The chapel of Jesús Malverde in Culiacán, Sinaloa is one of the world’s most revered anti-hero altars. U.S. dollar bills scrawled with notes of gratitude to the 20th century bandit are taped everywhere. Plaques made by devotees also cover the walls, most featuring Malverde’s recognizable iconography of marijuana leaves and firearms.
Inside the chapel’s sanctuary, local regional singer Ely Quintero and Rosa Pistola are recording a scene from the video for “El Corrido de Rosa Pistola,” Quintero’s song honoring the Mexico City reggaetónera. Under Quintero’s gaze, the Colombian-born DJ kneels in front of the statue of Malverde. Rosa places a palm on the statue’s forehead before pouring out a small bottle Buchanan’s, first over Malverde’s temples, then down her own throat.
The day’s worshippers wait respectfully for the shoot to wrap. They may be used to these homages by corridos singers. Indeed, it’s the second video Quintero has shot here after “Cheyenne Sin Placas,” her 2013 tribute to a car chase led by well-known local narco’s girlfriend.
“The chapel is very cultural, very mystic, very full of faith,” Quintero says.
Later that day, Claudia Elizabeth Quintero González is on the patio of a rental house in a gated Culiacán community, taking a moment to answer interview questions as the team sets up for another shot. Really, we’re waiting for them to finish rolling. In this scene, the two women hold a business meeting accompanied by a platter of braided joints, Culiacán kush, Mexico City-bought Shines. Later, they will film in a clandestine téibol that typically doesn’t open until after local bars have closed, then the next day in an airplane hangar full of Cessnas whose serial numbers cannot be shown in the final cut.
“The story goes that Malverde was a kind of Robin Hood,” Quintero continues. “They say he stole from the rich to give to the poor. They caught him and hung him for his actions. But there are people who started to ask him for miracles and he started to deliver.”
“My music belongs to mi raza, the people who work in the fields, the kitchens—from them to the most narco.”
Quintero makes her living telling stories of notoriety. She was born in Culiacán, but grew up in El Chapo’s mountainous nearby hometown of Badiraguato, where her mother worked as a schoolteacher. Quintero didn’t finish high school, instead moving to Arizona in 2005 to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a grupera singer. She achieved modest success gigging in a restaurant for tips with a live band, belting out covers of Selena, Ana Barbara, Jenni Rivera and Diana Reyes. One day as a thank you to her public, a 23 year old Quintero recorded her first corrido; composer and singer Sergio Vega’s tale of a successful immigrant nostalgic for home, “El Ayudante.” Turns out, corridos were the move.
“From that point on, my tips doubled,” she laughs. “I said, ‘This is where the business is at.’” She was signed by La Mochila Records, a small Arizona label, and moved back to Culiacán to start recording. She now has nine albums under her belt, only four of which are currently available online. Quintero’s substantial catalogue features both woman-protagonist narcocorridos—to mention a pair, “Pantera Rosa” and “Barbies de la H9”— and more prosaic tales of love, heartbreak and getting high. 2018’s gleefully smoky “Quiero Andar Al 420” and 2019’s “Almas de Fuego” (better known by its chorus, “contigo no uso condón”) cemented her reputation as a woman unafraid to ruffle the regional music industry’s feathers.
“I think they have me playing the rebelde de regional, la que le vale verga,” she chuckles. “I don’t know, I think they think I’m crazy or something.”
Quintero doesn’t actually consume marijuana—in fact, she keeps getting accidentally and adorably hotboxed with the clouds surrounding Rosa and her crew. But veracity is not the goal of her music. In real life, Quintero is a metaphysics-studying homebody, the furthest point from her narco-lauding stage character. “When you’re able to separate your persona from your character, you can enjoy them both separately,” she says.
“You can’t sell to la gente, sino a la mente. More than anything, I’m trying to sell experiences, sensations and real situations. That prohibited reality, that no one dares to say or sing.”
When you put it that way, this collaboration between Quintero and Rosa Pistola a.k.a. Laura Puentes makes perfect sense.
