Skip to main content

Welfare Overhaul's Impact On America's Poorest.

New York Times reporter Jason DeParle recently traveled to Arizona, where many people have been dropped from the welfare program. Republican leaders now want to apply the changes made to the welfare program to other aspects of the social safety net, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

21:12

Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2012: Interview with Jason DeParle; Interview with Fernando Trueba.

Transcript

April 12, 2012

Guests: Jason DeParle-Fernando Trueba

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How secure is America's safety net for the poor? In 1996, President Clinton pledged to end welfare as we know it when he signed a new law reforming the welfare system. The economy was in good shape then, but the recession is testing those reforms. Recent studies have found that as many as one out of every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid. That's roughly four million women and children.

My guest, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, tracked down some of those women for an article that was published earlier this month. He chose Phoenix as the location for this report because Arizona is one of 16 states that have reduced its welfare caseload even further since the start of the recession. Arizona cut its caseload by half.

DeParle writes: Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps, unquote. Now there's a movement to apply the same approach used in welfare reform to food stamps and Medicaid. Those changes are advocated by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee.

Jason DeParle has reported on poverty for the New York Times for more than 20 years. Jason DeParle, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JASON DEPARLE: Thank you.

GROSS: So before we assess how ending welfare as we know it has worked when it's been needed most, in economic hard times, let's describe the changes that the law Clinton signed into effect put into place. What's the difference between welfare now and welfare before the 1996 bill?

DEPARLE: Well, there's two sets of differences. One is what it requires of the poor people themselves. Under the old law, they had few requirements. Under the new law, there are work rules and time limits. But perhaps even more important for the current context, there was a change in the financing structure of the program.

Under the old law, states could enroll as many people as they wanted, and the federal government would pay a large part, a large share of the increased cost for every new person that came on the rolls. There was a cost-sharing arrangement.

Under the new law, states get a flat amount of money no matter how many people they enroll. So in a sense every new person they enroll comes out of their allotment. They have a strong financial incentive to keep the rolls low. And I think that's played a large part in the state's behavior during the recession. They had a financial interest in keeping people off of welfare.

GROSS: If states are only getting a finite amount of money, no matter how many people are poor and need welfare in their state, how is that affecting how the states are using the money?

DEPARLE: Well, you can see a dramatic difference between two programs. One is the cash welfare program, where in essence every new person the state puts on the rolls comes out of the state's own pocket. Those rolls have stayed a near-historic lows. When it's the state's own money that's at stake, very few people get on the rolls.

By contrast, look at the food stamp program, which has nearly doubled since the economy went into a tailspin four years ago. We have a record number of people on food stamps. A big part of the reason is that the federal government pays the entire cost of that program, and states take positive steps to discourage people from getting on cash assistance, and they do broad outreach programs to help people getting on food stamps.

When the federal government pays the bill, the states act in a very different way.

GROSS: One of the things you found is that since states are just getting a finite amount of money from the federal government for welfare, some states are using some of that money, money intended for the poor, and using it to plug other budget holes. What are some of the ways the money for welfare is getting re-apportioned by states?

DEPARLE: Right. States are getting the same amount of money that they did 15 years ago, even though their caseloads are down by two-thirds. So on a per-case basis, they have much more money than they used to, but under the federal law, they're allowed to transfer, in effect, almost unlimited amounts of that money to other programs that have some connection to the needy.

So most states have real problems with their foster care systems. A lot of them are under court order. They can take this federal money that was meant to pay cash benefits and put poor women to work and use it to plug holes in their foster care systems, which is what many are doing.

In Arizona, about 60 percent of the money goes to that.

GROSS: And a lot of it's going to adoption services too, you say.

DEPARLE: Adoption services, foster care, right, both of those under the broad rubric of child welfare systems. But it can go to other things too. It can go to child care. It can go to early education. It can go to tax supports for low-income families. It can go to a lot of things, and any of those things might be thought of, might be, in fact, worthy services for the poor.

