A young man, loosened up from earlier drinking at the nearby Oasis, grabs a woman, and they go reeling over the dance floor. He holds the back of her long sweater away from her body like a cape for an invisible bull. Other couples join them, their dances less tequila-fueled and more precise, feet moving together as though connected by strings.
Four female bartenders move fluidly in their own dance, pouring shots, squeezing limes, twisting bottle caps.
Years ago, the dark dive at 2934 Southwest Boulevard was a biker bar called the Fun Spot. Now the clientele is nearly 100 percent Hispanic but wildly diverse: Middle-aged office workers share the bar with tough guys, drag queens and service-industry employees who come to dance after their shifts.
The Del Rio's reputation is that it's a drug dealer's hangout. The reality is that it's loud; when live acts are playing, the sound system could serve a venue twice its size. Drumbeats sound like gunshots.
And on many Wednesday nights, it's a second home to one of the area's most popular local bands.
For seven years now, Mafia Norteña has played the norteña music of the farmers, ranchers and cowboys in Mexico's northern states of Durango, Chihuahua, Zacatecas and Sinaloa.
Brothers Valentin and Jose Zaragoza play drums and bass, respectively. They were born in Kansas City, Missouri. Juan Porras, the band's accordion player and manager, was born in Kansas City, Kansas. The guitarist, singer and songwriter, Mario Davila, is from Durango, Mexico.
At the insistence of their San Antonio, Texas, label, Joey Records, Mafia Norteña's four albums have included a range of music meant to appeal to a wide audience: fast music that is good for dancing, called cumbia; slow, romantic love songs; and covers of songs by bands such as Los Tigres del Norte, one of California's best-known Mexican bands, whose tour swung through Kansas City in September.
But for a core group of fans, Mafia Norteña is known for its narcocorridos, songs that glorify the dangerous lives of drug traffickers who make it rich while dodging the law. Think of it as Mexican gangsta rap, but set to the cheerful, accordion-laced oompa-oompa of traditional norteña.
The Rio's jukebox is loaded with narcocorridos. Owners Estela Cabral and her son, Art, take some credit for Mafia Norteña's popularity. The band bought its first bus with money earned from gigs at the Rio.
"Mafia, the first time they ever played was in my bar," Art Cabral boasts. "Everybody got their start at the Del Rio, everybody. We been here eight years." Even down in Mexico, Cabral says, people talk about the Del Rio. "Anybody who's anybody in that type of business," he says, has been to his club. "That's where they hang out and spend their money."
That type of business means the drug business. Art Cabral isn't afraid to admit that some shifty characters hang out at his establishment. "The Del Rio has been under surveillance for years, just from all the people that go there," he says. "There's tons of people who hung out there that are in jail now probably 100 people that I've known in the past few years."
These days, the place is tame compared with its first wild years, when Cabral had to break up fistfights and tell some troublemakers to stay away. The only time he needs to employ a security company is on Saturday nights. What his customers do to earn their cash when they're not in the bar is outside his control.
"Some are shady, or have been, and always will be," Cabral says. "As long as they eat and drink, that's all I care about. And pay their tab."
Come to the Del Rio once and you'll be greeted by cold looks from behind heavy eyeliner. Come twice and you'll be treated like one of Estela's grandchildren.
A trio of women with suspiciously large Adam's apples troops past the Del Rio's ear-splitting speakers, heading for the ladies' room to preen in front of smudged mirrors. Meanwhile, in a loungy, neon-lit corner, a woman refuses to give her number to a lean cowboy in boots only to give it to his friend a minute later. The rejected cowboy grabs her hand anyway and drags her off for one last dance.
Though the Del Rio is basically just a neighborhood bar, its dangerous reputation gives it an edge. The tough guys who hang out here have reputations, too.
