“Fantasia del Barrio is a musical interpretation of expressions and experiences that are felt when one lives there. It is dedicated to the people who year after year journey away from their home to attain better well being for their families. It is about those who wrap themselves in dreams in search of reality. It’s a remembrance of a hellish war that many of our brothers met with by chance. It is also a request about the wants and needs of a people. Their happiness, sadness, downfalls and triumphs. It is in the end for the friends of the world who want to live at peace with themselves.”
– Eugenio “Gene” Jaimez, from the original LP jacket
Nearly 9,000 miles separate Cotulla, Texas from the lush tropical mountains of the Binh Dinh province along the south central coast of Vietnam. For Eugenio “Gene” Jaimez, the small town of Cotulla, which lies halfway between San Antonio and the Mexican border, was home. Like so many young men plucked from their reality and thrust into surreality, Gene was drafted into a psychedelic war at the age of 19. He spent Christmas of 1966 not at the Catholic church where he served as an altar boy growing up, but at a military landing zone along the Kim Son River in Binh Dinh.
At 1 a.m. on December 27, the relative calm of a holiday truce was punctured by the crackling of gunfire. Hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers breached the perimeter of the U.S. landing zone dubbed LZ Bird. After 60 nightmarish minutes, more than 200 North Vietnamese soldiers lay dead. Of the 200 Americans, half were killed or seriously wounded. Shrapnel from a mortar round ruptured Gene’s abdomen, an injury from which he has never fully recovered.
“It was a bad scene for both sides which I don’t care to relive these days,” he says.
Fantasia del Barrio, a deeply personal work of instrumental introspection, is Gene’s meditation on the Vietnam War and the Chicano experience at home. On the original LP jacket from 1975, he dedicates the album to those “that want to live at peace with themselves,” a luxury he has never been afforded himself. The man who spearheaded El Gusano wielding a ‘66 Fender Stratocaster suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The resulting anxiety makes it difficult for Gene to meet new people and for this release he answered questions in writing, using his son as an intermediary.
After the injury at LZ Bird, Gene finished his tour of duty in Tokyo, Japan, stroking guitar with an R&B band of servicemen in his free time. “I played with a band of soul brothers. I believe the name of the band was The Sensations or something to that effect. We played mostly Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and such.”
Before and after the war, Gene played with local conjuntos, performing Tejano and Top 40 covers in bars from San Antonio to Laredo. A self-taught guitarist, he loved the Westside Sound of San Antonio ñ Sunny and the Sunliners, Freddie Fender, Dough Sahm, Sonny Ace – that reached Cotulla on the airwaves of KTSA and KONO, two of the only radio stations that could be picked up in town.
Born of casual jam sessions and a shared taste in music and recreational drugs, El Gusano formed in 1975. Fantasia del Barrio was Gene’s singular vision, an amalgamation of all the music he loved that somehow sounded like none of it. It was the conjunto of his childhood, the R&B he played in Tokyo and the rock and roll he heard on the radio all rolled into a stunning acid-induced concept record.
“We were all rock and rollers,” boasts El Gusano drummer Sonny Ramirez. “We dug our heritage and we loved Tejano music but if we had a choice we’d play rock and roll and blues.”
The strange brew didn’t convert many Cotullans. Most met the music with a mix of perplexity and disdain. ”When my daddy heard this album he was so pissed off, man,” Sonny said. Of course, his father had a vested interest. Sonny’s brother Ruben Ramirez, all of 14 years old at the time, played bass on the record. “Nobody understood what we were doing, nobody except the band and a few other friends. Everybody else was in their little conjunto world with their accordion and stuff like that, and we were outsiders.”
The band fit in fine at Juan Tutri 10 PM, the only Cotulla hangout that might pass for progressive. The album track named for that bohemian bar rides Gene’s breezy guitar melody and is the sunniest song on a sometimes melancholic journey; a happy sound for a happy place.
“We could go in there and do whatever we felt like doing and nobody would criticize us and people would just have fun and listen to us,” Sonny remembers.” We loved that little cantina.”
