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By Brooklynn Mendoza
Rubén Guevara is known as a musician, singer-songwriter and author, most recently of his autobiographical “Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer” (2018, University of California Press). Born in Boyle Heights (1942), early on he was highly informed about his community and racial discrimination. He combined his activism with his work as a bandleader, but a trip to Mexico in the early ‘70s was an eye opener for him. That’s where he adopted the name “Funkahuatl.”
During a Zoom interview, he was open about his past and about his future projects. He shared his perception of Boyle Heights, his experience of being a musician since the 60s, and that trip to Mexico that changed his life.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview here:
Rubén Guevara: Well, my birth name is Rubén Guevara, but I have a nickname called Funkahuatl.
Boyle Heights Beat: And then, your age?
RG: I am 78 crazy years old.
BHB: You don’t look 78. And where do you live?
RG: I live in Boyle Heights.
BHB: I heard that you were in a band in your early 20s, like ‘60s-70s. What inspired you to be in a band?
RG: Well, it’s kind of a long story, but I’ll make it short. I grew up in a musical family. My father was a singer, so I learned to sing from him. He was in a famous trio from Mexico called Trío Los Porteños and I learned to sing boleros, you know, rancheras as a kid. I got older, I started singing r&b, rhythm and blues in high school. And then in ‘61 I recorded my first single. It was part of a doo-wop duo. We called ourselves The Apollo Brothers. And I sang during the 60s, I did a TV show in ‘65 with Tina Turner and Bo Diddley as a solo artist. I was on national TV, ABC, the show called “Shindig.” And then in ‘71 I got into theater. I wrote an anti Vietnam War theater piece called “Who Are the People?” It was protesting the disproportionate deaths of Mexican Americans in the Vietnam War. That was my first act of theater, my first activism, as an activist artist Chicano.
In ‘72, I met Frank Zappa. He was a famous rocker. His band, the Mothers of Invention, they produced a record called “Cruising with Ruben and the Jets” in 1968. I wasn’t part of that. I met Frank in ‘72 and I told him I was into rock theater, and I saw his idea of Ruben of the… I saw it as rock theater. Because it was very experimental. I thought it was pretty crazy for him to be doing something like that in the late 60s, when the music was just really psychedelic and crazy rock and roll, so we became friends.
He liked the idea of me staging it and putting the band together so we formed a band. And most of the guys were from East LA, Boyle Heights, and we recorded two albums. The first one was called “For Real,” and Frank produced that one. We toured the country. with his band, and we toured with Three Dog Night, T Rex, a lot of other famous bands.
The band broke up around early ‘74. It put out two records. The second one was called “Con Safos,” which is kind of cool. It’s a Chicano term for taggers back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. We used to put little “c slash s” under a tag, that protected the name, it protected you. It also means exempt from danger. I am somebody and screw you if you don’t like it. And it came out as a cool label, cool cover, because it’s got graffiti in Chicano cholo writing. It’s the first time a major label put out a record with Chicano graffiti on the cover.
I wanted to get back into theater and do a piece about Chicano history. I took some Chicano studies classes in LA City College and then I was fascinated by my ancestry, my indigenous roots. I took a trip to Mexico in late 74 and I wanted to go to the roads in Palenque and the Mayan ruins. So, while I was there, I was climbing the steps, I was trying to figure out… in Mexico I’m not treated as a Mexican. In the US I’m a Mexican, so this contradiction in my identity was a trip. As I was climbing up the steps, I remembered my Chicano Studies class where I learned that the term Chicano is not an ethnic term. It’s a political term. It’s a Mexican American, who fights for the rights of his people, his or her people. And I thought about that and said, yeah. So then I thought, well if a Chicano artist would be one that creates art that reflects the community, that reflects the culture somehow, like a culture sculptor. So I thought, “That’s it, I’ll become a Chicano culture… sculptor.” I’ll sculpt my culture, through my writing, through my theater, through my music.
“As I was climbing up the steps [in Palenque], I remembered my class where I learned that the term Chicano is not an ethnic term. It’s a political term. I thought about that and said, yeah. I thought, well if a Chicano artist would be one that creates art that reflects the community, that reflects the culture somehow, like a culture sculptor. I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ll become a Chicano culture… sculptor.’”
