The friendly voice of Lalo Guerrero dances out of the cassette recorder. Known as the "Father of Chicano Music," Lalo Guerrero had a prolific career that resulted in more than 700 recordings. He died March 17 at the age of 88.
The tape is from April 1992, and Guerrero was coming to town to perform an International Children's Day gig at the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT). That performance was to be followed by a special solo show at a TJ orphanage.
Already 75 at the time, Guerrero's voice comes in strong and deep as he recounts his storied career. Born on Christmas Eve in 1916. Fledgling songwriter in the '30s. Big-band crooner turned boogie-woogie hepcat in the '40s. Hitmaker of bilingual parodies in the '50s. Mexican children's music icon in the '60s. Protest singer for Cesar Chavez in the '70s. Soundtrack for the Zoot Suit musical rediscovery in the '80s. Father of Chicano music in the '90s. Rancheras, boleros, mariachi, mambos, swing, son, boogie-woogie, jitterbug, corridos, parodies, love songs, protest songs, rock 'n' roll, you name it-Lalo Guerrero had not only done it, he'd done it for the ages.
The avuncular Guerrero is talking about his childhood. The Barrio Viejo of Tucson. Growing up as one of nine surviving children in a family that would have numbered 24 had the mortality rate not been so high back then. He is talking of his mother, an amazing woman who taught him guitar and sang around the house, despite what must have otherwise been a pretty rough time. He's talking about Tucson during the Depression.
Guerrero is recalling his trip to Mexico City at age 17 with a handful of songs, eager to make it as a singer. One of them was "La Cancion Mexicana," which he would later be surprised to hear on a Tijuana radio station, recorded by Lucha Reyes, one of Mexico's top stars. The song became so popular that many consider it Mexico's unofficial national anthem.
By 1992, Guerrero had already been named a national folk treasure by the Smithsonian Institution. He was the darling of the academic set, and his music was the heartbeat of the resurging Chicano movement. Five years later, he would receive a national Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
Constant gigging and countless college performances had made his parodies "No Chicanos on TV," "There's No Tortillas" and "I Left My Car in San Francisco" favorites for the cyberpunks and cultural rebels of Generation Mex.
Older classics like "Chucos Suaves," "Vamos a Bailar" and "Marijuana Boogie" continued to unite the generations on the dance floor. His corridos recorded important events in Chicano history, such as the United Farm Workers' (UFW) march in Delano, Calif., the death of journalist Ruben Salazar and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, for whom Guerrero performed only a few hours before the fresh-faced politician was gunned down in a L.A. hotel kitchen
Lalo Guerrero was a one-man cultural revolution. A trainload of musical manifestos and declarations packed neatly into the hearts of his fans and summoned forth with a few gentle strums of his guitar.
When you talk about Lalo Guerrero to people who knew or worked with him, a curious thing happens. As they speak, they begin to laugh. Their voices lift. They describe events of long ago as if they happened yesterday. They talk about Guerrero's songs as if they were talking about old friends.
War brought Guerrero to San Diego in 1941, as it has for so many over the decades. A recent father, he was not drafted into World War II service, although, as he points out on the cassette recording, his brother fought throughout the South Pacific.
Guerrero spent the war years working at Consolidated Aircraft. The company had recently built employee housing in Linda Vista, and that is where Guerrero and his young family called home.
"I was very fortunate to live in San Diego starting in 1941," Guerrero said. "It's still beautiful, but at that time it was even more beautiful. It was a lot smaller and the ambience was different. The population was a lot smaller, and so life was a lot simpler. And of course the climate at the time-I don't mean the weather climate, the climate among people, especially with the war effort going on-there was a lot of togetherness and love of one human being to another."
Highlights for Guerrero during this period were trips to Tijuana and performing in a company big-band revue for servicemen throughout the county.
As American publishing houses began raiding Mexican and Latin American melodies due to a wartime shortage of songwriters and arrangers, Latin hits became popular additions to the set list. Guerrero saw his chance to shine.
"I was the Latin canary. I would sing with this wonderful band. The servicemen and ladies loved it," Guerrero said.
The idyllic sense of brotherhood was disrupted as racial tensions escalated into a frenzy, fueled and fanned by the Hearst press.
"About late 1943 and '44 is when some of the ugly racism started to show up among servicemen," he said. "That's when we had the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles. They started-the Marines and sailors-beating up on Chicano zoot suiters because they were different."
As the violence spread, non-zoot-suited Chicanos were also targeted by mobs of servicemen. Guerrero himself was almost the victim of beatings on several occasions, even though he was not a pachuco.
"I was outnumbered-me and a buddy of mine getting on a bus one day full of Marines. And we barely escaped with our lives," he said. "The bus driver opened the door for us and said, "Get the hell out of here and run like hell.' We ran and we had about six or eight guys follow us."
Guerrero recalled the event with a hearty laugh, the kind that likely capped off most of his stories over the years. It is the laughter of a natural storyteller. The laugh of a man who loved being alive.
