Project AVARY

Checking in With Pete Sears

Moonalice band photo

Pete Sears (r) with Moonalice bandmates (l-r) John Molo, Ann McNamee, Roger McNamee, Barry Sless

Most Rex fans are probably familiar with Pete Sears from his work back in the day with artists like Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship, Hot Tuna, and in more recent times with our good friends and Rex Musical Caravan mainstays Moonalice. His name has also come up a lot in connection with his support of Rex grantee Project Avary. Perhaps not so well known, though, is the fact that Pete also knows Rex from the perspective of having been a grantee himself, with Rex having helped fund a human-rights video he made in 1988.

At the time, Sears was working on his first solo album, Watchfire (released on Grateful Dead Records), whose first track, “Guatemala,” cries out against the death-squad violence that was then being directed against the country’s indigenous residents. Since little of the story was making the mainstream news in the US and elsewhere, he decided to make a video–and circulate it widely–to get the word out. One thing led to another, and Jerry Garcia, who had played on the album, committed the Rex Foundation’s support to the project.

Watch the video:


Catching up with Pete during a recent Moonalice tour, we asked him how it all came about.

Rex Foundation: How did you become aware of the political situation in Guatemala in the latter 20th century, and how did that lead you to make the “Guatemala” video?

Pete Sears: My wife Jeannette, along with her mother and brother, had visited the mountainous regions of Guatemala a few times before we traveled there together. Her family was building a restaurant and hotel on the outskirts of Santiago, Atitlan, using local Maya stonemasons. When we first stayed in Santiago in 1978, I would marvel at their ancient skills and the ease with which the Mayan artisans, dressed in their typical Indian clothing, would chisel the stone into whatever shape was needed, as they had done for thousands of years.

We stayed in a small, white, painted concrete structure, trying to fall asleep on bare floors while staring up at black scorpions clinging silently on the walls. It was very hot and humid at the time of year Jeannette and I visited with our little 8-month-old baby, Dylan, who found it all very exciting. The young indigenous girls would laugh, pick Dylan up and disappear with him into their little round mud huts with thatched roofs–we just had to trust he would be safe. Dylan never lost the sense of adventure he acquired in those early years of travel; in latter years he traveled all over India with our daughter, Natalie, who would later travel India alone doing human rights work.

At that point we were not that familiar with Guatemala’s turbulent, troubled history with the United States, stretching back to the years when United Fruit Company bought up large parcels of land to control Central America. Or when, in 1954, the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected President Arbenz, who wanted to distribute land fairly back to the Mayan Indians.

Jeannette and I enjoyed the beautiful mountains and Lake Atitlan, and interacting with the ancient Mayan village of Santiago. But gradually we became aware of an ominous tension in the air. Government soldiers were driving around in open-backed military jeeps with mounted machine guns manned in the back, well fed with ammunition belts full of live rounds. Soldiers ominously strutted the streets wielding automatic rifles, ammunition clips in place. The local post office was blown up during our visit.

This was in stark contrast to the relatively peaceful way of life of the Mayas, who were just trying to live as they had for thousands of years, even though the conquistadors had destroyed much of their sophisticated civilization. Their way of life and local customs were mostly untouched, except a strange combination of their ancient pagan belief in their god, Maximon, and Catholicism.

lake atitlan-alq666-Creative Commons

A visit to Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan in the ’80s proved life-changing for Pete Sears. Photo: alq666-Creative Commons

The village of Santiago, fronting beautiful Lake Atitlan, with its twin volcanoes towering over the pristine, clear blue waters, shared a magnificent, ornate Catholic mission in the central square with a small hut housing a figure of Maximon. The figure was propped on a chair with multicolored scarves hanging from its neck, a hat on its head and a cigar stuck in its mouth. The local Indians would pray in the mission, then go and sit on old wooden benches around the walls of the little hut and ask for guidance about their daily lives.

We became more heavily involved when Jeannette’s mother, Bonnie Dilger, personally witnessed a massacre of Mayan Indians by government soldiers in a cornfield just outside Santiago. She barely got out of the village with her own life–stalked by government death squads, her little house trashed and her dog killed, she escaped in her friend’s helicopter to the airport in Guatemala City, and hastily left the country, expedited by the USA, who didn’t want another international incident.