I decided to come back to LA and write about our history and our experiences as a people from the invasion to the present time. And I wrote a piece called C slash S [C/S], it’s on YouTube, you can find that. It’s a history of Mexicans in LA and it’s kind of a 3,000 year overview of our history. And it’s done like with a very funky beat, and it’s recited. So it’s really kind of the first Chicano hip hop recordings. Although I wrote it in ‘75, when I came back, it came out in 83, in a record that I produced a compilation of various bands from East LA called “Los Angelinos, the Eastside Renaissance.” The New York Times reviewed the album, and they were excited to see that there was much more to Chicano music than Ritchie Valens, you know
And I continued doing theater works and poetry and performances with Chicano themes, and our history, our present experiences and problems and whatever, immigration.
BHB: So, I just learned that you wrote a book a couple years ago. Why did you write it and what did you learn after writing it?
RG: I had a great teacher, mentor. He’s a professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, George Lipsitz. And I finally met him in ‘98. He told me he’d been teaching my work for the last 10 years, that blew my mind. He said I should write an autobiography. At that time in ‘98, I wasn’t ready. I said, “No, man, that’s too heavy. I can’t write. I don’t think I can do it.” So time went on, time went on, time went on, so in 2012, I went to a funeral of a famous musician, Johnny Otis. He was there. After that speech, I said, George, I’m ready to write my book now. I’m going to be turning 70 this year. I better do it now, while I still can. He said, “Okay, I’ll help you.”
So he became my editor and I worked on it for… off and on for about seven years. I started in 2012, it came out in 2018. The University of California Press, thank god, published it. And it’s becoming required reading in a lot of Chicano studies classes across the country, which is pretty cool. Yeah, it blows my mind. And the reason why I wrote it, again was to kind of look at my life, you know, the ups and downs, the positives and negatives, so my kids would know me better. And that I could maybe learn from my mistakes and be better. And as a man, as an artist, as a father. I was very honest, you know, if I’m going to write my autobiography, it better be true, you know, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
It’s called “Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo Wop Singer.”
BHB: That’s a long name.
RG: It’s a long name, but I wanted to get people’s attention, and I wanted to put Chicano in the title, even though it’s kind of out of date now, but I wanted to be true to that term, because that’s what helped me make me.
I got invited to The Smithsonian Institute in DC. They’re going to be doing a show next year, called “Presente, the Latinx Art of America,” so I’m included in that exhibition. That’s pretty cool. Also, I’m going to be part of an exhibition at Vincent Price Art Museum at East LA College next year. And I’ll be performing there with my band, The Eastside Lovers.
I put a record out with them in 2010, my first solo album. It’s original material and a new band, took about 30 years to write it, to make it but I finally did. That’s out. And so yeah, you know, I completed a couple of things on my bucket list, so I’m up to date. Oh, and now very proud to say, our youngest son is producing a documentary on my life.
“I decided to make my art, protest art in a sense, so all of my things have been protesting except for the Jets. The time with The Jets that was mostly party music. It wasn’t too serious. The only political aspect of that was that it was mostly Chicano band from East LA that got national recognition.”
BHB: That’s so cool. You said that you have a nickname. I don’t want to mispronounce.
RG: “Funkanuatl.” I pronounce it in English “funk a waddle.” I wanted to choose my own name for the book. I wanted that to be a statement of my independence, that I am my own person. This is who I chose to be, not the name that I was given.
BHB: So. in either a professional or personal working environment, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
RG: I’m an older dude now, so there’s been so many… In 2019, September, I volunteered with an organization in Little Tokyo called Nikkei Progressives. They’re a political action group. They [organized] a concert to benefit asylum seekers, children in detention camps, to get them backpacks with supplies. We had Quetzal, an Eastside band, Aloe Blacc, an r&b singer, Alice Bag, an old punk singer. Anyway, it was a full house. We did it at the Aratani theater, in Little Tokyo and it was sold out. I couldn’t believe it. It blew my mind. I helped put that together. That was really, I think one of my greatest activist achievements, I think, to see that happen.
I also did a stage version of my book, at a little theater in Boyle Heights called Casa 0101. I don’t know if you know it.
RG: I did nine performances of a solo performance based on the autobiography, and it was called “Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop singer”. I’d been away from theater for about 30 years. This was an opportunity to get back into theater and do my thing. It was a solo piece, directed by a great director, Dan Kwong. And we did nine to 10 performances, and it was pretty much a sold-out show. That was back in 2016 and ‘17. And that I think was one of my biggest accomplishments… to come back into theater and do a piece, based on my life, was quite an accomplishment.
But I guess I’m gonna be proudest about this documentary my son is making on me, I guess that’s going to be the biggest.
BHB: I think that would be super cool to see your life.
