POV: Tell us about Calavera Highway.
Renee Tajima-Peña: Armando and Carlos Peña are two brothers in a family of seven brothers, and after their mother, Rosa, died of cancer, some of the brothers stopped speaking to each other. Many of them saw their lives fall apart because she was the glue that held them together. In Calavera Highway, Armando, who is my husband, and Carlos carry their mother’s ashes back to south Texas, where they grew up. But instead of driving straight from California to Texas, they go on a journey up and down the western United States and into Mexico to see all their brothers, and along the way, they try to figure out their family story and learn more about their mother and their father, Pedro Peña, who disappeared in 1954.
POV: What was the inspiration for starting this project? How did you two come to work on it together?
Evangeline Griego: Renee and I have a long history of collaborating, and previously, we had decided to make a short piece for a three-part 90-minute program on PBS called My Journey Home. Each part was the story of an individual who was going back to their homeland and following their personal roots. At the time, Armando and Carlos had decided to take Rosa’s ashes back home. So we did Armando’s story as one of those three pieces. That piece was really a smaller version of Calavera Highway. Then it became natural to expand that short piece to be about this road trip to south Texas and reconnecting with all of the Peña brothers along the way.
POV: Did all the brothers immediately agree to be filmed?
Tajima-Peña: Because I’m married to Armando and I’m a filmmaker, I’ve always had a camera at family get-togethers. So the brothers were used to me being around, filming things. The guys are all storytellers — they love getting around the barbecue, maybe with a beer and just telling stories about the past — so the film was just another venue or outlet for their storytelling. They’re real naturals, and they all agreed to be filmed. Even Luis, who was most estranged from the others after their mom died, agreed because filming was almost an intermediary between him, Carlos and Armando, and that opened things up for him. So sometimes, film is really kind of liberating.
Griego: I think being in the film was exciting to them, and the family was very participatory. Renee had been documenting the family for a long time, and you can see that they were very open, and they allowed themselves to be vulnerable on camera.
I haven’t talked to Armando about this, but I also kind of think that they agreed to be filmed because there was so little documentation of them and of their lives. This was an opportunity to finally have some documentation of their family. Renee said that when Rosa was dying, Renee felt too uncomfortable to film. She felt it was too much of an intrusion to film Rosa being ill and in the hospital. Later on, after their mother died, some of the brothers asked Renee why she hadn’t been filming then — they told her she should have been filming that process. It goes to show that they were completely on board with being a part of the film.
POV: Renee, how did you meet Armando?
Tajima-Peña: I was living in New York, but filming a documentary in Los Angeles, and I knew one of Armando’s close friends. Have you ever seen the movie Swingers? Armando and his two friends were like that: Armando is Mexican, Sheridan is Chinese and Jerry is Jewish. The three of them, in L.A., were all looking to get married, but they didn’t have much money, and they couldn’t get into the good parties. Jerry and Sheridan introduced me to Armando, and I thought he was really cute and nice, and he had this Atticus Finch quality that I liked. We started going out in L.A. then, and I really liked him. My first film Who Killed Vincent Chin? (POV 1989) was about to premiere at Sundance, and I was all set to go to Utah. But I thought: If I go to Sundance I’ll never see this guy again because I’ll go back home to New York right after Sundance. So I decided not to go to Sundance! Every female filmmaker I talked to said, “Are you crazy? You’re not going to go to Sundance because of some guy?” But it was the right decision in the end, because 20 years later, you can go to all different kinds of film festivals, and now I’ve got a great husband and a kid — and a new film.
POV: What was it like to be filming your husband and your family?
Tajima-Peña: 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. As a documentary filmmaker, that kind of situation happens often, but usually you’re with people on and off for a year or two. But in this situation, because it was Armando’s family, I filmed them over many, many years, and it has seeped into me. I don’t fully understand what the film really means to me as a filmmaker yet because so many things were going on at the same time. I had my first son and was trying to raise him, and I was also making a film about Armando’s family, so I was dealing a lot with the past.
The film is really about traveling from one ruin to another, literally and emotionally. My other films usually deal with present-day issues, like immigration or racial violence. But with Calavera Highway, the past was always present. I always teased Armando by saying that I was always living in the present, but he was always living in the past, because he’s always thinking and reflecting about their childhoods — what shaped them and what led their family in a certain direction. So as filmmakers, we had to be in the past with the brothers, and we had to understand that the past is as much of their present reality as anything else.
Griego: Because Renee and I spent five years making Calavera Highway, we did have downtime. 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.
This was especially true when Armando was being confronted with the possibility that Pedro was perhaps not his birth father. It was a little touchy. Renee could see, on a very intimate level, how hard it was for Armando, and how much he was pained by it. Renee and I, as filmmakers, pushed down the road to uncovering those secrets but there was resistance from Armando.
POV: What are the themes of the film for you?
Tajima-Peña: A friend of mine said: “What’s interesting about this story is that these are guys without a constituency.” They’re middle-aged Mexican-American guys, and they’re sort of a silent majority of not just Latino men, but of first- and second-generation immigrant families. They grew up on the border, with a life dictated by constant migration and turmoil, and their stories are ones that nobody really hears or cares about. These are the guys that have fallen through the cracks.
Masculinity and fatherhood are also really central to the story and to the brothers’ emotional struggle. All the brothers are very emotionally open, and audiences always say that you never see guys just open up like that. All of them talk about their mother being both mother and father to them, and so they’re very comfortable with their emotions. They all cook and clean and raise their kids, so the brothers have an interesting kind of masculine identity. They’re typical in some ways: They watch football and do all the other stuff but in other ways they’re female-identified because of their relationships with their mother.
The one thing they all really grappled with, though, is how to be a father, because they grew up fatherless. They are all really dedicated fathers. Even Lupe and Raoul who’ve had a lot of problems in their lives, have always taken care of the kids of their girlfriends or their ex-wives. Even after the relationship was over, they still feel responsible for the kids. All the brothers, as they’ve gotten older, have come to reconcile with their past and figured out how to be men and how to be fathers.
Griego: As we looked at the footage in the editing room, we realized how much vulnerability these macho Latino men were showing. 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. There’s a scene where Carlos is smelling his mother’s clothes, and he’s willing to expose that moment to the camera. So, similar to Renee, for me this film is about masculinity, about family, about fatherhood.