The question's mostly irrelevant if you've seen any of them live or rocked out to their music. But it's a question worth asking as Mexican Americans can't see the day, to paraphrase Shakespeare, when the clouds of anti-Mexican rhetoric that have lour'd upon this house will be buried deep in the bosom of the ocean. Will increased Mexican American assimilation bring an end to the discontent? It doesn't appear to be close to passing as it has for other ethnic groups. Irving Berlin, great American songwriter or great Jewish songwriter? Scorcese, great American director or great Italian American director?
The process is happening in fits and starts mostly in the big cities where Mexicans have immigrated generations ago. Los Lobos is contributing to the process. I saw the band last year at UCLA's Royce Hall for a concert to support their album of Disney songs. The entire first set was devoted to songs from that album. The novelty of the pre-eminent Chicano band covering "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" and "Heigh-Ho" wore off real fast. I didn't understand what I was watching. In an interview this week Los Lobos guitarist Louie Perez told me the album was an effort to give those iconic American songs a Chicano rock twist. It's interesting given that the band inserted the name and rhythm of a traditional Mexican song "La Bamba" into the American lexicon and songbook.
Now Louie Perez is working with L.A.'s About Productions on a play with music based on the Los Lobos song "Evangeline."
"'Evangeline' in three minutes tells the story of a girl coming of age, has dreams, aspirations, the proverbial young girl who comes out to Hollywood to become a movie star. So we took that loose narrative, that loose story, and created this story of a young girl, young Chicana, growing up in East Los Angeles in the 60s, which we all know is a very transformative decade," Perez told me in an interview this week.
The play is called "Evangeline, The Queen of Make-Believe" and is expected to open, Perez said, in 2013. It explores the tug of war between the teen's traditional culture at home and the mainstream pop scene she searches out by night, Perez said, much like the place his older sister found herself in growing up in East L.A.
"Chicanos, Mexicanos, Mexican Americans, whatever you want to call them this week, we didn't live in a vaccum. We grew up watching Carl Reiner sitcoms, Green Acres, Dick Van Dyke, we watched Dick Cavett, the Joey Bishop Show and all the cool music that was going on. My sister would take the bus all the way to Hollywood to pick up The Beatles monthly that used to be available as an import from the UK at a newsstand on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Quiensabe."
It's a story about the push and pull between tradition [Fiddler on the Roof intonation here] and assimilation and the gradual blending and coexistence of the two, all with the backdrop of the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and the groovy music of the time. I'll be talking about the play's ideas with Perez, and academics Victor Viesca, Josh Kun, and Alma Martinez at a staged reading of the play tomorrow night at KPCC in Pasadena.
I asked Louie Perez during our chat what he thought about the current anti-Mexican rhetoric. He didn't lash out at the deadly violence against Mexican immigrants in various corners of the country. He didn't talk about the Dream Act or immigration reform or the substandard education most Mexican American youth are getting these days. He did say that after 9-11, when the terrorist acts prompted candle light vigils across the U.S., including ones where he lived in south Orange County, he saw a group of young guys in a pick up truck near his house waving the American flag. He had an uneasy feeling that the mood of the country could turn very quickly and that racism would walk in the front door with a patriotic mask. He also talked about his father, a car painter in East L.A. who was a decorated veteran of World War Two.
Louie Perez said that after the KPCC forum Los Lobos are packing their bags and heading to Australia and Denmark for a series of concerts. These are places where people probably don't know the first thing about Chicanos. I bet you that to people there Los Lobos are just another great rock and roll band from the United States.