The question, the point is, it wasn't what that program - what this program was intended to do, which was to provide income support for poor mothers and their children. And by transferring it to other programs, in effect what states are doing is backing out the state dollars from those programs. They can pay for those programs with federal dollars, take out the state dollars, and then that leaves poor families with children with less support.

GROSS: So how many states do you think are diverting money like this?

DEPARLE: Oh, probably all.

GROSS: So if caseloads are down in some states, is that a sign that the welfare reforms have worked because fewer people are on welfare?

DEPARLE: Everyone has a different definition of worked. So if your goal was to cut caseloads, then the 1996 law has been a success beyond imagining. If your goal was to increase the work effort of poor mothers, poor single mothers, then you'd have to say the law was pretty successful in that regard too, even in this economy, bad as it is. Similar shares of - about as many low-income single mothers are working as 15, 20 years ago.

So it has cut caseloads, it has promoted work. If your goal was to reduce poverty, it's been much - or raise incomes, it's been much less successful. It's not clear that people are substantially better off when they get off welfare for a low-income job.

And if your goal was to change the trajectory of the children's lives - you know, early on there was a lot of talk about mothers being role models, kids would see mom getting up, going to work, they would raise their aspirations, they would work harder in school, they would avoid crime, avoid pregnancy, you know, put kids on a different life path - I think there's been no evidence of that. If anything, maybe even on the margin it's been bad for kids because - or at least adolescent kids, because it means their mothers are away more often.

So it depends what you mean by works.

GROSS: So the welfare reform era has meant more restrictions for people who are on welfare. What are some of those increased restrictions?

DEPARLE: Well, there's two main categories. One is time limits. Under the federal law, most recipients are supposed to be limited to just five years of cash assistance in their lifetimes. But states are allowed to reduce those as much as they want.

Arizona, in the midst of the worst economy in memory, cut their caseloads down from five years to two years and in essence reduced half the caseloads. So just with a vote of the legislature, you can cut the caseload in half just by reducing the time limits.

GROSS: Can I just stop you for a second? Doesn't that make it seem - so you're basically, like, saying time's up, you're off welfare. But if you just look at the statistics, it could look like, wow, what a success, fewer people on welfare, that must mean that they don't need it anymore. But it doesn't necessarily mean that.

DEPARLE: Yes, it goes back to what you asked, did it work. It worked in cutting caseloads. But right, those - with a stroke of the pen, Arizona could cut its caseloads in half, but it doesn't mean that those families that lost their cash aid are any better able to support themselves.

States are pretty much free to run their programs however they want and to impose any kind of administrative barriers that they choose. So just by changing your administrative procedures, making someone come in twice to sign up, say, instead of once, you can have a big impact on the caseload. And I think a lot of women have - not all, but a lot of women have decided the system has just gotten to be more hassle than it's worth, you know, on a cost-benefit basis.

The cash amounts, the benefits have dwindled to such a low amount, and the amount of time that the program requires has gone up. A lot of women have just walked away from it.

GROSS: Now, you write about single mothers who have been dropped from the welfare rolls and what they're trying to do to make ends meet. What are some of the stories that you've heard?

DEPARLE: You know, Terry, I've been interviewing poor single mothers for more than 20 years, and I can't remember a time when I heard people talk so openly about desperate or even illegal things that they were doing in order to make ends meet. They were selling food stamps. They were selling blood. Women talked openly about shoplifting.

One woman was quite up front on that she'd been engaging in muggings of illegal immigrants. A lot of women are going back to relationships with - that they had with violent men and were open in saying they were only doing it because they didn't have any other choice. Lots of doubling up. Lots of going to churches, food pantries.

GROSS: I thought one of the most unusual stories that you heard was told by the mother who sold her child's Social Security number.

DEPARLE: Some women are able to raise money by letting friends or relatives use their children's Social Security numbers to claim tax credits, and this woman, her sister, I think it was, had promised her $3,000 - had promised her a share of the $3,000 tax credit if she could lend her the Social Security numbers of the kids, and the woman did it but was complaining she didn't get the full sum that she was owed.

