ASU professor's documentary about Ramon 'Chunky' Sanchez a labor of love

Film shows how Sanchez's music inspired the Chicano community

archived black and white photo of a man will a megaphone, while a man plays guitar behind him

Paul Espinosa is an accomplished filmmaker. His eight Emmy Awards speak to his talent.

But when he began working on the documentary “Singing Our Way to Freedom,” about activist and musician Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, he was not thinking about award number nine.

“It was a labor of love,” said Espinosa, an emeritus professor in Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies.

Espinosa first met Sanchez in the late 1970s, when he moved to San Diego and began producing work on the Latino community and the U.S.-Mexican border.

The two men became friends and Sanchez eventually scored music for two of Espinosa’s films, “The Lemon Grove Incident” and “The Trail North.”

As the years passed, Espinosa knew he wanted to write, produce and direct a documentary about Sanchez, who marched with Cesar Chavez on the picket lines in California — hoping to improve working conditions for Mexican American farmworkers — and used his music to help create social change and battle racism.

He sang “We shall overcome/No nos moveran” on Joan Baez’s first Spanish language record and formed a band, Los Alacranes Mojados (The “Wetback” Scorpions), that performed at demonstrations and rallies in the Chicano community for more than 40 years.

Espinosa conducted a series of interviews with Sanchez before his death on Oct. 28, 2016.

ASU News talked to Espinosa about the documentary, which will be shown on Arizona PBS WORLD on Friday, Sept. 23 at 10 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 11 a.m. and on PBS on Sept. 28 at 11 p.m.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What prompted you to make this documentary?

Answer: Chunky was somebody that I’ve known for years, and he had done music for several of my earlier documentaries, and he was just somebody that I always felt was a very dedicated guy to the community. Obviously, the fact that he was involved in music was very dynamic. And I felt that this was a great opportunity to kind of open this period of the civil rights movement, particularly the Chicano civil rights movement, that I don’t think is really very well known to broader audiences and to younger people in particular. So, I just felt there were a combination of different factors that made (it important to do) something on him that would be worthwhile and would have a long shelf life.

Q: This is kind of an open-ended question, but tell me about him.

A: He was a very charismatic performer. I think one of the things people also remember about him is his humor. He was very dynamic on stage. He really had a way of connecting with an audience. That kind of sets up the film and it takes you through this early part of him going to school. He grew up in Blythe (California), not too far from the U.S.-Mexico border, and that was certainly formative in his experience. He grew up in a farmworking community and later connected with Cesar Chavez even before he was an adult because Cesar Chavez was out there organizing people. He went to school at San Diego State University – he was really a child of affirmative action – and then he got connected with a musical group that was doing lots of politically-oriented music. And they ended up being a band for Cesar Chavez for many, many years. They would travel with him to rallies and demonstrations all over the Southwest.

Q: What was Chunky’s relationship with Cesar Chavez like?

A: I think Chunky learned a lot from Cesar Chavez, and Chavez also really appreciated the power of music — that music was a very powerful tool for inspiring people. In fact, one of the people in the film talks about the fact that (Cesar Chavez) would not let people talk too long before he’d get some music onstage because that was a good way of getting engaged. And, of course, the music was also a way about engaging with culture because they were singing about the experiences that were very close to their lives.

Chunky was very involved in the dynamic years of the civil rights movement, and then he really continued to be involved as a community person. If there were things happening in the community, he was there with his music.

Q: Did Chunky’s activism lead him to music or did the music lead him to activism?

A: That’s a good question. I think that he was predisposed to getting involved in activism from growing up in a border town as a farmworker. I think he realized there were a lot of unjust situations that (farmworkers) faced. And I think Cesar Chavez was one of those people that helped to frame that for him. But he was also very involved with music from the time he was very young. His mother played music. So did his uncles. He talks about playing in a band in high school where they played Motown music. So I think it was a gradual process of going back and forth, but in terms of the Chicano civil rights movement, he was sort of the right man at the right time. It was a moment where his musical skills were something that was very valuable to keeping the movement alive. So I think the two went hand in hand in a way.

Q: Final question: What do you hope people get from the documentary?

A: Well, I hope they get some basic information about the civil rights movement. I hope they also see the value that one person can do in terms of really making a significant difference in the world. Chunky, in a lot of ways, was not an extraordinary person. He came from a very humble background. He himself was really kind of a humble guy. He was not somebody who was always bragging about himself, but he basically applied his skills to do something, to make the world a better place. I certainly hope that young people see it and can see the possibilities for themselves to use their skills, whatever those might be, to improve the world, however they see fit to do that.

I think people will also find the music not only informative but instructive, because the music is talking about a lot of things that they may or may not be familiar with. And talking about the importance of being engaged, the importance of recognizing a larger context for our lives. And, obviously, I think this film speaks to Mexican Americans and Latinos in general, but it’s a film for the larger public as well. It definitely has an educational value for people to learn about things that happened in the past but also think about the ways in which many of these things are still with us and need to be addressed.

Top photo: Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez with bullhorn during the Yes on Prop 14 rally, 1976. Photo courtesy Herman Baca Papers, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

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