At least they wish they did. Sometimes, a reputation can use a little poetic embellishment. That's when Mario Davila's cell phone rings. Davila, Mafia Norteña's songwriter and Mexico-born member, is a mustachioed guy in his thirties with a demeanor that seems standoffish at first. People who don't know him, he says, probably think he's a mamón, an asshole. He understands English but pretends not to when it suits him.
"Narcocorridos cause a lot of controversy in Mexico," Davila says in Spanish. Porras, the manager, translates.
"The government tells radio stations in Mexico not to play them.... They don't want it [the music] to have too much glamour. [Mexican President] Vicente Fox two or three years ago said that. Here, we have freedom of opinion. There are a lot more freedoms we have. A corrido is a story. It's not always about drugs. Sometimes it's about someone dying. It could be about a horse."
Davila starts to recite the lyrics to a song he wrote called "The Assassin Committed Suicide." (The title sounds better in Spanish, Porras says.) Porras translates, and a story takes shape about a hit man serving time for a murder he committed at the behest of some big-time drug dealers. The drug dealers promised him that they would take care of his mother, back in Mexico, for the rest of her life, even if he were caught. His mother writes him letters, which the drug dealers forward to the jail. "Son, why do you always have so much money? What do you do? What is your job?" his mother writes. One day, jailers find the hit man hanging in his cell. The letter clutched in his hand reads that his mother has died. Regretting his sacrifice, he killed himself.
Davila's songs follow a tradition of narcocorridos that are fatalistic and death-obsessed, with story lines like those of soap operas. Los Tigres del Norte recorded the entire saga of "Camelia la Tejana," or Camelia from Texas, in which a woman and her lover cross from Tijuana to San Diego with 100 pounds of contraband. They stop in Sacramento to exchange their goods for money, and the boyfriend says he's taking his half and heading out to San Francisco to be with his new love. Naturally, Camelia shoots him on the spot, gets all the money and takes off. The song has a sequel in which the dead lover's brothers kidnap Camelia, and another in which Camelia's son goes on to find the kidnappers and kill them.
Davila boasts of the poetry in his songs and their encoded meanings. He likes to write about "letting the parrot walk on the table," meaning chopping lines of cocaine, called el perico because it makes people talk and talk and talk.
Many of the lyrics he writes are commissioned by people who will pay well to hear about their exploits in song. Sometimes the tales are true, but often the details are exaggerated to the benefit of the patron.
"There are two types of people," Porras likes to say. "Some who want fame, who want everyone to know who they are. Then there are the real ones, who want a song just for them. They use a nickname for themselves for the song that no one else knows. There is a saying in Spanish, 'Perros que ladran no muerden.' The dog that barks doesn't bite." A couple of years ago, Mafia Norteña was a band in its prime.
Before he joined up with Davila, Juan Porras had been in a band with his twin brother, Javier. But Javier was the bigger twin, born first, and Juan says he couldn't handle taking orders from his brother. Embarrassing fights would result, sometimes in front of the people who had hired them to play. Rather than cause family strife by kicking his brother out of the band, Juan Porras quit and hooked up with Davila, who was just leaving another band, Los Desertores Del Norte. Members of both bands merged to form Mafia Norteña. Davila chose the band's name because he liked the power that the word mafia suggested.
A trip to Texas to visit a prospective label, Joey Records, suddenly turned into a recording contract. The company wanted to record the new band right then. Unprepared, the band members had to have their instruments FedExed to Texas so they could record El Orgullo de la Mafia (The Pride of the Mafia), an album full of Davila's corridos.
Joey Records then tried to make Mafia Norteña famous. The label shot a video that the band jokes ought to be shown on the Disney Channel. "It was more like a cartoon," Porras says. "It seemed like it had nothing to do with us."
Mafia Norteña's partnership with Joey Records was full of conditions. People at the label told the band members all of whom are married to take off their wedding rings when they played in public in order to encourage the legions of screaming female fans enjoyed by big acts such as Los Tigres.
The band recorded three more albums, on Joey Records' recommendation that it play different styles of music.