GROSS: One of the things that welfare reform was supposed to do was promote a work ethic. Can you evaluate whether that has succeeded?

DEPARLE: Well, I would say it has succeeded, because low-income since mothers went to work in much greater shares than they ever had before. It was partly the great economy of the late 1990s. It was partly the provision of extra benefits like tax credits and child care that helped people take low-wage jobs. But certainly when you have less access to cash aid, it did prompt more people to go to work.

And even now in the bad economy that we're in, low-income single mothers are working as much, or by some measures more, than they used to. So if it helped - if the question is merely did it make people work more than they otherwise would have, the answer is yes.

If the question is what are the costs of that, then the answer gets more complicated because one of the costs is that people who either cannot or do not or for whatever reason don't make that transition - they might be depressed, they might be addicted, they might just live in a place of terrible high unemployment - there's much less left for them and there's - they can fall farther, much farther under the new system than they could under the old.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jason DeParle, and he writes about poverty for the New York Times, and he's been covering poverty for years for the Times. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason DeParle. He's a reporter for the New York Times who's covered poverty for many years, and he recently wrote about how the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed in 1996 has been working, you know, during this period of recession and economic hard times.

Let's talk about what some of the politicians have to say. Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin, who is the chair of the House Budget Committee, calls the welfare program, quote, an unprecedented success. And he wants to do what he describes as repairing the social safety net. Does he want to apply the changes to welfare to other aspects of the social safety net?

DEPARLE: Oh, yes, very much, in two ways. One is to do the same capped funding to turn what are so-called entitlements, where the federal government will provide as much aid as needed into a so-called block grant, where the federal government says this is as much as you get, states, and you manage as you want.

So I think the current, virtually all the Republican leaders now want to turn Medicaid and food stamps, two programs that are much, much bigger than cash welfare ever was, into block grants. Mitt Romney supported that, Paul Ryan supported that.

The second area in which they want to use the welfare law as a model is to instill some sort of either time limits or work requirements, some obligations, on the recipients themselves. So that's why the fate of the welfare bill is - I mean, it would be important even if it only affected the people who are using it.

But it has a much larger importance right now because it is being seen as a model for remaking much, much larger parts of the federal government.

GROSS: So he would like to apply it to the food stamp program what's been done to welfare. Now, even though the welfare rolls have decreased a lot, in part because of states adding restrictions that basically throw people off the welfare rolls, food stamps, the number of people using them has doubled recently, hasn't it?

DEPARLE: Yes, the food stamp rolls have nearly doubled since the economy went south in 2007. Republicans tend to see that as an example of federal spending out of control. The Democrats tend to see that as the one part of the safety net that has responded vigorously, as a safety net should, an essential benefit that's keeping the destitute from even worse hardship.

GROSS: Yes, and one of the ways it's keeping the destitute from worse hardship, you describe some people as selling their food stamps because it's the only - food stamps is the only income they have. So if the mother doesn't eat, she can sell some of the food stamps to have more money to support her children.

DEPARLE: With the limits on cash aid, I think a lot of women have gotten some cash income from their food stamps. I think that's a common phenomenon. But I wouldn't want to leave the impression that I think the food stamp program is being widely abused, misused, isn't needed.

In my travels through low-income America, I have, over a period of many years, repeatedly been struck by how often and how hard people struggle to keep food on the table throughout the month.

For those of us who never think twice about having enough food, it's hard to imagine what a daily struggle it is for some needy families. So the fact that people are - desperate people are monetizing their food stamp benefit to some degree or other I think is more of a comment on the restrictions of cash aid than it is on the need for food stamps.

GROSS: The story that we've been talking about, about people who represent the people who have fallen through the cracks since welfare reform and since the economic recession, what kind of reaction have you gotten to that story?

