In London Alejandro resembled a Latin matinee idol, his Mayan bloodlines and fine features complimenting the music’s dark beauty. Here he’s gaunt, thin as those who are seriously ill get, a haunted look in his dark eyes. He apologises for his lateness, refuses food, orders mineral water, all in a voice I recognise from listening to him sing: smooth, expressive, questioning, a voice seemingly undamaged by disease. I get all fan boyish, want to ask him to sing – anything, even the menu! – then recall I’m here as a professional so enquire as to his health: like many musicians he lacks private health insurance – the high premiums demanded being impossible to meet – so has had to rely on the largesse of friends and admirers to help cover medical treatment: Por Vida, a double CD of artists covering his songs, has helped here.
‘Health insurance . . . it’s unaffordable in the States,’ says Alejandro. ‘For most people it’s unaffordable, whether you’re a musician or not.’
I note that one in three Americans under 65 went without health insurance at some point during the past two years and Alejandro nods, adding ‘my father was a plumber and even through the union it was hard for him to provide health insurance for all his children. Behind Por Vida there was the concern of addressing universal health care rather than simply paying tribute to me. And that’s something I totally agree with.’ I’ve no idea about the statistics for those over 65 but Kell mentioned having no health care, no social security, being reduced to dosing himself with aspirin when unwell. Thing is, Alejandro’s just one of 8.5 million Texans – 43.4% of the non-elderly population – lacking health insurance, the highest in the US. Alejandro’s a widely admired artist so people rally to support him but for Joe & Josephine Average the situation can only be far worse. Alejandro shivers. I’m not sure if it’s the air conditioning or his own condition but it forces me to blurt out ‘how’s the treatment?’
‘I went through nine months of treatment for Hepatitis C and it totally kicked my ass. I was totally set to take it for another nine months and then the medicine began to work against me and I got totally sick and had to stop. Funny thing is, I’m feeling much better now I’ve stopped. And the last time I did a blood test the disease was totally undetectable and I’m hoping it’ll stay that way. It’s up to the Buddha, I guess.’
The employees and customers of Curra’s Grill move past us, a bustle of Mexican American energy, English and Spanish both native tongues here. The food is heavy, tasty, the salsa spicy, the vibe good. Things have changed somewhat, I suggest, since you were a kid in Texas? Sure, says Alejandro, a lot. And then he smiles a small, dreamy smile. Go on, I offer, tell me something about growing up Mexican American . . . how it comes into your songs . . . lives in your music.
‘My father,’ says Alejandro, ‘it’s his story. See, when he was twelve years old in Southern Mexico, living with his grandmother, his cousin, who was sixteen, told him they could find his parents if they just bordered this train. So he does it, not telling his grandmother, and she’s sitting there waving at the train and he’s waving goodbye. That’s the song Wave –‘
‘A great, great song.’
‘Thanks. So he went in search of his parents in Texas. They were working as migrant workers and he found them in this little town. They were pickers. The songs for Hand Of The Father came out of considering my parents experience. We were living outside San Antonio and it was just like Mexico, everyone spoke Spanish. Then one day we left for California. Left my horse, dog, cat . . . everything. I’ve always been moving. It’s part of my family history, constant motion. You know, when we left Texas it was under the guise of going to visit relatives in California but it wasn’t ‘til my father passed away that I heard the true story and it was this: my mother was running away from my father and had everything packed up and the night before we left he turns up and invites himself along on the trip. So that’s how we ended up in California, living with relatives. He didn’t have any money so we lived in these workers quarters on a big orange glove plantation. I had to learn to speak English extremely quickly. A new place, a new language, a new everything. Here was this paradise – we went to beautiful beaches for the first time; lived around orange and avocado orchards – but the trains still carried hobos who still camped out in the groves and all our furniture and everything remained in Texas.’
‘It’s funny, my father, he never had to find his identity. He was Mexican. A good singer. A union guy. One of the reasons we left Texas for California is that Texas is a right-to-work state while California has unions. So as young kids we would go to all the strikes he was on. We learned to raise our fists quite early. But, growing up in California, we listened to surf music and English rock and were so immersed in this new culture and it was hard to find your identity. It was frowned upon in school. Now it’s encouraged and that’s because of what happened in the 1960s.’
‘You’re referencing the activism of union leader Cesar Chavez and the Chicano movement?’
‘Absolutely. Every Mexican family in Southern California had a picture of Cesar Chavez opposite one of John F. Kennedy on either side of the Virgin Of Guadalupe. He was always part of that shrine. For us he was our Abraham Lincoln, he was a role model we could all aspire to. He had that quality to him, he was soft spoken, he was calm, strong, a man like Gandhi, a very important figure for all of us growing up. I used to work on picket lines as much as I could in high school and he meant a lot to us.’
READ THE COMPLETE ALEJANDRO INTERVIEW IN MORE MILES THAN MONEY