As detailed in the book, Zappa and Guevara crossed paths a couple of times in Southern California and bonded over their mutual love of doo-wop. Guevara had a small taste of doo-wop success as a teenage member of the Apollo Brothers, whose pair of minor hits earned them gigs at the Peppermint Lounge West and Pandora’s Box in Hollywood, as well as the thrill of opening for Paul Anka (“Diana”), Richard Berry (“Louie Louie”), and Don and Juan, whose enduring oldies classic “What’s Your Name?” continues to be a barrio staple (“Shoo be doo pa pa da!”).
Zappa’s fondness for doo-wop found expression in his 1968 concept album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, which featured a fictitious Chicano rock band from the 1950s, complete with a cartoon image of the group on the cover and hysterical made-up liner notes on the back about how “Ruben” left the Jets to work on his car. A high school photo of Zappa as “Ruben” appeared on the album’s backside, along with the Chicano pride assertion that “the present day Pachuco refuses to die!” It was from this zany concept album that Guevara’s band was born, along with the title of their first album For Real! etched in cholo graffiti script. (Note that Guevara’s band name is differentiated from Zappa’s creation by capitalizing the word “And.”) While reading this origin story cleared up some longstanding confusion of mine, what was always clear was that Ruben And the Jets’ music stood strongly on its own as tight, robust, ’50s-style rock ’n’ roll that proudly name-checks East L.A. in a couple of songs (“Well New York you know you’re some kind of city but East L.A. is the real nitty gritty!”). Band members “Froggy” and “Buffalo” also get frequent shout-outs.
There’s plenty of la familia biography in the book, including black-and-white glamour headshots of Rubén’s muy guapo musician father, who played and rubbed elbows with legends like Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas, and his beautiful mother, who spent years in Hollywood trying to make it as an actress. While his parents’ marriage almost expectedly crashes and burns, Rubén’s mother Sara manages to land him an audition on the swinging mid-’60s rock ’n’ roll TV show, Shindig!, a seemingly lucky break when he is subsequently asked to star as a regular.
At the talk and book signing I attended at East Los Angeles College on July 12, Rubén played grainy black-and-white footage of his shimmering Shindig! performance on the same bill with Bo Diddley and Tina Turner. The complete confidence with which Rubén performed Bobby Blue Bland’s “Don’t Cry No More,” with a naturally powerful and soulful voice, affirms his assessment of his performance in the book: “I was on fire!” That Shindig! was canceled a month later forms part of a larger story in the book regarding the elusiveness of fame for even the most talented among us.
When Ruben And the Jets ran out of fuel in the mid-’70s, Guevara traded in rock ’n’ roll for a go at playwriting. But as ’60s activism and the Chicano arts movement collided, Guevara launched his lifelong calling as a performance artist — or, in his words, “culture sculptor” — committed to affirming Chicano and, increasingly, other cultures. He did this through mixed-media creations involving acting, spoken word, pre-Colombian Aztec dance, hip-hop, soul music (lots of Al Green!), Japanese Taiko drumming, and spray paintings by Latino muralists, all live on stage.
Rubén’s engaging story line rolls along at a nice pace, propelled by dozens of short, crisp chapters about artistic escapades across the United States, Mexico, and even Paris. As a Mexican American myself, I felt Rubén’s pain during one of his early trips to Mexico, where he was told that Chicanos have no culture, that we are nothing more than half-baked Mexicans or pochos (slang for poached). Fortunately, Rubén has responded with a lifework of artistic affirmation of Chicano identity and perhaps with a little cultural revenge. I also felt vindicated by Rubén’s description of a performance in Mexico years later in which he broke down for our Mexican hermanos the vibrant hybridity of Chicano culture, including a roll call of famous Mexican-American actors, musicians, writers, and scholars.
Bruising brushes with fame are shared with candor and humor from cover to cover. For example, while initially thrilled to land a coveted speaking part in the 1985 comedy-action film Gotcha!, Rubén was surprised to learn that he had to wear a chicken suit and scream, “Pollo fresco, muy barato!” More satisfying was his role as musical and cultural consultant for Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie in 1980, and even better the opportunity to work and bond with Cheech Marin while he directed his own 1987 film Born in East L.A., a movie that departs from stoner comedy formula to disarmingly underscore the deportation crisis that continues to plague our communities today.
Inevitably, the man with the golden voice was repeatedly compelled to return to making music in a variety of incarnations throughout his life, such as his Con Safos band of the late ’70s and, more recently, the Eastside Luvers. In 1983, he curated for Zyanya Records, a subsidiary of Rhino, some of the best compilations of Chicano punk rock (Los Angelinos: The Eastside Renaissance) and early East L.A. rock (History of Latino Rock: 1956-1965), including Best of Thee Midniters in honor of East Los Angeles’s legendary Chicano rock band. Even though I’ve owned these vinyl collections for decades, and most of the original records from which they were culled, I had no idea they were assembled for posterity by Rubén Guevara long before he added the middle name Funkahuatl, apparently to link his love of funk and soul with the indigenous roots gracing his striking profile (vividly captured in a photo on page 168).
