Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara: The Chicano Culture Sculptor | KCET
Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara: The Chicano Culture Sculptor
Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara is a Los Angeles native Chicano musician, singer, songwriter, poet, performance artist, activist, producer, short story author and historian. Famed for his beautiful singing voice and performances with Frank Zappa, Johnny Otis, Tina Turner, Celia Cruz and Bo Diddley, Guevara’s calling has always been “as much a spiritual calling as it was political.”
His new book on UC Press, “Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer” explicates the roller coaster ride of his 50-year career. The nearly 350-page book not only covers his long and eventful life, it offers a primer to core concepts of Chicano history and a panoramic overview of the last 75 years of Los Angeles history. The mix of insightful anecdotes, trials, tribulations and some of his poems make for a multifaceted book that achieves multiple purposes. Ultimately, the vignettes and recollections demonstrate again and again how Guevara’s indomitable “ancestral spirit mixed with the need to reveal the untold history of social injustice,” to propel him into becoming what he calls “a Chicano Culture Sculptor.”
The book’s introduction, “The Fire and Flames of Funkahuatl,” is written by George Lipsitz and Josh Kun, two scholars who have been longtime advocates. Their eloquent exposition sets the stage for the unfolding of the fiery manuscript. “Follow the flames long enough,” they write “and ‘Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer’ leads you right into the heart of the Los Angeles that has been Guevara’s spiritual center, his tumultuous artistic stage, and his vibrant social laboratory.”
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“I came into this world on fire,” Guevara writes in the Prologue. His uncle Xavier thought he looked too pale when he came home from the hospital, “so he put me out in the sun to get some color. He never came back.”
Guevara was only five days old and suffered second-degree burns on his face, arms and hands. Nonetheless, he somehow recovered thanks to the care of his great-aunt Victoria who gave him goat’s milk and indigenous herbs.
“That’s the way my life started out,” he confesses “and that’s pretty much the way it’s been: a steady series of burnings and a steady series of miracles that kept saving my mind, my face, and my life.”
Throughout the book, again and again, a roller coaster pattern unfolds. One moment he’s recording a record with Frank Zappa, the next moment he’s struggling to make rent on a small apartment. Another moment he’s flying in a private plane with Cheech Marin, the next moment he’s living in his car. Somehow though, Guevara always pulls through.
“Through leaps of good faith and good karma,” he states, “I’ve managed to dive off that cliff into the forging heat and pulse of the heartbeat, the crucible of the soul, and live to tell about it.”
Singing Since Birth
Born into a musical family on both sides in Boyle Heights in 1942, Guevara lived much of his early childhood in La Veinte, a barrio in Santa Monica by Olympic and 20th Street.
“My first five years living in La Veinte were formative for me musically,” he writes. “My father taught me how to sing boleros and play the maracas. He taught me the song ‘Amor’ (‘Love’), which would become my life mantra. I sang and played at family get-togethers and holidays.”
His mother’s brothers were also huge influences with their charisma and musicality. The apple did not fall far from the tree, and Guevara naturally inculcated all these qualities.
The narrative of the book unfolds, for the most part, chronologically and there’s never a dull moment. Over 25 of his poems are also in the text, usually included at the end of a prose section. The first poem of the book comes at the end of the “La Veinte” section quoted above and it is a poem titled “The Song of Life,” dedicated to his uncle Teodoro “Lolo” Gutiérrez. The first two lines are:
The poem celebrates his uncle and Guevara even got a chance to read it to him shortly before his uncle died in 2004. The tone is reflective, appreciative and compassionate. Near the end of this lyrical ballad, Guevara exclaims:
The poem concludes with:
This first poem of the book gives direct insight into a guiding spirit of Guevara’s work. He continues to sing deeply the work of his ancestors and carries it on with the life force of the breath. The stories he shares from his formative years reveal this further and how his dynamic family shaped his character. He also discusses the several moves his family made early in his life from Santa Monica to Cathedral City to MidCity LA to Las Vegas to the San Fernando Valley.
Most of these moves were because his father was a traveling studio musician that played everywhere from the Million Dollar Theatre to the Ambassador Hotel and Palm Springs nightclubs to Vegas lounges while befriending Anthony Quinn and Frank Sinatra, and possibly even having had affairs with Dolores del Rio and Maria Felix before he met Rubén’s mother. His parents divorced in his late teen years. By this time, Rubén was well on the way to starting his own musical career.
His first musical gig was playing the trumpet in the fifth grade, marching with the school band in a Palm Springs parade. This would be the only time his parents would ever see him perform together. Guevara had a double dose of creative talent because his mother began moonlighting as an actress after the divorce to make ends meet. She was as charismatic as his father and many thought she looked like Dolores Del Rio. As Guevara began playing in bands in high school and then while attending Los Angeles City College, he began actively gigging around town. His mother set up an audition for him in 1965 on “Shindig!,” a popular national TV rock ’n’ roll variety show.
