Betto Arcos: My name is Betto Arcos, it’s great to be with you. Today we’re speaking with filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña and Armando Peña, and we’re talking about the film Calavera Highway.
Betto Arcos was a music consultant on Calavera Highway, and is the host of “Global Village Tuesdays” radio program broadcast on Los Angeles’ KPFK.
When Armando and Carlos Peña set off to carry their mother’s ashes back to Texas and reunite their far-flung brothers they uncover a complex story, why their mother was an outcast and what happened to their father, who disappeared during Operation Wetback, the 1954 us government program that deported over a million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Calavera Highway is a sweeping story of seven brothers grappling with the meaning of masculinity and fatherhood and the nature of family ties. It’s a film by Renee Tajima-Peña and Evangeline Griego, and Renee Tajima-Peña is joining me, along with Armando Peña.
Tell us the story, Renee, and then, you know, Armando, please feel free to chime in, to give us a sense, a context for where the story begins and how it ends. Of course, without giving anything away, because there is a bit of a nugget in there that we don’t want to pass to people.
Renee Tajima-Peña: Well, Armando comes from a family of seven boys who were raised by a single mom, my mother-in-law, Rosa, and she died of cancer in the 1990s, and there was a lot of turmoil in the family among the brothers after she died. So for many years we had her ashes with us here in Los Angeles, but Rosa was born and raised in Texas, and it really wasn’t home for her. And at some point after about six years after she died Carlos, Armando’s brother, and Armando decided, well, you know, it’s about time we take her back home. And Evangeline and I asked, well, can we film the journey?
I kind of have an in, [LAUGHS] because he’s my husband. But it’s a story that — we’ve been talking about telling the story of his family for a long time. And his mom always I think wanted to tell her story.
Arcos: Armando, this was clearly a personal journey, a very emotional journey and one that helped you discover some — maybe some mysteries that were maybe not so clear to you. Give us your sense of what this film is about.
Armando Peña: Well, I think Renee kind of summed it up. Another way that I can look at it is also like on a personal level. It’s the kind of story that I would imagine that many people might go through and, you know, often times you think that your family is going through something that’s unique to your family. And in the course of making this film, you know, I sort of discovered along with my brother certain things about the family that we had never really dealt with. And my mother when she was with me here in Los Angeles had mentioned that she actually wanted to talk about some things before she passed away, and unfortunately she didn’t have enough time. And some of those things surfaced in the film. And I guess that’s what you meant by the kernel that you didn’t want to give away.
Peña: It’s a very personal kind of experience, because you go into these things thinking that it’s going to be one set of experiences that are going to be coming up, and then along the way discover something unexpected. And that’s kind of what like the filmmaking process was for my family.
Arcos: Renee, we’re going to listen to a clip, the first clip on this disc. Could you please set it up, and then after that we’re going to listen to some music.
Tajima-Peña: The first clip, it’s an introduction to the film, actually. Armando narrates the whole film and talks about his family. It’s really, you can imagine Armando and his brothers on the road or standing around the barbeque just talking story about their past and about their conflicts.
[FILM CLIP PLAYS]
Arcos: You brought on board, Renee, a musician who has played with some really, I would say very, very major musicians from — not just from Texas, but really all over. Rene Gasca, who’s really a multi-instrumentalist, and his main instrument is, what, the trumpet, right? But he also plays other instruments. He’s joining us right now from San Antonio, Texas, and Rene, welcome to the Los Angeles airwaves here. How are you?
Rene Gasca: Oh, fine.
Arcos: So, Rene Gasca is one of the composers of the music, along with guys from Los Frijoles Románticos.
Tajima-Peña: And also Brian Kirk and Sharon Smith here in Los Angeles.
Arcos: Rene, we asked you for this program to put together what we called, or what I called ‘essential Tejano music,’ and if you would, in the context of this documentary, give us a little bit of background of what Tejano music is, because I think a lot of our listeners may not be familiar that there is a genre of music called Tejano. It may not be heard [LAUGHS] in this part of the world, in California, but it is a music genre that dominates the airwaves in Texas.
Gasca: It’s a mix of Mexican music and German music, and the more contemporary music has rap, hip-hop and —
Tajima-Peña: Yeah, maybe—Armando grew up with that music.
Peña: Well, yeah, it’s—I mean it is the music of the region, kind of like indigenous to the area. And over a period of time, since Texas has become what is it, as we know it today, the people of the region have experimented with all kinds of strains of influences, all the way from, as Rene said, German in the beginning, but then I think it also began to borrow over time from blues and rhythm and blues and rockabilly. So it’s a spectrum that covers all the way from country, where it mixes with the Conjunto sound, which some people may be familiar with from other films that have come over the years, like Chulas Fronteras. And so there’s a lot of experimentation that takes place. And I guess, like Rene said, even the hip hop I’m not even that familiar with that myself, but—
Gasca: Well, through the years, you know, the music has changed, right? And the more contemporary music has a mix of hip-hop, and just different rhythms, you know, Latin rhythms.
