September 12, 2008
The seven sons of Rosa Peña, a migrant worker and single mother, were raised in the Texas border towns of Hidalgo County, the poorest county in the United States. She worked hard, had two husbands she chased off the second one with a knife when he beat one of the boys and instilled in her sons a strong sense of family and ethnic pride. With Rosa’s death her grown sons were left adrift. As recounted in the award-winning new documentary Calavera Highway by filmmakers Renee Tajima-Peña (“Who Killed Vincent Chin?” P.O.V., 1989) and Evangeline Griego, Rosa’s funeral and cremation brought the boys together and tore them apart again.
Calavera Highway has its broadcast premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008 at 10 p.m. on PBS, part of the 21st season of P.O.V. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series.
Six years after their mother’s death, a road trip undertaken by brothers Armando (the filmmaker’s husband and the film’s narrator) and Carlos to reunite their siblings and return her ashes to the Rio Grande Valley reveals just how complex Rosa’s legacy is for each of her sons. Their journey takes them across the American west and central Mexico, into a murky past and into questions that probe not only Rosa’s life, but their own struggles to find identities as men and as fathers.
Armando and Carlos, accompanied by Armando’s son, Gabe, make an unlikely if oddly complementary pair for this quixotic road trip. Armando cared for Rosa in her last days and kept her ashes at his home in Los Angeles. The family bookworm, he is anxious to answer questions that nag all the brothers, but consume him in particular. What really happened to Pedro, the first five boys’ father? Was he swept up in the notorious 1954 government deportation program, “Operation Wetback?” Why had Rosa’s own family so cruelly rejected her, leaving her and her sons to fend for themselves?
Carlos, the funny and volatile brother, hides the pain of a childhood bereft of a father, behind a jovial manner. A migrant counselor who still lives in the Rio Grande Valley where the boys grew up, he thinks it is best to leave some memories alone. In fact, Calavera Highway (“Skeleton” Highway) uncovers more hard truth than even Armando could expect.
In a circuitous route, up from L.A. to Washington State, back down to the Rio Grande with a side trip into Mexico, the brothers retrace some of the same highways they had traveled in their youth as migrant farm workers. They remember the brutal days working in the fields as children, even on weekends and holidays, but also the camaraderie they shared. They recall their lives as fatherless street urchins, anchored by their mother’s love, hard work and pride.
Armando and Carlos also seek out their mother’s oldest friend, Rosa Morales; Armando’s college friend Cynthia Orozco, whose own father had run-ins with immigration and who researched the period of Operation Wetback, when Pedro Peña disappeared; members of the extended Peña clan who had rejected them as children; their maiden aunt, Adela; Rosa’s sister; and even Eddie Gonzalez, a local politico in Elsa, Texas, who attests to Rosa’s feisty defiance. (Rosa’s activism found its echo in Armando’s participation in the historic 1968 Edcouch Elsa school walkouts, a milestone in a year of Chicano student actions across the Southwest.) Along the way, the brothers sift through evidence about Rosa, about Pedro, about the Peña clan and about their own choices.
Armando and Carlos’s first stop is the San Joaquin Valley of California, where brother Luis has risen from picking beets to running the water treatment plant in Wasco. No one has spoken with Luis since the funeral, which he refused to attend because Rosa had been cremated against his Christian values. A thousand miles away, in Moses Lake, Wash., Lupe and Raul pursue far different lives. Though a warm family man in his own way, Lupe has never lost his love of the fast life and is just out of prison when Armando and Carlos show up. Raul lives down the road and seems inclined to follow the elder Lupe’s lead. A talented painter as a youth who turned down a university scholarship, Raul was arrested on a drug charge with Lupe just a week after Rosa’s death.
Back on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Junior, the baby of the family, works as a pipe fitter for Dow Chemical. He is, perhaps, the least troubled. The eldest brother, Robert, who lives nearby is the one who has vivid memories of Pedro Peña, and who remembers with the greatest bitterness Pedro’s sudden disappearance and Rosa’s subsequent years struggling as a barmaid or working in canneries and fields with her sons.
What, after all, happened to Pedro Peña? Had he been swept up, as rumored, in Operation Wetback? Had he settled in the mountains of Mexico and drunk himself to death? Or had he prospered as a stonemason and started a second family? What made Rosa an outcast among her own family, and they so ready to marry her off at a young age? And most importantly, how had this legacy of migration, poverty and family skeletons, shaped the lives of the seven brothers?
The answers to these questions accumulate over stages of the journey with Rashômon-like effect, painting an ever-more complex picture of Rosa, the hard choices she faced and the determination with which she faced them. For Armando and Carlos, there are more answers, and plenty of surprises. But the most astounding surprise of all is reserved for the restless and curious Armando when he uncovers a secret that he could never have imagined.
Calavera Highway is a sweeping drama of the Mexican American migrant experience, as revealed in the passage from one generation to the next. It is the intimate story of seven brothers who took that journey. Six years after Rosa’s death, they find themselves separated by geography and haunted by the feeling of a family dispersing, even as Rosa’s ashes, in their journey to the border, tug insistently at each brother’s heart and memories.
Calavera Highway is a Rosasboys Production in association with P.O.V. | American Documentary. It is a co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting and is funded in part by the Center for Asian American Media with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.