A pioneer of Chicano rock, Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara performed with Frank Zappa, Johnny Otis, Bo Diddley, Tina Turner, and Celia Cruz, though he is best known as the front man of the 1970s experimental rock band Ruben And The Jets. Here he recounts how his youthful experiences in the barrio La Veinte of Santa Monica in the 1940s prepared him for early success in music and how his triumphs and seductive brushes with stardom were met with tragedy and crushing disappointments. Brutally honest and open, Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer is an often hilarious and self-critical look inside the struggle of becoming an artist and a man. Recognizing racial identity as composite, contested, and complex, Guevara—an American artist of Mexican descent—embraces a Chicano identity of his own design, calling himself a Chicano “culture sculptor” who has worked to transform the aspirations, alienations, and indignities of the Mexican American people into an aesthetic experience that could point the way to liberation.
About the Author
Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara is a native Angelino Chicano musician, singer, and songwriter with Ruben And The Jets (cofounded with Frank Zappa), Con Safos, and the Eastside Luvers; a record producer of Chicano rock and rock en español compilations; and a performance artist, poet, short story writer, historian, journalist, and activist.
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La Veinte: A Santa Monica Barrio
I ARRIVED ON THE PLANET in the barrio of Boyle Heights on the East Side of Los Angeles, on Saturday, October 17, 1942, at 12:27 P.M. My parents lived in Laurel Canyon, where I was christened to a crisp shortly after my birth. We moved to Echo Park for a while, then briefly lived at the fashionable Saint James Hotel on the Sunset Strip. The following year we moved to La Veinte (by Olympic and 20th Street), a smart, poor, working-class Mexican neighborhood in Santa Monica, roughly a half square mile with a population of around two hundred. I lived there with my grandparents, nana Victorina Casillas-Gutiérrez and tata Rito Gutiérrez Sr.; my mom; and my younger sisters, Linda and Bonita. My musician dad was usually on the road.
There is both Spanish aristocracy and indigenous blood on my mother's side — a double irony. Her mother and the Casillas clan of La Veinte were descendants of the indigenous Tecuexe people of Jalisco and the Spanish-Mexican architect don Martín "El Alarife" Casillas (1556–1618), who designed the main cathedral in Guadalajara. His descendants grew up on his hacienda in El Valle de Guadalupe. Members of the Casillas clan emigrated from there to La Veinte around the turn of the twentieth century, before, during, and after the Mexican Revolution.
The barrio of La Veinte was composed mostly of two familias: the Casillas and the Gutiérrez. The two families intermarried and were successful entrepreneurs, starting with my great-grandfather Ruperto Casillas, who recruited laborers from El Valle to work in the brickyards and clear the land for subdivisions in Santa Monica. He also rented them rooms at his boardinghouse located in the neighborhood. My mother, Sara Casillas-Gutiérrez Guevara, was born in Santa Monica in 1923. My mother's many aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived within blocks of my grandparents' home. No one ever went hungry, because you could always go to a relative's house to eat. There was a certain pride my tías took in competing to be the best cook, so the food was always the very best.
The neighborhood would put on 16th of September Mexican Independence Day parades, traveling down Olympic from 20th Street to 14th. These included colorful floats and strolling musicians. The fun times were overshadowed, however, by "repatriation" raids, in which several relatives were rounded up and sent back to Mexico.
The only non-Mexican in the neighborhood was Mr. Jackson, an African American man who lived a couple of houses over from my grandparents. He was very friendly, always waving to us from his front porch with a big grin on his face as we walked or drove by. He reminded me of Uncle Remus from the controversial Disney cartoon Song of the South, which was where I first saw an African American. I'm sure he had many stories to tell.
There was a neighboring barrio to the east called Sotel, which was adjacent to a sizable Japanese American community that unfortunately I never got to know.
The beach wasn't far, and that was one of the best parts about living there. The beach, the pier, and the grand carousel were like a live musical fairy tale, a gateway into my hungry imagination.
My first five years living in La Veinte were formative for me musically. My father taught me how to sing boleros and play the maracas. He taught me the song "Amor" (Love), which would become my life mantra. I sang and played at family get-togethers and holidays. I loved the attention that performing brought me, especially from the beautiful women who were always around. I became kind of a musical novelty.