In the book’s introduction, George Lipsitz, professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, and Josh Kun, professor of communications at USC, offer insightful contextual interpretations of Rubén’s work, but a couple of lapses brought out the critic in me. First, they quote a bit too liberally from the book’s ending, text no doubt that Rubén was saving as an exclamation mark, methodical performance artist that he is. Perhaps more distracting is the over-attention to Guevara’s sex life, which, while occupying plenty of pages, is never salacious.
Romance, real and imagined, permeates the book, not only several fruitful but failed marriages, but a vast array of crushes, fantasies, and love interests identified by chapter titles such as Miss Hollywood, La Gatita, Miss Monterey Park, Miss Altar in the Sky, et cetera. As a Chicano man of más o menos the same generation and gendered cultural patterning, I discovered a kindred spirit in Rubén, especially regarding the flirtatious warmth with which he describes contemplating and frequently connecting with attractive women, on a quest for true love as depicted in doo-wop ballads. While hardly lucky in love in any conventional sense of committed relationships, there is a wistful vulnerability in his romantic longings that contrasts sharply with, say, the embarrassing coldness of Latino men behaving badly in Junot Díaz’s well-written but unsettling book This Is How You Lose Her (2012). A song on Rubén’s most recent CD, The Tao of Funkahuatl (2008), conveys a still chill but older and wiser Chicano man aging into more expansive ways of loving, thanks in part to the centered women who challenge him to rise above Latin-lover limitations. He sings, “It’s not about / A playboy macho role. / I come to learn / if you want a love to last forever, / you have to love your woman / with all your heart and soul.”
Another and perhaps more predictable theme in this autobiography of a veteran Chicano rocker, now in his 70s, is aging and the passage of time, not simply Rubén’s own accelerating mortality, portrayed with grace and humor, but also the rapid gentrification of his (and my own) beloved Boyle Heights in the heart of East Los Angeles. While change has ushered in good things (e.g., cafes with wi-fi and horchata lattes!), the musicians for hire at the Plaza de Mariachi on First and Boyle can no longer afford the rent of the newly constructed apartment complexes across the street. Rubén — passionate chronicler of Boyle Heights and Los Angeles more broadly, in mini-essays and epic poems scattered throughout the book — is torn between welcoming hipsters to the shifting people-scape and feeling pained by the loss of local historical memory. His works have long honored the layers of ethnic groups, cultures, and art forms — their triumphs, tragedies, and prideful struggles — that have come to shape Los Angeles over the decades.
While a bit of a long shot, I gave Rubén my name and cell phone number after his talk at East Los Angeles College and asked him to give me a call, if he had the time, so I could invite him out for a drink. I shared that I would be visiting with my 91-year-old father, Ricardo, for a few days in Boyle Heights, where (according to his book) Rubén still lives. I had meant to impress Guevara with my UC Berkeley professor card, with its golden university seal, but as usual I didn’t have one on me! So, instead, I jotted my name and number on the back of a Boba tea card, scrawling “C/S” under it, the abbreviation for Con Safos. C/S is what old pachucos and some taggers even today write on the walls beneath their graffiti as protection against rivals crossing out or covering their names with insults. “Con Safos” roughly translates as “back to you,” old Chicano slang that has long served Rubén as a defiant tagline to his provocative life and career.
I eventually received a text from Rubén suggesting that we meet at 5:00 p.m. at Casa Fina, right across the street from the Eastside Luv Wine Bar on First Street, where his Eastside Luvers still perform on occasion. He entered the restaurant with his characteristic charming smile, looking trim and fit in a T-shirt to suit the weather, graying hair tucked under a beanie cap. I returned his smile and thanked him for making the time as we grabbed a table. I ordered enchiladas while Rubén ordered breakfast and coffee. We spent the next couple of hours discussing Chicano rock and art, his extraordinary life, the gift of his music and art, and of course Boyle Heights changing right there before our eyes.
Toward the end of our conversation, I could hardly believe my ears when Rubén confessed, in an almost low-key tone of exasperation, that he was thinking about moving away. This from the 2012 choice for Boyle Heights Cultural Treasure, an honor bestowed upon people and organizations that make the neighborhood great? “Yeah, man, I don’t know,” he responded. “Between the lack of affordable housing and the waning interest in our living local history, I’m thinking about checking out that Mexican artist community outside of Tijuana.” While such cultural and economic concerns are to be respected, they’re hard to reconcile with the stirring wrap-up of his 2012 acceptance speech:
Thank you for considering me a Boyle Heights Cultural Treasure. That honor is not taken lightly. But the real treasure lies in the accomplishments of a community grounded in respect, love, education, spirituality, social justice, and the arts. Let’s fill up that treasure chest by living our lives as works of art. Let’s keep on making history. ¡Que viva Boyle Heights! Tlazocahmati. Gracias. Thank you.
When it was time to call it a night at Casa Fina, I expressed another heartfelt gracias to this genuine treasure of Boyle Heights, for the immense pleasure delivered by his music and for the generosity with which he shares his unique story as an open book. Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer is a fresh and intriguing, heartfelt and insightful cruise through the main thoroughfares, side streets, and alleyways of Chicano rock ’n’ roll, performance art, and Los Angeles cultures, past, present, and beyond, seamlessly written by this first-time author. Con Safos!
Kurt C. Organista is a professor in the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.