Q&A - 8 Questions with Renee Tajima-Peña

The Academy Award nominee talks about family ghosts and her latest, 'Calavera Highway.'

For years, Renee Tajima-Peña and her husband Armando Peña talked about searching for his father Pedro who vanished as if in a dream during childhood. 

"But life happened," said Renee. More specifically, marriage, a baby and an untimely death happened. The marriage was to Armando and later came baby Gabriel.

The death of Rosa, Armando's mother, was devastating to her sons — all seven of them, said the Sansei filmmaker perhaps best known for her Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Who Killed Vincent Chin?"

But it also raised some questions about the Peña's family past that needed answers, so Renee, Armando, his brother Carlos and Gabriel piled into a car for a trip across America to bring Rosa's ashes back to her native Texas.

They captured all of the raw emotions with a camera.

"Calavera Highway," is Renee's latest documentary about her own family's haunted past. While screening the film in Dublin, Ireland, she caught up with the Pacific Citizen through e-mail. — Lynda Lin

Pacific Citizen: How difficult was it to make this film when the subjects are your family members?

Renee Tajima-Peña: It was difficult for all of us because Armando and Carlos were dredging up a painful history that they had never quite reconciled. They were talking a lot between themselves, unbeknownst to me, about what they were finding out, or afraid they would find out. On the other hand, these guys grew up without a father, and [are] very, very independent. I'm a part of the family, so they certainly weren't impressed that I was a film director, and by nature aren't given to taking direction. Plus my kid is a pretty hardheaded little guy. The three of them were a handful to say the least.

PC: You include footage of giving birth to Gabe. Talk about the importance of this scene.

RTP: The film explores how these seven brothers learned how to be men and fathers without the benefit of a father of their own. That scene was central to establishing that theme with the narrator and central character, my husband Armando, and his own emotional journey. What is interesting to me about Armando and his brothers is they've become very involved dads, despite growing up with absent fathers.

PC: What was the biggest challenge of traveling by car halfway across the country with a child?

RTP: Gabriel was about four when we shot the film. We actually took two vans — one for the characters and essential filming crew so that we could shoot while driving. The other one was for luggage, equipment, running errands, etc. To tell you the truth, traveling on a documentary is generally a lot of fun. We hire people we enjoy spending time with, and it's basically, 'road trip!' We talk, joke around, hang out together.

PC: Did you see any similarities in Armando's family history and your own?

RTP: My family started immigrating from Japan at the same time Armando's family started migrating to Texas, during the early 1900s. His grandfather landed in the Rio Grande Valley to harvest oranges and pick cotton; my grandfather went to Hawaii to cut cane on the sugar plantations.

We also had the same political coming of age in the student movement. He participated in the historic 1968 Edcouch Elsa School walkouts. It was part of the Chicano student blowouts going on all over the southwest at the time. They were demanding ethnic studies, better educational opportunities, hiring Mexican American teachers (the Rio Grande Valley is and was overwhelmingly Mexican American).

The boycotters at Edcouch Elsa were expelled and their case became the first major legal victory for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. A few years later I was involved in various strikes and walkouts demanding Asian American studies at my school in California. Even though we came from different cultures and economic backgrounds, this politicization and immigration heritage means we both 'get it' about the other's background.

My family was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Last year my husband, Gabriel, and another Mexican American friend and his son went on a fishing trip to June Lake and they stopped to show the kids Manzanar. I thought that was cool.

PC: In the backdrop of this family profile is a dark spot in American history — the Bracero Project and subsequent deportations tore families apart. What parallels do you see between the past and present day immigration policy?

RTP: Huge parallels. When I read about ICE raids and little kids watching their parents being rounded up and detained, I can't help but think those children are like Armando's brothers watching their father being hauled away by immigration authorities when they were little boys. I grew up with my grandparents, who could never go home for over 50 years because the Issei couldn't become naturalized citizens until what, 1959? So the idea of how families are torn apart is very real to me.

PC: I laughed out loud at the scene where Armando pushed miso soup as a possible answer to cancer. Was this your influence?

RTP: No, that was all Armando. He lived in the Sawtelle neighborhood of Los Angeles for years, ever since he was in graduate school at UCLA. That's an old Japanese American community, so he has always been familiar with Japanese food. And he's a bookworm, which we make a lot of fun of in the film. So when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he researched alternative medicines and macrobiotic diets. That's why he introduced her to miso soup.

Their mother, Rosa, complelely got into miso, shitake and different teas. It was very familiar to her because she had grown up in rural Mexican American communities with medicinal herbs and folk medicines. I remember I was once walking with her in Central Park in New York and she noticed some kind of herb she recognized from Texas. I had to stop her from picking it up because of all the rat poisons and stuff they use in the city.

PC: Armando made a life-changing revelation about the identity of his father. Has he come to terms with it in real life?

RTP: But the film was documenting real life! His conclusion in the film basically describes what he believes about the situation. In the end, his mother was the central force in her sons' lives, and the notion of a father was not important in the end. He's told me it's something you could never really reconcile. But he has his own son now, and he's got all his brothers.

PC: What are you doing in Dublin? And what is your next project?

RTP: I'm showing two films, 'Calavera Highway' and 'The New Americans' in a Master's class I'm giving here. I am executive producing 'Whatever It Takes.' The director is a very talented, first-time director, Christopher Wong. You can see a trailer of the film on the Web site: www.whateverittakesdoc.com.

To buy 'Calavera Highway' on DVD, go to: www.pbs.org/pov/calaverahighway.

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