ire'ne lara silva

 los ocelotes del norte

inspired by Los Tigres del Norte and the art of Isaac Cordal



ire’ne lara silva is the author of three poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010), Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), and CUICACALLI/House of Song (Saddle Road Press, 2019), an e-chapbook, Enduring Azucares, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015), as well as a short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands, (Aunt Lute Books, 2017), a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant, the final recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, and was the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award. ire'ne is currently working on her first novel, Naci, and a second collection of short stories titled, the light of your body.Website:

twitter: @irenelarasilvafacebook:

All we ever wanted to do was make music. And nothing--not even death--could stop us. We all went at the same time, me and Guale and Riche and Chino and Tim. It was one of those things—an eighteen wheeler, heavy rain, a stubborn driver who shoulda admitted that that 2am Whataburger coffee wasn’t working for shit.

All together, we left behind three ex-wives, two wives, two girlfriends, three boyfriends, nine children, and six grandkids. We went to our own funeral—they did the rosarios and the burials at the same time. I didn’t really want to see what was left of me lowered into the ground but it seemed disrespectful to skip out on it when everybody showed up and cried and told stories and ate and played our music. Our mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins all came. A lot of musicians and their families. And more fans than I would have imagined. They ran out of food at the hall they’d rented for the lunch after the trip to the cemetery. A couple hundred people ended up putting together a barbecue on the spot and the music played till night came and on and on until the dawn. And people danced and sang and cried. I couldn’t have asked for a better goodbye.

It wasn’t so much a surprise to wake up after we died as it was to realize that the next world was the same world. Same everything. Same people. Same sun. Same earth. Only we were different—not see-through ghosts, not fleshy bodies, not on our way to following any kind of tunnel of light. We were still us, but we were calaveras. Nothing but bones and the light inside. And it turned out the next world was also known as the SmallWorld. Alive, I’d been 5’10”. Dead, I was maybe eight inches tall.



In my first memory, we’re at the flea market and my Amá is telling me and my little sister Lita that we can choose one toy. Just one. I knew which one I wanted. Couldn’t see anything but that shiny red toy accordion. It was heavier than it looked. My arms were barely long enough to hold it when it was fully extended. This is your Crismas, Joaquin, my father grunted at me. I nodded eagerly. It was okay. I didn’t want or need anything else. My godparents bought me a real kid’s accordion when I was eight. I saved my weekly dollar allowance for a couple years to get myself one when I was twelve. Worked with my dad and worked side jobs and saved every penny until I was able to buy my first Gabbanelli. It was used, but it was a Gabbanelli—like I used to see Sunday mornings on the Johnny Canales Show when we lived in the Valle. Barbacoa, pico de gallo, scrambled eggs, and beans for breakfast, and then we’d all sit to watch Johnny and all the bands.

I liked the Tejano bands—Selena and La Mafia and Mazz—and there was Ruben Ramos and Fito Olivares and Bronco, but it was the conjuntos that made the blood fire up in my veins. Ramon Ayala y Los Bravos del Norte, Los Huracanes del Norte, Los Cadetes de Linares, and most, most, most of all, Los Tigres del Norte. I bought all their cassettes and listened to them over and over again. When I was at school, all I had to do was close my eyes and I could hear the lyrics, my toe tapping to the oomp oomp oomp, my shoulders trying to resist the little back and forth, and my fingers spasming when it was time for the trill of the accordion. The sound of it shot straight through my soul. I thought if the heart could make music, it would sound like an accordion.

I was twelve when the movie La Bamba came out. I wanted to be like Ritchie Valens carrying his guitar around everywhere I went. But an accordion is more bulky than a guitar, and I got sent home from school even though I told them I just wanted to be like Ritchie. Make my music, find my Donna, go out in a blaze of glory.



When I died, I thought I was going to see my Amá and my Apá and my brother Carlos. But nothing. I didn’t know anyone—except for Guale and Riche and Chino and Tim. It took a while to figure out that there were multiple worlds for the dead. It must be that the Creator knows your soul and sends you where you’re supposed to go.

It took a while to figure out how things were different in the SmallWorld. And to adjust to the strangeness of bodies that weren’t flesh and blood. We were bones and light. We could taste and feel and lust and hurt, but all of those things were somehow sharper. Born and burning in our very souls.

