Diane Paragas loves Texas. Her love for Texas is apparent in the way she portrays it as both full of hope and community, but also poisoned with hate and bigotry. Her love is also apparent in the hopes and dreams of her lead character, Rose Garcia, who aspires to make her voice known in the country music scene, even if the culture of the only world she has ever loved doesn’t love her back.
Born in Minnesota, Paragas grew up in the west Texas city of Lubbock, home of Buddy Holly, and attended The University of Texas in Austin. In her debut film, Yellow Rose, Paragas aims to capture the soul of rural central Texas as it bleeds into the metropolitan cultural center of Austin. But Paragas’ love for the state is forced to confront the darkness and cruelty that exists within its borders, too.
The Ballad of Rose
In the film, Rose, performed richly by Broadway actress Eva Noblezada, is a dreamer. Though born in the Philippines, her family relocated to Texas when she was very young, making it the only home she has ever known. She feels a connection to Texas, expressed through her desire to make a name for herself in country music. However, her dreams have always been viewed as secondary, a hobby to enjoy only after she’s taken care of her academics. Rose internalizes this idea throughout the film.
Early in the film, Rose interprets this view as the result of having a strict, overprotective mother who wants her to follow a conventional route to employment and success; Rose tells her mother she’s too conservative. However, she learns in the worst way imaginable why her mother doesn’t want her out in the world on her own at her age, and instead focusing on school and getting a good job.
On her way home (well past curfew) from a Dale Watson show at the Broken Spoke in Austin, Rose arrives to find ICE agents raiding the motel where her mother works and they both live; Rose and her mother are undocumented and have been found out. Rose is able to avoid capture, but her mother is not so lucky. Although she did everything she could to shield Rose from the reality of their situation, the U.S.’s cruel immigration system catches up with them.
Rose’s outlet has always been her music. Falling in love with the world of country music from an early age, the only way Rose knows to articulate her anger, confusion, and loneliness is through writing country songs. However, her mother’s emphasis on academics hasn’t been the only thing keeping Rose from believing in herself.
Outlaw State of Mind
The United States has a sordid, complex system of racism and expectations for people of color. At one point in the film Rose recalls people making fun of her for being a Filipina enamored with country music when she was younger. Peers gave her the racist nickname “Yellow Rose,” a play on the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and the fact that Rose is of Asian descent. In fact, even Dale Watson (who eventually becomes a member of Rose’s small support circle) says something to the effect of not expecting “someone like her” to be knowledgeable and passionate about country music.
Never mind the historical roots of country music being traced to Black Americans, this is the reality of being a person of color in cultural spaces dominated by white people: you will inevitably feel like an outsider in a world you love. This makes Rose’s perspective as a country music songwriter unique yet authentically country. Her style very much draws from the era of outlaw country in the 1970s, a style famous for its songs about outsiders and misfits.
Rose’s outsider status doesn’t come from her refusal to participate in conventional, bourgeois Americanism like Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, however, but from being perceived as “other” because of the color of her skin, her ethnic background, and the fact that her home is institutionally seeking to remove her.
It’s through this pain, anger, and confusion that Rose finds her voice and seeks to use a medium oft associated with bigotry to define herself on her own terms, in spite of the systems of power working to erase her.
Authentic Country Sound
For a movie soundtrack, the music in Yellow Rose does a fairly good job at depicting the sounds and textures that accompany the world the film documents – having Dale Watson on their team may have helped in this regard. Rose’s original songs, sung mellifluously by Noblezada, are genuinely enjoyable, earnest songs that articulate the aforementioned feelings of anger and alienation she experiences throughout the film.
But her music is also full of hope and determination. Where songs like “Square Peg” (“I feel out of place, a song out of tune”) and “Circumstance” (“…no matter what I do, it don’t change my circumstance”) express her feelings of disappointment and disillusionment, there are moments like “Quietly Into the Night” (“They can take the roof from over my head, but they can’t take my freedom away”) and “I Ain’t Going Down” (“Been to the school of hard knocks, they say I’ve been around the block”) that respond with a message of defiance and resiliency.
Though this country took her mother away, and though it seeks to do the same to her, she refuses to be defeated.
By no means a perfect film – portions of it rely heavily on the “white savior” trope – Yellow Rose captures the horror and intentionally-designed racism of our immigration system and how its culture is deeply embedded in Texas, but it also creates a space where a Filipina Texan can reclaim the narrative that has been assigned to her through racism – and do so on her own terms.
Though Yellow Rose may sometimes tread the line where sentimental meets saccharine, there is something deeply cathartic about seeing a story about an artist of color deconstructing cultural and artistic expectations, creating new worlds and perspectives in spaces where we too often feel like we don’t belong.