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Excerpt from “But Why Those Five Latino Films?:
The Case of Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature”

Presented at the Far West Pop Culture and
 Far West American Culture Association Conference
January 28, 2006

By Jose B. Gonzalez, Ph.D.

             Throughout the country, the words “Latino” and “Boom” are linked together in order to point out the emergence of Latinos in various markets.  As the largest minority group in the United States, Latinos suddenly find themselves the subjects of various books that explore their growth and their consumer power.  While on one hand, such publications can be said to be overdue, on the other, they risk the problem of treating Latinos as if they were homogenous.  With the full intention of avoiding this trap and deconstructing the meaning of the term, “Latino,” John Christie and I developed Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature (Pearson, 2006). As we compiled short stories, poems, plays, and nonfiction essays by Latinos, we aimed to put together a collection that reflected the diversity of Latinos in the U.S.  Naturally, this meant including the big three—Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans, but it also meant including Guatemalan Americans, Dominican Americans, Ecuadorian Americans and other groups whose presence had not been included in all Latino literature anthologies.  
           One of our goals in Latino Boom was to include teacher resources such as maps, a timeline, bibliographies, and essays on such topics as Latino novels, Latino poetry, and Latino films.  Putting most of these together was a matter of considering what had been helpful in Christie’s and my Latino literature courses.  For example, we knew that most of our students did not have a solid geographic foundation for knowing which current U.S. states had been part of Mexico before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  In such cases, it was clear that in the timeline we had to cite the Treaty and that in the map section we needed to show the impact of the Treaty.  Yet, of all these resource sections, the one that presented the most challenges was the Latino film discussion sections—in part because no other Latino anthology had done what we set out to do.  The film discussion sections followed each of the five chapters which were grouped around five themes: 1) The Lost Worlds, 2) The Working World, 3) The Urban World, 4) The Fringe World, and 5) Beyond Worlds.  This paper looks at the challenges of selecting these films and explains why the following five Latino films were chosen to represent the best that the genre has to offer for classroom use: El Norte (1995), directed by Gregory Nava; My Family, Mi Familia (2002), also directed by Nava; Piñero (2001), directed by Leon Ichaso; Real Women Have Curves (2002) directed by Patricia Cardoso; and Puerto Rican Mambo: Not a Musical (1992) directed by Ben Model. 

 

           First and foremost, we selected films that feature Latino actors.  To a certain extent, this should go without mention, but the fact is that throughout the history of Latino film in the U.S., many non-Latinos have been cast as Latinos. Such notable stars as Charlton Heston, Robbie Benson, Marisa Tomei, Angelica Houston, and of course, Al Pacino, to name a few, have starred as Latinos. At times Hollywood has transformed them with unimpressive results.  Heston’s skin was darkened for the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil (1958), while Benson’s blue eyes had to be Latinized with brown contact lenses for his role as a Chicano gangster in Walk Proud (1979).  Christie and I did not, however, choose films according to the ethnicity of directors, for we felt that while directors undoubtedly play a significant role in any film, in the end they are not what matter most to students.  This kind of played itself out anyway, since the film genre has had a Latino boom of its own, and for the most part, the best Latino films have featured Latino directors and Latino actors.
             Because we elected to focus on films that are about Latinos in the U.S., the list was also pretty much narrowed down to films in which English is the primary language.  One can argue that such films in Spanish such as Nueba Yol (1995), directed by Angel Muniz, should have been included, since it portrays the lives of Dominicans in New York.  Or one could add that El Super (1979), about a Cuban exile in New York should have been discussed in-depth in our anthology.  Certainly either film would have been appropriate, and in fact, even the recent hit, Maria Full of Grace (2003), directed by Joshua Marston, about a Colombian woman who smuggles drugs to the U.S. could have been included.  But the choice not to include these films was not so much a matter or excluding them as much as it was a matter of featuring films that complemented the writings within our anthology and that would offer the best vehicles for instruction.  As a result, these films were mentioned in the book, but only in lists of recommended films.

