‘The Three Caballeros’ and The Rooster Effect

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I hadn’t thought about my mom and her “rooster kitchen” for ages until Panchito and The Three Caballeros reunited on “DuckTales.” Image: Lisa Tate

Last Saturday, Disney XD’s DuckTales reunited one of the music world’s most iconic international trios: The Three Caballeros.

In this latest episode, “The Town Where Everyone Was Nice!” the Duck crew travels to Brazil on the premise of seeing a rare plant bloom, and Donald hooks up with his “old band,” consisting of the parrot José Carioca and rooster Panchito Pistoles. To avoid spoilers, I’ll simply say the episode soon becomes a blend of a college buddy reunion mixed with Little Shop of Horrors.

This nostalgic threesome, who has been around since the 1940s, became catalyst for some long-forgotten memories of my home, school and, of all things, my mom.

I have written in the past how much Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics were a part of my childhood, and I often associate these stories with my dad who got me into both the worlds of Duckburg and reading in general.

However, I have rarely talked about my mother, and this one musical aspect of Donald Duck’s life reminded me of her.

My mom and I were very different people, despite that cringy horror I faced often when well-meaning strangers and friends would quip “you look just like her.” It’s not that I don’t want to physically resemble my family, it was just our personalities weren’t exactly in alignment. I won’t bore you with these details, except to say we clashed on several occasions.

My mom, was, however, one of the most creative people I know, she made friends easily, and had an eye for decorating. She also, I thought, loved roosters. I remember when I was pretty young she fell in love with this large painting of a rooster, titled “Jonathan Among the Poppies,” at an art fair and hung him, as well as smaller painting of his hen mate, in our kitchen. Not long after that, more and more roosters begin popping up around the room.

Growing up on the border, our home featured many items that depicted the area’s cross cultural style, a blending of the Texas cowboy and Mexican Vaquero, and the animal which seemed to hold them together was the rooster. There was a certain machismo related to the strutting and pride of the rooster in the Mexican culture, and I used to see t-shirts and car stickers with roosters and phrases like “Puro Gallo” (literally translated as “all rooster,” but meaning “all man”). El Gallo was also a common card in loteria (Mexican bingo) decks we played in school. On the Texas side, the rooster wasn’t so much the fighter, but rather a colorful barn dweller, and the little figures of him in country stores were more jolly and perky than macho.

The raucous pistol-shooting, grito-shouting singer, Panchito, had the perfect blend of the two, and since we all loved Disney, I found Mom a ceramic Panchito figure in a catalog I thought was idea for the kitchen. He blended in proudly into our kitchen flock and remained there, with one eyebrow cocked (no pun intended) for some time. Seeing him put me back at the kitchen table, looking up at the roosters here and there.

Music can also be great trigger for memories, and yes, that “Three Caballeros” theme song about camaraderie, loyalty and friendship I knew by heart. My brother and I could hit the timing on “We’re bright as a peso…Who says so?…We say so! The three caballerooos!!!” as well as the cartoon.

Poor Donald had trouble keeping up with the choreography, but Panchito had the desire to steal the spotlight. I always felt sorry for Donald, but you had to admire Panchito’s confidence, and vocal pipes!

When I heard familiar bouncy riff of the song “Three Caballeros,” I also remembered the old upright piano we had in the front room. I remembered its smell, the slightly out-of-tune sound of the yellowed cracked keys and of my grandma playing the occasional hymn. I also remember the piles of old sheet music kept in the piano bench. Most of these I didn’t care about as a kid, as they were just old standards on that faded green or pink cover page imprinted with a music staff flowing through it like a river.

Sure, these were classical masterpieces and popular favorites from the American Song Book, but the only one that stood out to me was the one Donald Duck, José, and Panchito on the cover: “You Belong to My Heart.” I only just recently learned this song was written three years before The Three Caballeros was every made in its Spanish language version “Solamente una vez” for a different movie. No matter, I’ll always think of Donald and his friends gooning stupidly over singer Dora Luze when I hear it. I remember asking my grandma to try to play it, when she was on the piano. That was one, she said, my mother knew. I don’t ever once remember hearing my mother play the piano, and when I hear that song, I wonder if she ever played well, and what made her stop.

I also remembered how The Three Caballeros helped get me interested in geography and other cultures. Our history teacher often used the movie, as well as its “companion film,” Saludos Amigos to teach us about Latin America. Living in an area with a large of amount of native Spanish speakers, our teacher could hardly contain us when the narrator happily talked about Donald visiting Lake Titicaca! Even those of us with just the rudimentary grasp of the language knew what that meant. Juvenile, I realize, but when you’re 10 that’s that the funniest thing an adult can ever say in such a serious voice.

There was always some reference to Panchito around our area. We would see him, painted crudely on the sides of vendor trucks or local restaurants. He also reminded me of the Christmas season, as it was Panchito in the original movie who described to Donald the tradition of Las Posadas, processionals depicting the Mary and Joseph seeking shelter at the inn. I always loved that part of the film,  especially since it was drawn by a favorite Disney artist of mine, Mary Blair. One Christmas my mother found a mug with The Three Caballeros celebrating Las Posadas Christmas. I use it every holiday season, and when I was living in other parts of the country it really made me miss the Southwest.

Mom passed away eleven years ago, but my dad still keeps the kitchen as she liked it, roosters and all. I recently looked for Panchito, but have no idea where he is. Maybe he broke and she didn’t want to tell me. Maybe put away for cleaning and forgotten about. No matter, only Mom would know. The funny thing is, she made a confession of sorts to me a couple of years before she died.

“I really wasn’t that crazy about roosters,” she said. “I just liked that painting. After I bought ‘Jonathan,’ everyone just thought I loved roosters and kept giving me rooster things for my kitchen.”

Well, that blew years of perception for me. She didn’t really like roosters? The one animal that seems to be everywhere in that room wasn’t her thing? What about the Panchito I gave her?

“But I do love all of these,” she added. “Especially my Panchito.”

I realized even if she didn’t set out to have a rooster-centric kitchen, each little figure, trinket, potholder or wall art symbolized a memory, a gift from a friend during the holidays, or a ‘thank you’ for some kindness she did.

Panchito Pistoles? Well, I guess Panchito was me. A strong-willed sometimes stubborn and loud “puro gallo” who could be hard to get along with, but also a fun-loving beast who was one of my mom’s greatest treasures.

Yes, I loved that little Panchito, too, and it was good to see him and his fellow Caballeros back for more adventures.

When I sat down to watch that DuckTales, I was looking forward to laughing with my kids and being entertained for a brief time, but instead, I was flooded with a sometimes happy, sometimes melancholy life of memories of my hometown, family, and my mom.

And, it was all because of that rooster.

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