The Likes of Gilbert Roland

This is Hispanic Heritage month, so I thought a reprint of an old Take This Tune blog article might be in order:

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I love story songs, slice of life songs, places that will never come again songs. Here is one of the best. Guy Clark’s picture of the South Coast of Texas, his youth and the people he knew whose way of life is disappearing in favor of the tourists who don’t know what they missed. So do you have a story of a place and time now gone.

The South Coast of Texas

The south coast of Texas is a thin slice of life
It’s salty and hard it is stern as a knife
Where the wind is for blowin’ up hurricanes for showin’
The snakes how to swim and the trees how to lean


The shrimpers and their ladies are out in the beer joints
Drinkin’ em down for they sail with the dawn
They’re bound for the Mexican Bay of Campeche
And the deck hands are singin’ adios Jolie Blon

There’s snowbirds in search of that sunshine and night life
And fond of greasin’ palms down the beach as they’re goin’
This livin’ on the edge of the waters of the world
Demands the dignity of whooping cranes and
The likes of Gilbert Roland


In the cars of my youth how I tore thru those sand dunes
Cut up my tires on them oyster shell roads
But nothin’ is forever say the old men in the shipyards
Turnin’ trees into shrimp boats Hell I guess they ought to know


“South Coast of Texas” with its story of the many cultures of South Texas from the French Creole, Mexican, and Texan hard working families that ring the gulf of Mexico now giving way to the gentrification of tourists but still hanging on to a proud way of life that requires the “dignity of whooping cranes and the likes of Gilbert Roland”.  This set me off on one of my “follow that link” manias and this time lucky people, you get to tag along.  If you have a story of your own, please join in by clicking on the Take This Tune link above.

The first time I heard “The South Coast of Texas”, my first thought was that I knew exactly what the words “the likes of Gilbert Roland” meant, but the second was “does anyone still remember Gilbert Roland”.  My memory immediately took me to the movie “Beneath the 12 Mile Reef” where he played a Greek deep sea sponge diver.  It was only the 3rd movie made in Cinemascope so the underwater scenes on the huge screen made up for any weaknesses in the script loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.

Gilbert Roland (Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso – December 11, 1905 – May 15, 1994) was one of the great Mexican leading men.  Though often cast as just about every swarthy ethnicity imaginable, he was one of the forces to gain both roles and respect for Mexican actors even while logging in time in roles often filled with cliches such as the Cisco Kid and Zorro.  His career spanned  from the silent era through to the early 1980s.  The coming of sound had not ended it, he had played in all kinds of movies, he had held the most beautiful women in his arms, and maybe the most important thing, he had been given the opportunity to show his acting talents.

Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban among others were the spearheads that have made it possible for actors who followed them to play roles that were not caricatures of Mexicans but to give them a reality and dignity without prejudice.

Ricardo Montalban  ( November 25, 1920 – January 14, 2009).

Despite their campaigns on behalf of Mexican actors, both Roland and Montalban made one of their last major motion pictures together as Native Americans in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, a true story of the 1878 campaign of chiefs Little Wolf  (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) who lead over three hundred starved and weary Cheyenne from their reservation in the Oklahoma territory to their home in Wyoming.  During the journey, they managed to elude the U.S. cavalry units which were trying to capture them. The two groups split up after reaching Nebraska, and while Dull Knife’s party was eventually forced to surrender near Fort Robinson, Little Wolf’s group made their way to Montana where there were finally allowed to remain.

This confluence of Mexican Actors striving for acceptance playing American Indians in a John Ford movie about driving tribes to the reservation.  Just to top it off the Indians may or may not have been speaking Navajo instead of Cheyenne per a story told in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns.

Tony Hillerman – Sacred Clowns – Jim Chee, a Navajo tribal policeman, and his girlfriend Janet Pete (half Navajo, half white) take a Cheyenne law enforcement officer to see the movie at a drive-in on the Navajo reservation. They explain why the Navajo audience enjoys the film so much and finds it so hilarious by revealing to him that much of the supposedly “Cheyenne”-language dialog is actually in Navajo, and actually says things, mostly ribald or obscene, that have nothing to do with the scene supposedly being played in the movie.  So if you happen to know anyone who speaks Navaho, invite them over for a movie night and get them to explain the jokes.

As we are all well aware, the Gulf of Mexico has taken quite a beating in the past few years from Katrina to the BP oil spill.  It would seem that the damage may take decades to repair and in the meantime, the recovery of the fishing and the way of life for “Shrimpers and their ladies” may never be the same.  You might want to make the trip to “The Coast of Campeche” while something of its magic still remains.


About Jamie

Retired Writer Editor - Loves Books, Musical Theater, politics for a good argument, genealogy, Scotland and owls
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One Response to The Likes of Gilbert Roland

  1. Travis says:

    This essay actually ends up being quite timely again, since the gulf coast just got smacked around a bit again from Mr Isaac.


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