Oscar Chávez, “big brother” to the Zapatistas

Subcomandante Marcos, center, Oscar Chávez to his left, and Comandante Tacho to his right

By: Luis Hernández Navarro

Oscar Chávez was a leading figure in the formation of a critical mass culture and in the sentimental education of several generations. He kept the Mexican popular songbook alive. He recuperated and spread the songs of our three great social revolutions. He wrote or interpreted cult melodies in social struggles of the last 50 years.

Throughout his career as a singer-songwriter, from his gigs in the student movement of 1968 to his recitals with the Zapatistas in Oventic, or the big concerts in the National Auditorium, he forged a massive and loyal trans-generational audience, made up of people his age and of their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Oscar was born in the Portales District in 1935, lived in Ixmiquilpan and Puebla and grew up in Santa María la Ribera. He grew up listening to his father who, although he never dedicated himself professionally to singing, informally he was a good interpreter of traditional Mexican music, Yucatec and Cuban ballads, and Colombian rhythms.

He began his artistic career studying theater at the School of Fine Arts, the academy of the maestro Seki Sano and at the UNAM. He participated in experimental works both as an actor or director, in radio theater, telenovelas (soap operas) and film. His role as El Estilos, in the film Los caifanes, immortalized him. He did political cabaret between 1970 and 1979 at The Golden Age and at the Café Corona, when the city had a pleasant and rich nightlife.

He broke with the National Actors Association (ANDA) and was part of the Independent Actors Union (SAI, its initials in Spanish), which his cousin and close friend Enrique Lizalde led. Its members made lots of good noise to purify and democratize the union. When the SAI adventure came to an end, suffocated by government authoritarianism, he refused to return to the ranks of the ANDA, which never forgave his affront and closed as much acting space to him as it could. His congruence had a great cost for him, because they took away the possibility of acting in playhouses and other forums.

In 1963, he recorded Herencia lírica mexicana (Mexican Lyrical Heritage), his first album, of a list of close to 90. From that moment, he began, through his work, an amazing journey through the history of Mexico and Latin America. He Recuperated and disseminated his songs about our three great social revolutions (Independence, Reform and French Intervention and Revolution of 1910-17). He made a vinyl completely dedicated to Benito Juárez. He musicalized José Martí and sang to Genaro Vázquez Rojas, Salvador Allende, to Chiapas and to the Indian peoples who resist with dignity.

He dove into political parody. Outside of the dispute (in the typology of Federico Arana) among fans of the folkloric we shall overcome and followers of blue suede shoes, Oscar developed his own style, beyond the testimonial song.

“Money –he said– imposes what is touched, what is disseminated. It does it in everything. It does it in radio, in television, in cinema, in literature, in everything. Money sets the rules. For many creative people on our continent, this is very difficult. It’s double work.” However, despite that, he produced a vast amount of work at the margin of commercial pressures.

His thing was to transmit and keep alive a long musical tradition that comes from centuries ago. This legacy was his root and his source. “This protest or testimonial song –he explained– is a great tradition in our country. I have sung political parodies that were sung in the viceroyalty. The verses of the popular poet, José Vasconcelos, are critiques of the viceroys and the rulers. It’s awesome. You’re not inventing anything. It already exists.” (https://bit.ly/2xvmDY2).

Throughout his career, he had several skirmishes with power. His album Mariguana was censured for a time, despite the fact that the material in it consists of traditional Mexican pieces. The song Mariguana, for example, was written to criticize Antonio López de Santa Anna, who the author of Por ti defined as “our best seller.”

Oscar believed that: “although song doesn’t transform things, it’s a tool, a very powerful weapon, very important for informing, for opining, for speaking well, for speaking badly and even for insulting and also for making fun of you.”

A militant of the Leninist Spartacus League of José Revueltas, at the side of Eduardo and Enrique Lizalde, Chávez was, throughout his life, in solidarity with the most just of causes. Self-defined as a Fidelista until death, he had great admiration for the comandante. To him, Castro was a strong leader, who broke the mold. He supported the Cuban Revolution with everything.

From the first days of the armed uprising, he was in solidarity with the EZLN. “I continue supporting them, I continue believing in them. They deserve a great deal of respect. They deserve more respect than a lot of politicians for whom I have none,” he said. In 2018 he was a promoter of the initiative to incorporate Marichuy on the electoral ballot as spokesperson of the Indigenous Government Council and a firm opponent of the construction of the Tren Maya (Maya Train).

In reciprocity, he received the affection and recognition of Indians and rebels. In 2000, the Zapatistas called him “big brother.” As a result of his death, the National Indigenous Congress recognized his life of solidarity and his dreams: “who dares to imagine justice and make it a message and music.” Life –he said just a few months ago– must be lived as long as energy permits. The rest is not important. That’s how he did it.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Tuesday, April 5, 2020


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



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