The Many Lives (and Names) of Chicano Icon Rubén Guevara

A new documentary traces the journey of an L.A. legend who’s influenced generations of Latino/a artists and musicians

Rubén Guevara has had many names over the course of his six decade career: Jay P Mobey, Ruben of Ruben & the Jets, Funkahuatl. He’s been a doo-wop singer, a spoken-word performer, the leader of a fictional rock band, an actor, and an activist. A new documentary produced by award-winning arts and culture program Artbound titled Con Safos showcases his long, winding creative journey. Directed by Michael Vargas and Moni Vargas, the film features a chorus of collaborators, friends, and fans—from actor Cheech Marin to artist Chaz Bojórquez to punk pioneer Alice Bag—weighing in on his influence, and framing his life and work within the broader landscape of Chicano/a culture.

Guevara grew up in the multiracial community of La Veinte in Santa Monica in the 1940s and ’50s. His father, Rubén Guevara Sr., was part of a popular Mexican group, Trio Los Porteños, giving him an early introduction to music, although as he says in the film, his musical interests lay more with the rousing swing and blues of Louis Prima and the early rock of Ritchie Valens. As a teenager, he formed a doo-wop group, the Apollo Brothers, and by 1965 he was making a name for himself, appearing on the popular musical variety TV show Shindig!, alongside one of his musical idols, Bo Diddley. The only problem was that name wasn’t his own. “There was just one catch,” he says. “They wanted me to change my name to Jay P. Mobey.”

Guevara complied, reasoning that even Ritchie Valens had changed his name from Valenzuela in order to cross over. At a recent press screening of the documentary, his son Rubén Guevara III, an executive producer on the film, said that his father considered it “one of the biggest missteps of his career.”

Shindig! was soon off the air, and Mobey was Guevara once again. A trip to San Francisco in 1971 introduced Guevara to a new kind of multi-disciplinary performance that fused spoken word, theater, music, and dance. This led him to create his first work for the stage, Who Are the People?, an anti-war performance that challenged why so many Latinos were fighting and dying in Vietnam.

“That was the beginning of my Chicano consciousness,” Guevara recalled at the recent screening, “to do theater work and combine it with activism.”

His second act in theater would come a few years later when he became the frontman of Ruben & the Jets, a real band modeled on a fictional one. In 1968, Frank Zappa came out with a concept album about a Latino-lead doo-wop/rock band called “Cruising with Ruben & the Jets.” At a late-night record listening party at Zappa’s Laurel Canyon home, the idea was born to launch a real-life Ruben & the Jets, with a real Latino named Rubén fronting the band. “Chicano rock theater,” Guevara called it at the screening. “He represented that Chicano freedom, that new neo-Chicano,” says artist Chaz Bojórquez in the film.

The band released two albums, the second of which was titled Con Safos. Loosely translated as “with respect,” con safos, or c/s, was what graffiti taggers would add to their pieces so they didn’t get messed with or painted over. “Anything you do to this wall, we’re gonna do to you,” explained Bojórquez, “so do not touch this wall. This is ours.” The album cover featured the band hanging out on the corner of Soto Street in Boyle Heights (where Guevara has lived for decades), Chicano graffiti covering the liquor store wall behind them.

After the band fizzled out, Guevara went back to school, studying Chicano Studies at L.A. Community College, on a “mission to reconnect with my Mexican ancestry,” he says. A subsequent trip to Guadalajara would prove to be a pivotal moment for him, depicted through whimsical animations in the film. He asked directions from a nattily dressed older gentleman, who looked at him with disdain. “You’re one of those pochos,” the man declared, using a derogatory slang term for a Mexican-American who has left their homeland. When Guevara replied that he was Chicano, the man spat out: “Even worse, Chicanos don’t have a culture. They’re mongrels.”

Climbing the Mayan ruins at Palenque, Guevara mused on what it meant to be a Chicano artist. He came up with the idea of a Chicano Culture Sculptor, “someone who uses creativity to contribute to their culture, and helps shape it.”

Upon returning to L.A., he made his first piece of “Chicano sculpture,” a song poem called “C/S” that laid spoken word in the style of Gil Scott-Heron over a stirring funk track. It is in some sense a love letter to L.A., but one that chronicles episodes of racism and injustice, such as the Japanese internment during WWII and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, during which U.S. servicemen attacked young Latinos.

“Whenever I think about the greatest L.A. songs, ‘Con Safos’ is always on that list. To me that’s a quintessential Los Angeles song,” author and cultural critic Josh Kun says in the film. “I see the song almost as a musical tag, a sonic tag, of saying ‘I’m going to leave my mark on this city.’”

Throughout the ’80s, Guevara broadened his creative scope, acting and playing music in several Cheech & Chong films (he is listed as “East L.A. Cultural Attaché” in the credits for 1987’s Born in East L.A.). He also founded a record label, Zyanya, which put out compilations of Latino/a and Spanish language bands, beginning with Los Angelinos: The Eastside Renaissance, featuring an eclectic mix of bands like punk acts the BRAT and the Plugz alongside the old-time soul of Thee Royal Gents. Mexamerica, released in 2000, brought together musical artists from Mexico City, Tijuana, and East L.A. in order to “tear down that great pocho wall that separates Chicanos from Mexicanos,” Guevara says.

ruben guevara
Rubén performing at Club Lingerie in Hollywood in 1984

Courtesy Artbound

Alongside these pursuits, Guevara was also writing and performing in more experimental theater works such as La Quemada and Aztlan, Babylon, Rhythm & Blues, both from 1990, which tackled 500 years of Mexican and Latino history. From this work comes the name that he would adopt for himself: Funkahuatl—the “Neo-Chicano Aztec God of Funk”—that reflects the American, Chicano, and Indigenous parts of his identity.

At 78, Guevara shows no signs of slowing down, performing with his new band the Eastside Lovers, writing a 2018 autobiography Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo Wop Singer, and working on a new theater piece about the historical connections between Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo.

Con Safos the film does more than simply lay out the many lives Guevara has lived, it traces them alongside the development of Chicano/a identity and culture, underscoring his influence for subsequent generations of Latino/a artists and musicians.

“In a place like L.A., we are not nearly as visible as we need to be, so the work of making us visible, that’s part of the movement,” author Rubén Martínez notes in the film. “Rubén Guevara has been doing that since he was a kid on the scene playing Shindig!.”

Con Safos premieres Wednesday, October 13, at 9 p.m. on KCET Artbound.

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