No one asked us to choose. It was just given to us—the freedom to do what we’d wanted to do all our lives. Make music.

That was what people did in the SmallWorld—what they most wanted to do. Painters painted on canvases small and immense, between walls and underneath houses, adding beauty in ways that the BigWorld would never see. There were tiny cafes with the most perfect desserts and immense feasts presided over by passionate chefs. All of our gardeners were master gardeners, curating fields of wildflowers and tiny elaborate bursts of beauty. The woodcarvers carved, the weavers wove, the poets daydreamed and stared at the sky and then read their poems on street corners and on stages. The singers sang every kind of music. And the dancers danced—all bones and passion and light. In the SmallWorld, we made our art. Without the BigWorld concerns of paying rent or making money. Without worrying about what our families thought. Without ambition or competition or envy worries over whether or not we were successful. We lived in death what we had always known in life—that there was no greater purpose for our existence. And all of us loved what we loved and were finally free to do nothing but what we loved.

At first I wondered why the SmallWorld wasn’t a separate world. Why keep us in the crevices and hidden places of the BigWorld? Why keep us where we could watch our loved ones? Why keep us in the world with its pain and suffering and asshole presidents and borders and pollution? Why keep us in the world?

There was an early morning. Breakfast tacos and hot coffee at a roadside taco shack with the guys. Even without bodies, we stamped our feet from the cold and watched our breaths rise hot and smoky. Christmas wasn’t too far off. And the conversation turned to the gifts we would have bought our live ones. I was the only one without kids of my own, but I would have taken gifts to my stepkids and their kids. For my nieces and nephews. We wondered if they were planning to stay home and not take any chances. It had been almost a year since we died. Early February before the pandemic. Had we already lost family without knowing it?

We ended up sketching out a map so that we could check on all of them. All our people.

And I thought, this is why the SmallWorld could never be separate from the BigWorld. What art would we make if we lived in perfect comfort and bliss? What music would we make if there wasn’t a need for consolation, a need to celebrate, a need to weep, a need to dance, a need to make beauty to combat all the ugliness of the world?



I found Guale and Riche and Chino when we were living in Hereford. My parents were farmworkers when they got married. By the time me and Lita came along, my dad had a truck and followed the harvest seasons from Edinburg in the Valle to Bay City to Oklahoma to Hereford and back to the Valle. I met Guale and Riche the first year we worked in Hereford, when I was in the third grade. Guale’s dad owned Sanchez Body & Auto, and Riche’s family owned the only Mexican panadería in town. They had the best pink cake in the world. We stopped by there every Sunday after church.

We met Chino in high school. His father had just died and his Mom moved back to be close to her family. He was the most Asian looking Mexican we’d ever seen, so Chino stuck as his nickname right away. Guale came out to us sophomore year—and even though it was already the nineties, rural Texas with a bunch of white farmer kids and Catholic Mexicans and Tejanos wasn’t the easiest place to be yourself. Guale had been afraid we’d turn on him, but Riche and I just shrugged at him and said, Wasn’t like we didn’t know, man, you making calf eyes at Alejandro Covarrubias every day in Biology. There were a few rough spots through the years, with his Dad, with some of the other bands we shared a stage with, with random Mexicanos and Tejanos who objected to him having an arm around his lastest boyfriend—but he always had all of us as backup. When his Dad threw him out, he came to live with me and became my brother.

As for Riche, we used to mess with him all the time and tell him the girls couldn’t stay away from him cause he smelled like pan dulce and pink cake and donuts. He’d gotten two girls pregnant by the time he graduated high school, and his Mom would chase girls away from the panadería with a broom. Chino’s story was super simple. He loved the drums. He and Aracely met when they were twelve and they never loved anyone else.