RG: Yeah, he’s doing a hell of a job putting it together. I can’t believe it. He’s really amazing. Young guy is 33, went to NYU film school, and also went to UCLA. He’s a real sharp kid, brilliant kid, not that he’s my kid, but man he’s really smart. And he’s really a good writer, and good producer, so we’ll see how it turns out. Hopefully, it’ll air in the fall. It’ll be on a series on KCET called “Artbound”. They’re producing it. It’ll be a national PBS show.
BHB: Oh, wow.
RG: There’s still stuff I want to do. There’s a screenplay I want to adapt to the stage. It’s called “Land of a Thousand Dances” and it’s about East LA in the ‘60s… when the Chicano movement was starting. Also, when there was a big music scene in East LA in the ‘60s. It’ll talk about that.
I have another play I’m working on. It’s called “Masao and the Bronze Nightingale,” and that hopefully will be staged at Casa 01. That’s a story about a Japanese American Zoot Suiter in Boyle Heights in the ‘40s. And there were Japanese pachucos in Boyle Heights.
RG: I’m writing fiction as well. Just started fiction, and putting together a collection of my writings. Hopefully, that’ll be a book.
BHB: Going back to when you said activism, you know, there’s a lot of things going on right now. There were a lot of protests. Have you always been into activism?
RG: Well, it goes back to the 60s for me. In 66, there was a big demonstration in Hollywood. The police were breaking down, a lot of police brutality on what we call hippies back then, you know, long haired people. And we used to congregate in front of a coffee shop called Pandora’s Box, on Sunset and Crescent Heights, and the cops would come down there and arrest them, beat kids up.
I decided to make my art, protest art in a sense, so all of my things have been protesting except for the Jets. The time with The Jets that was mostly party music. It wasn’t too serious. The only political aspect of that was that it was mostly Chicano band from East LA that got national recognition. So in a sense that’s a political statement
I’m still protesting. I’ll always be an activist in some way. You know, Chicano artist activist so I’ll die kicking. I’ll die kicking and fighting. I’ll tell you that much. For sure. One way or another.
BHB: How long have you been living in Boyle Heights and what really stands out to you as a community?
RG: Okay, I was born in Boyle Heights in white Memorial Hospital. We moved out. My father, like I said, was a musician. So we lived all over the city and other places. But I moved back here in ‘82. And it was right by Manuel’s Tepeyac, right there.
BHB: Oh, yeah. My dad loves that.
RG: Over there by Evergreen and Forest. I lived there for a long time. But I would leave, then I would come back. I’ve been in Boyle Heights for over 30 years. I’ve been in my place where I live now for going on 20 years, so I have a lot of roots in Boyle Heights.
I’ve written a lot about Boyle Heights’ history and that’s been the main thing that I really love about it. It’s a history of the cultures coming together for common causes, whether it be racism, housing, immigration, and that to me is Boyle Heights’ main legacy for me.
What I like about it, I respect Boyle Heights’ history. It has a magnificent multicultural history. If you know about Boyle Heights, you know you had African Americans here Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, Mexican Americans, of course. So it was like one of LA’s first multicultural communities. And the magic was we all got along together. Yeah. I think it’s a model for how a multicultural community and for the US, for that matter, how to get along together.
I’ve written a lot about Boyle Heights’ history and that’s been the main thing that I really love about it. It’s a history of the cultures coming together for common causes, whether it be racism, housing, immigration, and that to me is Boyle Heights’ main legacy for me. And it’s been able to do that, hold together as a community. Lately it’s changed a lot.
RG: A lot of new people moving in, don’t really know its history. I mean, it’s okay to move in, but you got to respect the community, you know. You got to look into its history. You got to know what it’s about. Not just because the rents are good. And you got to know its history, its roots, you got to respect, give in, you know, give to it, contribute. Contribute to it. Support it. I don’t see much of that happening with the new arrivals.
But there’s a lot of infighting, you know, over the gentrification issue. Friends of mine, you know, are pitted against each other. It’s a drag. But it’ll work out. It’ll work out. Just takes time.
BHB: Well, I thank you for letting me interview you and getting to know you and taking your time for coming here.
RG: Well, thank you Brooklynn, and I appreciate you taking the time and interest. I hope it was helpful.
This is an abridged version of an interview recorded as part of “Voices/Voces,” a storytelling project that aims to connect youth reporters with Boyle Heights and East LA elders. Voices/Voces was a 2020 finalist in (and partially funded by) the LA2050 Grants Challenge. It is also partially funded by the Snap Foundation.