(l. to r. ) Leon Padilla, Philipe Gonzales, Enrique
Lamadrid, Felix Silva, David Garcia, and A. J. Martinez celebrate
the CD release of Corrido de George Silva.
A Bernalillo tragedy
About ten years ago UNM professor Philipe Gonzales noticed a Spanish
poem framed among other memorabilia on the wall of Silva’s
Saloon in Bernalillo. On closer inspection, he recognized the poem
as a corrido—a song written by celebrated New Mexico composer
Ramon Luna to commemorate the 1932 robbery and murder of George
Silva, a prosperous twenty-two-year-old merchant and the well-respected
son of a Lebanese father and Hispanic mother. Anglo con man Bill
“Governor” Smith, confessed perpetrator of this Depression-era
hate crime, got off easy with a ten-year prison sentence.
Many saloon-goers have seen the large portrait of George and the
corrido, which has hung on the wall for fifty years. Many, too,
have heard the tragic tale from George’s nephew Felix Silva
(or earlier, from his brother Felix). As it so happened, Professor
Gonzales was working on his book Forced Sacrifice as Ethnic Protest:
The Hispano Cause in New Mexico and the Racial Attitude Confrontation
of 1933. He incorporated the corrido into a chapter that details
the murder case, which along with other violent incidents and general
attitudes of racial prejudice, led to rising racial tension and
political confrontations. A spontaneous public protest in Bernalillo
was followed by demonstrations at UNM in 1933.
About a year ago, Professor Enrique Lamadrid and his research
assistant David Garcia recorded Felix singing the tiny bit of the
corrido he remembered his grandmother singing during his childhood.
To the amazement of Felix and other family members, Garcia, an accomplished
musician, was able expand this recording into a rendition of the
corrido that is remarkably similar to the song they thought was
Lamadrid and Garcia wrote:
Loosely based on popular accounts and published reports of the
tragic events, the Corrido de George Silva dramatizes the ethnic
and racial conflict that the newspapers avoided. In typical corrido
fashion, the stage is set with date, time, and place, plus powerful
evocations of the emotional tone. Complete sympathy with the victim
and his family is memorialized in a graphic death scene in which
Silva writhes in his own blood as he begs for the last blessing
of his mother:
Cuando se vio George Silva
When George Silva found himself
revolcándose en su sangre,
writhing in his own blood,
en alta voz aclamaba
in a loud voice claimed
la bendición de su madre.
the blessing of his mother.
“In other verses we hear the cries of brothers and sisters
as they discover their loss of both their brother and their mother
[who died shortly after the discovery of Silva’s body off
the road west of town]. Since their father died six years before,
they were orphans and underage at the time of the double tragedy.
It is a tribute to the strength of the Silva children that they
managed to stay together and prosper as a family.
On the other hand, the murderers are portrayed with complete disdain,
characterized as serpents waiting to strike from behind. Their cynical
testimony to the authorities minimized their crimes and even claimed
self-defense. With bitter sarcasm, the corrido quotes them, emphasizing
their disregard for Nuevo Mexicanos:
Decían los asesinos,
The murderers said,
Eso no es ningún delito
It is not a crime
de matar un mexicano
to kill a Mexican
como cualquier conejito.
like any little rabbit.
In the Silva case “Easy money from a Mexican” led just
as easily to pull a trigger to shoot one in the back.
The related themes of racial tension and ethnic solidarity give
closure to the ballad, with the composer expressing his relief that
foreigners and not his own people were the perpetrators of the tragedy.
Aquí se acaba el corrido
Here the ballad ends
y mucho me alegro yo,
and I am much gratified
que hayan sido extranjeros,
the murderers were strangers,
pero nuestra gente no.
and not our own people.
The ephemeral medium of the broadside corrido is deserving of the
attention of scholars and students of cultural history to recover
popular literature and its sometimes pivotal role in politics. In
El Corrido de George Silva, Ramón Luna captured the pain
and indignation of the people of Bernalillo and New Mexico in their
ongoing search for social justice.
Last month, Felix and his daughter Denise hosted a reception to
celebrate the CD release of El Corrido de George Silva—a Bernalillo
Tragedy: Violence, Poetry, and Politics in New Mexico, 1932-33.
This enhanced CD contains text and photos by producers Lamadrid
and Garcia, old newspaper articles, and the corrido. (Copies are
available at Silva’s Saloon, and the corrido is on the jukebox.)
On hand were many members of the Silva family and several old-timers
who knew George Silva personally. It was an emotional and joyful
time to share stories and reminisce. Professors Lamadrid and Gonzales
spoke about their work. David Garcia, along with A. J. Martinez,
surprised everyone with a live performance of the corrido.
Denise Silva thanked all those involved in the project for “helping
to preserve our history for generations to come.”