The seven sons of Rosa Peña, a migrant worker and single mother, were raised in the Texas border towns of Hidalgo County, the poorest county in the United States. She worked hard, had two husbands — she chased off the second one with a knife when he beat one of the boys — and instilled in her sons a strong sense of family and ethnic pride. With Rosa’s death her grown sons were left adrift. As recounted in Calavera Highway by filmmakers Renee Tajima-Peña and Evangeline Griego, Rosa’s funeral and cremation brought the boys together — and tore them apart again.
Brothers Armando and Carlos go on a road trip to reunite their siblings, and return their mother’s ashes to South Texas. Their journey takes them across the American west and central past, and they probe not only Rosa’s life, but their own struggles to find identities as men and as fathers.
Armando, the family bookwork (and filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña’s husband), is anxious to find out what happened to Pedro Peña, Rosa’s first husband, who disappeared decades ago. Was Pedro swept up in the notorious 1954 government deportation program, “Operation Wetback”? And what happens when Armando gets confronted with the possibility that Pedro wasn’t his birth father?
Carlos, the funny and volatile brother, hides the pain of a childhood bereft of a father behind a jovial manner. A migrant counselor who still lives in the Rio Grande Valley where the boys grew up, he thinks it is best to leave some memories alone
Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña says, “We called the film Calavera Highway (Skeleton Highway) because of the ever-present sense of ruins and ghosts, and public and private histories, along the way.”
Filmmaker Evangeline Griego says, “The joke in the editing room was that this is a movie where every man cries. It’s so poignant when they each talk about how they knew or didn’t know how to be fathers, and they said things that not a lot of men would cop to…for me, this film is about masculinity, about family, about fatherhood.”
What did you think about the Peña family and the relationships between the brothers? Who did you identify with most in the film? Does your family have a complicated history that you’re not completely aware of? Share your thoughts about the fascinating Peña family and Calavera Highway with us in the comments.