Arcos: Rene, give us some names of Tejano, of major Tejano artists that, they’re not just popular in Texas, that have become really international stars. I mean everybody knows who Selena is.
Gasca: Yes, Selena—
Arcos: You played with her, right?
Gasca: Yeah, I recorded three of her songs on her Amor Prohibido CD. One of the biggest hits was Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.
[SELENA MUSIC PLAYS]
Arcos: Tell us about other artists that are important in Tejano music.
Gasca: Kumbia Kings, they’re very popular right now, and that’s Selena’s brother, Abraham, A.B. Quintanilla. And there is Little Joe y La Familia—
Tajima-Peña: Freddy Fender
Gasca: Latin Breed, all that, the Texas Tornados to some extent. Mazz, La Mafia-
Peña: Who did we mention earlier, Rene? Los Fabulosos Cuatro. Paulino Bernal, one of the older, really classic bands that’s really just incredible.
Tajima-Peña: And the Layton Brothers, from your hometown.
Peña: Right, from Elsa.
Arcos: I really want people to understand that this music has been around for a while. I mean many of our listeners are familiar with people like Flaco Jimenez, but there’s more to Tejano music than Flaco Jimenez. I’m obviously a big fan of his work and that of his father, and Narciso Martinez, but there is this incredible, you know, history of this music.
Tajima-Peña: One interesting connection with the music is Armando was a veteran of a 1968 Edcouch-Elsa Chicano school walkout. It’s a historic walkout; even Walter Cronkite on CBS News did a story about it. And it happened 40 years ago, almost 40 years ago to this day, actually. It was the first major legal victory for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and he got expelled from school, but they fought and they got him back in. And one of the demands was relevant cultural education dealing with Mexican American culture, and music programs like Mariachi programs and Tejano music programs came out of those walkouts, which happened all over the southwest. In Edcouch-Elsa, at Armando’s high school, the Layton Brothers, who were sort of treasures of Tejano music, started a music program and trained generations of musicians, including the Frijoles, who worked with Rene on the music for our film. So there’s a real direct line from that activism in ’68 to the music.
And your mother used to promote some of those bands, right? That’s a little known career of Armando’s mother, Rosa.
Arcos: What is it that defines in a sense the sort of sensibility of music as Tejano? I mean it is a sensibility that has touched a lot of people across the country, but also worldwide. You know, I can tell you that growing up in Mexico I remember listening to this music, and I always wondered about the people.
Gasca: Well, it’s just a part of the culture here, the people, that’s part of their diet. You know, they grow up hearing that music, at quinceañeras, weddings, and they just — it’s just a part of the culture.
Peña: My own theory of it is that it’s the kind of music that has helped to propagate the populates of Texas. [LAUGHS] People fall in love with this music when they’re young, and they get married by it, and then, like Rene said, from the moment, you know, like when they have the baby showers or the quinceañeras or all the way down to the funerals this is the kind of music that is used to perform a lot of these functions.
Arcos: Let’s listen to another clip. We have another clip from the film, and would you please set that up?
Tajima-Peña: Yes. As Armando and Carlos carry their mother’s ashes back to Texas they also try to reunite with all of their brothers. And here we’re in a stop in Moses Lake, Washington, where their brothers Lupe and Raul live. They’re the sort of brothers that have had some problems with the law and haven’t done as well as the other brothers, but in this section the guys talk about-actually, they don’t talk about barbequing, they’re barbequing, which is what they love to do, and they love to tell stories about their past. So the first thing you’ll hear is music that Rene Gasca and Los Frijoles Románticos actually composed for the film.
[FILM CLIP PLAYS]
Arcos: I have to say, the movie, Renee, truth be said, the film, when I saw it a couple of months ago, you know, I was really choked up. I mean it’s a very touching story; it touched me on many different levels. I myself, just recently in the past month or so when I lost my sister, I came to find out some stories that I didn’t know about my family, thankfully because my brother opened up his heart to us and told us stories that I didn’t know ever existed. And it was really for me one way of opening up, as Armando said earlier, as sort of opening up the skeletons in the closet, and what a way to put it together through your filmmaking, through the storytelling that Armando and his brothers tell in the film. And so, really, it’s a film that’s, needless to say, highly recommended from me and from people that I know that have seen the film. It’s called Calavera Highway.
Well, Rene, thank you so much for spending some time with us here on the air.
Gasca: Thank you for inviting me to your show.
Arcos: We’re certainly looking forward, you are one of the composers of the film, of the soundtrack, the music of this film. And Renee and Armando, thank you so much for stopping by this morning.
Peña: Thank you for having us over. This was great.
Thanks to Betto Arcos for allowing us to post and re-print his interview. Listen to Betto Arcos’ “Global Village Tuesdays” program online every week at KPFK.org.