Photo by Jesus Macarena-Avila of Instituto de Nuestra Cultura / Courtesy of the Negrete family.
Chicano, Music, Activism, Education, Ethnomusicology
Jesús (Chuy) Negrete
Jesús “Chuy” Negrete was a musician, storyteller, broadcaster, activist, folk historian, humorist, and a defiant individual who promoted awareness of the plight of Mexicans in the U.S. through singing corridos, a Mexican ballad that has been popular on both sides of the border from the early 19th century to the present.
Jesus “Chuy” Negrete was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and came to Texas when he was a year old with his parents and an older sister. As a young child, he accompanied his parents in agricultural work and other odd jobs in several states before the family settled in South Chicago in 1955 where his father eventually found steady work at a steel plant and where Chuy started school. One of his autobiographical corridos narrates: “Pisqué cherries en Minnesota, cuidé perros en North Dakota, Wisconsin también conocí. Y el algodón en Oklahoma, las minas en Arizona, y hasta California me fui.” (“I picked cherries in Minnesota, cared for dogs in North Dakota, also went to Wisconsin. And cotton in Oklahoma, the mines in Arizona and all the way to California.”)
While studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago (BA, 1972) and Chicago State University (MA, 1980), he became involved with student activist groups and Mexican farm workers. His signature performance style, the corrido, was informed by Teatro Campesino and the farm workers’ civil rights movement led by Cesar Chavez starting in the 1960s. He wove English, Spanish, and Spanglish in his songs to reach wider audiences. This also enabled him to address, with incisive humor, linguistic and cultural misunderstandings that are common to many immigrants. In later life, Negrete received an honorary doctorate from University of California at Berkeley.
Negrete inspired many Mexican American youth on U.S. college campuses who were trying to find their way in an unwelcoming dominant culture. He also had a weekly radio show on WLUW called “Radio Rebelde.” Under a veil of humor, Negrete offered a stern critique of Mexican American history and race relations in the U.S. His activism denounced racism, injustice, corruption, and abuse of immigrants by the White dominant culture. One of the signature programs that he performed live hundreds of times at festivals, political rallies, and university campus Latino organizations throughout the U.S. was called “500 Years of Chicano History,” and it recounted the story from pre-Hispanic times through Mexican independence, the Mexican Revolution, and generations of migration to the U.S.
Negrete regarded folklore as “both a practical and powerful element of the culture” of marginalized groups. He used music, poetry, storytelling, and theatrical delivery to educate and to mobilize. Oral historian Studs Terkel dubbed Negrete, “the Chicano Woody Guthrie”, because of his performance style and his focus on social justice.