Right-wing death squads connected to the military dictatorship routinely harassed the civilian population. President Reagan turned a blind eye to the atrocities in return for US businesses being allowed to move to Guatemala City, where they were able to avoid the costly environmental and union restrictions imposed on them in the United States.

The immense divide and inequality of money, health care, living conditions and basic human rights between Guatemala’s ruling families and the civilian population inevitably spawned extreme discontent in the civilian population; armed rebel groups formed and hid out in the mountains. Government troops, with absolutely no evidence, considered the many Mayan Indian villages in the mountainous regions to be supporters of the rebel armies. A simple village meeting could be seen as subversive and a threat to government dominance; many of those attending would later be dragged from their homes by government soldiers or plainclothes death squads, never to be seen again alive. They were called the “disappeared,” unless they were found lying dead beside the road with signs of horrible torture on their bodies.

It is now well documented that government troops trying to cut off supply lines to the rebels destroyed at least 440 villages. Most of the murdered villagers had nothing to do with the rebels; they simply wanted to live in peace and be left alone.

It was frustrating to read some nonsense in US papers about the Marxist communist threat in Central America, after just visiting the country ourselves, or hearing what was really going on from trusted friends living there. Most of the murdered or disappeared villagers were Catholic anyway, not Marxist. The number of “disappeared” during the civil war is astronomical—more than 200,000 murdered by the US-trained and funded Guatemalan army.

Father Stanley Rothers, from Oklahoma, who presided over the mission in Santiago, Atitlan, was murdered in the 1980s for having offered the safety of Sanctuary to the villagers and for later trying to shield a young member of his parish from the army. A lone assassin was seen in the area acting suspiciously the day of his murder; he drove a Toyota Jeep, wore a suit, and towered above the Mayan Indians of the village. Father Stanley was attacked in his church sleeping quarters in the middle of the night; I have seen the blood stains on the wall, which are now considered sacred by the Mayan people who loved him.

He was part of an offshoot of the Catholic Church called liberation theologians. Father Stanley had received death threats after sheltering his parishioners from the army, and had returned to Oklahoma. But his love for the people of Santiago compelled him to return, ultimately ending in his death.

This sort of courage is humbling to witness. Some of the bravest, most courageous people I have met have been quiet spoken, but firm in their convictions–not loud- mouthed Rambo types.

Rex: Who worked with you on the “Guatemala” video project? How did Jerry Garcia and the Rex Foundation come to get involved?

Sears: Jeannette and I met Mary O’Brien when we started a radio drive to raise food and clothing for refugees of war-torn Central America hiding in the San Francisco Bay Area to avoid deportation and certain death.  Mary worked with the priest at the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco, one of the drop-off locations for donated clothing and toys. We became good friends, and Mary introduced us to Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ray Telles. Together with Ray’s friend, Mark Adler, we formed a non-profit video production company called “Watchfire Productions.”

The idea was to make a music video about the genocide happening in Guatemala and try to get it played on MTV, as well as to send out free copies around the world to human rights organizations working to spread awareness of the terrible abuses being inflicted on the Mayan people by their own government. It was important to get the message out to the American people, since these right-wing dictatorships were largely supported by Ronald Reagan’s administration.

We held fundraisers in private houses, with speakers like Dr. Charlie Clements, who wrote Witness to War, and artists like Mimi Fariña and Maria Muldaur performing with me. We also applied to various foundations for grant money, like the Tides Foundation, who helped a lot.

I was up at Jerry’s house when he lived on Palm in San Rafael and mentioned the project to him; he immediately committed the Rex Foundation’s support, and also offered to put out the album Watchfire, which he and Mickey had played on, on Grateful Dead Records.

The news director at MTV really liked the “Guatemala” video and came within three hours of running it as part of a news segment. However, it was pulled by the powers that be just before air time; the news director told me MTV’s ratings had been dropping and they had decided not to air anything that might be a “bringdown” or controversial in any way. He said he was very sorry and didn’t agree with the network’s new policy, which was at odds with MTV’s original vision.

“Much Music,” Canada’s equivalent to MTV, did put the video into rotation, and the video was played at universities, film festivals, and human rights gatherings, and free copies were sent all over the world.

