Ruben Guevara’s Memoir of a Chicano Culture Sculptor
by Lew Rosenbaum
Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara ends his memoir, Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer, with a lyrical hymn to Los Angeles. By naming names and places, he evokes visceral memories for me. All he has to do is mention Grand Central Market, and a long
hidden experience of musical sound, visions of stall after stall of fresh produce with its overpowering aroma, and taste from taco vendors’ offerings — all of this explodes out of my memory. Here is how he describes the downtown Union (train) Station, in a West Coast Whitmanesque/Sandburgian voice: “I know Union Station, that grand cathedral of trapped ghosts of ripped hearts and laughter, where the pinche Manifest Destiny Railroad connected east and west on the blistered, busted backs of human beasts of burden.” In that one sentence, Guevara captures the context of what his book is “about.”
How can you write about what a book is “about,” when the author has spent 300 pages describing that very process? The best you can hope to do is express what the book means to you; and so I want to touch on three themes, all of which have to do with the dual aspect of life under capitalism. The musician, only a few steps away (and a million miles) from stardom. The Southern Californian negotiating the Chicano/Mexicano historical process. The radical Chicano who stretches his cultural tendrils to reach throughout the Los Angeles communities among different nationalities. All of this within the time that spans from when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Watts rebellions of 1965 and 1992, and the Chicano moratorium of 1970 to the bubble and crash of 2008. From the provincial Los Angeles Times that represented the post-war industrial boom to the Los Angeles Times of globalization.
For me, Union Station becomes a metaphor of that duality under capitalism. Who has not
traveled by train and not sat with lost souls, hoping to be on their way to a better place (often winding up in worse), or who are just sitting or sleeping to get some respite from being on the streets? The grand cathedral that captures the dreams as well as the nightmares of travelers. Not to mention the explicit dreams and nightmares of those who built the building and laid the tracks to the building and all the social chaos and construction that accompanied the railroad as it conquered the land in the name of industry.
Ruben Guevara is not only the musician of “Ruben and the Jets,” the confidant of Frank Zappa, the vocalist who performed with Bo Diddley and Tina Turner, and band leader.
He’s the creator of Chicano musical theater-pieces which he’s taken from UCLA to Lyon and Rennes in France. And he’s the performer who, practically the very next day, and often in his career, found himself homeless and living in his car. Often not knowing where his next dollar would come from. In 1965, his mother arranged an audition on the nationally televised hit show, “Shindig,” where he shared a dressing room with his hero Bo Diddley and was hired for a regular gig. Dreams of a Hollywood mansion (never mind a regular paycheck) crashed when the show was moved to a different time slot, failed to connect with its new audience, and was canceled, and he wound up delivering Chicken Delight on the Sunset Strip. In these instances he brushed so close to fame’s cheek, only to be thrown back to struggle. Nevertheless, throughout he built an extraordinary output of creative work that this memoir describes.
He writes about a pilgrimage to his ancestral land, to Guadalajara in 1974, and his surprise and shock to find the disrespect that Mexicans had for the Chicano culture. Asking, in broken Spanish, directions of someone he met on the streets, he finds that pochos are considered no better than mongrels. Much of what he shows us celebrates that very cultural production, from the muralists to the musicians to the theater and beyond. In this context he begins to draw the distinction of “Chicano” as a political reality rather than an ethnic or racial one. Cheech Marin tapped Guevara to work on the classic film, Born in East L.A. Guevara traveled to Monterrey on one leg of a journey to promote the film, and asked Marin if he could say a few words about Chicano culture while there. In his remarks, he pointed out that, while the term Chicano had originated as “a pejorative term used by the Mexican upper classes to describe los de abajo” (the lower classes), the word had undergone a transmutation in the actions of the fight for civil rights of the 1960s. “. . .it is a political term. Chicanos are Mexican Americans who commit to enrich their culture and community through politics, education, science, and the arts. Chicanos are made, not born. It’s a choice.”
He goes on to list some of the people who have contributed to the renaissance of Chicano culture and ends with a signature, defiant comment that punctuates many of his performances: “Con Safos!” This phrase is both a consistent Guevara theater piece ending and an album he made and a band he put together after Ruben and the Jets; but, more importantly, Con Safos is a statement that if you don’t like it, well, you know where you can put it. While he describes in detail the evolution and execution of some of the performance pieces, words can only convey so much. I would love to be able to see and hear some of these pieces as he writes about them. Here you can listen to the doo-wop “classic” versions of “America The Beautiful” and the “Star Spangled Banner”;
Still Con Safos is a central feature of self-consciousness that sets the ground for how to build bonds with others – through doo-wop music, Japanese theater, Japanese-American activists, Frank Zappa (and the connection Guevara and Zappa had to the music of Stravinsky and Bartok), to the family heritage that goes back to indigenous Mexican people and to Spain, and also to indigenous people from British Columbia. The Japanese-American activists Guevara mentions were seasoned community organizers when he encountered them, people who had coalesced decades earlier around the Amerasia Bookstore (1971-1992: http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-04/news/vw-1197_1_recession) and Gidra, the monthly magazine that UCLA students began in 1969 (http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/1/12/gidra/), This theme reminds me so much of one of Guevara’s collaborators, the performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, whose Warrior for Gringostroika also straddles a border and, in the final analysis, provides a ground for class connection defying division and demanding unity.
The reader of this memoir will also find in its pages the haunting reminiscences of a man who confesses his sexual impulses often drive him where he would be wise not to go. He is a man of many failed relationships, often, as he admits, of his own making. But while a memoir is by genre a personal book, and it can be read solely as a personal history, I think it would be a mistake if the reader left it a chronicle of personal exploits. The book is a document of the time. It provokes one to think about what “radical” means as much as what “Chicano” means; how a boy who played first trumpet in his high school orchestra found doo-wop music and became the leader of a band; what does the search for identity mean for all of us.
I like to remember the first time I met Ruben Guevara. Sue Ying Peery had organized a poetry reading at the Midnight Special Bookstore in support of the struggle of homeless residents of Los Angeles. The featured poet was Jack Hirschman, in L.A. on a reading tour. Sue Ying had asked Guevara to read, and he did (the book, by the way, is sprinkled liberally with examples of his poetry). Afterward, I walked over to where Ruben was standing and told him how much I appreciated his reading for this event and how much I liked his poetry. He told me that it was important to support such events, but that he didn’t consider himself a poet. “People like Pablo Neruda are poets,” he said. I think time has proven that, in his own right, Guevara is a poet, or, as he has styled himself, a “Chicano Culture Sculptor.” Con Safos!
Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer, Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara, University of California Press, 2018