Guevara nailed the audition and was selected for the program. They gave him the stage name, Jay P. Mobey. This was before his identity as a Chicano activist and looking back he says, “I didn’t see it as a cultural misstep then. But I sure do now.”
At the time, he was excited to do the show because he was being offered a potentially recurring role and both Tina Turner and Bo Diddley were going to be appearing on the episode. Diddley’s song, “Bo Diddley,” was one of the first records he had ever bought. He did a phenomenal job on the taping and even ended up sharing the stage for the closing finale with Bo and Tina and the backing musicians for the song, “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog?” His performance was so good that he was asked to be a series regular. Somehow though, the show’s format changed soon after and then was canceled before he had another chance. This experience taught him that “in mainstream rock ’n’ roll, you’re a product, not a person.”
This moment would be the first of many roller coaster highs and lows for Guevara. Shortly before the show aired, he split up with his girlfriend “foolishly confident,” he recalls, “that I could get something going with Tina. Instead, I wound up living in my car broke and starving and had to get a job right away. Gotta eat, gotta work. I started working at Chicken Delight on Sunset and Fuller delivering chicken up and down the Strip and the Hollywood Hills.”
Less than a month into the job, another driver asked, “Hey, didn’t I see you on ‘Shindig!’ last month?” The driver asked him, “Well, what are you doing here?” All he could say was, “What does it look like, man? I’m delivering fuckin’ chicken!”
Becoming a Chicano Activist
Soon enough though, he started another band and got back into the groove. During his 20s, Guevara continuously played music while working various jobs. He even had a few early marriages. In 1966, he was involved with the Sunset Strip Riots close to the legendary coffeehouse, Pandora’s Box. Local officials had imposed a 10 p.m. curfew and they tried to stop local youth from gathering on Sunset. The coffeehouse had been one of the nexuses of the Strip.
“What was important about the so-called riots,” Guevara explains, “was that it was the first time that predominantly white L.A. youths came together to protests police brutality. This was the beginning of my activism, and it reminded me of my commitment to music.”
During the late 1960s, Guevara not only worked odd jobs and had a series of relationships, he started back in school at Los Angeles City College (LACC). This proved to be a transformative experience for several reasons.
“LACC opened up new cultural worlds for me,” he recalls, “allowing me to journey into new creative experiences and possibilities, from gospel to modern music to experimental theater. I was slowly becoming an artist through exposure and osmosis.”
Around the same time as LACC, Guevara’s younger sister was tragically killed in a car accident. Her death rocked him because she was, along with his grandmother, the nicest person he had ever known. He took a trip to the exact site of where her accident was and then walked into the woods right by the side of the road and built an altar of twigs, flowers and stones in her honor. He prayed and reminisced, remembering her as a little girl. “She had the smile of a Buddha,” he writes.
“With tears burning my eyes I cried out,” he says, “repeating as in a chant, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ over and over again. ‘If there is a God, show your face now! Show me my sister, now! Baby, Baby!’ I shouted repetitively as in a mantra. Then silence. Exhausted and still sobbing, I slowly looked up again, and suddenly she appeared. Her beautiful face and serene smile shone through the branches along with the sun’s rays. I fell to my knees still crying and thanked God, promising I would dedicate my life to educating and enlightening through art in her honor.” A fundamental shift within his heart and mind happened here and over the next two years, he excelled at LACC with the intention of art having a deeper purpose in his life’s work.
In the following year, 1971, Guevara wrote his first theatrical work, “Who Are the People?” The piece was an experimental protest musical theater. The showstopper of the play was “A Song for Sister,” a piece composed in honor of his deceased sister. The play was a resounding success and the Los Angeles Times wrote a glowing review. “Who Are the People?” opened up another portal and within the next year, Guevara found himself performing more theatrical rock, this time with Frank Zappa.
Musical Theater with Frank Zappa
Shortly after the success of Guevara’s first musical, he ran into an old friend, the keyboardist Bob Harris on Fountain Street in Silver Lake. He told Harris about his musical and Harris got excited. He had just returned from touring with Zappa “and he suggested we pay him a visit, since Frank and I both seemed to be on a rock theater kick.” They drove up to Zappa’s house in Laurel Canyon. Harris’s intuition to bring the two together made perfect sense.
Guevara and Zappa were in synchronicity on so many levels. In addition to their mutual love of rock theater, a few years earlier, Zappa had also made a record, “Cruising With Ruben & the Jets”, that was a garage doo-wop band paying homage to the Chicano doo-wop scene. Talk about divine providence, Guevara was a Chicano doo-wop singer named Rubén, he was the real thing. Moreover, Guevara had briefly met Zappa a few years before and had told him he was a doo-wop singer and that his name was Rubén. Zappa had told him back then to get in touch, but Guevara never did.