DEPARLE: We got hundreds of comments on the story, and as always, some were of the why-should-I-care-about-these-people variety. They - you know, why should my tax dollars go to help these people who are not working, who haven't worked in the past, who are here illegally, who whatever.

You know, the short answer is that they have kids. The program, the cash welfare program, has always been for families with children. It used to be called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. We don't provide cash aid to single adults. So everything these women have been through, whether it was doubling up with relatives or moving back in with violent boyfriends or selling blood, they were all doing with children in tow.

I think one reason this group of people hasn't drawn more attention in the downturn is that they tend to have a lot of problems that would make them politically unpopular. Some have addictions. Many have violent boyfriends. A great many have mental health problems.

They can be a hard group of people, at least as adults, to feel - for the general public to feel sympathetic toward, particularly during an economic downturn. You know, throughout the past four years we keep hearing about the impact of this economy on the middle class, which of course is important, but it's having a great impact on these people too.

As you can see in this piece, they can resort to strategies that make them seem unsympathetic. This recession has been - and aftermath has been so framed in terms of its impact on the middle class that the poor have largely been pushed out of the spotlight, and you know, the chronically poor, the destitute, the deeply disadvantaged, poor single mothers with mental health problems and homeless problems and addiction problems, I mean they're really in, I think, political oblivion right now.

GROSS: If the welfare reform restrictions are applied to food stamps and Medicaid, do you think that more people who need things like Medicaid and food stamps won't have access to it because they'll risk - the risks are that states would diver the money to other programs or that states would just limit the number of people on the rolls through - by adding certain restrictions that don't exist now?

DEPARLE: Oh, absolutely, but there's a trade-off, OK? I mean, there's a legitimate debate about that. If you have 100 people on aid, and you make the aid harder to get, if 50 percent of if 50 of them do better, and 50 of them do worse, is that a success?

Well, you know, some people would say yeah, look, 50 people are better off, and it's costing less government money, and they're now in the private economy, and they can move up over time. And somebody else would say, ah, but look at the most disadvantaged, look how far they've fallen.

I mean, these are - there's a tension in those values, you know, how much you push people and what degree of hardship you're willing to accept as a result. So the harder you make it to get aid, the more the most disadvantaged may suffer.

There may be - if the suffering is confined to a small enough group of people and is modest enough, it may be worth it if it helps other people. But obviously there's a tradeoff in those two things.

GROSS: And you have to acknowledge both sides to really assess.

DEPARLE: Exactly, yes. I think there's been an absolute refusal to acknowledge the downside by most of the supporters of the welfare law.

GROSS: Jason DeParle, it's really good to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

DEPARLE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jason DeParle reports on issues related to poverty for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The movie "Chico & Rita" is an animated musical that was nominated for an Oscar this year. It's a love story set in Cuba, New York, Hollywood and Paris, and takes place mostly in the late '40s and early '50s. It features great jazz and Cuban music and dazzling animation.

My guest is Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who co-directed "Chico & Rita" with animator Javier Mariscal. Trueba won an Oscar for his film "Belle Epoque." "Chico & Rita" is his second film, focused on Latin music. He directed the music documentary "Calle 54." One of the musicians featured in that film is pianist and composer Bebo Valdes, who became the inspiration for the character of Chico, composed the score for "Chico and Rita," and played some of the piano parts in the film.

The story in "Chico & Rita" is similar to several of the stories told in the documentary "The Buena Vista Social Club." Chico is a Cuban jazz pianist and arranger whose music is played after the revolution. Before the revolution he falls in love with Rita, a beautiful singer. This is the song she sings when he first sees her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BESAME MUCHO")

IDANIA VALDES: (as Rita) (Sung in foreign language)

GROSS: That's Idania Valdes, along with Bebo Valdes - no relation - doing "Besame Mucho" from the soundtrack of "Chico and Rita." And my guest is the director and co-writer of the film, Fernando Trueba. Welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your movie, so thank you so much for joining us.

FERNANDO TRUEBA: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Now you clearly love Cuban music. You love Latin music. You've already done a documentary film about it. What was your idea of how to integrate that music that you love with a story?