Juan Tutri 10 PM doubled as a meeting space for members of La Raza Unida Party (RUP), the Chicano political party birthed in nearby Crystal City. Before RUP rocked the status quo in 1970, Mexican Americans had no voice in local politics despite accounting for more than 70 percent of Cotulla’s population. Facing fierce resistance from the political establishment, RUP wrestled control of the city council in 1970 and won seats on the local school board. RUP candidate Afredo Zamora, Jr was elected mayor, defeating Paul Cotulla of the town’s founding family. By the time El Gusano recorded their ghetto fantasy, Raza Unida had lost momentum in much of the Lone Star State but Cotulla remained a stronghold.
“We weren’t like the Hells Angels or anti-American or anything like that,” Sonny explains. “We were just worried about our Hispanic base and about how we were being treated.”
The politics of the time manifest on album opener “Work Your Hand to the Bone,” a loping Minimoog funk jam for workers on every farm and in every factory. The track was recorded in 1975 at the studio of Joey Records in San Antonio as part of the ten-hour marathon session that spawned Fantasia del Barrio. The studio had just purchased a brand new 8-track recorder and, as luck would have it, El Gusano got to break it in. Every song was recorded in a single take, warts and all, with layers of percussion, synthesizers and accompaniment from a 12-string guitar added later.
“It was just a big old party, it wasn’t a disciplined session,” Sonny recalls. “We were there drinking and partying in the studio. We had practiced these songs so much that when we got into the studio the actual recording of it came easy. We made bologna sandwiches there, crashed, woke up and carried on. It was a fun time.”
Gene puts it more bluntly: “I think that we should have been more disciplined and less plastered.”
What the band lacked in sobriety it made up for with ingenuity, crafting high concept music with low budget instruments.
“Whenever you hear chimes on the record they aren’t actually chimes,” Sonny delights. “We were poor and our instruments were poor. I couldn’t afford any chimes. The studio at the time was going through some construction so I walked outside and found a bunch of nails and bolts and stuff like that. I tied them on a string and tied that to a coat hanger and made it into a chime, man! I even used a crowbar. I hung it by a string and was hitting it with a pair of pliers or a screwdriver.”
The band paid for a private pressing of 300 copies of Fantasia del Barrio. Distribution consisted of Gene, Sonny, Ruben and saxophonist Carlos Salazar handing out free copies to their friends. Only a handful of the original LPs were actually sold and fewer still are known to exist today. While El Gusano has remained virtually unknown, Fantasia del Barrio has earned Holy Grail status among the most dedicated diggers of psych and break records. In 2009, Austin musician and record collector Jason Chronis ended the long search for band members by locating Gene.
Sonny, 57, now lives in Victoria, about 40 miles from the Gulf Coast in southeast Texas where he works long hours as a salesman for a beer distributor. Gene, 63, has settled in Laredo and spends much of his time fashioning string instruments by hand. Among his creations are hybrids like the “dulcitar,” a melding of the guitar and dulcimer.
“I think I’ve always wanted to build my own instruments,” he says. “In fact, I might enjoy that more than making music. I’m limited in what I can construct since I only use a jigsaw, a hand drill, glue, sandpaper, stains and, of course, whatever suitable wood I come across.”
Sonny describes Gene’s creations as strange but beautiful. The same could be said for the music of Fantasia del Barrio and Gene’s hand drawn cover art depicting Plaza Florita, a landmark of Cotulla’s impoverished barrio. The plaza sits directly across the street from Welhausen School, a historically separate but unequal institution for the town’s Latino population where a young Lyndon B. Johnson served as teacher and principal from 1928-1929.
Moments before signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, President Johnson said, “I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”
The plight of those living in Cotulla’s barrio sparked Johnson’s quest for social justice at home. As Gene Jaimez’ commander in chief, his decision to escalate the war in Vietnam changed one of those lives forever. Fantasia del Barrio was Gene’s musical therapy, an attempt to come to terms with the horrors he witnessed half a world away. For the rest of El Gusano it represented a journey beyond the confines of Cotulla.
“We were kids, kids that were learning our instruments and trying to escape from reality at the time,” Sonny says. “In Cotulla there was absolutely nothing. You went to school and then you worked on the ranches and that’s all you did. That music was our escape from reality.”
– Thomas Fawcett, September 2010, Austin, Texas