Calavera Highway considers the point where it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and myth, experience and narrative.
The film is really about traveling from one ruin to another, literally and emotionally.
"I always felt one of us had the obligation to fulfill the empty spaces left by the absence of our father." As Armando Peña remembers it, growing up in a family of seven boys was a mix of raucous, small pleasures and hardship. By the time he was born, he recalls, his father Pedro "had vanished, like an apparition." He and his brothers "grew up like street urchins," seeking direction and finding unconditional love and support in his mother, Rosa.
In the six years since her funeral, Armando says at the start of Calavera Highway, the brothers have not seen much of one another. And so, he and his older brother Carlos undertake to reconnect with their family, to seek out the background they mostly ignored or repressed when Rosa was alive, to ponder "the unanswered questions" left at the time of her death from cancer. The catalyst for their journey is the decision to take her ashes to the small town in Texas where she grew up. The trip, which takes them up and down the west coast, from Washington state to Nevada and New Mexico to Texas, grants Armando and Carlos a chance to look back on their parents' divergent paths in order to discover their own stories.
On its face, the documentary, filmed by Armando's wife Renee Tajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chin?) and Evangeline Griego, appears a personal diary, a series of observations accompanied by illustrative photos and footage. Each of the brothers speaks to the camera, revealing his own trajectory while offering his perspective of the family's fortunes. But the movie is also an investigation of Mexican-American histories. As Carlos and Armando discover, Rosa's choices were shaped by serial adversities. Abandoned by Pedro in 1954 and "outcast" by her own family, she did her best to raise her sons alone, working multiple jobs, exhausted at night. "My mother," says Carlos, "she was very tough with us because we were all men and she was always working." Armando remembers, "She was like a working stiff, she was like a mom and a dad. She would just come home and crash."
The boys found their own sorts of structure in the streets and, in Armando's case, in his studies. While Carlos had to quit school early in order to support the family, and other brothers, like Lupe, wound up in prison, Armando was the "bookworm." Carlos calls him a "burro," eliciting Renee's on-camera question, "He was a donkey?" Carlos smiles, "A donkey with a degree."
The difference embodied by Armando underscores the brothers' efforts to be men, to understand the expectations and parameters of masculinity without a grown-up man in the house. These efforts become visible in the form of Renee and Armando's young son Gabe, who rides along during the trek to Texas. At times Gabe appears as himself, meeting his uncles or Rosa's sister Adela. At other points, he stands in for a more abstract and mythic sort of memory, a beautiful child playing with bubbles or an umbrella, sharing riddles with Armando, a poetic emblem of idealized childhood, at ease with his parents, open to experiences "on the road."
As the brothers recall working as boys in cotton fields, their memories are illustrated by footage of workers and trucks, circa the '50s. Armando says, "I remember playing with cotton but also prickers in my skin" (a concise image of tensions throughout his youth) while Carlos jokes about the painful experience of being treated like resources rather than people ("What I miss is the pesticide that they used to drop on us from the plane while we were picking cotton"). The film recalls as well the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service program put in motion at the time of Pedro's disappearance, "Operation Wetback." It targeted Mexican nationals, rounding up and deporting over 130,000 in just one year, without regard for their families or specific situations. A U.S. citizen, Rosa remained in Texas.
Carlos and Armando travel to their father's village in Mexico, Real de Catorce, where they meet an uncle for the first time and listen to stories of Pedro and Rosa's rocky first year of marriage. "We had heard rumors of what became of him," says Armando, "that he had settled in the mountains and drank himself to death, that he was a hardworking stone mason living in some tiny village, and that he'd started a whole new family in Monterey with five daughters. Or was it 10?"
Another road takes them to visit Rosa's sister Adela, still sewing wedding dresses for a living. A brief sequence shows her at work, bent over her machine and then standing to hold a dress to her chest, swirling the skirt in slow motion. Armando sees her as an example of the "strong women in the family. Our great grandmother Petra Salinas claimed that she fought alongside Pancho Villa during the revolution. But then again, with my family, you never know where reality ends and myth begins."
Calavera Highway repeatedly considers this point, where it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and myth, experience and narrative. The film mixes Renee's footage of the family (including Rosa during her final years), old photos and home movies, and archival evocations of the struggles of Mexican-Americans in the States during the 1940s and 1950s, to show what the brothers have forgotten, willfully or not.
The connections between past and present come into focus when the film reveals that Carlos is a social worker who, with his wife Libby, helps to organize migrant workers. He and Armando find their own sense of social and political activism rooted in Rosa's. In the eighth grade, Armando recalls, he and his classmates staged a walkout to protest what a CBS report at the time (1968) terms "Anglos dominating Latins." While the other parents encouraged their children to apologize for making trouble, Rosa showed up at school with "boxes of sandwiches," encouraging her son to agitate.
At the same time that they admire Rosa's energy and ethos, the boys also recognize that her experience was both typical and particular. "I don't think it's a question of whether we're trying to embarrass our mother," Armando says when they find she had at least one son with a man who wasn't Pedro, "as much as trying to appreciate how complex her life was." If, as Armando says, "There was barely a chance toward the end to get mom to talk about the past," the film recovers memories unspoken, if not quite forgotten, piecing together history in order to comprehend and build the present.