Armando Peña and his mother, Rosa Peña.
The seven sons of Rosa Peña, a migrant worker and single mother, were raised in Texas border towns in 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 the award-winning new documentary Calavera Highway, by filmmakers Renee Tajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chin? POV 1989) and Evangeline Griego, Rosa’s funeral and cremation brought the boys together — and tore them apart again.
Six years after their mother’s death, two of Rosa’s sons, Armando (the filmmaker’s husband and the film’s narrator) and Carlos, undertook a a road trip to reunite their siblings and return their mother’s ashes to the Rio Grande Valley. The brothers’ journey, which takes them across the American West and central Mexico, reveals just how complex Rosa’s legacy is for each of her sons. It is an odyssey into a murky past not only to probe questions about Rosa’s life, but also to delve into the brothers’ own struggles to find identities as men and as fathers.
Armando Peña, his son, Gabe Tajima-Peña, and his brother Carlos Peña.
Armando and Carlos, accompanied by Armando’s son, Gabe, make an unlikely if oddly complementary pair for this quixotic road trip. Armando cared for Rosa in her last days and kept her ashes at his home in Los Angeles. The family bookworm, he is anxious to find answers to questions that nag all the brothers, but that consume him in particular. What really happened to Pedro, the father of the first five boys? Was he swept up in “Operation Wetback,” the notorious 1954 government deportation program? Why had Rosa’s own family so cruelly rejected her, leaving her and her sons to fend for themselves?
Carlos, a migrant counselor who still lives in the Rio Grande Valley where the boys grew up thinks it is best to leave some memories alone. Funny and volatile, he hides the pain of a childhood bereft of a father behind a jovial facade.
Calavera Highway (“Skeleton Highway”) uncovers more hard truth than even Armando could expect.
In a circuitous route, up from Los Angeles to Washington state, back down to the Rio Grande with a side trip into Mexico, the brothers retrace some of the same highways they had traveled in their youth as migrant farm workers. They remember the brutal days working in the fields as children, even on weekends and holidays; but they also remember the camaraderie they shared. They recall their lives as fatherless street urchins, anchored by their mother’s love, hard work and pride.
In addition to retracing the paths of their lives, Armando and Carlos seek out their mother’s oldest friend, Rosa Morales; Armando’s college friend Cynthia Orozco, whose father had run-ins with immigration and who researched the period of Operation Wetback; members of the extended Peña clan who had rejected Rosa and the boys; Rosa’s unmarried sister, Aunt Adela; and even Eddie Gonzalez, a local politico in Elsa, Texas, who attests to Rosa’s feisty defiance. (Rosa’s activism found its echo in Armando’s participation in the historic 1968 Edcouch Elsa High School walkouts, a milestone in a year of Chicano student actions across the Southwest.) Along the way, the brothers sift through evidence about Rosa, about Pedro, about the Peña clan — and about their own choices.
Armando and Carlos’s first stop is the San Joaquin Valley of California, where brother Luis has risen from picking beets to running the water treatment plant in Wasco. No one has spoken with Luis since Rosa’s funeral— he refused to attend because she had been cremated, which was against his Christian values. A thousand miles away, in Moses Lake, Wash., Lupe and Raul pursue far different lives. Though a warm family man in his own way, Lupe has never lost his love of the fast life and is just out of prison when Armando and Carlos show up. Raul lives down the road and seems inclined to follow the elder Lupe’s lead. A talented painter as a youth who turned down a university scholarship, Raul was arrested on a drug charge with Lupe just a week after Rosa’s death.
Armando (left) and Carlos Peña talk to their mother’s sister, their Aunt Adela, during their journey.
Back on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Junior, the baby of the family, works as a pipe fitter for Dow Chemical. He is, perhaps, the least troubled. The eldest brother, Robert, who lives nearby is the one who has the most vivid memories of Pedro Peña, and who remembers with the greatest bitterness Pedro’s sudden disappearance and Rosa’s subsequent years struggling as a barmaid and working in canneries and fields with her sons.
What, after all, happened to Pedro Peña? Had he been swept up, as rumored, in Operation Wetback? Did he settle in the mountains of Mexico and drunk himself to death? Or did he prosper as a stonemason and start a second family? What made Rosa an outcast among her own family, and why were they so ready to marry her off at a young age? And most important how had this legacy of migration, poverty and family skeletons, shaped the lives of the seven brothers?
The answers to these questions accumulate over stages of the journey with Rashômon-like effect, painting an ever-more complex picture of Rosa, the hard choices she faced and the determination with which she faced them. For Armando and Carlos, there are more answers and plenty of surprises. But the most astounding surprise of all is reserved for the restless and curious Armando — when he uncovers a secret that he could never have imagined.
Raul and Carlos Peña with their mother, Rosa.
Calavera Highway is a sweeping drama of the Mexican-American migrant experience as revealed in the passage from one generation to the next. It is the intimate story of seven brothers who took that journey. Six years after Rosa’s death, they find themselves separated by geography and haunted by the feeling of a family dispersing, even as Rosa’s ashes, in their journey to the border, tug insistently at each brother’s heart and memories.
Director Renee Tajima-Peña is a Japanese-American filmmaker whose previous work has explored the Asian-American identity. “My Japanese grandfather migrated to work on the sugar plantations in Hawaii in the early 1900s,” she says, “at the same time that Armando’s grandparents began crossing over from Mexico to work in Texas. I always wondered what forces in history and culture shaped the different trajectories the families took.
“I felt I had completed my search for my Asian roots when I finished My America…Or Honk If You Love Buddha, the time when I married Armando Peña,” she continues, “so when I felt an urge to traverse different landscapes of race, culture and family, it seemed only right to follow him on his journey to understand his past.”