I went to college in Lubbock after high school. Thinking I’d become a history teacher or something. Have the summers off to play music. I met Tim there in my Mexican American history class. Tim was the most Mexican looking Tim Sullivan I’d ever seen. In one short semester, I saw him go from Mr. Clean Cut ROTC American flag lover to Super Chicano Man. He grew out his hair and his beard. Wore nothing but t-shirts with slogans like We Didn’t Cross the Border, the Border Crossed Us and Sí Se Puede or indigenous looking shirts. He went from listening to George Strait and Hank Williams Jr. to taking up Tejano music and approving of my love for Los Tigres del Norte. That’s the music of the people, man, he told me. What was most surprising was his voice. He only spoke Spanish with his mom, but that voice was something else. With conjunto music or pretty much anything in Spanish, the beauty and power of a voice isn’t the first thing you listen for. Sometimes the voices are nasal or uneven or raspy or a little too weak, but that’s all right if you have it. If your voice sounds like your heart got broken and it stayed in your chest that way, jagged and bleeding. If your voice sounds like you speak through broken glass, like you know lonely and hurt and your sadness burrows all the way down, so far down you wouldn’t think a human body could hold it.

So when Tim came along, that’s when we really became Los Ocelotes del Norte.



We went on tour pretty much the way we done in the BigWorld. Stayed mostly in Texas since the same distances seemed much longer. Had a regular circuit of SmallWorld cities to visit along the border from El Valle to El Paso, from San Antonio to Austin to Houston to Fort Worth to Lubbock.

People fell in love and out of love, celebrated weddings and birthdays and anniversaries. We played big concerts, small bars, music festivals. You haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen a few hundred tiny calaveras dancing like mad, spilling out of their seats, arms around each other, feet beating madly against the earth. And all their lights shining out of them. Not small lights, not faraway twinkling stars, not half-hearted little lights, no, they were lights like those old fashioned Christmas lights—big and warm and soft. Like embers.

We had our own tour bus to take us around. Little electric things. We tried not to drive unless we were going from one small town to another, when it was safest to go at night, clinging to highway shoulders, though we tensed up every time a BigWorld car came close to flinging us off the asphalt. We became masters of hitching our little bus to BigWorld vehicles. Though sometimes it was just easier to mail ourselves somewhere or go in the luggage compartment of a Greyhound. Or to get a ride with somebody from the Cempasuchil Network. That’s what we called them anyway. There were all of the people in the BigWorld who knew we existed. And they helped all the time in all kinds of ways. They called us Little Ancestors. There were those that provided space for us to live and create. Those that fed us. Those that transported us. Those that provided paint and canvas. Anything and everything we needed from the BigWorld that we would have trouble getting for ourselves. They were there for us every day of the year, not just on the Days of the Dead. They protected us and the secret of us. I think perhaps some of them prayed to someday become one of us.



It took us forever to find our name. We had about thirty songs we could play, most of them songs by Los Tigres del Norte. All the ones everyone always asked for: “La Puerta Negra,” “La Jaula de Oro,” “La Banda del Carro Rojo,” and some of their newer ones, “Golpes en el Corazon,” “La Mesa del Rincón,” and my personal favorite, “Eres Mi Buena Suerte.” We tried all kinds of names: Los Pumas del Norte, Los Jaguares del Norte, but everything was already taken. Panteras, Leones, Tigrillos, Linces, Leopardos, Guepardos. Every single kind of big cat name was already taken. As for the ‘del Norte,’ we figured that Texas was pretty much the northern part of Mexico, so that’s what we told everyone who asked if we were from Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, or Chihuahua. We ended up choosing “Los Ocelotes” because it sounded kinda cool but also cause it didn’t seem like anyone had ever chosen ocelots. And the encyclopedia said they were native to Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Just like us.

We decided we’d always wear jeans and black cowboy boots with white or black shirts and our chaquetas with LOS OCELOTES emblazoned across the back.

Those first days were heady. Booking gig after gig. We got offered a record deal. Small South Texas imprint, but it felt like the beginning of something big. Guale and I started writing our own songs. Heard ourselves on the radio for the first time. Shot a video in Laredo along the border.

That’s how I met Yolanda. She was the video director’s girlfriend’s best friend. The girlfriend was going to play Tim’s new love interest, and she’d convinced Yolanda to be his old love interest. I swear I heard her name and the song, “Yolanda,” from Jaime Y Los Chamacos just started playing in my head. When I saw you the first time…The way she looked at me. You know I love you, Yolanda, you know I’d die for you. And that was it. I was gone. I thought, I’ve found my Donna.  



