Jesse Chuy Varela is Music Director at KCSM Jazz Radio, the WORLD’s premier jazz station, streaming at www.kcsm.org. This interview was conducted in 1998 when he was at KPFA, doing, among other things, a very popular show called La Onda Bajita.
TGT: You do so many different things: you’re a journalist, ann organizer, a writer, and an expert, really, on Latin jazz. What is your background and how did you get involved in all these different areas?
VARELA: I don’t know, bro, but I think part of it has to do with ah …you know I was born in Juarez — Ciudad Juarez. And the thing about Ciudad Juarez is that it’s a very vibrant place. There’s a lot there …it’s right along the border. And so it’s a place where I kinda always felt cultures meet, you know. And when we were little kids in Juarez, we saw a lot of things…. My father would take us to see the movies, and we would see the movies of people like Herman Valdez, Tin Tán, Cantinflas, you know, this kid who back then was a Joselito, who was actually from Spain. But they were very, very emotional movies, and we sorta got this sense of this culture, of what was happening around us. But on the flip side, we also got wind of what was going on with the Tejano. The music of people like Sano Suna, Little Joe, Lidia Mendoza, Flaco Jiménez, but also the Mexican music, the Norteño music Los Alegres de Teran, José Alfredo Jimenez, the mariachi, the trios. My mom loved the trios. So the music was always a really strong part of the household, of everything. But economically, you know, we were farmworkers. I had on my dad’s side his father who was Tadumara Indian, worked in a lot of ranchos, and, ah, he was hardly ever around the city. We’d always go out and see him maybe every couple of months out there in these places where he was at in Chihuahua, in the mountains. And he’s the one who actually took us when we were kids to see the Tarumara ceremonies because he wanted us to check this out, to be part of it. And so that’s what was happening on one side. On the other side, my mom’s dad owned a dairy. So he would deliver milk, and all the kids worked the dairy farm and the whole deal. It wasn’t a very prosperous dairy farm…. They could just basically earn a living. I think my mom’s family had fourteen kids. So everybody worked the farm. And then when my mom and my dad got married, and we wound up …we lived in Juarez for a little bit and then we wound up in El Paso. At first my dad had a real hard time finding work because he had been born in New Mexico, so he was a citizen. And so the thing is that then he found a job out in Selta. He took care of a barn in this little area where there were cottonfields. So basically we lived in a house right next to the barn, you know? And so the deal is that he was always out doing his carpentry work or whatever, and then during the days, since we were so close, my mom would say well come on! And when me and my brother were old enough, we’d go out there with her and we’d pick cotton. We picked cotton, we picked okra . . .
TGT: How old were you?
VARELA: Oh, I was probably, oh shit, man, about six, seven, when we started, you know what I mean? And the thing about it — yeah, about six or seven because I was already going to first grade, kindergarten. I flunked kindergarten — kindergarten — because I couldn’t speak English. And that’s the way it was in Texas back then was, it was really sink or swim. I remember this one teacher, Mrs. Spenser. Man, Mrs. Spenser was like, you know, seventy years old, bro. She would come up to me and say: “Are you thinking in Spanish?” And she’d say “Don’t think in Spanish!” You know? She’d ask me these questions, and I’d be afraid — you know what I mean? So sometimes I knew the answers but I was just afraid to say anything. And so the deal was that then they’d come over and they’d hit you — they’d hit you in the hand with a ruler. And so she flunked me. This must have been like 1959, 1960. It was a trip. And that always messed me, you know? But we were kids so we kept going.
There was this one teacher that I had in second grade. I had her for a couple of years. I can’t even remember her name. But she was a North American who was very cool, man. She was really a nice lady. She got us reading. And she would say, “yeah, here, check this out! Take it home, take it home. So we’d go home and we’d try to read. And in a way, I always thought that that was good. Because, on the one hand, I had this fear of English — that if I didn’t speak English right I was going to get punished. Then all of a sudden I felt good about reading. Reading did open me up and I did learn a lot. So that was very cool. That was kinda the whole trajectory there. It was a really fun time because there was such an innocence when you’re out there on the ranch. Even when later you realized — man, that was an oppressive situation. But I didn’t realize it then.
TGT: So how did you get interested in politics?
VARELA: My father was a carpenter, and his life had been pretty rough, one-after-another disappointments. I even felt some of the anguish of my father. He was born in Union, Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico), in the thirties, around the Depression, and had a lot of family there in northern Mexico. But the deal is that they were deported as part of the repatriations that happened. And so as a result, they all wound up in Ciudad Juarez because all they (la migra) did was pick you up and take you to the nearest border point. And so the US government actually denied his rights as a U.S. citizen. They didn’t even check to see if he was an American citizen.
TGT: What time period was this?
VARELA: This was during Roosevelt’s New Deal. His whole plan to get people back to work was basically to deport the Mexicans so that the jobs would go to the, quote unquote, “real Americans.” Even to this day — well, my grandfather died last year, but up to his last days he always disliked Roosevelt even though many people looked at Roosevelt like if he saved this country or something. My grandfather disliked Roosevelt because he denied his kids their rights, their homes, though the majority of them were born here. And so my father went through a lot of changes. And then when he was coming up in school, he wanted to be an accountant and he was never able to do that because he had to go to work since the family was so poor. My grandfather was a farmworker and as a result he never had any money.
