Cine El Rey owner Bert Guerra stood on the stage of his theater Monday night in front of mostly empty chairs. While more people would file in before the start of the films, “Del Mero Corazon” and “Chulas Fronteras,” Guerra said they weren’t going to waste an opportunity to expose Rio Grande Valley residents to this art which documented conjunto music thriving in the area.
“We normally don’t charge for movies,” Guerra said before thanking those who paid the $10 fee to the studio that remastered the classic documentaries. “It’s a shame that we don’t have this place packed.”
The film highlights the importance of borderland musicians Ramiro Cavazos, Rumel Fuentes, Don Santiago Jiménez, Flaco Jiménez, Santiago Jiménez, Los Alegres de Terán, Lydia Mendoza, Narciso Martínez, and Los Pingüinos del Norte.
Guerra spoke of the history of the theater, which hosted its fair share of cultural icons in its more than seven-decade history. It’s now the home of the Historic Cine El Rey Theatre Foundation, which co-hosted the event with the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center.
“This building is 72 years old now, and I hope it’s around another 72,” Guerra said. “I don’t know. I’m trying to do my best with the theater and the legacy it has.
“I do know for certain, none of us are going to be here in 72 years from now. That’s what life is all about: living and dying, but the one thing that doesn’t die is art.”
Rogelio Nunez, of the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center, said screening these artistic achievements — these pair of films chronicling conjunto and Tejano music — was “critical” because “this is the basis of who we are on this border.”
The music is “an American genre … created out of pain, … exploitation, racism (and) segregation,” he said. “It’s the history of South Texas.”
Nunez spoke about how conjunto and Tejano “evolved in this particular region of the country in a moment … when it (was) very contentious” during the first half of the 20th century.
He said people started to document their own cultural experience on this side of the border even before the United States’ southern boundary was established.
“We have family on both sides,” he said. “We have traditions and cultura on both sides.”
And even though Narcisco Martinez, his organization’s namesake, pioneered this music on the American side, there was still a connection to Mexico. It’s something he related to present day.
“Regardless of how many Border Patrol … (and) DPS you have, there is still a crossing of people,” he said of the culture. “You can never disconnect us.
“Politically speaking, the current administration will do everything to say we don’t belong here and ‘we don’t want you and we’re going to deport you.’ But we’ve gone through a lot of that before.”
The corridos, or musical “folk narratives” as he called them, documented the Borderlands.
“Everyone in the Valley should know who these musicians are,” Nunez said. “On the other hand, if no one exposes them other than perhaps at dances or events, … it’s not in the curriculum.
“Our school districts don’t pick this up. Our universities don’t pick this up. That’s why thee is an importance of trying to have Mexican-American Studies from (kindergarten) to college.”
Reflecting on the past, he said the rhetoric about Mexican-Americans hasn’t changed and the screening was meant to help educate people about their history.
“I don’t believe in violence (but) it’s just a matter of mobilization (and) more consciousness,” Nunez said. “They aren’t going to give you that power.
“We have to take it away and that’s what we intend to do.”
Guerra also spoke about the importance of making art and how it can make one feel about a certain place and time. He encouraged the artists in attendance to consider their pasts and not ignore them.
He then questioned the responsibility of artists in 2019.
“You have to figure out what you have to do with the talents you got,” he said. “We’re living in a time when (if) you leave water in the desert, you’re going to jail.”
He then made the discussion more inclusive, defining art more broadly as living life and as a form of artistic expression.
“This is our paintbrush,” he said. “This is our canvas of America. People don’t understand us, right?”
He said the Valley has people who come in from other states and try to define us.
“Luckily, we have this piece of art … (that) came out in 1979 … that gives us a little piece of what happened back then,” he said about the films.
What matters is the “human spirit,” which is captured in the films, Guerra said, adding he also felt it within the historic theater.
“That’s the thing that’s going to last,” he said. “That’s what we need to work on.
“It’s about caring about things that are not American. That’s what makes America great.”
The nonprofits will screen the films again Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Cine El Rey. There is a $10 entrance fee.