No one ever said it out loud. But then again, it wasn’t the kind of thing people said. We just realized it one day. SmallWorld wasn’t forever.       Of all the celebrations there were, SmallWorld didn’t celebrate births and it didn’t celebrate deaths. New people just appeared. And calaveras with their lights dimmed and then just disappeared. We mourned each other, yes, but mostly it just drove us more fiercely. Drove us to pour more of ourselves into creating, into loving, into dancing, into being.

There was no way to know what the next world would bring. In the journey from the BigWorld to the SmallWorld we’d lost our flesh and our height. What if in the next world we lost our bones or our names? What if I lost my accordion or my songs or my memories the next time I died? There was no time to waste. There never had been—in this world or any other. And it might have just been me, but I felt like we sounded even better dead than when we’d been alive. And it must have been all the freedom that finally got me writing songs again.



I asked Yolanda to marry me a year after the video in Laredo. She said no. She had three weddings before she turned forty. None of those were with me. She ended up with one kid from the first husband. Two from the second. None with the third.

Danny, Stephanie, and Robert grew up calling me Dad. She came back to me after the first husband cheated on her, back to me after she got bored with the second one, back to me after the third one found a younger wife. And like an idiot, I kept taking her back. Kept thinking we were meant to be. That in the end she’d stay with me. I never married. I mean, there were other women, and some of them lasted for years. But as soon as Yolanda needed me, I’d drop everything—women, jobs, cities. Even though she’d told me from the start I wasn’t enough. That she wanted a man who wore a suit and tie to work. Wanted the lakefront house and the condo in the city and a villa somewhere in Europe. Not some no name accordion player in a no name band always on the road, she’d hiss.

Los Ocelotes del Norte never went big. Never became anything like our idols Los Tigres. When we died, they were still going strong, five decades and still putting out CD after CD, winning Grammys left and right. They had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That one CD of ours didn’t go much of anywhere—just something to sell for beer and taco money. Before we could record a second CD, everything just kind of fell apart. Tim wanted to go to California and get his PhD in Chicano Studies. Riche was on his fourth or fifth kid and his Dad wanted him to take over the panadería. Chino said he missed Aracely too much and wanted to see his kids grow up. Guale and I tried our best to get the guys to still meet up and practice, take a gig now and then. I went back to singing lead but my voice just didn’t have that thing that Tim’s did. I worked with one band and another—a good accordionist can always find a place, but it was never like playing with Los Ocelotes. Every now and then I’d have to take a break away from playing. My parents were hit by a car soon after I graduated and were never the same. My sister had married and lived next door but she had her hands full with her kids and her always unemployed husband. I put the accounting courses I’d taken in college to use, started my own little accounting firm, and did my best to keep us all afloat.

But there was never anything like what it felt like to hold that accordion in my arms. To squeeze out the sounds of a limping, pealing, bleeding heart. Nothing that felt like making music with the guys. Nothing that felt like the roar of the crowd and the heat and the spin of bodies dancing, feet moving to the beat of our music. Nothing like being Los Ocelotes del Norte.

And I guess the guys felt the same. We made our way back to each other in our forties. Tim was on sabbatical for a year. Chino’s kids were in college or married with kids of their own. Riche had sold the panadería and finally gotten a vasectomy. Guale’s latest boyfriend designed our new outfits. And almost twenty some years after we’d decided on our name, we headed back out on the road. For a short while anyway. Until that night.



I didn’t think I’d fall in love after dying. But I met Alicia at a concert in Austin. It was one of those artsy warehouses on the East Side run by someone in the Cempasuchil Network. I saw her light first, golden and warm like candlelight. We were playing the Los Tigres song that never stopped being my favorite, “Eres Mi Buena Suerte.” Tim was singing his guts out and I was backing him up. And she was in the front row, scream-singing with her eyes closed and her hands over her heart. I could see her shoulders moving left and right, her body turning in a half circle, as if the song itself was holding her close and tight.

She stayed until the very end. After the concert was over, after we’d talked to all the fans. Stayed until we were headed out to find a late night place for tacos and to watch the sun rise over the water.

She took my hand before I was even able to say a word. And we loved each other fiercely. Lights brighter than they’d ever been. And she wrote her poems and I played my music and we greeted each day in the SmallWorld as the gift it was.



© The Acentos Review 2021