A PBS Tribute to Lalo Guerrero

The late Lalo Guerrero, a Tuscon-born guitarist with astonishing musical range, is the subject of a new PBS documentary. James Garcia of member station KJZZ profiles a man known as the father of Chicano music.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

A new documentary airing on PBS stations nationwide explores the life of the man known as the father of Chicano music. Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano has been co-produced by the late musician's son. It's one of 13 films to be broadcast as part of a series of documentaries called Voices, which focus on the Latino history in the United States.

Reporter James Garcia of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

JAMES GARCIA: Dan Guerrero says his father knew early in his career that his songs wouldn't be limited to traditional genres, such as Mexican corridos and doncheras(ph). Lalo Guerrero was born in 1916 and raised in Tucson, Arizona's Barrio Viejo, a world that was neither totally Mexican or American, but a blend of the two cultures that later came to be called Chicano.

Mr. DAN GUERRERO (Co-Producer, Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano): He is Chicano history, because he was of that kind of first generation. Whether you were in neighborhood in El Paso, or in Sacramento, at home it was Mexico. So it was that first generation that had to straddle that line - that we all straddle even today - hanging on to our Mexican culture and Mexican roots, and at the same time, we are Americans. We live here in the United States.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA: Guerrero managed to straddle Mexican and American culture during a career that reached across seven decades of performances and recordings. He wrote his first major hit in the late 1930s, Cancion Mexicana. It's regarded by some as Mexico's unofficial anthem.

(Soundbite of song "Cancion Mexicana")

GARCIA: In the 1950s, his love ballad, Nunca Jamas, or Never Again, was a hit for Mexican star Lola Bertrand. It was later covered by Jose Feliciano. In the 1980s and '90s, Guerrero would collaborate with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, and East Los Angeles band Los Lobos.

Mr. GUERRERO: Oh, my God. It is unbelievable. The older people will say, oh, Nunca Jamas, that beautiful ballad. I love that. And then little kids would go, oh, Papa's Dream, the CD he did with Los Lobos. The diversity of the music is unbelievable: ranchera, salsa, bolero, Tijuano, mariachi, comic, everything.

GARCIA: Guerrero's work also included pop music parodies, such as the English language crossover hit, Poncho Lopez, recorded in 1955. It spoofed the Ballad of Davy Crockett. And fans remember fondly a heartfelt tune he wrote after waking up hungry one morning.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. LALO GUERRERO (Musician/Songwriter): (Singing) I love tortillas and I love them dearly. You'll never know just how sincerely.

GARCIA: At the height of his career, Guerrero performed in classic Westerns such as Gene Autry's Boots and Saddles in 1935, and in the 1945 film Arizona, starring William Holden. He appeared on television as comedian Paul Rodriguez's sidekick on a short-lived talk show in the early 1990s. And it was about that time when Guerrero offered up these biting comments.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. L. GUERRERO: (Singing) I think that I shall never see any Chicanos on TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. L. GUERRERO: (Singing) It seems as though we don't exist. And we're not ever even missed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA: Ethnomusicologist Peter Garcia, a professor at Arizona State University, says that while Guerrero was rarely overtly political, his music reflected an activist spirit.

Professor PETER GARCIA (Arizona State University): I don't really see him, you know, as being Chicano in the militant sense. But I would say that he was Chicano certainly in his sense of resistance in the terms of struggles, in terms of trying to assimilate into society.

GARCIA: In the 1960s, Guerrero took note of the California farm workers' struggle against big agriculture. In honor of the movement led by civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, Guerrero wrote the folk ballad El Corrido De Delano.

(Soundbite of song "El Corrido De Delano")

GARCIA: The musician's career hit a lull in the mid '60s, but Guerrero's work was rediscovered almost a decade later by playwright Luis Valdez, who featured Guerrero's World War II-era compositions in the Broadway play Zoot Suit. The jazz-laced boogie-woogie tunes were inspired by the culture of the pachucos, flashy dressing barrio delinquents.

Mr. LUIS VALDEZ (Playwright): The music of Lalo Guerrero is the music of the zoot suit era. It is the voice of the pachucos set to music, set to song, to rhyme. If it hadn't been for Lalo, we wouldn't know the sound of the pachuco dialect, the patois, because he saw it as an artist, as a musician back in the 1940s and recorded it.

(Soundbite of song)

GARCIA: Among Guerrero's many accolades, the Smithsonian named him a national folk treasure in 1980. And President Clinton presented him with a Medal of Arts Award in the 1997 White House ceremony that included Stephen Sondheim and jazz icon Lionel Hampton. Guerrero died March 18, 2005 at the age of 88.

Los Angeles filmmaker Nancy De Los Santos, who co-produced the Guerrero documentary, says that while many in the United States may not have heard of the Chicano composer, his work deserves a place in the annals of American music history.

Ms. NANCY DE LOS SANTOS (Co-Producer, Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano): There's this wonderful Aztec saying that said, we die three times - the first when our body dies, the second when our soul leaves our body, and the third, which is the worst way in the Aztec belief to die, is when people forget you. And I just didn't want anybody to forget Lalo Guerrero.

(Soundbite of a song)

GARCIA: The documentary, Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano, is being broadcast on select public television stations nationwide through mid-November.

For National Public Radio, I'm James Garcia in Phoenix.

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