Sunday, July 17, 2011

Valley of Tears

Photo Credit - Raul Cabrera

This is an interesting documentary capturing a certain time in South Texas history. This was shot and directed by Hart Perry, who was fresh off of winning an Academy Award for the cinematography of the classic Harlan County, USA. While this isn't on the level of that Academy Award winning film (that film is a masterpiece, no shame in not being as good as that), the 1970's footage of South Texas that Hart Perry shot is invaluable and this documentary offers us some interesting questions to ponder. 

We see a couple of protest songs, one a passionate performance from the great Esteban Jordan (which I'll cover in a future entry). But the one that really catches our eye is the first one, which is a corrido by Maria Guadiana. Here are the lyrics:

El dia cuatro de Abril
Ano de setenta y nueve
Toda la gente disia
Viva la union campesina
La huelga de la cebolla
Tambien viva Jesus Moya

Juanita Valdez les dijo
muchachos no tengan miedo
Nada nos puede pasar
Con estos empleados malditos
Solo estamos defendiando
Derechos del campesino

Pueblito de Raymondville
Tu quedaras en la historia
Como vamos a olvidar
Esto fue en semana Santa
Cuando el chiripe por miedo
Trajo empleados de otro parte

It's broken down into three chapters: Part One - "a different type of law...", Part Two - "one of the biggest issues was the school...", and Part Three - "Nothing's changed". The first part focuses on Raymondville's 1979 onion strike and on the Texas Farmworkers Union. Jesus Moya and Juanita Valdez shine in this first chapter as natural born leaders, with Moya constantly doing his best to lead the way. In interviews far removed from that strike, Valdez remains incredibly optimistic and positive over what transpired in Raymondville. The second frame is concentrated on the school district, and the final chapter is aptly titled "Nothing's changed". The other major character of the film is Juan Guerra, and we observe his highs and lows throughout the final frame of the film. A whole documentary could have been made on him, as he is still in the news. It would take an HBO series and a crew of high caliber writers to tell Juan Guerra's story effectively.

It's an emotional glimpse at the Raymondville community and the racial tension that existed, and escalated during the onion strike. It's also sad to see how hard the city had fallen over the course of the film. Although I would say that this film and the issues it explores do seem a bit more complex than a 79 minute film could cover. Nevertheless, the 1970s footage of Raymondville and the protests during the strike still feel vibrant in 2011. This is something you really want to watch if you have any interest in Rio Grande Valley history.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Los Cuatitos Cantu

This is Ramon Cantu, one half of South Texas' "Los Cuatitos Cantu" duet, a well known band that performed for a few decades. As is evident by this video performance on the legendary The Johnny Canales Show, he was a dwarf. But he wasn't just any ordinary dwarf, he was pretty talented at the squeezebox, had a good voice, and was also the lucky recipient of an extra finger. Yes, he had six fingers instead of five, and he ended up becoming an excellent accordion player (maybe thanks to that extra finger?).

Apparently, the other Cantu brother was also a six-fingered dwarf who could rock it on the squeezebox as well as Ramon. Sadly, I think by this point (I'm assuming this video is from the 1980's), the other Cantu brother had already passed away. One of the stories told of that time period was that this duet was so well known in the Rio Grande Valley, that people would innocently joke that when they saw two people who were really close together (like best friends, brothers, etc), they would say - "Ay van los Cuatitos Cantu". Here's a neat photo of this sweet duo.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Ernesto Guerra

Photo Credit: nickchain
On May 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Ernesto Guerra outside Cine El Rey in downtown McAllen, TX. Unfortunately he was overlooked by the young "hip" crowd as he performed some slick polkas on his two row diatonic accordion. Every once in a while, he would have to take a break to smoke a cigarette and I can sense that his hands were in significant pain due to arthritis. I ended up having a fun conversation with him, but I really regret not getting his contact information. He reminisced about his fellow peers and about the time he bought his first accordion as a young man in the 1950's. He described the accordion as being quite similar to the one he was playing with that late Spring night and talked about how it cost him 30 some dollars at a local McAllen store. So he's someone that has been rocking polkas on the accordion for over seven decades!

He has played and toured with bands under the names of Los Alegres del Valle and Conjunto Del Valle. He has also recorded music for various record labels like Del Valle, Valen, Bego, and El Pato. To accordion aficionados, his polkas like "La Psycodelica", "El Pata de palo", "Flicka" and "King Kong" are fondly remembered as great works by Guerra. But sadly, some of his music has remained pretty obscure and difficult to find. I did luck out when I tracked down and got a hold of this Ernesto Guerra 45 from a gentlemen in Illinois. Both sides have some cool Guerra rancheras and this record happened to be in perfect condition (which is amazing since it has to be close to 50 years old).

Here he is playing one of his original polka compositions with Ramiro Cavazos, one of the members of the legendary South Texas band Los Donneños. Excellent video showing Guerra's maestro accordion work.