TRUEBA: Well, I love Cuban music but, you know, what I love most of anything in music is jazz. I'm always listening to jazz music - American jazz most of the time. I arrived to Cuban music through jazz. And then when we started talking about the idea of making that movie in Cuba and music, so I say to Mariscal, I say well, let's do a story that the characters are musicians, because I love this ambiance and all that. And because I had worked so much with Bebo and Bebo was at the time with the movie he was 90 and I had previous records with him and we thought why don't we do the character a pianist so we can have Bebo playing in the movie? So that was the strong idea and then the rest of the things came naturally after that, no? The idea that every time Chico was playing the piano, the Chico's character we had Bebo, who is the greatest Cuban musician alive today in the world.

GROSS: He's really amazing and it's so wonderful to hear his music in the context of the movie. And, as you say, he's in his 90s now.

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: And this you say was his last work. Is it not capable of playing anymore?

TRUEBA: Yeah. Yeah. At the time of the movie he had already stopped doing concerts because - and he love playing, he's always playing but he realized that his memory and his health that he shouldn't. He told to me I'm not going to play anymore in public but I will keep playing at home because I need to play. So he had already take that decision and his health was very delicate at the time but he could make it and he could do all the job in the movie, so it's his last work. And that's why the movie is dedicated to him because - not only because of the music but because I'm sure that if it was not for my friendship with him, I would never have written and make a movie like this one. It's not Bebo's biography, it's not his life, but he was the main inspiration of that ambience, that period, this kind of person of characters, so Bebo is for me, he's everywhere in the movie.

GROSS: And Bebo Valdes left shortly after the revolution in Cuba and has lived...

TRUEBA: Yeah. That's completely different from Chico.

GROSS: ...out of the country ever since. So his story is really different. But the character of the Cuban pianist, Chico, his face seems to be modeled on Bebo Valdes' face. Is that right?

TRUEBA: Yeah. Not only the old Bebo in the movie, but also the young one because Bebo was really handsome...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TRUEBA: ...young man in the '40s in Cuba. And so Mariscal take Bebo as a model for physically for playing Chico.

GROSS: So I want to play another song that Bebo Valdes wrote for your film "Chico and Rita." And this is the song that Chico is writing when he's separated from Rita and she's become a movie star in Hollywood and he's living in Paris. And, you know, their relationship is very on-again, off-again and they're always inadvertently doing things to end this relationship that really should be but never lasts for long because of how they keep tripping each other up. So he's longing for her in Paris and as he's writing this song, he titles it "Rita," because she is his muse; she is what's inspiring the song. And then he scratches that out and he re-titles it "Lily," naming it after the dog who sits by him loyally at the piano as he composes. So, and this song plays as like a theme through parts of the film.

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: What did you tell Bebo Valdes you wanted from this song and did he write it for the movie or was it a pre-existing song of his?

TRUEBA: No. No. That was an existing song that was included in one of the records of Bebo that I produced. And it's a song he composed for one of his daughters who is a singer in Cuba, Mayra Caridad Valdes. And the original title of the song is "A Mayra." "To Mayra," dedicated to his daughter. But I wanted - I love the music, the melody of that song and I thought it was very cinematic and it was perfect for the movie because "Chico and Rita," is when we started writing it Mariscal was telling me I want this movie to be very romantic, to be like a "Bolero." And so we give the movie the structure of a "Bolero" while always very dramatic love story is very kind of a bit exaggerated, very Latin, desperate love songs. So we did a lot of different versions in the movie, sang and orchestrated in everything. We did a lot of different readings of the theme.

GROSS: So as you say, there's different versions of the song. One of them in the movie is sung by Freddy Cole and I think it's supposed to be Nat King Cole because Nat Cole did a Latin album. And actually Nat Cole recorded with Bebo Valdes at some point, didn't he?

