In the middle of last month, local rapper Chingo Bling launched the media blitz for his June 5 release They Can't Deport Us All in typically creative fashion. Most local rappers of any renown own what are known as "wrapped" vans -- Aerostars and other minivans with gaudy head shots and titles emblazoned on all sides of their bodies. Chingo's Tex-Mexified version of a wrapped van was a wrapped tamale truck with the album's title painted on it, which he parked at the A-1 Flea Market near the College exit of the Gulf Freeway. Chingo calls it his "ghetto billboard."
It wasn't there long before it was vandalized. The first weekend it was up, someone in a passing car shot at it. A week later, someone painted over the "t" in "can't" and spray-painted "Go Home" on its side. Chingo's people repaired the damages. In the wee hours of March 26, the vandals returned and painted over the "t" and wrote "Go home" again, only this time, they smashed the windows for good measure. Again, the truck was repaired, and again the vandals struck, and this time, they didn't wait until the weekend. Again it was repaired, and again it was attacked.
"Then we started seeing little bullet holes," says Chingo. "Musta been like a .22, 'cause I doubt a BB gun would go through a windshield or aluminum."
On his MySpace blog, Chingo states that he knew They Can't Deport Us All would be a provocative album title / rallying cry. "I expected to raise a couple of eyebrows and stares; I assumed Wal-Mart might not like the title, that [his label partner] Asylum might try to get me to change the title, so I knew it was a heated issue, but I didn't know there was this level of hate."
In addition to the vandalism, Chingo says he has been sent threatening messages. "We've been getting lots of hate mail, anonymous bullcrap, stares," he says. "They're saying stuff like, 'Shut up, or we'll shut you up,' 'Go home,' 'You need to quit spreadin' that shit' and 'We can deport y'all all.'"
What's puzzling to me is this -- why now, and not years ago? The "Ghetto Vaquero" has been taunting La Migra and racist Anglos (among a host of other targets) regularly for the last five years. Is it because he is more famous now, or is it that the mood in America in general and Houston specifically toward immigrants has worsened?
Chingo has an idea of his own. "It's one thing to just say something like that on a mixtape, but it's another to get organized on a united front and agree on a slogan and just plaster it everywhere. And I think the phrase itself is politically charged, 'cause of that 'they.' That's that whole us-versus-them thing. I think it's empowering, really, a new-school empowering phrase."
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Basically, Chingo is saying that there is no way in hell, no matter how hard the government tries, that you can physically deport all of the Mexicans here illegally. "I think that's the part that is threatening to some people," he says. "It's just a reminder of 'What if we' -- meaning Mexican-Americans -- 'all realized that there's just so many of us that we can be strong if we get on a united front.'" (Chingo just cut a spot for Mun2 in Los Angeles that hammers this point home with special effects.)
Chingo likes to compare America to an airplane. In his opinion, Mexican-Americans are like the ground crew, cooks, cleaners and nannies to the pilots' children. In short, they do everything that enables other people to fly that plane and others to ride it.
"And we help keep the fares at a reasonable price because we do the work so cheap," he says. "And then you've got everybody else on the plane in close quarters, and all of a sudden a couple of them start yelling, 'Hey you and you -- we're gonna kick you off this plane.' If that really was the scenario, in close quarters like that, it would be very obvious to you and me that this shit isn't very fair. But it's not like that, and a lot of immigrants just come here and they don't want any trouble, they just wanna work. And for the most part, that was my parents. They were here illegally, but they didn't want to hurt anybody. They just wanted to pay their taxes, contribute and send their kids to school."
And it's not just the rednecks/Lou Dobbs/Minutemen crowd that has Chingo in its sights -- he's also being criticized by some Latinos in the hip-hop press. A blogger affiliated with the Soundofhiphop.com recently branded Chingo a "walking stereotype" and a "Latino jiggaboo." "The cat is actually an educated mofo, with college degrees and ish, so he does know what he's doing," wrote the blogger, who goes by "Goya." "He's not ignorant to the stereotypes he's perpetuating. Calling videos 'bideos' and just making everything around him a joke is just plain sad. Have we really gotten this far that we can walk around in cowboy boots, big ass hats selling tamales and drinking tequila?"
"All I say to people like that Soundofhiphop guy is that I just try to take advantage of my talents, which are to entertain, be a businessperson and have an appreciation for rap music," Chingo responds. "I'm just one little person out of 39 million who is just basically the underdog. I'm going up against NBC, Viacom, I'm saying some shit that maybe MTV might not wanna play. I might not fit into anybody's commercial radio format, so that guy doesn't really need to worry about me until I'm all over MTV. Then he can spend his computer time Googling me. But right now I'm just a little speck of dust and way too insignificant for a New Yorker to be wasting his time on me."
To be fair to Goya, he did grant that the "They Can't Deport Us All" slogan was something other than "Latino jiggaboo" behavior. "Yeah, basically, how could I be a dancing buffoon, how could I be a puppet of the status quo? A jiggaboo is someone that makes the right feel comfortable, because they have you where they want you. You're not a threat, you're scared of massa, you're scared of being deported. Basically, it's not a very empowering role to play, and neither are the other roles Latinos have been forced to play, like the Latin lover or the gangsta."
When Chingo first emerged a few years back, he was a comedian/parodist first and a rapper/communicator second, a guy often compared to Weird Al and Ali G. Turns out the latter comparison was closer to the mark, and not just because the comedy of both Pedro Herrera (Chingo's birth name) and Sacha Baron Cohen aims to shed light on our racial assumptions. But unlike Ali G/Cohen, Chingo/Herrera also has the uplift of his people as a goal, and that paradigm is slowly shifting. For one thing, the Carnival Beats-produced lead single "Like This and Like That" off of They Can't Deport Us All is really hot, and Chingo, whose famously thin voice is finally filling out, gets off at least one very memorable, resonant line: "Now they got us cleaning up Katrina / and Kanye West don't like Mexicans either." (And neither does George Bush, he says elsewhere.)
"I think people are going to be surprised by this album," he says. "People now might not know what to expect from me, 'cause 'Like This and Like That' doesn't sound anything like 'Taco Shop.' Program directors might say, well, 'Taco Shop' did well for us, and I'm not sure this is the same thing.' Parody is safe, dancing is safe, silly is safe. But when you're saying Bush don't like Mexicans either, it changes the game.
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"Number one, I'm a Mexican rapper from Texas, so I might as well be a Martian, because a lot of people just see us as busboys or slaughterhouse workers. Number two, I have gotten lots of attention for my parodies. It was like dessert, and people were like, 'Look, I got a cherry with whipped cream on it,' and no one's afraid of you. But now other doors have opened."
And whether or not the new, improved Chingo sticks with radio and the suits on Fifth Avenue in New York, don't expect the man himself to back down from anything he has said. Defiance is in his blood. "I've always been a little militant. My mom and dad raised me to believe in freedom of speech. At the end of the day, they raised a man, a guy who's not afraid of saying things 'cause it might be keepin' it too real.
"My dad's real macho. He's from Mexico, so he was always telling me stories about Zapata, Benito Jurez, Cuauhtmoc and stories of Indians who had their feet burned because they wouldn't give up their treasures, and he told those stories like he was there, like, 'They tortured this dude, burned his feet, killed his family and not once did he sell out his people.' And that's something that I've always remembered."
So, Mr. Tamale Truck Vandal, if you're reading this: Step away from the spray paint. If you think you're gonna silence Chingo, the fumes have already gone to your head.