My tíos, Teodoro "Lolo" and Rito Jr. — my mom's brothers — were major influences. Rito Jr. was my first cool role model. He was a very handsome and stylish cat. He taught me how to dance the boogie-woogie while listening to the big bands on the radio in the mid-forties. His younger brother, Lolo, was the lover-boy of the family. He had a beautiful girlfriend named Margie. I loved singing to her and looking up her mile-high legs. Lolo would later become a fine ballad singer à la Frank Sinatra and a conguero with the Estrada Brothers Latin jazz band from Oxnard. He passed away in 2004 from brain cancer. I'd never witnessed watching a loved one shrivel up like burning paper, then die. I wrote this poem for him and read it to him on his last birthday, his seventy-fourth. It was Christmas Eve.
The Song of Life
Music is the heart of the soul Its song is heard through rock and steel It caresses the wind
It embraces a kiss It lights the sun It soothes God's heart
Songs always keep singing Even after they are sung They stay in the heart's memory Like your first kiss Like your first love
The life of a singer can be rough Can be glorious Can be tough
But the singer needs to sing Like the sun and stars need to shine Like the wind needs to blow Like a lover needs to love
Singers are the voice The breath of God Messengers of the heart
A Hindu writing says,
Music is the air we breathe Songs are medicine They keep the world alive Because we listen with our heart
There will always be singers Some sing with their voice Some with their eyes Some with their smile
I loved hearing you sing, tío
He taught you like he taught me To sing from a deep place To watch the flow of the breath To let it carry the words To let it carry the song The song The bittersweet song of Life
We come from the music of God We return to that music To sing To sing To sing
And I breathe your song, Lolo The world breathes your song God breathes your song Thank you for singing
He smiled, thanked me, and shook my hand real hard. Then he squeezed it again, saying, "I don't wanna die." Shortly thereafter, he went into a coma; he died a few weeks later.
Rubén Ladrón de Guevara Sr., 1914–2006
"HEY, DAD, WHAT'S WITH OUR MIDDLE NAME? Doesn't ladrón mean 'thief' in Spanish?"
"Sí, m'hijo, pero no te preocupes. Yeah, but don't worry about it, son. Somos miembros de la familia real. We are members of the Spanish royal family."
"Yeah, right, Dad."
Although he was one hell of a storyteller, he never made things up. So I did. I imagined there was some knight vato dude back in the day that stole the hearts of wives and girlfriends, kind of a rogue Don Juan. Turns out, that pretty much could describe my dad.
Rubén Ladrón de Guevara Sr. was born in Compostela, Nayarit, Mexico, on February 23, 1914. At least, that's the town and the year he gave me, explaining, "All records were burned in a fire."
His father, Mariano Ladrón de Guevara, was a classical violinist who came to Mexico from Madrid on a concert tour around 1900. He met and married Dad's mother, María Espino, an indigenous woman, and was disowned from the family for doing so. It was a scandalous taboo for someone of aristocratic Spanish background to marry an indigenous person.
They moved to Guadalajara with Dad's older brother, Xavier, where my grandfather Mariano gave violin lessons. My father was born soon after. My grandmother tragically died giving birth to a third son when Dad was eight months old. Mariano took up drinking and died a few years later, some say of a broken heart.
Dad and his brother were sent to live with relatives in La Colonia Ladrón de Guevara, a wealthy neighborhood in Guadalajara, but were badly mistreated for being mestizos, of mixed blood. And so they hit the road, becoming street musicians at barely eleven and thirteen years of age. Dad sang, played guitar, banjo, and drums, and performed in the grand brothels of Mexico City. He was also a child bugler during the Mexican Revolution. Later he had a short career as a young torero, dubbed El Niño Prodigio, the Prodigal Son, and he became a boxer and a jockey to make ends meet as well. Talk about paying dues.
Sometime around 1939, my dad re-formed Trio Los Porteños (they became Los Porteños) after two members left the group along with future Mexican film and singing icon Miguel Aceves Mejía. The new trio came to Los Angeles in 1941 on a tour promoting two of the group's former hits, "Blanca" and "Solo para ti."
My father was a very handsome "ladies' man." It was rumored that he and the Mexican movie stars Dolores del Río and María Félix were once lovers. My mother was once compared to both. So I can only imagine what it was like when they first met.
Tía Victoria, a fan of Los Porteños, chaperoned my mom and a group of her cousins to a concert at the Million Dollar Theatre downtown. After the show, Tía took my shy eighteen-year-old mother by the hand and led her backstage to meet the dashing singer. There must have been intense sparks, because shortly thereafter they eloped and were married. I was born the following year. Talk about romantic.
