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Bicultural Balladeer Earns National Award and Pokes Fun at Status Quo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His music once gave life to the airwaves from Mexico City to Salinas.

Whether the song was “Cancion Mexicana” or “Pancho Lopez,” Eduardo (Lalo) Guerrero’s beloved corridos (story ballads) are bicultural rarities that brought smiles and enjoyment on both sides of the border.

These days, Guerrero’s 74-year-old voice doesn’t ride the airwaves much. He is mostly content to play for small audiences at a local restaurant. But his more than five decades of musical experience have brought him recent respect from the National Endowment for the Arts, academics and students. And he continues to record his unique bicultural parodies while rarely turning down requests to perform at Latino and youth benefits.

In September, Guerrero was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. In a letter to Guerrero, President Bush said the award “is a tribute to your work and it reflects both the uniqueness of our country and the diversity of our culture.”

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Manuel Pena, a Cal State Fresno humanities professor, recently said Guerrero is “a major contributor to a number of musical genres that have been in the Southwest for a long time: the corrido , cancion comica (folk parody) and bimusical (bicultural) protest songs.”

Guerrero’s latest contribution is a compilation of folk parodies that he has just released in cassette form on his own Ambiente Records. Included are new songs that have become favorites of the crowd at Las Casuelas Nuevas, a restaurant in Rancho Mirage where Guerrero performs every Wednesday and Thursday night.

One such song, “Rainbow Coalition,” parodies “Mr. Sandman.” It envisions a Jesse Jackson White House: “Mr. Jackson,” Guerrero sings, “I had a dream/I dreamt the White House was coffee with cream/Your vice president was a Chicana/Your secretary of state, Lola Falana.”

The song demonstrates how Guerrero can decry the lack of minorities in leadership positions without alienating the Palm Springs area’s golf-cart set.

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“I give them a Chicano message with humor,” Guerrero said. “The Anglos--I’m talking the powers that be--seem to take it better that way.”

Lately, his songs have followed his humorous vein, giving Guerrero the style of a Chicano Weird Al Yankovic with an acoustic guitar. For instance, in Guerrero’s 1988 English-language cassette, the song “It’s Impossible” becomes “You’re Impossible” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” becomes “I Left My Car in San Francisco.”

He recently put the finishing touches on recording his lines for a Luis Valdez Christmas play, “La Pastorela,” in which he plays an old shepherd. It is scheduled to run on KCET (Channel 28) on Dec. 23, 24 and 25 and on other PBS stations during the Christmas season.

For the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts’ “The Underdogs” (“Los de Abajo”), Guerrero adopted some of his corridos in both languages for the drama. It plays at the BFA through Dec. 15.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Guerrero played bit roles in Hollywood films. He once found himself singing alongside Jane Russell. “Oh, man,” says Guerrero, “My life in the ‘40s and ‘50s--it was like fun, man. I was being paid for having a ball.”

But Guerrero’s childhood barrio in Tucson is a million miles from the stage. His mother gave birth to 27 children, most of whom were stillborn or died in infancy. He is one of eight who survived only to live in poverty.

“Everyone said we were poor,” Guerrero says, “but we didn’t know it . . . we were happy.”

Guerrero said his father was a hard-working railroad hand and his mother a homemaker who played her own inspiring corridos for the family. She later recorded her songs for the University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklore Center archive.

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In high school, Guerrero hung around with Gilbert Ronstadt, father of singer Linda, who is now a close family friend. “My first memory of Lalo was on my second birthday,” Linda Ronstadt said. “He serenaded me, and I still remember.” She said she recently recorded Guerrero’s standard “Cancion Mexicana,” a tribute to Mexican music, and she plans to release it on a future recording.

After graduating from high school, Guerrero set out for Los Angeles in 1937. A year later, he recorded his first single.

In the early years, Guerrero tried performing and recording in English, but he says American audiences weren’t ready for a Chicano crooner. So he stuck to Spanish-language corridos , and in 1941 hit the bull’s-eye when famous Mexican singer Lucha Reyes recorded his “Cancion Mexicana.” The song was a hit and later became a standard.

He spent World War II on the homefront, having been exempted from the draft because he and his first wife had had a child. He moved for a time to San Diego and worked at a Convair B-24 warplane plant. Guerrero finally returned to Los Angeles--this time to make it big in English.

His break came when a music agent asked him to record in English his Spanish-language song, “Pancho Lopez,” a parody of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” It reached No. 3 on the U.S. charts in 1955 and launched Guerrero’s career as a rare performer of bicultural music.

He admits that the lyrics, however, bowed to some stereotypes, such as the stanza that ends “Pancho, Pancho Lopez, you lazy son of a gun.”

Guerrero says he wrote and recorded the English version of “Pancho Lopez” for the money and would rather be remembered for his social and political music. He recorded songs in support of Chicano youths called “zoot-suiters” in the 1940s (four of his songs were used in Valdez’s acclaimed 1979 musical, “Zoot Suit”), in support of the Chicano movement in the 1960s and early 1970s and in support of multiculturalism in the 1980s.

“You shouldn’t base anything on ‘Pancho Lopez,’ because I have so much music that is so sensitive,” he said.

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Guerrero lives in Cathedral City with wife Lidia and their two adopted children, Jose, 25, and Patty, 22. Two of his most ardent fans are Dan, 51, and Mark, 42, his sons from his previous marriage, who are also in show business.

Dan Guerrero co-produces “El Show de Paul Rodriguez,” a bilingual television talk show that airs locally on KMEX (Channel 34). He also starred in off-Broadway plays in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mark Guerrero is a Palm Springs rocker who, as part of a group called “Tango,” recorded an album on the A&M; label. He had a song, “Pre-Columbian Dream” recorded by Herb Alpert in the early 1980s and is now looking for a label that will sign him as a solo artist.

“I’m proud of my father’s artistry, and I’m proud of his musical legacy,” Mark Guerrero said. “There’s been nobody who’s done so much in so many areas.”


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