So that was sorta a trip , and umm, even though the one thing that did happen that was always good for my dad was the fact that Lázaro Cárdenas — Lázaro Cárdenas, when (Mexico) actually dealt with the redistribution of land my grandfather was able to get a plot of land in a little town just outside of Juarez, in a place called San Lorenzo. So the family lived there in San Lorenzo, and he worked all the ranches. But mainly he worked one ranch the mountains. The thing is that there, everyone had to do their gig. They grew alfalfa, they did all kinds of stuff. He decided to become a carpenter. And he started doing work around El Paso, and around Juarez. And then, when I was born, they couldn’t get me citizenship. So they made me a permanent resident. So I came over (to the US) when I was around one year old. And then he decided when I was around eleven that we weren’t going anyplace. He didn’t feel that we had any future there, that all we were going to do is end up living in the fields.
Anyway we wound up moving to Los Angeles. I had an Aunt who lived in Boyle Heights, and so we stayed in the Boyle Heights area. And for the first few months, we all worked the fields. He got these gigs working out in Orange County picking oranges and picking strawberries. And my mom, she wasn’t at that point able to do that. You know, my sisters had been born, and they were like one and two years old. So at that point we had to find a place to live. East LA was very crowded and we couldn’t find any place. So my uncle knew this guy in Long Beach who had a place to rent out there by Signal Hill. So he said, hey man, go check it out. And it was right in the middle of the ghetto so it was a reasonably priced place, you know, a little house on Smith Place. And so we moved there.
But man, you know, we were only there for like a few weeks and the Watts rebellion happened. All of a sudden it’s like “burn, baby, burn,” and all these things are going on. And we’re like just shocked, man. We don’t know what the fuck was happening. Somebody throws a Molotov cocktail, and Signal Hill had all these oil wells, you know. And we were near a place where they had this oil storage facility and someone threw a Molotov cocktail in there. They got to it in time and everything. But when we come out there’s this fire burning. And we’re saying “What’s going on?”
Anyway so my mom tried to get us out of all that. So she put us into the Church. Me and my brother became altar boys.
At that time to make money we were also selling the LA Herald-Examiner after school. So we were talking to people. People on the streets would tell us what was going on and about the oppression of Black people, and so it all began to make sense. Then, all of a sudden, as a result of the Watts rebellion, the Long Beach School District decides to desegregate. So what happened was I got bussed. Well, first they came and talked to my mom and ran this whole trip to her about how — “Well, look! We’re doing this for a lot of reasons, but we think also that your son is a gifted student and we want to give him this opportunity, you know …we’re not just doing this stuff for desegregation, but they’re also going to be taking special classes at Long Beach State, so” — you know, on and on. And so we went there. We started having to get up and be at school at seven in the morning to take the bus all the way across town. And when we got there, the first few days, there were protestors. There were all these parents out there picketing. They didn’t want us there. And so we’d get off the bus and there’d be a teacher with us and he’d take us in, and we’d follow him. And it took a while to adjust to being out there on the playground. But kids are kids, and soon we began to make friends.
It was there at Long Beach State that I also saw my first radio station. We were taken on a field trip. There was this guy there teaching his students, and he said “Come on in,” and he was real friendly and he began to talk to us. He showed us all around and sat us down behind these microphones, and we’d talk we’d hear ourselves — he taped us. And we said, “Wow! This is great!” you know, and we tripped out, and started telling people how we went to this radio station. And even though I didn’t go back to a radio station until years later, when I got out of the Army, I always felt that it helped me. But that is what sorta began to shape me. Then my father, who had a heart condition, died when I was fourteen. My uncle, who lived up here in Martinez, realized that my mom — who was very very shook up — she kinda lost it in a way because she didn’t know what her future was going to be. She didn’t want us to go back to Juarez, and she didn’t know what she was going to do. So my uncle, who was a bricklayer, said, “Look, I’m making good money and I have a business, and I have a place where you guys can stay, so come on up!” He had these apartments, so we moved into these apartments. That was around 1968 when we moved up here. That is when the hippie era started happening here. And then of course the Viet Nam War was going on, and we were starting to become more aware of that stuff. But then the deal that really politicized us even more was — there was a guy there in Martinez named Mr. Velba. His sons were very involved in the UFW (United Farm Workers Union). So they began to get all the kids on the weekends and take us. You know? They’d say “We’re gonna go to Cochello. You guys want to go?” They’d come and talk to my mom and say, “Yeah, just give him a sleeping bag and we’ll feed him and do all this,” and so we’d go off on these weekend trips with the UFW, man. And we saw a lot of things. We saw the struggle with the Teamsters, we saw Cesar (Chavez). And that was really an emotional time, and we’d come back and we’d tell people about it at school.
TGT: What year was this?
