BY MATT MUNOZ Californian staff writer
Brownsville, Texas, might be on a geographical boundary between two countries, but cultural lines in the city that lies on the banks of the Rio Grande are not so clearly defined. Or at least that was the case for Kris Kristofferson and Cesar Chavez, who met there as young men, forging what would become a lifelong friendship.
Years after the two blazed their own trails -- Kristofferson in music and movies and Chavez as the founder of the United Farm Workers union -- the performer has agreed to pay homage to his late friend with a series of concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UFW. The tour rolls into the Fox on Tuesday.
"I've been working with them between 30 to 40 years," said Kristofferson during a recent phone interview of his affiliation with the UFW.
"Growing up in Brownsville, I spoke Spanish before I spoke English, and identified with the Mexicans. I can remember most of the workers down there, a lot of 'em just swam the river comin' over. Then later, when Cesar Chavez asked me to do some work for them, I was anxious to do it."
A little hazy on their first meeting in Brownsville, Kristofferson said age has stolen many of his earliest memories of Chavez, but after some brief pauses, he was able to gather a few.
"I have vague memories. It was the early '70s and I had just started performing myself. I must have been singing some Mexican songs and he heard me and asked if I could sing for some of their functions."
At age 75, Kristofferson -- a rare liberal voice in country music -- remains as outspoken as ever. His activism developed when he was young, traveling and living in various parts of the country as the son of a U.S. Air Force officer. Witnessing life struggles in every part of the world, Kristofferson said the plight of the farmworker has always resonated with him and ultimately convinced him to get involved.
"I've taken some heat over the years for some of my beliefs, but it's never stopped me. I've had some people who've voiced objections to stands I was making on different military things we'd been involved in. It's never stopped me from doing anything."
When he's not championing social causes, the gravelly voiced Kristofferson boasts one of the most colorful entertainment careers around, as a universally revered songwriter/singer and busy actor. He's written such classics as "Me and Bobby McGee," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and has starred in a number of films, including "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "A Star is Born," "Blade" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." Current projects include his latest CD, "Closer to the Bone," and the film "Deadfall," co-starring Sissy Spacek and Eric Bana.
Though it would be difficult for most to isolate a career highlight from such an extensive resume, Kristofferson said he cherished the time he spent working with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash in the country supergroup The Highwaymen.
"I'm really kind of amazed when I reflect on the people I have been close to that were my heroes, like Johnny Cash and Waylon and Willie. Those guys, who I respected so much, have turned out to be really my closest friends. It's been a great life."
Another icon with whom Kristofferson has spent time recently is Merle Haggard. The two have played several shows together and received raves in October, when they packed the Greek Theater in Hollywood. Though most would call the two men artistic peers, Kristofferson doesn't see it that way.
"As an artist there's no comparison between the two of us. Merle was a hero of mine before I ever met him, and ever since I met him he's been one of my closest friends. ... Merle, I think, is like Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie. He's just one of the classic people of our kind of music.
"I was surprised when I first got to know Merle, to find out how broad-minded the guy was who wrote 'Okie From Muskogee' and that we really were more alike than we were different. I think we both have so much respect for each other, but also we just plain get along."
Before politely excusing himself to tend to another round of media interviews, Kristofferson ended the conversation by looking back on what he calls the improbable good fortune that emerged time and again during his full life.
"I am just real grateful that given the natural tools that I got, I'm pretty amazed that I've been able to do all these things and I just feel grateful. I hate to get into it too deeply -- I might jinx it. But, so far I just look at it all with wonder."
Also scheduled to appear Tuesday are Los Lobos and comedian Gilbert Esquivel. Upcoming UFW benefits will feature Kristofferson along with Latin artists Ozomatli, Little Joe, Mariachi Divas, Nydia Rojas with Trio Ellas and Los Tex-Maniacs featuring Mingo Saldivar.
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