TRUEBA: Yeah. It's very curious because the Nat King Cole records in Espanol - in Spanish were recorded in Cuba and Bebo was the pianist in the band.

GROSS: Oh, so he's the pianist on Nat "Cole Espanol?"

TRUEBA: Yeah. Who was...

GROSS: Oh.

TRUEBA: ...number one best-selling in Nat King Cole's career. And Bebo was, he was an admirer of Nat King Cole the pianist because Nat King Cole became very famous as a singer. But not only Bebo, Bill Evans, every time someone asked him who was his favorite pianist he would say Nat Cole because he was really a master pianist. And he had an enormous influence in some great musicians like Bebo, Bill Evans and many, many others. And Bebo told me that at the time of that recording Nat King Cole didn't speak one word of Spanish. And Bebo not only had to play piano on the record but was his coach for Spanish, so he has to teach him to pronounce correctly the words of the song. And Bebo says he did pretty well, only the T's and the O's he didn't master them very well. That's why he say a cachero(ph) cachero instead of saying catcheto(ph). And there is a beautiful photograph of Bebo with Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole in Tropicana at that time in Havana.

GROSS: Sarah Vaughan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRUEBA: Sarah Vaughan. Yeah. Yeah. I, sorry. I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's OK.

TRUEBA: Yeah. My American friends are disparate with me because I for years I've been saying Dizzy Gillespie...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRUEBA: ... instead of Gillespie and I do this kind of mistakes all the time. Sorry.

GROSS: Oh that's great. So I'm going to ask you about a pronunciation. The singer on this version of "Lily" that we're going to hear is Estrella Morente. Am I saying that right?

TRUEBA: Estrella.

GROSS: Estrella.

TRUEBA: Yeah. Estrella, who means a star. Estrella Morente is for me the most, the greatest flamenco singer today. She's 30 years old and she's the daughter of the greatest Enrique Morente, who passed one year ago, was the best, the master of flamenco singer and she's an amazing artist.

GROSS: Why don't you describe how this version of the song is used in "Chico and Rita."

TRUEBA: Yeah. I wanted - after all this sad story that they had through the years, Chico and Rita, and all the separation and the (unintelligible) and everything, I - it's not that I wanted to have a happy ending. In some ways I wanted a happy end for the movie but also I thought it was fair. I remember my own story with Bebo. Bebo was completely forgotten, playing for 55 years in the piano in the lobby of a hotel in Stockholm in Sweden, completely forgotten. Many people even thought he was dead. And after "Calle 54" I produced some records with him and one of them, "Lagrimas Negras," was an incredible hit in - over the world, and Bebo became an instant star in Spain and he was 80-something at the time. So you couldn't walk even the street, he was like a big, big star. And so I wanted Chico to have this kind of third act so that at the end he's rediscovered and he has success and he can use his success to find finally Rita. So I think it was not just a happy end, you know, it was very realistic that for the end of "Chico and Rita."

GROSS: So let's hear this version of "Lily" by Bebo Valdes from the film "Chico & Rita" featuring Bebo Valdes at the piano and Estrella Morente singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LILY")

ESTRELLA MORENTE: (Sung in a foreign language)

GROSS: That's music from the soundtrack of the animated film "Chico and Rita." My guest is the co-director and co-writer of the film, Fernando Trueba. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Spanish director Fernando Trueba. He co-directed the animated movie musical "Chico & Rita" with animator Javier Mariscal. It's a love story about a pianist named Chico and a singer named Rita who meet and fall in love in Cuba before the revolution.

One of the things you did for "Chico & Rita" was to get access to a Cuban photo archive of streets from 1949. And this was an archive of photos that were used for street repairs? Do I have that right?

TRUEBA: Yeah, that's right. That's right. That was a great discovery when we were doing research in Cuba for the movie and we were watching documentaries and photographs and things. And when we discovered this man who had kept all these photographs of Havana streets at the time of the big wars, and it was a treasure, especially for Mariscal, who was drawing all these streets and backgrounds for the movie.