Renowned Chicano poet and artist Jose Montoya first met Guerrero as a youth in Central California in the 1940s. The way Montoya speaks of the period, you can feel the bumps and bruises of growing up young, defiant and brown. It is clear that Guerrero's music was one of those things that helped make his situation a little more tolerable.
"I was growing up in the San Joaquin Valley around Fresno at the time that he used to come through," says Montoya, "and for us, for the young people, he was one of the few who was playing the kind of music that we were used to dancing to. And that he was raza and he was doing boogie-woogie in Chicano time was pretty incredible. There were not too many bands like his around at the time, at least for the farmworker community in the San Joaquin Valley. So when Lalo was in town, it was time to celebrate."
Montoya remembers Guerrero at the time as being friendly toward the local pachuco kids, who would follow the performer to a local bar called the Castle Dome. "The Castle Dome Ballroom had Okie music on Saturdays and Chicano music on Sundays," recalls Montoya. "And between sets, he'd go over to this little bar, and me and the vatos would go over. And he was very open, very cordial."
After serving in Korea, Montoya moved to San Diego in the 1950s and lost touch with the bandleader, who had provided the soundtrack for his pachuco youth and helped galvanize his self-esteem and sense of cultural empowerment.
"In San Diego, I was too busy trying to figure out how I was going to use my G.I. Bill to get an education," says Montoya.
Their paths were destined to cross again, however, as Montoya himself emerged as a major figure in the Chicano cultural movement. As a poet, musician and member of the irreverent and influential art collective known as the Royal Chicano Air Force, or RCAF, Montoya and his band of cultural commandos did their part to help Cesar Chavez in the farmworker movement and the fight for Chicano civil rights.
In the 1970s, Montoya would see Guerrero at UFW rallies, where the elder performer energized the strikers with rousing corridos and comic songs. The movement gave Montoya and Guerrero the opportunity to work together as equals and fellow pranksters in the cultural arena. Montoya was pleased to know that Guerrero had a handle on their "la locura cura" or "humor heals" aesthetic.
"He loved it," says Montoya. "He thought that Chicano humor was definitely something that needed to be understood and used as a survival tactic."
In 1994 Montoya's son Richard, a member of the comedy group Culture Clash, put the two together in the historic Big Top Locos concert that featured such culturally and politically subversive acts as Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine. Backstage, Guerrero was his usual magnanimous self with the kids.
"He was incredible, and everybody milled around him-the beginnings of Ozomatli and Aztlan Underground," says Montoya.
In terms of Guerrero's legacy, Montoya sums up his appreciation for the consistent celebration of dignity, belonging and affirmation that was present in Guerrero's work.
"I think that the way that he took the local lore, the things that were going, because he wasn't just doing boogie-woogie. He took on Davy Crockett. I mean this guy was so incredible with his music writing, to write the comedy that he sang about-"Tacos for Two,' a take off on "Tea for Two.' And he kept it going right to the end. In other words injecting humor into what otherwise was a pretty oppressive time for raza. We were at the bottom rung of the ladder. So having him give us that lift, that respite from oppression, was immeasurable."
El Corrido de Cesar Chavez
Prolific Chicano playwright and founder of the legendary El Teatro Campesino Luis Valdez is perhaps best known for his 1978 stage play Zoot Suit, a period musical propelled by Guerrero's 1940s hits. Zoot Suit holds the distinction of being the first Chicano play produced on Broadway, making Guerrero the first Chicano composer on Broadway.
Like Montoya, Valdez grew up in a farmworker family in the Central Valley. He is in San Diego for the world-premiere of Corridos Remix, a re-envisioning of his musical Corridos. Co-written and directed by his son Kinan Valdez, the show, which opens April 29, with previews beginning April 23 (please see side story) at the San Diego Repertory Theater, is dedicated to Lalo Guerrero.
Valdez recalls the impression Guerrero, a relative, made on him as a child.
"He was very influential in the life of my family, because he was like a star way back when. In the late '30s, he was already making a living as a musician, which was pretty unusual because everybody else was still working in the fields. So to have Lalo out there, and then on the radio and making records."
Guerrero was legendary for his tours, which used to sizzle through the chorizo belt of Southwest towns and Spanish-speaking migrant farmworker communities.
"[He] was really an inspiration for me as a kid," says Valdez, "because it was somebody who was in show business and somebody I knew who used to come over to the house whenever he was in town. I have memories of chasing his car as a kid in the barrio."
Valdez acknowledges Guerrero's contribution to the spirit of El Teatro Campesino and the use of music and humor as tools not only to entertain but also to mobilize and educate people.
The play Zoot Suit became a hit, catapulting Guerrero to cultural-hero status, which he retained to his dying day. And although he knew prostate cancer and Alzheimer's were making their steady advance, Guerrero refused to stop performing.
During the 25th anniversary revival of Zoot Suit, Guerrero took the stage for a few special shows, including one in Arizona. "In Phoenix, we had over 2,000 people and he got a standing ovation," says Valdez. "When I introduced him at the end of the play, and he came out and he raised his arms, and it was a moment of glory for him in that sense, and he well deserved it."