"We played slow songs, and people liked it. We played cumbias, and people liked it. That was very unusual," Porras says. "Usually people get used to a band playing one style and they like you not to change. But Mario writes narcos, and they are hits, and he writes slow songs, and they're hits."
The band members traveled to Miami for an appearance on the Spanish-language Univision network. They performed Davila's song "Nada Es Equal" ("Nothing Is the Same") live on the TV show Despierta America, which is Univision's Good Morning America.
When they came home, they felt like stars. Listeners called Spanish-language radio station KKHK 1250 (La Super X) and requested their music so often that the band members got sick of hearing themselves.
Super X broadcasts from a little office inside the Rainbow Center, a complex sandwiched between trailer parks and auto salvage yards off 63rd Street and Kaw Drive in Wyandotte County. The station manager, Debra Sandoval, remembers the days of endless requests for Mafia Norteña songs. She says her father, Paul Ramirez, was the first to put the band on his big stage.
When he was a younger man, working for farmers and migrating seasonally from Texas to Kansas City, Ramirez noticed that his fellow workers and their families needed something to do. He knew workers who played instruments and had formed bands, and he would try to find them work by throwing dances in rural places such as Bonner Springs, where a homesick migrant-worker population longed for entertainment. To advertise, he spent the week before the dance putting up posters. As his efforts grew, so did his need for communication, so he began renting radio time from small stations. Eventually, he had a chance to buy one of his own.
Ramirez started the Rainbow Center in 1995. It's a no-frills venue with end-to-end rows of picnic tables covered in white plastic, tin ashtrays, and a tiled concession booth left over from when the place was a skating rink. But it was the destination for touring bands and big, blowout dances.
Mafia Norteña was one of the first bands to play there.
"Back then, norteña music was in," Sandoval says. "It's Mexican country music. It's never going to go out, but back in them years, '95 all the way up to 2000, it was the popular thing, cowboy hats and big belt buckles and boots."
"When we got back from Miami, we had, like, a fan club. They greeted us at the airport with a sign," Porras says.
When the band members rode on planes, people sitting next to them recognized the band's name. Porras says he once spoke with a Hispanic police officer in Kansas City who could name some of the men in the band's songs he'd locked them up.
These days, though, the record company hasn't been sending them on tour, Porras tells the Pitch.
Porras says Davila was incarcerated for several months in 2003 for a misdemeanor. (Davila has no problem writing songs about other people's run-ins with the law, but he refuses to elaborate on his own Porras says the sentence was related to a fight.) The band made do with other musicians in the interim, but Porras says he believes that this series of events permanently soured the band's relationship with Joey Records. Porras says Joey hasn't sent the band any money from CD sales or royalties from Davila's songs in about a year.
The relationship between the band and its label has disintegrated, but Porras says local fans still request the band's songs on the radio. The musicians are still popular in town, and Davila has notebooks full of songs they can record on their own.
Mafia Norteña also enjoys a sponsorship deal with Miller Lite beer, which recently kicked off an enormous marketing campaign directed at Hispanics. The company has outfitted Latino stars such as boxer Fernando Vargas with Miller gear; Mafia Norteña is the first Mexican band to receive such treatment. Miller's Midwest distributor has given the band members Miller Lite posters and T-shirts to hand out and has promised a giant Miller Lite sticker, with photos of all of their faces, to put on their tour bus.
"We can't drink anything else when we're in uniform," Porras jokes. "They had plans to promote us, but really, they want us to promote them. All we have to do is drink Miller Light."
Porras says Super X still gets mail for the band, including letters from inmates wanting to commission songs.
"People want us to make a song to make them exposed, to make them known, to make them bigger," Porras says. "They want that feeling if Mario writes a song for them, then they'll be ... "
"Famous, and then they get in trouble," says Jose Zaragoza, the bassist, laughing.
"I just write the songs they want," Davila says with a shrug. "If they get in trouble, that's their problem." A few of Davila's songs are about, or have been inspired by, the Del Rio.