GROSS: So what are some of the things you saw in those photos that you thought, this has to be in the film? We have to animate this corner or draw this shop or this - yeah.

TRUEBA: Yeah. That was more Mariscal's decision. I always use the term Picassian, you know. And when you see his paintings, they're always very open, very free. But working on "Chico and Rita," he wanted it to be very realistic in terms of the drawing of the cities, of Havana and New York, and all this. So he - when there is the scene in the chase after the Tropicana scene and the...

GROSS: And the car disintegrates?

TRUEBA: ...he's taking the motorbike - yeah - and all this, every street is, one after another, is a real way that you can do in Havana, even today. So in some things, we stayed realistic.

GROSS: Was it in some ways easier to do a realistic film about Cuba before the revolution, and do it as an animated film than it would have been to shoot on location in Cuba?

TRUEBA: I never thought of this story - this story started as an animation movie, and I never thought not for one second as a live action movie. And this - my first and only animation movie. I have always done live action movies with actors, or some documentaries, too. But some kind of stories and situations are best for animation than for live action or documentary or other kind of language.

So that's very curious. For example, most of the time when I see biopic movies, I don't believe, even if they are incredible actors or very good actors. I never believe in biopics.

GROSS: And these are biopics, biographical movies of...

TRUEBA: Biopics. Yeah. Biopics.

GROSS: ...usually of famous people. And, yes, as you say, the information is usually all wrong, and you don't believe it.

TRUEBA: Yeah. I saw the - yeah. I saw the movie about Margaret Thatcher. And Meryl Streep, for me, is one of the greatest actress in the world. But when you watch that movie, you think I'm watching Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. You don't get lost for one second because you know Margaret Thatcher. You can have - Anthony Hopkins was one of the greatest actors ever playing Picasso. I will never, one frame, one second of the movie, thought I'm watching Picasso.

I'm watching the great Anthony Hopkins pretending to be Picasso. But when you do an animation and you draw Charlie Parker, it is Charlie Parker. You know, I can't explain it, but for me, at least, it's like that.

GROSS: You know, I had the same feeling watching the film. There are scenes in New York where, you know, at this club, it's like Thelonious Monk is at the piano, Charlie Parker's playing - the scene with, like, Ben Webster playing saxophone.

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: And if you - I agree. If you saw a real actor, you'd think, well, it doesn't quite look like Parker, and I wonder who's dubbing for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: When you see it in an animation, it's like, great, yeah. He managed to work in Parker and Monk and Webster. And you just don't question it, because the whole thing is animation. You're not measuring it...

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...against reality the same that you do when an actor's playing it. Now, Bebo Valdes left Cuba in 1960, shortly after the revolution. And, you know, one of the points your film makes - which is a point that the documentary "Buena Vista Social Club" made about Cuban jazz musicians after the revolution - is that their music was considered not revolutionary, passe...

TRUEBA: Yeah. And...

GROSS: ...not pertinent anymore. Yeah.

TRUEBA: Yeah. And worse than that, it was considered American, imperialistic.

GROSS: Therefore counter-revolutionary.

TRUEBA: Yeah. And that's one of the things - every time you ask Bebo his favorite composers, he will say Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Cole Porter. All - he was in love with American music. And then when they told him you can't play that anymore, and that first years, it was really anti-American - it changed a bit later, at least in musical terms, I'm talking - but for Bebo, how that I can't play Gershwin? Why? He couldn't understand that. And also he, as a composer, he was with American BMI for his author rights. You know?

GROSS: The music publishing company.

TRUEBA: Yeah, the publishing company. And they say to him: Now you can't have your publishing company in America. Now the publishing belongs to the Cuban state. So for Bebo...

GROSS: So he couldn't collect royalties anymore.

TRUEBA: Yeah. So for Bebo, all these things were unacceptable. He didn't want to live in a country with no freedom with - so he left as soon as he can.

GROSS: Yeah. And my understanding is he asked for permission to take his band to Mexico.