VARELA: This was around 72-73, because I graduated in 73. But the deal is that we started getting more active. Aside from seeing Cesar organize, we were going through this hippie metamorphis, growing our hair long. And at the time, there were these friends that I had that were the children of very influential political people. One was Katie Miller, who was the sister of Congressman George Miller. Her father had actually been a senator from the area. They lived out in an area called the valley. These were very progressive people. So we wanted to get a class that — we wanted to do whatever the hell we wanted to do in the class. We wanted to explore all kinds of things — alternatives, you know? So the teachers told us, well, if you want to do a class, go to the school board and tell them you want it. So we went out and petitioned everybody, and then we did a presentation to the school board and got all of our friends to turn out and everything. It impressed them so much that they gave us a class. It was called “Explorations.” And we could do whatever we wanted man, so you know, we had a teacher that did light shows, at the time, at the Family Dog. So he’d come in and show us how to do light shows. And we’d bring in jazz musicians to play. But that was the first time that I ever saw a good result to anything. And that was really cool.
But you know, I was also hanging out on the streets with the homies and the whole deal. It was a year after high school that I started going to Diablo Valley College. I was studying drafting, because I had been pushed in that direction. And people said you should be a civil engineer because you’d do great. But I didn’t dig it, man, because the thing is musically, I had started playing the guitar when I was a kid out on the fields. My uncles had showed me how to play. And all through high school, you know what I mean? When we moved to Martinez, I had picked it back up. I started playing in Mexican bands in Oakland. That’s how I made extra money, playing out here on East 14th, playing Mexican music, man… rancheras, cumbias, and every now and then they’d let me have my little Santana feature. I also played with a band in Martinez called Los Hermanos Jaime, who’s father had been a very noted musician in Texas. And that’s what we played. We played Tex-Mex, Mexican, cumbias — whatever was popular.
The band that I played with in Oakland was called Los Deleites. That was a good experience, because it was crazy. You know what I mean? It was really vibrant. The low rider thing was heavy back then on East 14th, and so it was always fun. And there was always a lot of fights (Varela laughs) and it was like crazy. And the thing is that about a year after I got out of high school, I was hanging out with these dudes and we ripped off a car, and we went through all these changes. And even though I’d never been in trouble with the law, they pretty much threw the book at all of us, you know. And since I had never been in trouble, they offered me this option: You can either do all this time in the country jail — which wasn’t very much, it was between six and nine months. But at the time I was scared of jail. I said thought, the fuck am I getting into? And my mom in particular was worried because she was a single mother, and she was like totally torn up by this. And so the judge gave me the option of going in the army. So I went into the army, and there I go, man. You know? I’m off, and that was about three and-a-half years. The army also had its trials and tribulations, because I went through a lot of changes with drugs and stuff there. But I got to play my music, I was stationed in West Germany, and I saw a lot of the country. I was in Missouri for basic training, I was in Virginia for my training, and I was in Washington State for about six months.
TGT: What year was this?
VARELA: This was around `75 . . .
TGT: So the war was over . . .
VARELA: The war was over, but the deal about that, man, see, was that they said look, since you’re coming into this whole thing, they said, we’re gonna give you one option. Since basically it was a volunteer thing, they said I could choose wherever I wanted to go, so I said that I wanted to be close to home. So they said you, okay, you can stay in Washington State, at Fort Luis. Okay, cool. But the deal is that when I got there, six months later, they shipped me out! And I said “Wait a minute! I thought I signed up for this!” And they said, “Hey, man, you should have read the fine print.” You know? (Varela laughs) So I said, you fuckers, man. So from that day on, I was FTA, you know, fuck the army. I was like totally against the shit. The whole trip, you know…. But in Germany, you really got the sense of what people thought about you. You know a lot of people would confuse us with Turks. And then when they began to realize that we were GI’s, it was like, oooh, you’re worse. They looked at us as if we were there messing up their country. So you got the feeling that you were, on the one hand, the ugly American, and on the other, you were being compared to the people that were the labor force — the cheap labor force, which were the Turks and the North Africans. So you’d see that and you’d think, damn, man, these people are the same as everyone everywhere else, man. The same old racism keeps poppin’ up. But coming out of it, that’s where my eyes really opened up because when I got out of the army, I knew that I just had to go to school, that education was the only way. And I wound up at Diablo Valley College. I was part of La Raza Club there. We did a lot of organizing. Our whole aim was to try to really bring more Raza into the college. So we threw low rider car shows and all kinds of things. I started working, volunteering, at KBBF, you know, up in Santa Rosa. That’s where I started doing radio. That’s where I met Miguel Molina, and he — well, La Onda Bajita had been started up there, by a group, by a collective of Sonoma State students. The only time I could help them was on Sundays, so I’d go up there on Sundays and do engineering stuff, you know, I’d help solder stuff and things like that. And it was cool. And so from there, Harold (the engineer) started telling me, you know, there’s another station where you can volunteer and do stuff: KPFA. So by that point, Miguel already got an offer from someone to come down here and do a program. And we had met. So he said, “Hey, man, why don’t you come down here and help me out with this?” So that’s how La Onda Bajita started, and we’ve been on the air for fifteen years. Community minded. We look at ourselves as a community show. And that really helped.