Calavera Highway: The Story of an All-American Mexican Family

"As a Mexican, I like the idea of living with my ghosts. In which case, you might as well have a nice place for them to dance."
-- Armando Peña, "Calavera Highway" (2008)

Armando Peña's ghosts dance angelically across the television screen in "Calavera Highway," an award-winning documentary scheduled for its broadcast premier on Sept. 16 on PBS (See here for local listings). "Calavera Highway," or skeleton highway in English, follows Armando on a journey in which he tries to penetrate the mysteries that his mother, Rosa Peña, left behind with her death six years earlier.

With the ashes of his mother in tow, Armando visits the remnants of his dissipating family. Scattered across the United States, the testimony of the seven sons of the late Rosa Peña paint a portrait of an inspiring woman. Depicted through the lens of Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña, Armando's wife, the life of protagonist Rosa Peña is not idealized. The hard truth is told about what Rosa Peña had to do to survive, making the pride she instills in her seven sons all the more admirable.

The deepest mysteries of the film surround Rosa Peña's first husband, Pedro Peña. Pedro fits the typical mold of a Mexican migrant, traveling back and forth across the border at a whim. The exact reason Pedro Peña disappeared is one of the major mysteries of the film. Was he deported during the infamous "Operation Wetback" of 1954, or did he leave to take care of a second family on the other side of the border? Armando Peña's questions about his father just touch the surface of the complex legacy Rosa Peña left her sons.

It is tempting to categorize this documentary as a film about immigration or the experience of many Latinos whose lives transcend the U.S.-Mexican border. In actuality, "Calavera Highway" is as American as apple pie. It is American not in the farcical white bread sense that has been typical of the recent iteration of "American" culture; it is American in a far older tradition -- with diverse peoples with rich cultures making the United States their home, and the nation a better place for it.

Denying this would play into the conceptions many of the people involved in this documentary are fighting against. Producer Evangeline Griego's ancestors resided in New Mexico as early as 1611, long before the United States was even a nation. Still, she is often seen as a stranger in her own land. She told me: "I always get the question, 'Oh, where are you from?' The supposition is that I've come here from somewhere else. There's such a lack of education, and I think you combat that by making films, by making media that reaches people."

Armando Peña and his wife, who is of Japanese descent, have both had family in the United States for at least 100 years, but they still grapple with this conception of being outsiders, the "others." Tajima-Peña, whose work "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" was nominated for an Academy Award, expressed her thoughts to me on how best to deal with being seen as an "other" in your own home: "I'm not sure it's so much assimilating to America, but just shaping America," she said. " I think that's the way to look at it. It used to be we always looked at the experience of people of color as being on the margins and on the peripheries. But if you really look at history, I think our experience has been real central to shaping this culture."

I probed deep for some hidden desire for the development of a global citizenship in my interviews, but what I found were people content to identify as Americans, and to make the United States, their home, a better place for everyone.

So when Armando says, "as a Mexican, I like the idea of living with my ghosts," he says so not as someone from Mexico, but as an American who is proud of his own rich cultural tradition within the United States. He is proud of a tradition that honors the departed with celebrations like El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). I highlight Armando's quote because that's what "Calavera Highway" is about. It is about living with Armando's ghosts: his mother, his father, his past and his future.

There is a macabre undertone to "Calavera Highway." Told differently, the story of Armando and his brother Carlos carrying their mother's remains all across the United States might seem a little strange. For instance, take this exchange in Angleton, Texas, between Armando, his oldest brother Roberto, and his youngest brother Junior, when Armando takes out a container with his mother's ashes:

"It looks heavy," says Roberto.

"You want to hold it?" says Armando as he hands it off to Junior.

"We had to seal it."

"About thirty pounds?" says Junior.

"Twenty-five to thirty pounds," says Armando. "About as much as Gabe."

Gabe is Armando's son.

Still, the film is portrayed in a way that makes the macabre beautiful. Perhaps it also helps the viewer internalize the wisdom in a tradition that celebrates the dead, while others fear them.

Consider how Armando describes the birthplace of Roberto, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí: "(Rosa Peña) gave birth to her firstborn, Roberto, in a place full of witches and spirits."

San Luis Potosí is where the story of the Peña family begins. As it's told by her sons, Rosa Peña was estranged from her family at a young age, perhaps because she was born of a different father. Her family married her off to a man, Pedro Peña, whose first reaction to Rosa was essentially to kidnap her when she had run away.

From then on, Armando Peña describes his mother's experience as a life "in movement." In fact, in another macabre reference, he says it's a major reason why he decided to cremate her:

"You know when people pass away they tend to be forgotten. She thought that maybe being cremated would make it easier. If I moved, I could take the ashes with me. She didn't think that when she came to L.A. That that was going to be the end of the road, but I knew.

"She wanted to be able to be moved around, basically. It seemed that she was always in movement. One kind of movement or another, whether it was jobs or relationships. And I told her that if we ever moved or whatever, that we would always be able to take her with us wherever we went."

Some might interpret Rosa's life in movement as a reason to consider her someone from another land, but, despite her family ties to Mexico, Rosa was born in the United States. Rosa Peña was a U.S. citizen. Like so many people on Earth, she was a migrant who crossed back and forth between the arbitrary lines that divide the world up into nation-states.

In a way, we are all migrants, migrating every day to and from school or work, or moving off to a new city to seek work or go to college. When Armando says in the film, "I used to think of our family as a family of tumbleweeds, kind of like blown in the wind," in many ways he's describing most of our families.

But the color of the Peñas' skin, and the poor community they grew up in, exposed them to the wrath of a system hell-bent making them feel like they didn't belong. Renee Tajima-Peña explained, "They had a tough childhood for many reasons. Armando always talks about growing up Mexican in the Rio Grande Valley during that time as being like African-Americans in the Deep South during Jim Crow. Because they were just at the bottom of the barrel, because of racism, you know, they were poor, they were migrant workers, because of what was going on in the educational system, because of voting, because of everything."

When the Peña brothers talk about their work in the fields, the discussion often turns to run-ins with the Border Patrol. When Rosa Peña would regularly cross the border to get her hair done with her youngest son, Junior, officials would hassle her every time.

What is perhaps most inspiring about "Calavera Highway" is that the Peñas did not take this oppression lying down. Rosa inspired a walk-off on the job when employers tried to take advantage of her sons. Armando took part in the 1968 Edcouch-Elsa High School Walkout -- the first major Chicano student protest in South Texas, which sought to better the education of students in the area. Rosa Peña supported Armando all the way. In 1973, Rosa Peña was a major force behind the election of Eddie Gonzalez the city manager of Elsa, Texas.

The Peñas are not a meek family; they are a strong family. "My mother comes from a long line of very strong women in the family," Armando says in the film. The fact that Rosa Peña was able to instill this pride in her sons, even as she raised all seven on her own, is one of the most inspiring things about the documentary. It also adds further to the Americanness of the film.

"Calavera Highway" is an American film, told from the perspective of Americans who have been marginalized too often in U.S. history. Portraying it as anything else is an insult to those involved in its creation. It is not an idealized Americanness; it is the hard truth. Not all of Armando's brothers lived the American Dream. Some were victims to the American nightmare: Lupe and Raul Peña go to prison just days after their mother dies. All of the Peña brothers are U.S. citizens, but even today they are treated as strangers in their homeland.

"Calavera Highway" makes ghosts of the past dance across the television screen. It's a story of family, survival, resistance to oppression, and joy. The film takes you on a journey from the freezing cold of Washington State to the small, dusty towns of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. It's a window into the American experience.

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