No Chicanos on TV
The day Guerrero died, a documentary called Race is the Place was screened at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. Among the artists featured in the documentary was Lalo Guerrero.
Later during the festival, a segment on Guerrero from the recent Visiones documentary series, was screened to a packed house. Texas filmmaker Hector Galan, who produced Visiones, introduced the piece. For many this was their first taste of Guerrero. On screen, Lalo belts out the song "There's No Tortillas," a popular parody to the tune of "Santa Lucia." Waves of laughter fill the room. After the song, Guerrero receives a resounding applause.
"He clearly had a pulse on the United States Mexican-American presence and its evolving cultural absorption of America and yet maintaining Mexican traditions that creates a subculture which is very American. Yet he never let go of the true Mexican style," says Galan.
"There are few that you can count in that time period who are innovators. He really was an innovator. To combine those music sensibilities together to reflect who one is in this country I think is very important."
Artist Alfredo de Batuc was also at the film festival when he heard of Guerrero's passing. A native of Sonora, de Batuc first knew of Guerrero through his songs and then later became friends with Guerrero's son Dan. He recalls Guerrero as an artist who was dedicated to his craft and his creativity.
"He was so prolific, and he created in so many genres," says de Batuc. "I admire that. That is to me an inspiration, someone who is so in love with his creative spirit, with his creative mission in life. That was his gift, and he fought for it, especially in the beginning."
Local promoter and artist Ruben Seja presented Guerrero more than two dozen times at venues from Yakima to Puerto Vallarta. It was Seja who brought Guerrero to the CECUT in 1992 for an International Children's Day performance. He remembers Guerrero as a joyful spirit who supported good causes, such as Native American water rights in Washington.
"One thing he told me-man, you make somebody laugh, no matter how much they're hurting, how blue they are it's like medicine," says Seja. "I guess that's the kind of medicine we're going to miss."
He last saw Guerrero a year ago in Palm Springs, where Guerrero spent what he referred to as his "reclining years." Guerrero, who held court with performers such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, talked about the time the Chairman of the Board kissed him on the cheek.
"He didn't know if he was going to be knocked off or what," says Seja.
It's Wednesday, April 13. Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez of the Chicano group Los Alacranes checks in from Denver. He's been performing at the wake for Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, author of the groundbreaking movimiento poem "I Am Joaquin." Like Guerrero, Corky is one of the giants of the Chicano movement. Like Guerrero, he too has passed on.
Sanchez says the scene of the viewing at the Escuela Tlatelolco was profound.
"I think everybody in every barrio in Denver came out today," says Sanchez. "People of all walks of life. The old mayor, [Federico] Peña, came out. A lot of indigenous people came. A lot of medicine men came. They drummed for him. We played. I played. It's been very difficult for the family but we're here to support them. It's a strong feeling of unity. It almost seems like we're back in the '60s, the spirit that's going on here."
Taking a moment to reflect on the loss of another hero, Sanchez remembers Guerrero.
"He was a direct influence not just on me but on my parents. It was a name you heard all the time," recalls Sanchez. "I never thought I'd have the honor, number one, of meeting him, but then performing on the stage with him."
A member of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, Sanchez is also a gifted Chicano entertainer. For local Chicano activists and cultural workers, the double loss of Guerrero and Gonzales will be deeply felt at this year's 35th anniversary Chicano Park Day celebration on Saturday, April 23 (Please see "City Week" on Page 14 for more about the event).
Naming some of his favorite Lalo Guerrero songs, Sanchez settles on a bolero called "Nunca Jamas," which means "Never Again."
"We lost a legend," Sanchez says. "I don't know what's going on these days, but we're losing a lot of legends right now for some reason. I guess the gods are taking them for another mission."
Sanchez fondly remembers Guerrero's performance at the Adams Avenue Roots Festival in 1997 and at Chicano Park Day in 2001, when he performed in full zoot-suit regalia. The two shared the stage for the last time at the 2004 Imperial County Fair, when Guerrero asked Sanchez for help tuning his guitar. It was a special moment.
In assessing the importance of Lalo Guerrero and Corky Gonzales, Sanchez's voice fills with emotion.
"These guys sacrificed their lives to make changes. And they made dramatic changes in our lives as Chicanos and even in this country as Mexican Americans and everything else and even for Mexicanos. They made dramatic changes in society. They need to be recognized for that and understood for that."
Lalo Guerrero's vision lives on in the work of his sons, Dan, a TV producer, and Mark, a musician. It lives on in the intergenerational continuity manifest in collaborations such as that of Luis and Kinan Valdez. It lives on in the work of individuals like Jose Montoya, Ruben Seja and Chunky Sanchez, and in community organizations like the Chicano Park Steering Committee.
When Lalo Guerrero died, it made the news. Obituaries were carried in The New York Times and on CNN and the broadcast networks. All of them referred to him as the "Father of Chicano Music." For many, it was the first time the word "Chicano" had appeared in years. Lalo Guerrero left this world as a Chicano on TV.