Paul Espinosa discusses the impact of Ramon “Chunky” Sánchez on the Chicano/a Movement in his latest film SINGING OUR WAY TO FREEDOM

Paul Espinosa discusses the impact of Ramon “Chunky” Sánchez on the Chicano/a Movement in his latest film SINGING OUR WAY TO FREEDOM
GOOD DOCS sat down with Paul Espinosa, an award-winning filmmaker who specializes in Latino films focused on the U.S.-Mexico border region. He has been producing films for over 40 years. His latest film SINGING OUR WAY TO FREEDOM chronicles the life and music of Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez from his humble beginnings as a farmworker in Blythe, California to the dramatic moment when he received one of his nation’s highest musical honors at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Interview conducted by Julia Schrader.


What inspired you to tell the story of Ramon “Chunky” Sánchez?
Over the last 40 years, I’ve made a lot of films about the Chicano community because so many of our stories haven’t been told. I didn’t see people like Chunky Sánchez or myself on television or in films. We might as well have been invisible.  I felt Chunky’s story was a way to explore a part of my own history as well as an untold part of our nation’s history. To me, it was also a remarkable window into the moment when young Mexican Americans became Chicanos, a name which few of our parents embraced. To invent a new identity, we had to imagine a new world for ourselves, and music and imagination would be key tools in our efforts to write ourselves back into history. 

The arc of Chunky’s life has some remarkable similarities to mine. We were born just a year apart, right in the middle of the 20th century. Like me, he has an older sister and younger brothers. When I first saw visual images of Chunky’s childhood in the 1950s, they looked so familiar to me. I could picture my own siblings, running around as young kids, playing and having a great time.  

Chunky eventually became a musician and an activist. I became a filmmaker, but we were both interested in telling stories about the people of our community.  Chunky’s story is emblematic of so many other young Mexican Americans of my generation. Through trial and error, Chunky slowly began to develop the voice he would need to fight for his community. He discovered the healing power of music and inherited the tradition of the troubadour, a singer whose songs could rally audiences around urgent issues. His music provided a sense of hope and solidarity. It speaks to the heart. It helps us imagine a better world without racism and discrimination. 

Walking side by side with César Chávez in the early 1970s, Chunky energized the Chicano/a civil rights movement with his songs.  I think people will be able to relive the spirit of that historic period when they hear the music in the film. Through Chunky’s story, you can see a new generation inspired by the power of collective action. There’s also a wonderfully transcendent quality to Chunky.  In the film, he says, “To me Chicano is not necessarily someone that was born in a certain place, but rather a state of mind and a state of heart.” 

Despite the really significant transformations of the Chicano/a Civil Rights movement, much of that history is scarcely known today, particularly the contributions made by young Chicanas and Chicanos. I think a portrait of one charismatic musician and activist like Chunky allows us to revisit this pivotal era of American history and to hopefully provoke dialogue about the many hurdles that still need to be overcome to gain equal rights for all.  One of the things that is truly inspiring about Chunky is that, in the face of so many injustices, he always remained positive. He made you feel that change is possible, that many long hours dedicated to protesting, marching and speaking out really can make a difference. I wanted to share that message with young viewers in the present where there is so much that still needs to be done in the struggle for social justice. 

What did you know about Chunky before starting this project? 
I first met Chunky not long after arriving in San Diego in the late 1970s. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to make many films on both the Chicano/Latino community and issues dealing with the broader U.S.-Mexico border region.  In San Diego, I would continuously run into Chunky at different community events and demonstrations and got to know him well along with his band. I always admired the talent and dedication to community service that Chunky brought to his work. In the intervening years, I worked with Chunky on several projects. He scored music for two of my films produced in the 1980s – The Lemon Grove Incident and The Trail North.  I also had an opportunity to bring his band, Los Alacranes Mojados, into a studio and record a performance with them in front of a live audience.  I used some clips from that show in the new documentary. In all of those years, I was always impressed with Chunky’s generosity, his sense of humor and his love for his community.  

Around 2004, I began talking with two fellow artists in San Diego, filmmaker Mark Day and musician Quino McWhinney about the idea of doing a documentary on Chunky and his music.  At the time we had limited resources but felt it was absolutely vital to sit Chunky down and do an extended interview with him about his life and work. I did that interview back in 2004 but had to put it on a back burner with the hope that I could come back to it at a later time. It wasn’t until around 2011 that I was able to come back to the project, determined to make the film and find the resources to make it happen.