           The other factor we had to consider was ethnic diversity.  Just as with our literature selections, we could not simply go by the number of works by ethnic groups.  To do so would have meant that we would have ignored too many groups.  Because the concept behind including a discussion of films was so that faculty could perhaps show them or at least scenes from them in their classrooms, we also had to consider not only the films’ significance in Latino film history but also the place of the films in student learning.  It was not enough to aim to entertain students. If that were the case, then any of the many gangster films featuring Latinos would have sufficed.  Even Al Pacino’s Scarface (1983) would have easily filled that role.  On the other end of the spectrum, it was not enough to select works that would, quite frankly, bore students.  I am thinking here of classics like the touching work, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) based on the book, With a Pistol in His Hand by Americo Paredes.  The movie is about the Mexican legend, Gregorio Cortez, and the incidents that led to his being chased by sheriffs and the law.  No doubt, the times I have shown it in my classes, students have been struck by the power of language as much of the action in the film is a result of language translation errors.  Let me clarify that, however, by saying that the students who got something out of the film were the ones who managed to stay awake.  It is a sad statement to make but it should be taken as a reflection of students’ interests and limited attention span than of the film’s quality.  Perhaps others have had better luck showing scenes from this film in their classes, but too many of my students have simply missed too many of this film's finer points.
          The first film selection we made was for “The Lost Worlds” chapter in which authors such as Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, and Jimmy Santiago look back at what they or their families have left behind.  Because so many of these works center around the stark contrast between the U.S. and other countries, we thought that the ideal film would have to be partly about the U.S. and partly about another country.  What kinds of sacrifices were made along the trek to the U.S.?  Hands down, the easy choice for this film was El Norte.  Beyond its beauty and power, what we liked about this film is that a) it is one that 99.9% of our students have never seen, b) it is timeless, and c) it portrays immigrants as hardworking and willing to make sacrifices for each other.  Knowing that so many of our students are persuaded by the rhetoric of conservative talk radio and by attacks on the character of Latino immigrants, Christie and I thought that the film’s story would speak for itself.  The other aspect of the film that our students would appreciate is that it highlights the diversity and conflict within Latino cultures.  Characters speak in Spanish and Indian languages, and the two main characters face prejudices from within as they make their way to the U.S.  El Norte’s critical acclaim and recognition by the Library of Congress, which in 1995 placed this film in the National Film Registry help students see the marginality of Latinos in the U.S.  The registry’s goal is “to reflect the full breadth and diversity of America’s film heritage.”  When students hear that, they cannot help but wonder aloud why they have never heard of the film.

 