This time, though they connected, and the rest is history. Zappa answered the door when they came and right off the bat they started talking earnestly. They ended up staying up all night listening to Zappa’s collection of rhythm and blues oldies.
“Here we were,” Guevara remembers, “a couple of grown men tripping on old records like we were teenagers. That was the beginning of our bond: our love of L.A. rhythm and blues.”
As the sun was coming up that morning, Zappa made Guevara a proposal: “How would you like to stage a real Ruben & the Jets? I’ll produce the album, and you can tour with the Mothers as an opening band to promote it?”
To distinguish Zappa’s version of the band name from his, Guevara decided to have his group go by, Ruben And the Jets. Beginning in 1972, they made two records and toured together. There were some difficulties along the way, but there was never any bad blood between Guevara and Zappa. The first record, “For Real!,” was produced by Zappa, and the second album, “Con Safos”, was produced by Denny Randell.
They toured the West Coast and shared stages with not only Zappa but Three Dog Night, Tower of Power, Azteca and Cheech and Chong. The albums were well-received and the shows well-reviewed, but Guevara never made enough money off the band to save anything and internal difficulties within the players broke the group apart right after the second record.
A combination of acrimony and jealousy broke up the band, but Guevara has no regrets. “I didn’t completely succeed at creating the rock-theater idea,” Guevara states. “But instead, the Jets, Frank, and I created two damn good albums. We rocked the fuck out of many shows, getting encores where new opening bands never did. Not bad for a band only two years old. And yeah, goddammit, it was glorious rock ’n’ fuckin’ roll theater, after all.”
Following the break up of the band, Guevara was back to sleeping in his Volkswagen station wagon and he got a job working in a wholesale record distributor on Pico by Vermont. “The day gig brought me back down to earth real fast,” he writes. “It was hilarious and humbling at the same time, pulling “For Real!” and “Con Safos” off the shelves for the various record store orders.” While working for the record distributor, Guevara got another idea for a rock-theater piece. He enrolled in a Chicano Studies class at LACC and after getting inspired by the history of pre-Columbian Mexico, he decided to take a pilgrimage to the land of his ancestors.
Guevara’s Pilgrimage to Mexico
While in Guadalajara, Guevara had an encounter on a street corner with a Mexican man in a tailored suit that he will never forget. After a brief exchange, the man asked him in Spanish where he was from. When Guevara answered Los Angeles, the man said in Spanish, “Oh, you’re one of those pochos from the United States.” Pocho is a term for Mexican Americans who drop their Mexican identity and culture. When Guevara said to the man that he was Chicano, the man said, “Worse. Chicanos don’t have culture. They are mongrels.” He could not believe what he heard and for the moment he was speechless.
Despite this encounter, he continued his trip deeper into Mexico. He eventually made it to Palenque and to the legendary, Temple of the Inscriptions. Climbing the steps of the sacred temple, Guevara thought a lot about his own identity. With each step, he realized he was not American in the WASP sense, and he was only Mexican ancestrally. “What the fuck am I then?” he asked himself. The internal dialogue echoed around his head as he walked up the steps.
“Suddenly I remembered,” he writes, “a line from my Chicano Studies class: ‘Chicano is not an ethnic term; it’s a political term---a Mexican American activist dedicated to defending the rights of his people.’ Chicanos are made, not born. It’s a choice. So a Chicano artist is someone who creates work that celebrates, contributes to, and helps shape the culture. Hmm, helps shape the culture. Kinda like a sculptor. Yeah, that’s it! I’ll become a Chicano culture sculptor.”
This moment was another huge epiphany in his life. He reached the top of the temple steps remembering his commitment to his sister.
“As I raised my arms to the sun,” he recalls, “I roared my newfound cultural manifesto across the jungle, tears streaming down my burnt face: ‘I am a Chicano! A radical Chicano culture sculptor!’”
He was empowered by this experience and he continued traveling around Mexico exploring both Aztec and Mayan ruins. While in Mexico he read about a revolutionary school teacher who was assassinated by the Mexican army and this further galvanized him “to become a revolutionary Chicano artist-teacher.”
This declaration was the inspiration for his first piece of Chicano sculpture. Titled “C/S”, the piece he explains, is “a song-poem written for my beloved City of Angels and its twisted history with Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans, which I based on Carey McWilliams’s book, “North from Mexico,” a cherished text from my Chicano Studies class. The title comes from the abbreviation for “Con Safos,” a recurring theme in my work that has evolved into a symbol of my Chicano commitment, identity and self-determination.” “C/S” is often seen underneath Chicano graffiti tags to represent the spirit the tag was made in.