My mother didn't want to move to Mexico, so Dad quit the trio to pursue his career in L.A. One other possible reason for dad's quick action may have been that he wanted to marry a citizen to become one himself. He was a hustler that way. He worked as a studio musician in the film industry, where he befriended Mexican/Irish American actor Anthony Quinn and many other film stars. (Quinn owned a bar in Echo Park on Echo Park Boulevard and Sunset that was a favorite hangout for actors and musicians in the 1950s.)
Dad recorded an album of traditional boleros and original compositions on Coast Records in the early '50s, and released a single, Quiet Village, on Kent Records in the mid-'50s. In the sixties he recorded two albums of mainly boleros, Mexican standards, and his originals, Viva! and T-Town. The Coast recordings were marketed to Mexican audiences in the United States and Mexico. I'm not sure who the later recordings were aimed at, but I don't think he ever saw any royalties. I know my mother didn't.
When I was fifteen, my parents broke up. After the marriage ended, he did a ten-year stint in Vegas playing the major lounges on the Strip, disappeared, then resurfaced. He moved to Panama in the early '80s, remarried, and gave occasional singing and guitar lessons. He returned in the mid-'80s to Inglewood with his Panamanian wife, Nelly, and pursued recording projects before moving back to Panama again. He returned to L.A. in 1998 to receive medical attention for his recurring asthma.
Sometime around then, I saw an announcement for an art exhibit by Mexican painter Sergio Ladrón de Guevara. I was intrigued. This must be a relative. If so, maybe he could enlighten me about our name.
When I introduced myself, he said I "had the eyes of a Ladrón de Guevara," whatever that meant. "So, Sergio," I asked, "how did we get that crazy name that means thief?" So began the saga of sagas, more epic and mythic than anything my dad could've ever come up with.
THE LADRÓN DE GUEVARA STORY
"Sometime in the late 800s in the Vasco region of northern Spain," Sergio began, "the invading Arabs attacked and ransacked the main castle in Aragón, killing the king of Navarre, don Ignacio Íñiguez, who left his pregnant queen, la reina Urraca Jiménez, to die in a fierce battle." A soldier, he went on, noticed a tiny hand sticking out of the queen's slit stomach, lifted her onto his horse, and rode out of the battle scene into a safe secluded glen. There, he removed the infant by cesarean section as the queen died. He took the infant to live with him in the mountains, where he maintained a herd of goats and sheep. When the child, Sancho Garcés I de Navarre, turned eighteen, the soldier, Sancho Guillermo Nuñez de Guevara (who was from the town of Guevara, or Gebara, in Vasco), returned the boy to the royal court to assume his role as king. In gratitude, the new monarch knighted his adoptive father Sancho Guillermo Ladrón del Rey Niño de Guevara — Sancho Guillermo Thief of the Baby King from Guevara. Sancho Guillermo was given land and a castle in Portúa, northern Spain, where sections of the castle remain.
So Dad was right, I am royalty after all, and best of all, not by blood — by deed. Paradoxically, I had become a fierce anticolonialist in the '80s and '90s. I despised the Spanish invasion of Mexico and used that theme in later theater pieces, La Quemada and the adaptation, Aztlán, Babylon, Rhythm & Blues.
Sergio's wife, Karen, later sent me a scanned page from Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts — Treasures from the British Library, the catalogue of an exhibit at the Getty Art Museum in 1983–84. It is a painting of Sancho performing the C-section, proving the legend was true.
When I told Dad about the legend by phone, he just laughed. He had a great laugh. How sad that he didn't believe me. Then I asked him to sing the first song he taught me, "Amor." He did and he sounded better than ever.
Amazingly for a musician, he never missed a day's work, never had a cold, didn't drink, only smoked for a short while, then quit. I never saw him depressed, and he never complained. He was an affectionate father to me and to my sisters, Linda, Bonita, and Loretta. He never said a mean word to my mother, at least not in front of us. Yet he was a chronic twister of the truth and a secret womanizer. It might have come from his hustling days as a kid on the streets of Mexico, a survival skill that became a habit.
The last time I saw him was at LAX airport in 1999. He was in a wheelchair holding his beloved guitar on his lap, looking sharp and dapper with his black fedora tilted to one side, very Sinatra-like, as Nelly wheeled him away. He turned back, smiled, and waved goodbye.
He peacefully passed away in his sleep on Sunday, March 19, 2006, in Davíd Chiriquí, Panama, at 6:10 P.M. from complications due to asthma and bronchial pneumonia caused by a lifetime of singing in nightclub smoke. He was buried in Dolega, Chiriquí, Panama, on Tuesday, March 21, 2006. He was ninety-two. May he rest eternally in song.
