These Directors Turned Their Camera Toward South Texas’ Underground Rock Scene

In the documentary As I Walk Through the Valley, filmmakers Ronnie Garza and Charlie Vela delve into four decades of the Rio Grande Valley’s music history – from the rock ‘n roll garage bands of the 1960s to the South Texas punk scene of the 1990s, and all the Tejano, Conjunto, Ranchera and Chicano-inspired music in between.

What they came out with on the other side was a collection of authentic memories, all told to them by the musicians who made the area one of diverse musical taste and influence. Through archive footage, photos and interviews with dozens of artists and historians, As I Walk Through the Valley takes audiences on an exploration of the Rio Grande Valley’s musical past and reveals how these different genres have intersected with each other over the years to form something exclusive to the South Texas region.

During an interview with Remezcla at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival where their documentary made its world premiere last week, Garza and Vela talked about how their desire to know more about their own past led them to making a music doc, and how the música regional they grew up listening to has impacted the younger generations of musicians coming out of the Valley today.

On the inspiration for their documentary

Charlie Vela: In a sense, it came from us not knowing much about our own history. We grew up in the punk scene of the late 1990s, early 2000s. We really had no idea what came even immediately before us. We wanted to answer that question first. There was very little in terms of historical artifacts. It was about discovering something for ourselves and then realizing there was a total lack of art and media related to who we are. We wanted to explore some of those stories and some of the narratives within the region.

On what connects different generations of musicians in the Rio Grande Valley

Charlie Vela: The connective tissue really is música regional. Whether it’s the bands in the 1960s who start playing rock ‘n’ roll and eventually move into that music, or the kids that grew up listening to it and thinking it’s the most uncool thing in the world, everyone’s musical identity is formed in relation to [música regional] somehow. You’re either falling into it or rebelling against it.

Ronnie Garza: Also, another connective element we were trying to tease out was this rasquache kind of ethos. We tried to recast the origins of Tejano and early Chicano music—like Little Joe and Esteban Jordan—as music with a punk spirit. This early Chicano music was very rooted in the community and struggle. It takes those vibes and owns them. That’s a really punk thing to do. Even though the kids in later generations have lost some of the Spanish-language component [of the music], I feel the sense of being the underdog continues. Even though the music is changing, there is an attitude there that is persistent.

Juan Tejeda and Esteban Jordan march with the Texas Farmworkers Union in 1977.
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On hanging with the older generation of musicians from the 1960s

Charlie Vela: We got invited to this backyard bironga (south Texas slang for beer) party in Pharr, Texas. It’s this thing they have once a month where they get together to barbeque and jam out in someone’s backyard. And there’s a lot of people! The had this stage set up and they’re playing all these old songs. It was so nice to see these guys in their 60s and 70s still share that with each other.

Ronnie Garza: It was beautiful seeing them reminisce and tell old stories and reunited with old buddies. They’re continuing to live with the music all the way to the end.

On sharing the Rio Grande Valley’s musical history with younger generations

Charlie Vela: It’s certainly a hope that this film instills some of that in the younger musicians, but you can’t find inspiration in something you don’t know about yet. On our Instagram account, we’ve been posting a lot of photos we acquired over the course of the production that we couldn’t put in the movie. We’re writing blurbs about the bands and trying to put them in a historical context. Right now, we have a very nearsighted historical perspective, so, hopefully, this can be a jumping off point for more information.

Ronnie Garza: We need to preserve our history and present it in a way that we can all consume. The music and the culture of this region isn’t very well documented.

Death Metal band Rest In Pain pose for a photo in 1989 in north McAllen. Photo courtesy of @barrioaldel
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On the Rio Grande Valley musician they both think needs his own film

Charlie Vela: Esteban Jordan! He’s an incredible figure with an incredible story. And he has so much unreleased music.

Ronnie Garza: Yes, and his kids are making one—a documentary. I feel like they saw there was an interest, processed it and are now moving forward. He grew up as a sharecropper—as a migrant worker. Then he picked up the accordion. He became influenced by the Brown Pride. He’s tries to expand on the whole genre and change up what Tejano and Conjunto music sounds like. He was a world-class musician and an exemplar of his community. He wore it on his shoulder. He wasn’t super political, but he tried to throw his weight behind what he could and tell the stories of people who were struggling.

On how Tejano and Conjunto music is changing today

Ronnie Garza: We see musicians like Steve Jordan’s kids continuing the tradition. When I see Tejano and Conjunto music live, it doesn’t feel like folk music to me. It feels like jazz. I think there is a deep musical tradition that has a lot of staying power, but I think [the younger generation] is looking for different ways to spin it and create new hybrids that are relevant. This music might not last in the [Grupo] Intocable form, but a lot of its roots are never going to go away.