Can you discuss how Chunky’s music affected Cesar Chavéz and the Chicano movement? 
In the 1960s, César Chávez and his farmworker organization ignited a larger social movement in the Mexican American community.  We were a diverse community facing many oppressive conditions, both in the fields where Chávez was organizing and in the cities where most Chicanos lived. The political movement that Chávez started led to a concurrent cultural movement of artists, singers, poets, and writers. When Chunky came to San Diego in 1970, he joined a student ensemble, La Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlan, directed by Professor José Villarino at San Diego State University.  They began to get involved with the farmworkers and were invited by César Chávez to perform at the farmworkers convention every year. They began following Chávez throughout California, opening rallies and demonstrations for him.  

As one of our interviewees says, “Whenever there was any event that the farmworkers were having, César would always call and say, “Can you get Chunky to come up and play for us?” He just loved Chunky and the kind of magic that Chunky brought when he played his music. He was absolutely César Chávez’s favorite musician.”  

As Chunky was finding his voice through La Rondalla, he was joining a larger artistic movement of singers and artists emerging out of the movimiento of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. They included Los Lobos, Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino along with talented singers like Daniel Valdez, Agustin Lira, Delia Moreno, Jesus "Chuy" Negrete, and Veto Ruiz. They sang about Aztlán and the ancestral rights that Chicanos had to this legendary homeland.  Musical groups included Flor del Pueblo, Conjunto Aztlán, Los Perros del Pueblo and Los Peludos.  

Chunky played a pivotal role in establishing the importance of music for the farmworkers and the Chicano movement. One of Chunky’s fellow musicians in the film, Marco Antonio Rodriguez, says that “César always said that music was part of the movement and that musicians always had a place in the Farm Worker Movement. He was very appreciative of our music and our contribution.” Another musician, Miguel Vasquez, noted “Music was a very big tool for César. He wouldn’t let people talk for too long without bringing in somebody to sing a song.”

What was your involvement in the Chicano/a movement during this time?
I grew up in New Mexico but when the Chicano/a movement was getting started, I was a long way from home.  I was just beginning college at Brown University in Rhode Island. For me, going there was almost like going to another country. I could sympathize with Chunky’s story in the film where he remembers going to kindergarten, saying, “I thought I was in a foreign country.”  One particular moment I remember while I was in Rhode Island was when César Chávez came there for a speech. It was during the national grape boycott and he was speaking at a rally to gather support for the boycott. I had never seen Chávez before in person and I remember how quiet his voice seemed.  Yet, despite his small stature and quiet voice, he had a remarkable presence. What came through most powerfully was his moral voice – a voice which reminded all of us at about the obligations we had to the least fortunate among us. 

The 1960s and 70s left an indelible mark on my generation. The farmworker movement was one of many co-existing social movements of those years including the larger civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement.  Many of us back then learned that freedom and justice had to be fought for – not just once but over and over again. And then as now, it was young people who lead the way. Resistance often begins with just a few ordinary people performing extraordinary acts, in the face of prejudice and intolerance. Chunky discovered that music is a powerful inspiration in the fight for justice. 

Many years later in the 1990s, I had the opportunity to circle back to that earlier period.  I was involved with the development of the PBS series “Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” which was the first national presentation about the Chicano/a civil rights movement. I worked on developing treatments and proposals for the four-hour series which eventually was broadcast on PBS in 1996.  It was a fantastic chance to revisit those years and rethink what they meant for our community and our nation.

In your opinion how influential is music to a social movement, such as the Chicano/a movement in this film/era? 
Music has been a key element in many social movements, often underappreciated.  Many of us are aware of the role of music in the African American civil rights movement. In that movement, music was a key element in lifting people up, in building community, in articulating the feelings and aspirations of so many folks. One film that I saw while making my film was Soundtrack for a Revolution which did a really inspiring job of showing how important music had been in the African American civil rights movement.  

In the film, Chunky tells a wonderful story about using music to energize folks.  He recalls, “You know being on strike is very boring because all you do is walk in circles.  So one day we thought, “What can we do to liven it up. Hey, bring your guitar or something.” So we brought a guitar. And then we realize, “Hey there’s things happening, let’s write a verse about this.” So we began to write verses about things that were happening. Next thing you know we got two verses, then we got three, then we got four. Hey we got a song now, La Guitara Campesina.” 