Superman in Ese Eme
MY GRANDPARENTS' HUMBLE TWO-BEDROOM HOME at 1742 22nd Street in Ese Eme (Santa Monica) had a large front yard that stretched to the street with a rainbow of fruit trees and flowers planted by my dear tata (grandfather). Those trees gave us avocados, oranges, lemons, figs, peaches, and plums. It was my Enchanted Garden. There was also a big cactus patch, a nopalera, and my dear nana (grandmother) would harvest the prickly pears, then cut and remove the cactus spines, dice, and boil them. There's nothing like fresh nopales fried in butter and onions, then wrapped in a tortilla freshly handmade by your nana.
A long narrow brick walkway laid by my tata led from the sidewalk to the front door. He worked in the local brickyard, and he tended a rose garden in a nursery where the roses were specifically raised for the annual Pasadena Rose Parade. He later opened a small neighborhood market on Olympic by 20th Street. My grandparents, along with my mother, her siblings, and cousins, also worked the agricultural fields in Oxnard to help make ends meet.
Excerpted from "Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer"
Copyright © 2018 Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Fire and Flames of Funkahuatl Josh Kun George Lipsitz 1
La Veinte: A Santa Monica Barrio 17
Rubén Ladrón de Guevara Sr., 1914-2006 21
Superman in Ese Eme 26
Music and Movie Moments 32
Miss Las Vegas 36
La Gatita 38
Las Vegas and the Breakup of Our Family 43
Sue Dean 49
Miss Hollywood 52
Shindig! with Tina Turner and Bo Diddley 56
The Sunset Strip Riots and My Second Marriage 62
The Southern Belle 64
LACC and the New Revelations Gospel Choir 68
Miss Santa Barbara and the Summer of 1971 75
Frank Zappa and Ruben And The Jets, 1972-1974 80
Miss Pamela and the GTOs 85
Miss Claremont 87
Miss Chino 89
The Mutiny 91
The Movie Star and Miss Blue Eyes 94
Opening for Zappa at San Francisco's Winterland 97
Con Safos: The Album 99
Pilgrimage to Mexico 105
La Gypsy 114
From "The Star Spangled Banner" to Punk 116
The Whisky and a New Band: Con Safos 120
Miss Aztlán 124
Zyanya Records 128
Cristina, Día de Los Muertos, and Chicano Heaven 130
Born in East L.A.: The Movie 138
Caliente y Picante 147
Performance Art 152
To France with Aztlán, Babylon, Rhythm & Blues 154
Validation Crisis 170
Jammin' with John Valadez 174
Arts 4 City Youth and Trying Again 180
Journey to New Aztlán 187
The Enchantress 196
América Tropical 200
Miss Mongolia 203
Teaching Poetry 207
Inner City Lessons 212
Teaching at UCLA 217
Becoming a Xikano Tantrik Funk Monk 220
Lust into Art: Mexamérica and Performing at the Getty 223
The Eastside Revue: 1932-2002, A Musical Homage to Boyle Heights 228
L.A. Times Profile of Boyle Heights 231
Funkahuatl's Absurd Chronicles 234
The Iraq War 236
Cross-cultural Friendships and Protests 238
Manzanar Pilgrimage 246
Yellow Pearl Remix 253
Saving the Toypurina Monument 257
Rock 'n' Rights for the Mentally Disabled 260
Resistance and Respect: Los Angeles Muralism and Graff Art 262
Miss Bogotá and the X Festival Ibéroamericano del Teatro 264
Word Up! A Word, Performance, and Theater Summit 267
Meeting My Brothers from the Westbank First Nation, British Columbia 270
Epiphany at Joshua Tree 274
Miss Altar in the Sky 276
The Eastside Luvers 289
The Tao of Funkahuatl 292
Release of The Tao of Funkahuatl CD in L.A. and Japan 294
Rockin' the House of Dues and Grand Performances 299
Fifty Years in Show Biz 304
Miss Beijing 307
Miss Monterey Park 310
End of the Ten-Year Sex Drought 314
Seventy and Still Running 316
Platonic Homegirls 318
Joseph Trotter 319
A Boyle Heights Cultural Treasure 321
Boyle Heights Por Vida 323
Sara Casillas-Gutiérrez Guevara, 1923-2016 328
Staged Confessions 330
The Fall 333
Take Me Higher, Mi Reina 335