Ask the Filmmakers: Calavera Highway’s Renee Tajima-Peña and Evangeline Griego

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For her film Calavera Highway, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña turned her camera to her husband Armando and the rest of his family as they deal with the death of their mother, Rosa, and their complicated family history. Her co-filmmaker, Evangeline Griego, collaborated with her, and they filmed Armando and his brother Carlos on a journey across the American West and Central Mexico where they delved into the past and struggled to find their own identities as men and fathers.

Renee Tajima-PenaRenee talked about the unique experience of filming her own husband and family in her POV filmmaker interview:

I’ve been filming Armando and his family for many years, particularly when Rosa started to decline with lung cancer. So this film is so intensely focused on their family, and casting a lens on them as they were going through heart-wrenching moments and questions was really tough.

Evangeline GriegoAnd Evangeline chimed in with her observations:

There were times when we needed to stop and reflect about which road we were going to take. We had several conversations about reminding Renee that this was her husband and her family that she was filming. Ultimately, she had to present this film to the entire family. If you’re just a filmmaker, you can remove yourself in certain situations and really push for things, but when it’s affecting your family and your life, you have to really stop and think.

Read more from Renee and Evangeline‘s interview, and find out about the Peña brothers reactions to being filmed, the inspiration for the project and more.
Renee and Evangeline answered viewer questions about the music in the film, Armando’s biological father and more in the comments below. Read on for their responses.

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.
  • Patricia Spears Jones

    FOREIGNID: 15528
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Calavera Highway is a kind of road trip and ghost story–the brothers mother haunts them as only a powerful spirit can. The road trip is Tajima’s way to create her version of America-the highway, the small town, the struggling but intact families. This is not your the usual portrait of Chicanos, especially Chicano men. It’s a refreshing point of view and one that gives lie to many of sentiments so prevalent in this country about Latinos; about poor families; about how men become men. The intimacy is sometimes difficult to take, but clearly Tajima had the permission of her subjects (her in-laws!). But her husband’s journey; his struggle with these ghosts (his mother, his father (s) is one that he had to make and that he takes his brother along for the ride is priceless. This a story that needed to be told and one that truly documents lives of struggle, generosity, fraternity and tender regard for family. Whether in cotton fields or by lakes, this is an American space that allows us all tho think of the ghosts the spirits that haunt each of us and what kinds of trips we have taken or may need to take.

  • Gary

    FOREIGNID: 15529
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Wow! Your artistry captured my attention as I was scanning through the channels tonight. I was thankful that I caught the beginning. Your cinamatography and editing was masterful and the first person dialogue genuine. Professional actors could not have portrayed the raw emotions demonstrated by the brothers and others in the film. I am so touched by this story. How are the brother’s doing now and did Carlos eventually get to bring his mother home to stay with him for awhile?

  • A. Pena

    FOREIGNID: 15530
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I am so pleased to have caught this film last night. It caught my attention for so many reasons, the most obvious being our shared last name. While the Mexican part of my heritage has always been shrouded in mystery the images I conjure in my head are much the same as portrayed in the film. My father is one of nine children born to Tejano immigrants who lived a life sticken by poverty, alcoholism, and racism. While I will never really understand the pain stricken struggles or hard fought triumphs of my paternal family, this film perhaps offered me a glimpse into that world. Thank you

  • Renee Tajima-Peña

    FOREIGNID: 15531
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Dear Gary,
    I’ll pass along your kind words to our cinematographer, Jonathan Schell and editor Johanna Demetrakas, who are indeed masterful, and narrator Armando Pena, who is a great guy in my eyes, and my husband to boot! Carlos, who traveled with Armando on the journey, lives very near the mausoleum in the Rio Grande Valley where Rosa is interred. He visits her often. Robert, the eldest brother who spoke of bringing her ashes home with him, has come to visit but I think he understands that she is now finally back home.
    Thank you!
    Renee

  • Renee Tajima-Peña

    FOREIGNID: 15532
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Dear Patricia and A. Pena (no relations to Armando I assume!),
    Thank you so much for your eloquent comments. Reading through the blogs as well, we’re touched by the emotional connection viewers have had to the film. It took a lot of courage for the Pena brothers to speak so openly, and is very meaningful for us that viewers are inspired to take the time to share their own stories and thoughts.
    Thank you both,
    Renee

  • Sherri Foos

    FOREIGNID: 15533
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Thank you for this glimpse of a differnt view of life in America. I loved the bit they shared about their mother getting her hair done in Mexico every week. The more stories we share, the more we can break down cultural barriers. Is Armando going to follow up on the story of his biological father?