“C/S” became an important piece in his repertoire and live performances. Delivered in a spoken word style ala Gil Scott-Heron, the piece’s mix of Los Angeles history and Chicano identity foreshadowed the rest of Guevara’s career as an artist-activist. The piece is groundbreaking in many ways. Written over 40 years ago, it foreshadowed the activist spoken-word poetry that came to rise in the early 2000s and it also corroborated with the self-determination that defined the Black Arts Movement.
To explain further, Guevara writes in the book that “Con Safos” is “a broad Chicano/Mexican American activist street term with various meanings, including a form of self-affirmation, self-determination, exempt from danger, and ‘fuck you if you don’t like it’ and so be it.” The concept of “Con Safos” is something close to Guevara’s heart and an idea that Frank Zappa liked so much he used the term to name Ruben And the Jets’ second album.
From this point on, Guevara’s music was written from a more political perspective. Shortly, after “C/S”, Rhino Records commissioned him to record a doo-wop spoof of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”
Reflecting on this one-off production, Guevara states, “I didn’t make a dime on that record at the time, but years later I collected royalties when it was re-released in the Rhino Records “Doo-Wop” box set. In the end, I made more from that single than from both Ruben And the Jets albums combined.” This record also ended up helping Guevara land a role in Cheech and Chong’s first film, “Up in Smoke.” A decade later, Guevara also appeared in “Born in East L.A.”
Punk Rock and Performance Art
Punk rock was emerging during the late-1970s and Guevara was inspired by the artists’ commitment to social justice. Around this time, he saw a solo performance by Spalding Gray at the Ford Amphitheatre.
“It completely changed my approach to theater and performing. It was just Mr. Gray sitting at a table on an otherwise empty stage… It was all about the story, just straight-up storytelling, and I was impressed and inspired. It was anti-traditional theater and the beginning of what would be called performance art/poetry, then spoken word. I thought, hell, I can do that.”
Though Guevara had been writing songs from very early on, he really began writing longer poems and extended essays from the mid-1970s on. Watching Gray’s performance art/spoken word show inspired him to stretch out with his writing.
The combination of his sister’s memory, the pilgrimage to Mexico and his newfound understanding of performance art grounded his work and gave a platform for the rest of his career.
“Performance art,” he offers, “had a redeeming way of mixing spiritual ceremony with personal and cultural history, allowing me to relive it and momentarily be back in it — precisely in the moment. It became my spiritual practice and medicine.”
Following “C/S” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he wrote several other spoken word pieces, such as “From the Heart of America: The Corner of Brooklyn & Soto” and “Yangna.” As the years have gone on, Guevara performed these pieces around Los Angeles in venues like the Getty Museum and also in Tijuana, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and several cities in France.
He has also recorded several albums and has curated a few influential compilation records.
The compilation album, “Mexamérica” “was an attempt,” Guevara tells me, “to bridge Mexican musicians/bands/journalists/graphic artists and collaborate with L.A. Chicano visual and graphic artists/musicians/bands/journalists in an act of transnational solidarity.”
Another record he assembled, “Reconquista! The Latin Rock Invasion,” was an attempt to spotlight global Alternative Latin Rock/roc en español with material that focused on social injustice/commentary.” Guevara has always built bridges across communities. The book also spotlights his close connection to the Japanese-American community.
Finally, “Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer” includes a lot of short vignettes about his ex-wives and the many different girlfriends he’s had over the years. He also has some poems in honor of his two sons and daughter. In the interest of not revealing the entire book’s narrative, there are many other equally compelling anecdotes and poems within the rest of the book. There is hardly an artistic or cultural movement from the last 50 years that Guevara has not participated in.
Still Jamming After All These Years
To this day, Guevara is still jamming. I saw him read a captivating set of poems from the book at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College in early July 2018. He’s finishing a book of short stories and he was also just awarded an Eastside Arts Initiative grant to adapt one of his short stories, "Masao & The Bronze Nightingale," to the stage at the Boyle Heights theater Casa 0101 on East First Street.
“Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer” is a powerful memoir that reveals the depth of spirit it takes to be a lifelong artist. In the prologue, Guevara writes: “My life has never been about playing it safe in the cool shade anyway or about becoming rich and famous. It’s been about making music and making love, rockin’ and rollin’ with the punches, and letting life keep the beat.” Above all, the book reveals Guevara to be a pioneering and uncompromising artist that has paved the way for today’s artists and activists. All hail Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara, the Chicano culture sculptor, still sculpting after all these years.
Top Image: Rubén "Funkahuatl" Guevara: President of Funk | Mario A. Hernandez
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