"Corrido de Los Pipos" is about two friends, the Pipos, influential badasses in the underground who drink, let the parrot walk on the table and are good for their word. Nadie ofende a los Pipos no vayan a olvidarlo/Si alquien se pasa de vivo no vivira pa contarlo "No one offends the Pipos, and don't forget it. If anyone goes against them, they will not live to talk about it."
Art Cabral says that, in the good old days, narcocorrido composers wrote about legendary people who had died. Now, fans want songs written about them while they're alive to hear them.
"I know probably all the people the songs are about," Cabral says. "Either they're dead right now or they're in jail. See, what people do in Mexican culture, it's really kind of stupid in hindsight, but when people come here and start making money the easy way, they think they're unstoppable. They like to get songs made about them, and in the end, there's been a couple times when they got in trouble, and the FBI plays the songs to them."
The band seeks its own notoriety by singing of gunshots, drugs, love and money. But Davila, Porras and the Zaragoza brothers would love to make a lot of money without getting caught up in the gunshots and drugs unlike Chalino Sanchez, the legendary Mexican singer who helped put the narco in narcocorrido.
Chalino left from the notorious drug-trafficking state of Sinaloa for the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, rose to fame in the '90s, then died mysteriously which earned him a fanatical following.
He wrote his first songs while he was in jail songs about the bad guys with good stories who were locked up with him. He was a reluctant star who sang his own corridos because he couldn't find a local norteña singer to record them for him. His low-budget cassettes struck a nerve with Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles who longed to hear about themselves in song. He sang of regular Joses who sold drugs and hustled to get by, who died in dramatic shootouts with each other and with the law. And he sang with a pearl-handled revolver tucked in his waistband.
Kidnappers abducted him during a visit to Culiacán, the capital city of Sinaloa, and his body was found in an irrigation ditch near the highway. He'd been shot twice in the back of the head.
After his death, Chalino's fame surged. He is credited with making Mexican music cool again at a time when Hispanic teenagers in Los Angeles were emulating rappers and trying to breakdance. Sam Quinones, author of a 2001 book called True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx (published by the University of New Mexico Press), writes that, after Chalino's death, "A Mexican-roots renaissance took place, though this time undertaken not by a small group of Chicano college professors, intellectuals, and artists but by a large swath of working-class youth." Chalino reminded immigrants and the children of immigrants that they had a culture of their own, and it was authentic, tough and uniquely Mexican.
Porras remembers driving around listening to his grandfather's norteña with the volume turned down low. "It would be embarrassing to be caught listening to it," Porras says. "Now it's cool. You'll see guys riding around with it blasting in their cars."
Davila says Chalino influenced his songwriting, as did artists such as Luis Padilla, Oscar Treviño and Mario Quintero Lara.
The first song Davila ever wrote was for a girl named Carmelita, whom he liked when he was 13.
"He made her a song, and she still didn't hook up with him!" Porras says, laughing as he translates. Davila says he was born in Durango but his family moved to Coahuila shortly after he was born. His dad worked on the railroad. He has eight siblings. Porras jokes that he didn't have a TV. "No," Davila says, "we had a TV. We just didn't have electricity."
At 25, Valentin Zaragoza is the band's youngest member. He doesn't like to wear tight jeans and cowboy boots, and sometimes he looks like the band must be cramping his style. But he insists he's norteña all the way.
"My whole family comes from the music life," he says. "Me and my brother [bass player Jose] have been playing since I was 13. We get hired in a lot of places because they do better with our music. It gives people the urge to drink more. We can start a song, and people will start throwing their hats down and screaming, and they want to fucking buy a bottle because we're talking about something they've been through. Corridos are about things that actually do happen."
Porras, who taught himself to play the accordion, grew up in the Silver City apartment project on 23rd Street and Birch in the Argentine neighborhood. He remembers playing with black kids because his was one of the only Mexican families in the neighborhood. His dad worked at a nearby steel plant that has since been torn down.