TRUEBA: He went there because he had an audience in Mexico. But then the unions in Mexico were, at the time, very pro-Castro. So they boycotted him, the concert. And with tears in his eyes, really crying...

GROSS: They boycott his concert?

TRUEBA: Yeah. He had to left Mexico. So he went to Spain, to Iran, Italy, Germany. And then, in Sweden, he met his Rose Marie, who is still his wife. And he married her and he stayed there. But he wanted - the first thing for him was to came to United States after he married Rose Marie. He had the plan of coming here. But that was the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert - and Bob Kennedy.

So he was black from Cuba, married with this blond Swedish woman, so he thought maybe it's more prudent - prudent?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TRUEBA: To stay in Sweden than to go to the United States in this moment. So he decide not coming here, who was for a musician, was the natural place to be, for a musician like Bebo.

GROSS: My guest is the co-director and co-writer of the animated movie musical "Chico and Rita," Fernando Trueba. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Fernando Trueba, co-director of the animated movie musical "Chico and Rita," which is largely set in Cuba. He also directed the 2000 documentary "Calle 54" about Latin musicians, including Bebo Valdes, the inspiration for "Chico and Rita."

One of the things you did for your movie "Calle 54," the documentary featuring performances by Latin musicians, was you reunited Bebo Valdes with his son Chucho Valdes, who remained in Cuba...

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and was pretty popular there.

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: And so they hadn't seen each other much over the years.

TRUEBA: Yeah.

GROSS: Were they both amenable to getting together and dueting for your movie?

TRUEBA: Yeah. I think they both need that more than anyone else in the world. For them, it was, like, an incredible experience. They were in heaven when we were shooting that scene. The fact of being together both in New York and playing together, for them, was a magical moment. And it was for me and for the movie, too. But it was very difficult for Bebo.

I remember that he told me once, Chucho was playing in Carnegie Hall in New York many years ago, and he hadn't seen him for 17 years. So it was a night that McCoy Tyler was playing and Bill Evans was playing and Chucho was playing with his group Irakere. So Bebo take a plane from Stockholm to New York just to see Chucho, you know, in America. And - but there was - he was never alone. There was a guy from government always with them. You know, because...

GROSS: From the Cuban government.

TRUEBA: Yeah. Always. When they came in tour, musicians, there's always one of the government with them because if not, sometimes people desert the - how you say when they don't come back? When they...

GROSS: Defect.

TRUEBA: Huh?

GROSS: Defect.

TRUEBA: Defect. Exactly. Defect. We say deserter in Spanish. OK. So at that time, they couldn't speak intimately, because there was someone from the government. So that was very frustrating for them.

GROSS: Hmm. Just one more thing. What was Bebo Valdes' reaction when he saw the completed version of "Chico & Rita" knowing that this was his final work?

TRUEBA: Yeah. It's incredible because I pick up the print when it was finished, and I went to Malaga and I rent the theater, and I screen the movie just for him and for Estrella Morente, the flamenco singer who - she lives also in Malaga. So it was an incredible experience. I was watching Bebo's face all the time, and he was so moved. And at the end of the movie, he was crying his eyes out with tears. And he gives me - it was an incredible moment. I will never forget that moment - very, very emotional and touching for both of us.

GROSS: Well, Fernando Trueba, thank you so much for talking with us.

TRUEBA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Fernando Trueba co-wrote and co-directed the animated film "Chico and Rita." He spoke to us from Miami, where he attended the opening of his film. "Chico & Rita" is playing in several theaters around the country, including in New York and Washington, D.C., and will open soon in Chicago and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Bebo and Chucho Valdes.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

At your service: A restaurant maître d' tells all in 'Your Table Is Ready'

Michael Cecchi-Azzolina talks about what it's like to be a Maitre D' at the fanciest restaurants in New York City. He has worked in the business for three decades telling wealthy diners, celebrities and even the mafia whether or not they can have the table by the window. His memoir is called Your Table is Ready.

52:30

'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.

42:42

Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue