrete uses the corrido, a type of poetic Mexican ballad, to appropriate traditional songs for modern social movements, much like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez have done with American folk standards. He also creates original music that tells stories about human rights in the Americas and the immigrant experience in the U.S.
Negrete was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, but grew up on Chicago's South Side in the 1950s, where his parents worked in the steel mills. This experience fostered his interest in the labor movement, as did working in Midwestern tomato fields as a child.
While studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago State University, he became involved with student activist groups and Mexican farm workers. He also explored his love of performing through the Chicago theater scene. Soon he began to merge his interests in activism and the arts, composing the soundtrack for Si, Se Puede ("Yes, It Can Be Done"), a documentary about Cesar Chavez's 1972 hunger strike on behalf of the United Farm Workers.
While getting his start as a musician, Negrete built a second career as an academic. He earned a doctoral degree in educational anthropology and ethnomusicology from the University of California at Berkeley and researched indigenous immigrant populations in Mexico as a Bannerman fellow. As a Smithsonian fellow, he developed multimedia programs on the Mexican labor movement. Later, he founded and directed the Mexican Cultural Institute in Chicago.
But folk music is still his first love, and a way of combining his personal stories with his social activism. His song "Corrido del Bracero" includes the following lines about his journey to the U.S., which have been translated into English by the Smithsonian Institution:
I crossed the border there in Matamoros,
For lack of any other means, I crossed illegally.
Gentlemen, I am telling you about how I am suffering,
How they are making me want to go on back.
Negrete goes on to describe how Texas police arrested him because he had no immigration papers, and how they took all of his money. It was ironic, he notes, because he came to the U.S. hoping to make money, not lose it, and to find more freedom, not more hardships. These themes are particularly resonant right now, as Wisconsin workers' rights are being stripped away here in Madison.