Jerry was very generous and had good instincts when it came to politics and helping people in need.

Rex: What’s changed in that part of the world since that time, and what are the ongoing issues?

Sears: The civil war that had been raging in Guatemala since the early 1980s ended in the signing of the peace accords in 1996.

Jeannette and I attended a celebration in the village of Santiago, Atitlan. I sat in on a borrowed accordion with a local Mayan music act for a few songs. Everyone watching the proceedings was dressed in their best “Typical” clothing, with the men all wearing white cowboy style hats. The locals don’t applaud anyone performing on stage; they just politely sit there watching.

There was a mixture of guarded optimism and outright distrust of the effectiveness of the peace accords; Santiago had its share of tragedy and massacres inflicted on the Indians by government forces.

They were right in their distrust, in the sense that rightwing death squads carried on abducting and murdering anyone who might be able to identify them if they were ever brought to trial for their crimes against humanity. Rightwing military leaders were especially feared.

Another problem also began when disbanded army personnel who had known nothing but violence for 10 years were suddenly without any means of income. They started forming roaming bands of armed robbers, often holding up tourists visiting Lake Atitlan and the surrounding mountain villages. This has all been carefully chronicled by groups like Guatemalan Human Rights USA and Amnesty International.

Rex: We all know about your current involvement with Moonalice, but are there any other projects you’re working on that we should know about too?

Sears: Other than working full time with Moonalice, and occasionally, The David Nelson Band, Harvey Mandel, or Steve Kimock, I am currently producing a soundtrack CD for the documentary film “The Storm That Swept Mexico,” which showed on national PBS a few times, a film about the Mexican revolution of the early 1990s and its global ramifications. I wrote and recorded the original score and co-produced the traditional music with Pancho Rodriguez, using bands like Los Lobos, Russell Rodriguez, and Los Cenzontles. I’m also recording these out-on-the-edge pieces of instrumental music to go with artist Stanley Mouse’s work, and also artist Andreas Nottebohm’s.

Jerry had recorded on my Watchfire album back in 1988, and I later digitized his guitar outtakes, along with Babatundi Olatunji’s African drummers and Mickey Hart (whom Jerry had been playing to when he recorded). I wrote this new, ethereal style synth music underneath and added some new bass and piano. I played it for Stanley and he’s very interested in doing something together, using my music and his art.

Rex: We know you’ve been involved with Project Avary for some time, and we saw you playing with your young friend Xavier at their recent benefit. Tell us a bit about that!

Pete Sears and Xavier at Project Avary fundraiser

Pete Sears and Xavier rock a Project Avary fundraiser. Photo: Susana Millman

Sears: My son, Dylan, used to be a camp counselor for Project Avary, which was started by ex-Grateful Dead manager Danny Rifkin, and works with children with one or more parents in jail. Avary provides them with scholarships to attend a two-week camp in the woods, giving them experiences in nature they would be unlikely to have under their present circumstances. They also provide year-round follow-up, driving them on weekend excursions to the beach and other interesting activities.

I had volunteered to play background music on a solo piano at a Project Avary Christmas party in Oakland, California about six years ago. Suddenly, a little 8-year-old boy appeared and sat down on my piano bench next to me. He sat for a while listening and then started playing the keys on the high end of the piano, a sort of random rhythmic thing using both hands. He had never had any music lessons, but seemed to instinctively know how to interact with my playing.

I started playing in Dm and told him he could play any white note he wanted in any order and it would sound right in that key. I told him there were no wrong notes, encouraged him to have fun, and explained he was playing in the spirit of improvisation.

It turned out his name is Xavier and his dad was in jail. I offered to give him piano lessons, so Danny and I went over to a used piano shop in Berkeley and picked out an old upright piano that had been nicely restored. We had it delivered to Xavier’s house in Oakland, arranged for a tuner, and after being fingerprinted at the sheriff’s office, I began driving over to his house to give him weekly piano lessons.

I found him to be a very smart, cool kid; his grandmother, who he lived with along with several other brothers and cousins, was strong, spiritual and the rock in the family.

In spite of an initial donation arranged by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Project Avary is always in need of more funding–such an amazing and important project, grossly undervalued in our society.