“Since I started making music, I’ve looked for women collaborators, but it’s been difficult to find artists that I really like,” says Puentes. She has cemented a malandra reputation in her adopted country with anthemic mixtapes highlighting underground reggaetón mexa talent like 2018’s XXX-rated La Línea del Sexxx. Puentes is one of Mexican reggaetón’s few breakout stars, and her music can now be heard from NTS Radio and the speakers of Tepito’s michelada stands alike.
“I’ve always considered myself someone from the streets, and that my music represents people who run their hustle in the streets,” says Puentes. “When I heard ‘Quiero Andar Al 420’, I knew that Ely was the right woman to make music with in Mexico.”
“My music belongs to mi raza, the people who work in the fields, the kitchens—from them to the most narco,” says Quintero. “I saw Rosa’s vibe as kind of rebellious, underground, very barrio. We have slightly different cultures and live in different places. But I knew este vieja es de las mías.”
Their corrido will be seen as the latest chapter in this wave of urbano-regional crossover led by the SoCal corridos verdes of Rancho Humilde and its artist Natanael Cano, who infamously featured on Bad Bunny’s first corrido. This year alone has seen the release of rapper Simpson Ahuevo’s rancho-adulating single “Arre,” and the just-released collaboration between Cano and Baja California trapero El Alemán. Quintero and Puentes’ song is being released in a two-track EP with Mexico City producer Brun OG’s trap remix of “Quiero Andar Al 420”.
But Mexican artists have been exploring the intersection of such rhythms almost since they have existed. Regional music expert Leo Gallegos pinpoints the first such experimentation as an unbelievable stand-alone single by Tigres del Norte called “Rap Norteño” that concludes with the lyrics, “Aunque me gusta la música extranjera/Como la moda yo se que es pasajera/Pero hay que darle cada cosa su valor.” It came out in 1991, the same year as Tupac Shakur’s debut All Eyez On Me.
The historic hybrid can be seen as a result of artists who are driven to reflect the reality of life on the streets. For Puentes, making music about violence is a kind of therapy. “It has to come out somehow because if it doesn’t, it will give me cancer,” she says. “There aren’t many correct ways that a person can deal with all the stories that they’ve lived.”
“I felt a responsibility to go show why I deserve a fucking corrido,” she continues. “No, I don’t kill people. But I’m a jefota de las malandras.”
Still, surprising differences between reggaetón and regional are revealed on the trip to Culiacán. A corridos singer and composer that Ely works with links up, only to spend a full minute fist bumping with Rosa’s tour manager (the only man in the group) before he is reminded that he hasn’t greeted the women—including his collaborator and an artist who has traveled across the country to record with them.
Ely is tranquil in the face of such challenges, if not accepting. Given the skeptical reaction to her contraceptive-discussing “Almas de Fuego,” it seems likely that Quintero meant to provoke those with limited views on what women are allowed to vocalize about sex. A video on her Youtube channel of an unbelievably magnanimous Quintero diffusing a former assistant’s exhortations that the singer get plastic surgery is another clue to how women are seen—or not—in her world.
In fact; “In the regional music media, I’m always hearing that there are no women,” says Quintero. “That is fake news.” Her recent single with Chiquis Rivera and Helen Ochoa “Destrampadas”—billed as the first collaboration between three women of regional—looked to end that misconception. She drops some names of other corridos singers on the rise; Gaby Romero, Lluvia Arámbula, Dulce Contreras, Villa 5. “They’re the next generation,” Quintero predicts.
“The truth is, reggaetón is already so pop that I don’t really have to deal with those kinds of problems,” reflects Puentes after the trip. “You really don’t imagine how heavy it is in Culiacán, how much that macho energy dominates. After learning that, I respected Ely even more. I don’t think that we women of reggaetón are in a situation at all similar to the women of Mexican regional music. In the Smoke Me Out Fest, which I think is the baddest regional music festival in the world—and you know this—not a single woman has ever stepped onstage.”
In the other room, the chronic has been appropriately prepped, and the crew is ready to shoot. But before the interview ends, Quintero wants to shift the discussion to her own resilience, the ability that her music gives her to address the world.
“I’ve been judged a lot,” she says. “But I’ve also gotten a lot of support. I’m free, I enjoy what I do, what I sing, what I talk about. Inside my head is something I can’t stop when I’m Ely Quintero.” Maybe she’s the underdog, but in her world, the heroes always are.
Watch the video here: