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Armando and Carlos Answer Viewer Questions

During the week following Calavera Highway's premiere broadcast, we asked viewers to write in to P.O.V. to ask questions and share their reactions to the film with Armando and Carlos Peña. Read the Peña brothers' responses below.

Many viewers wrote in with questions about whether Armando wanted to pursue finding out more about Pedro Peña, and his side of the family. Here's one example.

Barbra from Arizona asks: Thank you for allowing us to share in your journey. Armando, how has the revelation about your paternity affected you, and do you have any interest in meeting members of the Longoria family and finding out more about your biological father?

Armando Pena

Armando: The revelation that I may have a different father has brought me sufficient closure. I’ve mentally already moved on. I don’t have an interest in meeting members of the Longoria family. If my life were reduced to a puzzle, I would say that at this time there are few if any pieces now missing for me. I feel satisfied that I know enough now, who I am and where I came from.

Chris from Illinois asks: The movie "Roots" was mentioned with a touch of humor but so much of your story reflects lost identity, pride, and survival. How strongly did you guys or your Mom identify with the African-American civil rights movement through the years?

Armando Pena

Armando Peña: Ironically, I did not actually see the entirety of the "Roots" series, although, I believe Carlos did. As far as my mother, she didn't have any knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn't even on the radar for her. I never learned about it in high school back home in South Texas. It was never discussed or dealt with in school. We weren't even taught about the Mexican-American political movements, much less African Americans'. I was first introduced to the Civil Rights Movement in college in history and political science courses. We had our own history of resistance as Tejanos, but the fact that I learned it was going on with another group added to the fire, so I have felt a very strong connection to the African-American Civil Rights Movement. I am acutely aware of the tremendous debt that Latinos and other minorities owe. Without the foundation that was laid by African Americans we would not have been able to take own place in the struggles for justice and equality. Indeed many of our Mexican-American civil rights advocacy institutions were modeled on the achievements and institutions created by the African-American Civil Rights Movement and many of our own leaders were mentored by many African-American leaders and labor leaders. I learned that the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which represented us in the Edcouch-Elsa High School walkouts, was modeled after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In fact Vilma Martinez, the first president of MALDEF, had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund just out of law school.

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos Peña: We didn't even know about that stuff, except maybe Armando was aware. To me, that didn't even dawn on me at all. We had our own little world in the valley. When we were migrating we experienced discrimination ourselves, but we only thought about the good things. We had never made so much money. Even though they kicked us out of a restaurant in Hope, Arkansas — they wouldn't feed us. But once we went to the labor camp and made our money we just blew it off. We were too young to really know we were experiencing the discrimination. Now we make a joke of it. I went to Hope, Arkansas last year and I told them that story. I work with workers who migrate up there and I was invited to the grand opening of the new labor camp. There was a real nice lady running it, and I told her the story about when we were in Hope. But when you ask me about the civil rights, we were too ignorant to understand it.

Eddie from Texas asks: "Calavera Highway" has re-awakened my urge to find out more about my history. My own father passed away 8 months before I was born, in 1968, and I never had a father figure until I was 13. I wanted to know if any of you have ever gotten over the fact that you had no father when you were growing up. Sometimes I wonder if I will overcompensate when I have children of my own. How hard is it for you to now be fathers, given that you had no father growing up? Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos: I dealt with not having a father by acting tough, saying that I didn't need a father, "the a------, we didn't need that guy." I'd satisfy myself by saying that I won't have to cry for two parents when they die, I'd only have to cry for my mom. That's how I tried to comfort myself. But it did hurt. Another thing I would say is that on parent's night at school I would feel bad because my mom couldn't go because she was working, and I didn't have a father. I was always making excuses and that's the way I survived. Anything having to do with fathers I would try not to hang around there. Or I'd make jokes about it or just leave the area, like when there was a father-son event in school.

[Re: Second part of Eddie's question: Sometimes I wonder if I will overcompensate when I have children of my own. How hard is it for you to now be fathers, given that you had no father growing up?]

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos: I can't answer that because I got divorced, and my son Eric lived with his mom most of the time. I really never gave him all the love that I should have. Now that I'm older I feel bad that I didn't give him all the love. I wish I could have seen him every night, tucked him into bed and said goodnight. Sometimes I tell him I'm sorry I wasn't there for him. He says "Dad, you were the greatest father," because I never let him alone, I was always there for him. I still feel there was more I could have done, so I'm waiting for the grandchildren. Maybe I still have more love in me to give.

Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña: For the record, Carlos underestimates what a committed and involved father he has been to Eric. I remember he used to drive Eric to all his practices and games, and sit there for waiting for him. And Eric was a jock who played three or more sports and played all year round. That's the kind of father Carlos is. And he's very protective of Eric, which gives us all a chuckle now that Eric is a hulking 6'3 or 6'4, 200 pounder who towers over Carlos and, of course, can well take care of himself.

Armando Pena

Armando: I don't know that one can ever get completely over the absence of a missing father. To this day, I have to survive by my own wits. Clearly, we never had access to the masculine knowledge and wisdom that passes from father to son in most societies around the world. Apparently, you were fortunate enough to have a father figure at age 13, which is a pretty critical time in a young man's life. You are going to be a darn good father some day because you are reflecting heavily on this subject and you care deeply about it. Maybe there is also something to be said being a "self-made" man even if it was made necessary by circumstance.

Christina from New York asks: I loved the documentary. When I was younger, I was ashamed of my Mexican heritage, but as I got older, I embraced it. I get angered at the way Mexicans are treated. Everyone has at least one member of their family that came from another country. What are your views on our country's immigration policies and how would you improve them if you had the opportunity?

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos: I would start by saying that I think our problem is because our mother country is so close to the United States and its difficult to change those policies. We've been here for centuries. Color has a lot to do with it, it means a lot in life you know. A white immigrant assimilates right away into the system. You get a brown guy and he's not accepted. I hate to say this but if we are going to better ourselves we need to learn the English language. I recommend to those of us in the process of getting documentation, that we learn English wherever we are. Yeah, I realize it's not realistic for a farm worker in Mexico to get access to English learning. But if we don't get educated we get the worst jobs, and we get in a rut. My clients at work come to me and complain about the dangerous jobs, the dangerous machinery they have to operate, but I tell them to learn ESL. We have to get educated.

Armando Pena

Armando: Historically, immigrants are often easy scapegoats that are picked on by non-immigrants, especially when our country periodically goes through its usual economic ups and down, and the occasional economic upheaval, as is the case today. If immigration is "out of control" as is often stated by anti-immigrant voices it should be "fixed" comprehensively and humanely and we should recognize that historically immigrants have consistently been invaluable contributors to the development of this country's major industries and economy, as well as part of the social and cultural fabric. A comprehensive approach would include major investment in the economic development of major immigrant exporting countries with the aim of creating quality jobs there so that people don't have to leave their homelands.

Neil from New York asks: What are the most important things to pass along to my Mexican-American children, who were both adopted from Texas? What elements of their culture and history do you think Mexican-American kids should be most aware of?

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos: Some Hispanics, especially those who move up north to the city and spend many years [there], they forget where they came from. But movies like this can change things. One Spanish-language newspaper that wrote about the film said it's about time for us to be known, for our stories to be known. They're finally starting to recognize who we are, and that's why we need more movies like this.

Armando Pena

Armando: It's important to provide children with a positive sense of where they came from. That's significant to me, because when I was my son's age, we weren't taught about our heritage and sometimes we were even castigated for it. You should try to encourage them to learn the Spanish language and experience the culture that will actually make them more competitive in the world economy when they graduate from college and enter the job market bringing with them multilingual and cultural cosmopolitan strengths.

Culturally, I would take them on a southwest journey, something we did on our trip taking my mother's ashes home: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, all over the Southwest. I remember in graduate school when I first came here to L.A., and specifically to East L.A., I thought I was making a trip to the mecca of Mexican-American culture. But that culture really exists throughout the entire Southwest, including where I came from in South Texas. In terms of history, the history of Mexican Americans is by its very nature a history of conflict, because of the way we came here by way of a war, the border and immigration. I try to teach my own son, Gabe, the truth, or as much as I understand to be the truth, about our history. And I try to explain the reasons for the conflicts.

Of course, my mom would say just get a job, stay out of trouble, have kids. But in fact she was our repository for all the folkways, storytelling and cultural traditions for what life was like in Mexico and Texas when she was growing up. For example when I was growing up I'd hear my mother or adults in the little town in Monte Alto, Texas, and they would tell these stories about ghosts and apparitions and spirits. In fact I remember there used to be places on weekends where people would go to listen to people who could channel spirits; like a medium or a psychic. People would tell us that on a particular night they heard el Nino Fidencio, a healer that became a spirit that people would call on to intervene.

All of that stuff was a part of my sense of the universe. From a rational standpoint it did not make sense. But it was something that people in these small towns believed in. It was a way of life. By the time I got to college, I began to lose those beliefs. I learned a rational, systematic analysis and categorization of the culture, through anthropology and political science. It ruined everything for me! Seriously, I think what it boils down to is its important for children to be able to enjoy the richness, and the magic within the culture, as well as learn about history and what they call "cultural competency."

Victor from Texas asks: Armando & Carlos, Your life parallels so closely to that of my own family. I was a migrant, from Crystal City, Texas and as a 69-year-old man I must ask the following question. Having visited so many place that obviously brought you pain and bad memories, did making this film bring about healing to many of those unpleasant memories?

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos: Yeah, in a sense it brought healing, yet it brought back a lot of memories. As you know, I was always fighting bringing up those memories when we were making the movie. But now that I've gotten so much good feedback about the movie I realize we're not alone having grown up as migrants and what we had to face. There are a lot of people just like us. That's a good feeling.

Armando Pena

Armando: Making the film did help me reflect on some areas in my life, but it may have also opened the door to new questions regarding other, sensitive familial matters that have surfaced. Overall though, the whole process of making this film has been an enriching set of experiences. For one thing it's brought us in more contact together as brothers. My mom's greatest fear was that not all my brothers would have their lives together and since she was the only one that everybody would listen to she didn't know what would happen to them when she was gone. She was also upset she wouldn't be around to enjoy those simple moments listening to us talking and reminiscing about the past. When she saw us, she probably still saw those scrappy little boys in Monte Alto. Mom told me when she was sick that she wanted me to continue doing that when she was gone. I don't know if she told Carlos the same thing. But I think we've both tried our best to reconnect with our brothers in the way Mom would have wanted.

Angie from Washington D.C. asks: Now that you've made the film, do you think it will continue to be as difficult to get all seven brothers in one place? Do you think you might organize once-a-year reunions to bring everyone together?

Calavera Highway: Carlos Pena

Carlos: It would be nice if we could get together. But you know, it's been said that once a mother leaves, everybody is gone, the house is gone, the glue is gone. And it's not only Hispanics, it's all kinds of families. Once the mother leaves, it's difficult to bring everyone back together. I only wish we could get together, like the old days.





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