'As I Walk Through The Valley' Filmmakers On the Missing Chapter of Texas Music
By Richard Gonzalez and Nicole Licea
Every region holds their contributions to the musical landscape in high regard. Places like New York have hip-hop, Seattle had grunge and most would argue that Texas has had a huge influence on country music. From Austin City Limits and Willie Nelson, to historic venues like Gruene Hall and The Broken Spoke, country music has always been at the forefront of the musical landscape in Texas. But like any music scene, there is always an underground creative outlet that may not get the same attention yet can certainly change the musical climate in its own way.
As I Walk Through The Valley is a film that hopes to highlight one of those underground scenes and show how the DIY punk scene of the Rio Grande Valley has long been in the shadows of the country aesthetic of Texas and, on a smaller scale, the Mexican Norteño influence in South Texas. The scene was born in the sixties as a way to protest discrimination and evolved into a huge community over the years with hundreds of bands and thousands of fans all taking part.
As I Walk Through The Valley was one of the films we highlighted during SXSW, and it has been getting a lot of deserved attention. The film is not just for fans of Texas music, but fans of music in general. It’s always exciting to see how a music scene is formed and how it creates its legacy. As I Walk Through The Valleyhas had successful screenings at various film festivals and a huge homecoming event in Edinburg, Texas. Additionally, there are plans for screenings in San Antonio and Brownsville, Texas. We had a chance to speak with the filmmakers, Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza, to discuss their motivation for making the film, their ties to the Rio Grande Valley music scene and their plans for helping the film reach a wider audience.
Why did you choose the Rio Grande Valley music scene as the subject of this documentary? How were you involved in the scene before coming up with the idea to make this film?
Charlie: We started going to shows in high school. I think the first local show I attended was in 1997 (we actually found a clip of the exact concert while doing research for the film, which was surreal). From there, I started playing and performing in bands, touring, and eventually recording a lot of bands in the local scene. More than half my life has been spent involved in some way, and it felt natural to try and understand it more deeply and tell it’s story.
Ronnie: Documenting HB2 in 2013 and the Refugee Crisis in 2014 turned out to kind of foreshadow this project. The Valley hit the spotlight because it was on the frontlines of both of these issues. But these issues took a toll on everyone affected. It seemed reasonable to me that the valley could use a pick-me-up after all this trauma basically.
I started going to shows back in High School with Charlie, then started throwing shows around the same time. We were both in a film club (Cintech) and hosted several Battle of the Bands and film screenings at SciTech in Mercedes. Back then I was recording shows and even cut together a long lost mini doc on The December Drive. But by 2005, when this film ends I had long since moved over to music primarily (Winter Texan) and started to do more artsy-fartsy experimental music and electronic installations at the Art Walk in McAllen.
You mentioned at the Q&A during SXSW that this film was made on a low budget. What was it like producing with this limitation?
Charlie: One of the core values instilled by growing up in the RGV scene is a fierce DIY/self-reliant spirit. Bands seldom toured in our area, so we made our own bands to entertain ourselves; local studios only recorded Tejano music, so we learned how to make our own records; original music-focused venues didn’t exist, so we pooled money and found make-shift spaces. That approach stays with you. Making the most of the tools you have at your disposal focuses your creative process, and when we began this film, the idea of waiting around for someone to magically grant us a budget simply wasn’t something we were willing to do.
Ronnie: It’s cheap to make a documentary because you don’t have to deal with special effects so much, and costumes and sets and all that. It just takes know-how and a decent camera. It seems like we are maybe already in the second generation of filmmakers that are past the prosumer tipping point so I think it’s more and more common to see these micro-budget productions.
Do you see similarities between the rasquache spirit of the RGV punk scene and your filmmaking process?
Ronnie: Of course! It’s essential to the whole conception of the project for me. The Valley has been the underdog forever. Also, personally, I get that feeling of not being able to get your music out there. It’s sort of been like the unconscious drive of the region. This sort of wanting to have your voice heard and communicate with the rest of the national scene but not being able to.