I think one of the important contributions our film makes is foregrounding the importance of music to the movimiento.  There have been a number of well-done documentaries on aspects of the Chicano movement but this is the first one to focus on music and a key musician. One of the advisors on my film was ethnomusicologist Dr. Estevan Azcona whose dissertation focused on the music of the Chicano movement.  He interviewed Chunky and many other musicians from that period and really helped me put Chunky’s work in context. More recently, Estevan, along with Russell Rodriguez did a fantastic compilation CD for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on the music of the movement. They titled the CD, Rolas de Aztlan, which is the title that Chunky used for his first album which we discuss in our film. The CD is described as “an original and necessary document of essential American musical history.” Chunky’s songs are a way of delving into Chicano/a culture and identity, demonstrating what a powerful tool music can be in telling untold stories and in inspiring young people.

What is the goal of telling this story now, what can viewers and students take away from the film? 
I think there are many cultural issues that Chunky touched on which are front and center today – from the importance of a binational view of the border and immigration to how to mobilize people around social justice issues, from the need to educate rather than incarcerate to the challenges young people face regarding negotiating a bicultural identity.  Certainly, one objective for the film was to remind younger viewers and students about the earlier civil rights movement that sadly many of them know little about. This is not really their fault since they learn relatively little about Latino history in school. At many screenings of the film, younger viewers comment that they never learned about many events in the film and are heartened to know about Chunky and other cultural workers who were engaged in the larger fight for social justice. At one of the rallies in our film, Chunky exhorts the audience: “if we could mobilize people like this every day, we could change the world.”  

The Latino community is still relatively invisible in the national imagination.  Sadly, although Latinos are now one in six Americans, our stories are still mostly hidden in plain sight. Artists, musicians, writers and other cultural workers are making major efforts to change that situation as they give voice to the wide variety of experiences in our community. We close the film with Chunky’s song “Rising Souls,” where he says, “We got to educate, not incarcerate, so that humanity will shine.”  He continues: “Vamos mis amigos / Let’s try some brotherhood / No need to kill another / Over a neighborhood.”

I think contemporary viewers can learn a lot from Chunky’s life and music. Over the course of his career, composing and performing songs at schools, prisons, political events, quinceañeras and weddings, Chunky struggled to use art to build community.  He learned how to employ honesty, humor, and music to inspire folks to stand up and speak truth to power. His arc of transformation from marginalized farm kid to charismatic social activist shows how one person can mobilize people to change the world through developing their sense of purpose.

What can you tell us about the present Chicano/a movement? Does music have the same influence as it did in the 1970s?
As we note in the film, many young Latinos no longer use the term “Chicano” to identify themselves but regardless of what we call ourselves, the Chicano/Latino community is a growing force throughout the country, particularly where we are becoming the majority. What is both discouraging and heartening is that many of the political issues that Chicanos faced 50 years ago are still front and center for our community, from immigration to educational issues, from identity to gender and sexuality issues, from police brutality to advocating for low-income housing. Within our community, music continues to play a vital role in organizing and building community.  Quetzal Flores who created the beautiful score for our film, is part of the musical group, Quetzal, an East Los Angeles band that has been active for more than 25 years. Their music, along with the music of many other Latino groups like Las Cafeteras, Ozomotli, La Santa Cecilia, Los Jornaleros and Very Be Careful are today demonstrating the continuing importance of music to cultural and political movements.

I think we are in the midst of a renaissance of Chicano/Latino artistic work. Our community has been creating beautiful art for generations but we’ve remained below the radar of the mainstream media.  I think the next decade is going to witness an explosion of work from Latinas and Latinos which will become known throughout the country and recognized for the importance that our issues have for the larger society and the world in general.

How long was the process of making this film and what kind of relationship did you create with Chunky?
This film was many years in the making. As I mentioned, the key interview I did with Chunky was back in 2004 but it took another 7 years or so to find the resources to start production. With support from a Kickstarter campaign, we were able to film a major part of the interviews that form the foundation of the film. After that, we had challenges raising money from many traditional sources that had supported my work in the past.  After rejections by many funding sources, we eventually ended up doing a second Kickstarter campaign to raise the money for post production and licensing archival material. We filmed Chunky throughout this long journey and also worked hard to find archival photos and film which would help us tell the story of this earlier period. Chunky and other musicians participated in several fundraising events that we undertook. 

