Dan Guerrero wanted to tell the story of his father, legendary Chicano singer-songwriter Lalo Guerrero, for years before eventually taking the initiative to tell it himself. A television producer for musical specials, the younger Guerrero had footage of his father on camera telling his story, shot over a decade ago in anticipation for when some sort of definitive project would take off.
Thus the documentary Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano. An informative, tell-all television film, it tells the story of the singer's life in vivid detail from his early upbringing in Tucson to his musical career that spanned over six decades. "My father's story was in my head, but everything I needed in terms of clippings, photos, etc. were in my closet," Guerrero told the Weekly. "Whereas, someone from the outside doing it would've had to do a tremendous amount of research, find out things. I already knew it."
It wasn't until Nancy De Los Santos, Guerrero's co-producer and co-writer, stressed making the film themselves, did Guerrero push to make it happen. The doc made its debut on PBS and was screened at various Latino film festivals in the US and Mexico and won acclaim from the Imagen, Alma, and the Cine Golden Eagle Awards, to name a few. This Thursday, Bowers Museum and OC Film Fiesta will host a special screening of the film as part of OC Film Fiesta's teaser screenings series leading up to the film festival's opening in September.
Lalo Guerrero's life is explored in detail in this doc, yet it chooses to focus more on his rapid growth as a prominent songwriter, leading to his worldwide acclaim later in life. His songs, now considered vital aural documents expressing the life and experiences of Mexican Americans in the early 20th century, continue to strike a cord with audiences. Songs like "Cancion Mexicana," "No Tortillas," "No Chicanos on TV," "Los Chucos Suaves," and "Barrio Viejo," were able to crystallize the world that Chicanos lived in through song, in various genres including rancheras, norteño, boleros, and humor. Guerrero attributes that ability to Lalo's keen observations about everyday life. "He always said he wrote about what he saw," he said. "He was very good at grafting whatever was popular out there. In Mexico, the zoot suiters were everywhere and he wanted to sing swing and boogie woogie, but nobody was going to hire a Mexican-American in the 1940s to record with a big band, so he decided to do it in Spanish.
"He always looked at popular culture and also did things that were going on in terms of the social and political climate," he continued. Which is why when Cesar Chavez started the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta, he was the first one to write a song about the farm workers, and it was important to get the message to a wider audience.
The doc is also contains interviews with people who Lalo's work resonated with, including Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, Dolores Huerta, Paul Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, Edward James Olmos, and playwright Luis Valdez. Valdez would use many of Guerrero's boogie woogie and swing songs from the 1940s in his play/film Zoot Suit, starring Olmos.
One thing that Guerrero mentioned in his approach to making the documentary was to give it a light-hearted, fun tone, to celebrate Lalo's life and his upbeat attitude. I expressed to Guerrero my impression from the film that Lalo's career seemed unaffected by any kind of adversity, a rarity for Latino artists in the United States, and Guerrero admits it was missing from Lalo's memories. "I wanted to get deeply into [issues like] the discrimination back in the '30s. He really was just a happy person, he liked to sing, he liked to make people happy, and that was that. In this business, it's very easy to get bitter and get ripped off, you get this and that. Those things happened to him, but it didn't faze him."
Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano will be screening at Bowers Museum's Kershaw Auditorium with a discussion afterwards Thursday August 21, 7pm. Tickets are $7 for Members, $10 General and $5 for Students with Valid ID. For more information, visit the Bowers website. See you there!