How did you choose which bands and artists to focus the most on in the documentary?
Charlie: There are literally thousands of musicians who have been part of the RGV scene. Each one of them has a story, each one interesting in their own way. We tried to use the bands we covered as a way of illustrating larger, more universal ideas about what it was like at that particular time. Also, we were limited by which artists we were able to find photos, video, or recordings of. There are plenty of extraordinary musicians, who were simply never able to document themselves at all.
Ronnie: It was a mix of reasons. Who was available, who had live footage or recorded songs. For the late 90s, we both had a sense of the story and main characters so we more or less knew that from the beginning. There were others that we couldn’t leave out because they kept coming back up like The Playboys of Edinburg or Toby Beau. And also for thematic reasons like with Steve Jordan, he helps us make sense of early Chicano music being like punk music. But I think we spend the most time on The Steroids cause they answered that essential question for us, “Who was the first punk band in the valley?”
Are there any other artists or members of the scene whose stories you wish you could have included but did not?
Ronnie: Yes, many. Las Hermanas Jimenez, Los Yaki, Los Frijoles, Jake, The Boxx, The Purple George, The Translucent Umbrellas, Seompi, Oscar Villareal, and on and on and on really.
In the film you drew connections between different generations of musicians in the Rio Grande Valley. What led you to choose this approach and how do you think that impacted the film?
Charlie: Watching some of the older musicians interact was kind of like getting to peer into our own future, they’re still very connected by the music of their youths, and it still plays a big role in their lives. Youth-culture always feels at odds with what came before, and I feel that having a longer perspective on some of these inter-generational commonalities can be a beautiful thing. Maybe it can foster more understanding and encouragement for future generations of valley musicians.
Ronnie: I don’t know, that’s just how I’ve always thought about music. What came before and how it influences what comes next. That’s music, it’s a conversation of vibes over time.
What were your biggest takeaways from the process of making this film? Did you learn anything unexpected?
Charlie: Definitely a stronger appreciation for regional music, and recasting the Chicanx music of the early 70s as a vital punk-like movement. Growing up in the late 80s and 90s it’s easy to take its ubiquity and popularity for granted in the Valley, but realizing that it had rebellious beginnings rooted in political struggle made me feel connected with it in a new way. Especially as we are seeing echoes of brown-pride today.
Ronnie: I learned so much making this film that it’s impossible to list everything in this format but I’ll just explore one thematic idea. I think it’s powerful to look at the ethnomusicology of the region through a postcolonial lens. Said’s Orientalism, Anzaldua’s Third Space and Homi Bhabha’s Transgressive Hybridity have been especially interesting lately. The whole postcolonial approach underscores the fact that there are various, perhaps competing, narratives about the people, culture and music of the region. Our look at rock and English language music tries to show the nuance and maybe remove some of the “othering” that can happen if you don’t have a clear view of the place.
You just completed the SXSW circuit and had your Rio Grande Valley premiere. What’s next? How can people watch As I Walk Through The Valley?
Charlie: We’re currently looking for a distributor that feels as passionately about this project and this subject as we are to help bring the film to the widest possible audience. We will also be submitting for other national and international film festivals in the meantime. When so much of the conversation about the border and the people who live here is one-dimensional, there is so much room for other stories and nuance to shape people’s perception of the region.
Ronnie: Brownsville and San Antonio, both details TBA. Submitting to other festivals nationally and internationally. But really, we need distribution. We’ve been able to put the movie in front of the right people but that’s it. To me it’s a no-brainer on this one because it seems like a lot of people want to see this, people from all over the country. It’s also a missing chapter in Texas music, I really hope we can broadcast this in a big way soon. If not, DIY or DIE, we’ll put it out ourselves and see how it goes.
If you can’t make a screening of the film it will hopefully be available on streaming services in the near future. You can do your part by requesting it be added to Netflix here. You can find all the latest info on the official website and by following them on Facebook.