One wonderful resource we were able to tap into was the archives of La Raza newspaper, a Los Angeles community-based newspaper which ran from 1967-1977.  As we were editing the film, the archives were becoming available through UCLA and we were able to gain access to the fantastic photos that were taken in that time period.  There were not many photos of Chunky himself in the collection but there was a wealth of material documenting the conditions and events of the Chicano community which we were able to use to help visualize part of the larger story we were trying to tell.

The relative scarcity of visual materials also forced us to be creative with the materials we did have.  For example, we worked with some of the beautiful photographs we were able to find to get as much mileage out of the materials as we could. We used a parallax effect to create an illusion of depth and movement on some of the photos. I was also able to participate in the NALIP Producer’s Academy in Santa Fe. This was a wonderful intensive workshop with talented instructors who helped me and other producers sharpen our films and move our projects forward.  All along the way, we found solidarity with so many people who had been touched by Chunky in one way or another. I mentioned Quetzal Flores who knew Chunky’s music well and created an incredible score for the film. I also was able to get veteran actress Alma Martinez to do the moving narration for the film. She had known Chunky for many years and was really excited to participate in the film.

How is this film relevant in the present political climate, in regards to immigration and border issues? 
Chunky is a great example of a border person, a fronterizo, someone comfortable on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. As he himself says in the film, “I began to realize that we had no borders in wanting to appreciate and to play different types of music.  I realized that you could take from both sides of the border and combine them and come up with a new style of music - Bilingualism, biculturalism.” That was one thing that really drew me to Chunky’s story was his way of framing the binational reality of so many people in the border region.  We hear so much distorted information about all the problems associated with the border but we don’t hear enough about the synergy of border people who are able to draw on the best of both worlds. Like Chunky, they have one foot on either side of the border and are able to draw strength and inspiration from their bicultural identity.  And they are determined to build bridges that connect us rather than walls that separate us.

In the screenings that we’ve had, lots of young people identify with being caught in the middle between two societies that simultaneously reject them. Chunky captured this dilemma in his song “Pocho,” a derogatory term used by some Mexicans to put down Mexican Americans.  In his song, he says, “Pocho, a name I was called as a kid, with the intentions of degrading and humiliating me. It promoted self-hatred and confusion as to who I was and what I was doing here.” But despite this sense of alienation, Chunky continues, “I began to realize that I had absorbed the strengths of two cultures and lifestyles. Was that good or bad? Good, qué no?  I have an innovative way of expressing myself that relates to both sides of the border. What’ll it be today? Tacos or hamburgers? Pedro Infante or the Rolling Stones?”  

After the screenings, we’ve had some wonderful discussions about the challenges of identity for Latinos and Latinas, of feeling unsure about where they belong, of being “ni de aquí, ni de allá”– being neither from here or from there.  I think it’s been reassuring for viewers to see that the complex feelings they have about their identity have been articulated by Chunky in a compelling song like “Pocho."

The film emphasizes the importance of community in social activism. Was community building important in the making of this documentary? has been a fixture in San Diego for decades. There were many folks from all parts of the city and region who were supportive of this project and excited that we were making the documentary.  We did both online and live fundraising for the project and had wonderful turnouts on many occasions for our events. Early on we received a major challenge grant from a local foundation, the Leichtag Foundation, which was fantastic but it meant we had to raise a similar amount of funds in order to access the challenge grant. We planned a fundraiser in the local Chicano community that had a great turnout.  Many friends and supporters came out for that weekend afternoon event and Chunky and his band played some of their favorite songs. We did a silent auction with donated items and were able to raise the funds we needed to match the challenge grant and move ahead with the production phase. We had to return to the community again and again for support and they came through for us.   

Chunky’s life was full of community-building events.  In the film, we recount how his early experience as a student-led to his involvement with the creation of Chicano Park.  He remembered, “For the first time in my life I saw people that were very dedicated, committed, believing in something. And that really inspired me and made me say to myself, “I want to be part of this. I didn’t call it a movement at the time - but whatever it was, I wanted to be a part of it.”  From those early years as a student at San Diego State University, Chunky used his music and his humor to build community everywhere he went.  So in a sense, the making of the film recapitulated some of the community building that Chunky had been involved in throughout his career.