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

September 15, 2022

Film shows how Sanchez's music inspired the Chicano community

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

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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An ocean of opportunity

September 15, 2022

ASU School of Ocean Futures is the world's newest home for learning, research focused on the planet's ocean ecosystems

A new school dedicated to the study of the ocean and its ecosystems, and it is based in the desert?

Something so improbable and dynamic could only happen at Arizona State University and the ever-forward-looking Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

The laboratory's College of Global Futures announces the launch of its fourth school, which advances learning, discovery and partnerships that shape a thriving global future: the School of Ocean Futures.

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Peter Schlosser

“We live on a water planet, with 70% of Earth’s surface covered by water and its largest biome residing in the world's oceans, thus it is imperative to include the oceans in a holistic view of the world we strive to live on,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

“The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory’s mission is to explore pathways into a future that offers opportunities for the coming generations on a healthy planet. The School of Ocean Futures will be the Global Futures Laboratory’s home for providing students the opportunity to study the present and imagine the future of our oceans, preparing them for careers dedicated to making the critical decisions required to keep our world in balance,” he said. 

The School of Ocean Futures will be the planet’s newest academic home for studying, teaching and developing innovative solutions about the current and future states of the ocean, and will address challenges our oceans face due to increasing pressure from human activities.

It joins three other pioneering schools in ASU’s College of Global Futures: the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; the School of Sustainability; and the School of Complex Adaptive Systems.

This unprecedented college equips its students and faculty with the training and tools to develop their lifelong career pursuits, while shaping a thriving global future for all of Earth’s inhabitants and systems.

Scientists and scholars in the School of Ocean Futures will serve local and global communities through exploration, discovery, knowledge development at the intersections of our oceans and society.

“We are at the cusp of a new era of ocean exploration and are truly excited about the opportunities that the new School of Ocean Futures brings,” said Susanne Neuer, founding director and professor at the School of Ocean Futures and a senior Global Futures scientist. “This new school brings together ocean scientists and teachers from across the globe to train and guide our students in making unique contributions to our understanding of the present and future roles of the oceans in our global ecosystems and climate.

"A new generation of students from ASU and from across the globe will thus be able to include the oceans in their understanding of the world around them and will be able to find the solutions necessary to survive on our rapidly changing planet.”    

Oceans are not just the world’s largest ecosystems, they are also one of the leading indicators of our planetary health and wellness. From the condition of coastal ecosystems to the robustness of marine populations, from fluctuations of sea temperatures that drive weather systems and sea levels to the sustenance of human populations that live along and depend on the seas, oceans have long been keepers and mysteries of solutions, according to ecologist and exploratory researcher Greg Asner, one of the school’s first appointed faculty.

“Whether you live along a coast or far inland, each of us is inextricably tied to oceans that provide us with enormous cultural, ecological and economic benefits,” said Asner, who is also director of the ASU Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. “Our oceans are changing faster and challenging us more than ever before, so the solutions our new school will pursue cannot come too soon.”

The School of Ocean Futures combines research and teaching facilities in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with cutting-edge research facilities within the Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health, home of the College of Global Futures on ASU’s Tempe campus. The Walton Center holds more than 70,000 square feet of laboratory space and collaborative environments to encourage transdisciplinary learning and exploration.

For its Pacific base, ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation is located in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and houses computational and chemical labs, offices, conference rooms and field operations space. Hawaii is also home to the ASU Allen Coral Atlas laboratory, a network of field sites and land-based partners linking research and outreach to map the world’s coral reefs, and the Pacific RISA program in Honolulu that supports Pacific island and coastal communities in adapting to impacts of climate change.

The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences is ASU’s research and learning presence in the Atlantic, established through a partnership announced last year. The institute brings more than 120 years of excellence in ocean and atmospheric science research and a rich tradition of university-level teaching.

With a campus of classrooms, laboratories, dormitories and vessels, including the flagship 170-foot R/V Atlantic Explorer, the institute allows scientists and scholars to venture into the northernmost coral reefs in the Atlantic and the surrounding Sargasso Sea, one of the planet’s most biodiverse open-ocean ecosystems.

The institute also operates two of the world’s longest-running time-series programs: Hydrostation ‘S’, which has provided a continuous record of the ocean’s physical properties since 1954, and the Oceanic Flux Program, which has yielded unprecedented insights into deep ocean particle fluxes since 1978.

“Bermuda’s convenient access to deep water was one of the factors that led to the establishment of a year-round marine research and educational institution on the island,” said Bill Curry, president and CEO of the institute. “Many ‘firsts’ in ocean science can be traced back to Bermuda and (the institute). Now, as part of the School of Ocean Futures, we look forward to supporting many more ‘firsts’ as ASU students and researchers from around the world help usher in a new age of ocean innovation and discovery.”

“We truly are in a unique place to bring together scientists working in both oceans and to offer experiential learning and research opportunities to a new generation of ocean scientists,” Neuer said. 

Research programs for the School of Ocean Futures are currently underway with courses and degree programs launching in fall 2024. For more information, visit the School of Ocean Futures website.

Jason Franz, assistant director of strategic communication for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, contributed to this story.

Top photo: The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences research vessel Rumline is anchored off of a coral reef offshore of Bermuda for research. Photo courtesy the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory/BIOS