  • Steve Garman

    FOREIGNID: 15534
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Your film was so good, I had to stay awake to finish the story. The story touched me on so many levels. One of my best friends is Mexican and I attended their annual family reunion earlier this summer. Your family reminded me of that experience.
    On a more personal note, my dad was killed at my age 9. I, too, became the dad I was to be on my own. My family had all these mysteries and inconsistencies and I had to piece together, with my brothers, things that were not made clear.
    Thank you for making this film and sharing. It is very meaningful to me that the whole family was willing to share.
    Be well,
    Steve
    a 61 year old guy raised in So. Cal. on my family’s small citrus ranch.

  • MARLENE DREYFUSS

    FOREIGNID: 15535
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    i WAS DELIGHTED TO SEE THIS DOCUMENTARY…I USED TO WORK WITH ARMANDO AND WAS ESPECIALLY DELIGHTED TO SEE THAT RENEE AND ARMANDO HAVE A LITTLE BOY…GREAT FILM…MARLENE

  • pilar quintana

    FOREIGNID: 15536
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    The scene: kids playing in cotton fields. What is the name of the song and CD, female singing in that short scene? Thank you

  • gail murphy

    FOREIGNID: 15537
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I was pleased I recored this documentary. I was touched by this beautiful recorded journey…on its many levels. I grew up in Texas and although caucasian and female, the many thems were so universal. The secrets that family do not share and the longing to know our individual history and the effects on the family….thank you both (and your production team) for producing such an excellent documentary. I sincerely appreciate all the brothers for sharing their stories and journey with me. Blessings to all, sincerely, gail murphy

  • audrey

    FOREIGNID: 15538
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Thank you for the wonderful, very personal film of the Pena family. Though I have no Mexican conncections, their collective story touches me whenever I reflect on the adversities they face trying to better their lives. I was deeply touched by their story.

  • Lolo

    FOREIGNID: 15539
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Totally appreciated the film. It caught my spouse’s eye while channel surfing on Monday night. Looks like you spliced in some footage from Chulas Fronteras while discussing the club scene in the Valle. What was particularly fascinating was the cultural context of McAllen at the time. It was well done. Must admit the tejano music made me cringe since i don’t care for it at all!

  • Olivia

    FOREIGNID: 15540
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I was only able to see the first two chapters on the website and unfortunately tried to finish watching the rest for the film on Sept. 23 but was not able to view it. I read everything I could on the website and from what I was able to watch of the film, it was great. I grew up the the Rio Grande Valley. Though we were not farm workers or migrants, I can relate to the seven brothers and the hardships they endured. I wish I could see the rest of the film. I felt the brothers pain when they talked about their mother, and from the little I saw, I felt the brothers all have a genuine affection for each other.

  • Maria Barcelata-Long

    FOREIGNID: 15541
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    This is a wonderful film that shows the inner life, the struggles and joys of a real family. I loved it. It is something different, real, and very emotional. For
    Mrs. Tajima-Pena was also a personal journey because it touches her family but it was presented in such human way. She and Evangeline did an amazing job. Congratulations to all the brothers who had a healing oportunity throught this film. Bravo to Rosa, rest in peace!

  • http://kungfugripzine.com Paco

    FOREIGNID: 15542
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I was fortunate to have caught this documentary on PBS in Tucson. I was up until the wee hours of the morning, completely enthralled. Calavera Highway’s provided me with an intimate and fascinating glimpse into the lives of seven brothers and their remarkable mother. Thank you for sharing their stories.

  • Renee Tajima-Pena

    FOREIGNID: 15543
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Dear Sherri Foos,
    From what we have learned, the man Armando believes to be his biological father died thirty years ago, so he feels that chapter in his life was closed even before it was opened for him.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!
    Warmly,
    Renee

  • Renee Tajima-Pena

    FOREIGNID: 15544
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Dear Pilar Quintana,
    The song over the cottonfields scene is Lila Downs’ “La Sandunga” from her self-titled CD. She is awesome.
    Thank you,
    Renee

  • richard hsiung

    FOREIGNID: 19446
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Hi Renee,
    Long, long time…I think of you often. How are you…
    Richard