"I think my dad was the only father who lived in that whole complex," Porras says. "On our birthdays, we would have a big party, with piñatas, and it seemed like the whole apartment was there. We got pictures where blacks, whites, everybody was in this big circle and we're busting this piñata. My mom would make food, seemed like for everybody, people we knew, people we didn't know."
When Porras was a teenager, the gangs in the Argentine neighborhoods were getting bad and movies glorifying that lifestyle were becoming popular. He remembers catching rides home from school and having people shoot at his friends' cars. Once, after he gave a gang member the finger, the guy followed him back to his apartment and held a gun to his head.
"Everything was in slow motion," Porras says. "I could hear my heartbeat, you know. I turned to look by my house, and I seen my mom. She was just looking at me. It was a fucked-up feeling. He didn't shoot me or nothing. I don't know what happened. There's all kinds of stories. Living in the ghetto was real bad."
Porras met another kid at school named Rocky Meza, whose family was Mexican, too.
"Rocky was that friend who had all the new stuff, like a moped and a Nintendo system," Porras says. "And I remember this real clearly, we were hanging out at his house and he was like, 'Hey, Juan nah, never mind.' I was like, 'What?' He said, 'Nah, you'll think it's dumb.' I'm like, 'What?' He says we should maybe start a band. I said, 'Nah, that's not dumb, but how?' He said, 'My dad's in a band, and he's got all the instruments downstairs.'"
The first song they played was "La Bamba."
"We sucked, man," Porras says. "But we're the second generation to have gotten into music. Well, I'm the first, because my dad didn't play nothing. He just drank."
Rocky Meza played saxophone in Porras' bands. Once, Mafia Norteña played a gig in Juarez, Mexico, and stayed there for a month. "Rocky met a girl down there, and two weeks later, she was here [in Kansas City]," Porras says. Now Meza lives in Mexico.
The band has carried on without him. One Mafia Norteña favorite is called "El Pastel" ("The Cake"). It's about Señor de los Cielos (the King of the Sky), a famous drug dealer of the Cartel de Juarez who moved shipments with a fleet of planes. The cake is for everyone, the song says. No one person can finish it all. You will get your piece, but if you get too greedy, they will kill you immediately. Rumor has it that the King of the Sky died on an operating table while trying to have his identity altered by plastic surgery. Of course, some people don't believe that he's dead.
Another song, "La Fiesta Privada" ("The Private Party"), talks about Mafia Norteña playing music in a five-star hotel for a group of bosses from the Mexican cities Durango and Michoacán. Playing private parties, such as the 15-year-old girl's traditional quinceanera, often means big money. But at this private party, the song says, the guests don't break piñatas or any of that kid stuff. This song is about "diamonds" pure, uncut cocaine. A few years ago, Porras says, Mafia Norteña had an office on 18th Street and Central. Eight Drug Enforcement Administration agents came to search it with four drug-sniffing dogs.
"My brother was in the office at the time," Porras says. "They said they heard that we made a lot of trips to and from Mexico. He told them, 'Just because our name is Mafia Norteña doesn't mean we are involved.'" As Kansas City's Hispanic population has grown, so have people's options. The Rainbow Center went from being the only Latin-music venue in town to being a solid standby, but now it has competition. La Fiesta, a flashy, newer club in Olathe, draws a lively weekend crowd.
A restaurant by day, La Fiesta at night is all lights, booming sound and fog machines. Its big, two-level dance floor is ringed by a skinny ledge for resting beers and stools for watching dancers. The stage is raised high above the dance floor. A long bar is stocked with every Mexican beer imaginable and troughs of lime wedges. La Fiesta also lets in underage kids who come to dance but can't drink, marking their hands with sloppy black X's.
Valentin says the band will sing a lot of narcos tonight. "See all the Twinkie hats?" he says, referring to the men wandering around in white cowboy hats. The hats remind Valentin of snack cakes, but the wearers consider their manly attire an indication of something much harder.
