Paquita la del Barrio sings of the wrongs that men do

Mexican singer Paquita rails against men in her songs.
Mexican singer Paquita rails against men in her songs. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

The titles of her songs speak volumes: Wicked Men, Low Blow, Pure Pain and Hypocrite.

Then there's her mega hit: Two-Legged Rat.

Rife with tales of abusive husbands, impotent lovers and cheating boyfriends, these lyrics have made Francisca Viveros Barradas -- better known as Paquita la del Barrio -- much more than an artist. She has become a sociological phenomenon.

Paquita is an idol to millions of women in Latin America, the United States and Spain, but also an object of scorn, even hatred, to as many men.

''I am defending women. It is very important. I am a woman. I speak of my experiences,'' Paquita said in a recent interview with The Miami Herald.

''We Mexicans have this machismo situation. Women are always hurt by what men do to them,'' she added. ``I don't sing what others sing. I sing the truth, even if the gentlemen don't like it.''

Paquita, born 61 years ago in Alto Lucero, state of Veracruz, Mexico, picked up the torch for all women who have known the pain of love gone wrong early in her career. Her themes not only explode with feminine rage, but also poke fun at the inadequate lovemaking and the insufficient heft of virile attributes of various partners. Her message does not stay at the level of lament. Instead, the passive suffering is replaced by forceful anger and the promise of female revenge and survival beyond humiliation.

David Foster, Regents' professor of Spanish and Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University, has written a paper analyzing the qualities that set Paquita apart. Paquita's songs, Foster said, go beyond mere love stories to capture a harsh social reality.

``There is a strong tradition of romantic ballads in Mexico that sings about the glories of romantic love. Paquita cuts right through that to tell you that most of the time you are just going to get the dregs and a woman has to learn to deal with it. In her case it means `get the bum out'.

''This is a very feminist principle,'' he added.


Miami audiences will get a chance to listen to Paquita Oct. 18 when she debuts at the American Airlines Arena as the opening act for Mexican star Vicente Fernández.

Five of her albums have sold more than 100,000 copies. In a performance two years ago in the Zócalo, Mexico City's central plaza, she drew a crowd of 130,000.

A month ago, Paquita released her 30th album. In the lead song, Women Rule, she urges women to break free of the indignities brought on by a male-dominated society.

Paquita's own story could be fodder for one of her songs. She eloped at 15 with 44-year old Miguel Magaña, only to learn when she was pregnant with their first child that Magaña had another family.

The union lasted seven years and produced two sons. As Paquita tells it, when she ran into Magaña a few years after leaving him, all she could wonder was: ``Is this what I fell in love with?''

Paquita and her sister Viola came to Mexico City in 1970 to try their fortune. When the duet broke up, Paquita retired for a few years. She bought a lot on Zarco 202, in the heart of Colonia Guerrero, a working class district of Mexico City, and built a restaurant and performance hall where she cooked for the clientele. The business is closed as Paquita plans her next moves, but she still keeps an apartment on the floor above.

The place is decorated with Liberace-style accents, including hyper-ornate crystal chandeliers and a collection of Rococo china figurines. A family of steel tigers is arranged on the tile floor in the living room, and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs in one of the bedrooms, alongside a portrait of a mermaid that strongly resembles Paquita.


Paquita resumed her career as a soloist in 1979. Her real break came when she appeared in the popular Televisa program Hoy Mismo, conducted by Guillermo Ochoa, on Nov. 20, 1986. Since then, she has performed throughout Mexico, as well as in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Spain and the United States.

In 2003, she won three Latin Grammys.

Her life as a public figure has not been free of controversy. Two years ago, she was briefly arrested in the Mexico City airport for charges of tax evasion. She says it was all a ``misunderstanding.''

According to her manager, Francisco Torres Lozada, this grandmother of seven is a simple person who enjoys mingling with regular folk, even when on tour.

''Last year she shared the chiles rellenos a friend had brought her with the waiters at the hotel in Los Angeles. They had recognized her,'' he said.

Her schedule is tough. Torres Lozada says she does around 100 performances annually, sometimes two in one night.

Paquita is philosophical about the pace of her career.

''I will continue singing as long as God gives me voice,'' she said. ``We take life as it comes.''

She does not compose her repertoire, which she estimates at some 300 songs. She sings songs from other performers, she occasionally receives unsolicited compositions and she also works with various composers. The main one is Manuel Eduardo Toscano, who has composed more than 30 songs for Paquita, including eight of the 10 featured in her latest release.

Toscano first heard Paquita on the radio some eight years ago. He was so taken that he wrote a song, put it to music and sent it to her. According to Toscano, a few days later she contacted him and told him that she would record the song he had sent her.

``She told me: `I see you understand what I feel.''

Toscano, who has also composed for Los Tigres del Norte and Vicente Fernández, doesn't mind the ribbing he receives for writing songs that put down his own sex.

''A good friend likes to tell me that for sure everything I write for Paquita is what my own wife tells me,'' he said with a laugh from his home in Huatusco, also in the state of Veracruz.

The secret to the success of the songs, he added, is a little humor.

``My songs speak in strong terms. But they don't just beat up on men. They also make you laugh.''

He looks forward to a long collaboration with Paquita.

``Paquita is a figure that has already established her appeal with the people forever. She is the spokeswoman for humble women. She says what all of them want to shout to our faces.''

Paquita is not a musical innovator, sticking to traditional boleros, rancheras, and even tango-style melodies. Her powerful contralto voice has never received formal training. She has stood on stage with mariachis, bandas norteñas and other instrumental arrangements. She does her own makeup and designs her own dresses.

One of Paquita's trademarks is a refrain she belts out at various pauses during her songs. Many years ago, her second husband, Alfonso Martínez, had disappeared for a couple of days. When he returned and passed by her as she was performing in Casa Paquita, a frustrated Paquita, who was singing about a woman chiding her lover, paused and screamed at Martínez: ''Do you hear me, you useless wretch?'' The refrain stuck and audiences go wild whenever she uses it, which can be several times in the same performance as well as in her recordings.

Hilda García, a 43-year-old multimedia professional who lives in tony Polanco district, is a Paquita diehard. Listening to Paquita ''is like going out with your friends . . . all remembering someone who made us cry,'' she said.

García added that Paquita 'can transcend generations and socioeconomic classes for a simple reason: we women are all the same when it comes to men, who are also all the same, or as the saying goes, `they are all the same and some are worse.' ''

``She says what you always want to say to that man who hurt you, but you cannot say it in those words because they are insults and a well-mannered woman would not do that . . . so that's how you get your revenge.''