Aztec dancers opened the celebration of Jesús “Chuy” Negrete’s life last month in a manner reminiscent of the way he would often start his own performances: by acknowledging the elements and four cardinal directions, sometimes blowing into a conch shell.
Negrete was a Chicago folklorist, writer, and activist known for singing corridos—Mexican ballads—about the Chicano Movement and other social causes. Wherever there was a crowd, he sang Spanish-, English-, and even Nahuatl-language verses filled with wisdom and snippets of Mexican history rarely found in textbooks. In between stanzas, he would joke, give advice, or translate his lyrics.
He was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and when he was an infant he immigrated with his Guanajuato-born family to Texas. They then moved permanently to the South Chicago neighborhood when he was seven where his father worked as a steelworker until he retired. Negrete passed away on May 27 at seventy-two from health complications, but he was not publicly memorialized until September 12 at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
“In the year 1521…” he would often break into song to the finger-drumming of his acoustic guitar as he lyrically summarized five hundred years of tragic and heroic stories. The melodic composition was always traditional, but his lyrics were grounded in real-life experiences that primarily took place in the United States: the stories of immigrants and Mexican Americans or Chicanos.
But while his ethnic pride was inspired by his parents, it wasn’t popular to be a proud Mexican in a northern city like Chicago fifty-plus years ago, recounted his older sister Juanita Negrete-Phillips, who formed a band with her brother and sisters called Flor y Canto. He was greatly influenced by California artists and activists who made several visits to the Pilsen neighborhood, such as El Teatro Campesino, a farmworker theater group, which prompted him and his talented sisters to start El Teatro del Barrio, a guerrilla theater group that performed on the street. And he was radicalized by popular struggles that he learned about after he left for college.
Negrete graduated from Chicago Vocational High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and a master’s degree in education from Chicago State University. He worked as an educator in many capacities: as a bilingual teacher for Chicago Public Schools; teaching assistant or adjunct faculty member at various universities such as University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Malcolm X, Robert Morris, Roosevelt, and Morton, among others; and as an advisor of UIC’s LARES program for Latinx students when it first launched.
Negrete had an impact all over the country. “He had a national and international life, too,” his wife Rita Rousseau said. They met at the museum during a Day of the Dead exhibit, and she carefully documented his collection of work ever since.
A close friend of his, Lorenzo Cano, of the University of Houston, said he knew Negrete for the entire Movimiento. “One of his main contributions was that he inspired and uplifted people,” Cano said. “When you’re involved in a strong political movement… you need that spirit, that kindle to fire up the people. He came to Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago… all over the country… small towns and fields to talk to laborers, students, and he inspired us to move forward and embrace who we are as Chicanos, as Mexican Americans.”
He was also known in Kansas City, Berkeley, New Mexico, and all over Michigan.
“Vámonos para El Norte
Vámonos a trabajar.
Vámonos pa’ Chicago
Vámonos a trabajar.
Pisqué cherries en Minesota, cuidé perros en Nor Dakota
Wisconsin también conocí.
Y el algodón en Oklahoma, las minas en Arizona
y hasta California me fui…”
(Let’s go to The North
Let’s go to work.
Let’s go to Chicago
Let’s go to work.
I picked cherries in Minnesota, I took care of dogs in North Dakota
I also went to Wisconsin
And to the cotton in Oklahoma,
To the mines of Arizona, and I ended up in California)
An elaborate ofrenda for Negrete stood in the atrium of the Mexican museum in Pilsen. The altar featured photos of Negrete with family and countless friends. Rows of sunflowers and red roses in vases decorated the floor and altar. Dozens of books, a Che Guevara shirt, skulls, candles, and a bottle of Cholula hot sauce decorated the display. A vibrant painting of Negrete stood on the ofrenda’s top tier. In the painting, Negrete holds his guitar while in the background, an Aztec warrior looks up at the moon.
Negrete visited schools, hospitals, universities, prisons and senior homes to play his music. In an interview with the Latino Native American Cultural Center at the University of Iowa, Negrete shared that “the corrido has helped our people with mental health.” He said that when he visited incarcerated men and played his corridos, they started to cry. “That’s what you’re supposed to do, vato,” he would tell them. “The corrido redistributes grief so that you can be born again.”
Negrete would show up, wearing a guayabera and prominent sideburns under the shade of his palm-woven sombrero, with a guitar or harmonica in hand. Many songs were pre-written, but much of his delivery was also improvised. The corridos would talk about your average José, who worked in the fields or the factories, and adjacent heroes like Lucy González Parsons, the Chicago labor leader of Mexican-American, African-American, and Native descent.
Keenly familiar with the agricultural and industrial workplaces that Mexicans were relegated to, he celebrated labor strikes and supported the César Chavez-led international grape boycott by singing about it from the flatbed of a pickup truck. He would mention the factories in South Chicago and in East Chicago, Indiana, where his family members and neighbors were employed before the companies shuttered and abandoned the area: Inland Steel Corporation, Republic Steel, and U.S. Steel.
Negrete liked to go on radio stations all over the country and sing a few lines. He also had his own radio show called “Radio Rebelde” en WLUW 98.7 FM on Sunday afternoons, where he sang and gave political commentary.
He was frequently called upon to compose corridos for different people and events, and he wouldn’t charge a dime, including songs about class-conscious aspiring politicians such as Mayor Harold Washington, activist Rudy Lozano, and most recently Chuy Garcia when he ran for mayor.
At the memorial, Garcia recalled when Negrete sang at St. Pius Church after Lozano was murdered. “Through his song he conveyed a sense of courage, he gave us ánimo not to be afraid, even though we didn’t know if Rudy’s assasination was political, may have come from the mafia or from other shady labor organizations. He instilled in us a resolve to stick together.”
Jackie Serrato is the Editor in Chief of the Weekly. She last wrote about the Jackson Park trees that were cut down to make way for the Obama Presidential Center. Alma Campos is the Weekly’s immigration editor. She last covered Hegewisch for the 2020 Best of the South Side issue.