La Fiesta is filled with men in cowboy hats and women in jeans and tank tops. Porras' twin, Javier, shows up with his girlfriend, Marta, his son, Javi Jr., and assorted other relatives and friends. Javi Jr. (who has the initials "THS" for Turner High School shaved into the back of his hair) has brought his saxophone to play with the band.
Davila goes to the microphone. "Who have we got here?" he asks in Spanish, his voice booming, a smile curving his mustache. "Zacatecas, Chihuahua, Durango, Guanajuato?"
Someone calls out another location. He acknowledges it, then says, "Hey, we're all in America, right?"
The band breaks into "La Fiesta Privada." Porras spreads open his accordion from one corner like a fan. Javi Jr. strikes a wood block with a drumstick in perfect time.
A guy strides through the crowd like a king, a woman under each arm. One is slim and dark, the other round and blond. The round one turns out to be his mother; he takes the other one out on the dance floor and swoops her around.
The next song is the waltzy "El Compa de Camargo." The first verse translates: My cell phone rings and I must answer it/I am someone very powerful from the city of Camargo/I cannot give you my name for reasons of my own/The business I own is very risky. According to the song, the protagonist was once caught with a load in Liberal, Kansas, but his attorneys got the case dropped.
The band doesn't always take requests. But someone who asks to hear "Song for Chino" will always be rewarded.
Chino was a friend of Davila's who used to hang out at the Del Rio. He was killed at El Imperial restaurant, at 309 North Seventh Street in Kansas City, Kansas. Police described the shooting as a blood bath; a March 1998 article in The Kansas City Star reads like a corrido:
"[Witnesses said] the gunman entered the restaurant and went directly to the rest room. When he emerged, he was wearing a mask. He started shooting, hitting a man at the bar in the head. People fell to the floor. The gunman kept firing on his way out, mostly into the floor." The gunman, a Hispanic man in his early 20s, had a semiautomatic pistol, a green teardrop tattoo at the corner of one eye and a green tattoo on top of one hand. He wore a black leather jacket and black pants."
Since the shooting, El Imperial has shut down. Kansas authorities identified it as the hub of a major crystal-meth-trafficking ring and made multiple arrests there.
"La Trajedia Del Compa Chino" is the one corrido that Davila and the band say is absolutely true.
Vida da muchas vuletas así decía el compa Chino. Tengan cuidado cabrones, cuidense el el camino.
"'Life takes many different turns,' Chino used to say. Be careful, motherfuckers, watch yourselves on the road."
Several men have gathered at the foot of the stage. They are young and well-dressed. Their cowboy hats look expensive, with gold clips on the brims that read "Chihuahua" and "Michoacán." They wear pearl-snapped plaid shirts and sip beers and bourbon. Their eyes don't leave the stage.
Listening from the audience, Javier Porros makes an observation. "You know how white boys are proud to be cowboys and they go 'yee-haw'? Well, corridos make a Mexican go 'yee-haw' only it's 'ay-yi-yi!'"
With these gritos, the men sound like they are trying to out-crow each other.
Javi's girlfriend, Marta, is desperately trying to get Davila's attention so that she can request a love song. But Davila is playing for his true audience, the men watching the band and crying out when a lyric strikes them.
Davila begins another corrido.
"The person this song is about is in the club right now," Javi says. He starts translating the lyrics: People say I am not a big-time drug dealer/My family name is Baruca/I have not been caught because of my intelligence/Those who are against me do not last.
Couples are lined up on the dance floor, listening, hooting.
Javi continues to translate. "It cost me $350,000 to get me out of jail. I carried ten keys of cocaine, and the police report said that the drugs they found were only enough for personal use. The white DEAs wanted my drugs, but it was all organized. I went on the streets and made my money back. The police said it was for personal use, but my people can get drugs again."
The crowd swells with pride for a song about one of their brothers getting away with it all. A couple kisses.
As Art Cabral at the Del Rio likes to say, even good people listen to narcocorridos.