            For the “Working World” chapter, the choice was not as easy, given that just about any film about Latinos has in one way or other to do with the notion of working for a living.  The possibility of focusing on a classic such as Salt of the Earth (1954) occurred to us, but ultimately we decided that the films had to capture more of the energy and modern nature of our literary works.  As such, for that chapter, we chose to focus on My Family/Mi Familia.  Of all films that I have shown in classes, this one has the most appeal to students, perhaps because it stars such Hollywood heavyweights as Jimmy Smits, Edward James Olmos, Jennifer Lopez, Lupe Ontiveros, and Esai Morales. Yet the major reason we selected to discuss this film in-depth is not only because it is about the sense of family and its importance to Latinos, but because it highlights different paths that individuals make or have to make in order to earn to earn a living.  The father works as a gardener, one child enlists in the military, another is a cook, another is an attorney, while another decides to sell drugs.  Spanning three generations, the film looks at the link between assimilation and success in the work force in a subtle yet effective way.  The most successful character, the attorney, is the one who gives up so much of his heritage to the point where he can be said to turn his back on his own family. 
         For our third chapter, “The Urban World,” Christie and I had a similar dilemma in terms of the sheer number of Latino films with an urban setting.  After all, significant Latino populations obviously exist in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, so it is no surprise that many Latino literary works and films are set there.  The one thing that was clear from the start was that we would not choose films that purported to be about Latinos, all the while sensationalizing gangs.  Unfortunately, too many films pointed back in that direction.  Do not get me wrong, gangs are an ugly reality of many urban lives, but this chapter was not about that—it was about something more complex.  Authors like Junot Diaz, Sergio Troncoso, and Lorna Dee Cervantes explore this world in an intricate love-hate relationship that has very little to do with gang violence and wearing colors.
            Once we made the decision to include Josefina Lopez’ play, Real Women Have Curves, the film choice became obvious.  We thought that the film version of the play (which is in the anthology) would provide faculty with the opportunity to assign comparison/contrast papers that would force students to delve into the differences between written and movie drama.  The decision, for example, to cast the aforementioned Lupe Ontiveros as the mother of the main character merits analysis.  Having reportedly played the role of a maid in over 150 films and plays, Ontiveros is cast once again as a lower class worker (in this case, a seamstress) who wants to keep her daughter with her family in the city.  Fortunately for the daughter, Ana, her English teacher, played by George Lopez convinces her to go against her father’s wishes and go to college, away from the family.  What is most notable about the film is that it stresses the love-hate relationship that so many urban dwellers, Latinos notwithstanding, have with cities.  On the one hand, the women in the film hate their jobs and dream of going elsewhere, yet they are very close to one another and supportive of each other’s endeavors.  No scene in the movie best illustrates this relationship than the final one, in which Ana, having left her family in Los Angeles, is walking down the streets of the penultimate inner-city, New York.  She struts proudly and seemingly content with her situation, as if she has not only conquered but is now embracing the complexities of urban life. 

 

           Real Women Have Curves, as a play and as a film also appealed to us because of its message regarding women.  In the history of American cinema there just have not been many films that explore Latinas the way this film does.  A little-known film version of Esmeralda Santiago’s Almost a Woman, the sequel to When I Was Puerto Rican exists, but despite the impressive number of works written by Latinas, very few pieces of their literature have been made into films. 
         To some, our pick for “The Fringe World” section might seem the most surprising, primarily because it did not get rave reviews from all critics and because its subject matter may not be considered appropriate in all classrooms—even at the college level.  The film was panned by some in much the same way that Luis Valdez’ film version of Zoot Suit was.  And in just the same fashion, it was also misunderstood.  I am talking here about Leon Ichaso’s Pinero, which we chose for the simple reason that it was a great representation of a complex, creative individual.  The fact that it was one of the few films about a Latino (as opposed to Latin American) writer also made it appealing. Documenting the life of Miguel Pinero, the film does not make excuses for his self-destructive behavior but rather brings to light the consequences in his life that brought him to a heroin-induced, out of control world.  Benjamin Bratt, the normally clean-shaven “good guy,” does an excellent job as Pinero and his voice lends a musical touch to Pinero’s poetry.  The film itself is fringed as are the characters, authors, and even the works in the chapter—from Abraham Rodriguez’s “The Boy Without a Flag,” Tato Laviera’s “AmeRican,” to Alba Ambert’s “Rage of a Fallen Angel.”  In a scene that typifies what being on the fringes meant to Pinero as well as thousands of Puerto Ricans and Latinos, he returns to the island of Puerto Rico where he and his poetry are met with resistance.  In New York he is considered an outsider, but in Puerto Rico he is treated like someone who does not belong there.  Those familiar with Pinero’s Nuyorican poetry can appreciate its constant code-switching and its dynamic style that is mirrored in the film’s cinematography, its contrast of color versus black and white, and its camera angles. 
            Our choice of film recommendation for the “Beyond Worlds” chapter is Ben Model’s The Puerto Rican Mambo (Not a Musical), which despite its enthusiastic reviews by Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and The New York Times, remains to this day one of the lesser-known best Latino films.  The lead, Luis Caballero, who appeared in Pinero, The Sopranos, and Law and Order passed away unexpectedly in obscurity in 2005.  In the film, Caballero pokes fun of stereotypes in a non-threatening, sardonic way that proves sensitive points in a style that would be reminiscent of Dave Chapelle if only Chappelle had been the first to do it.  As a self-described, “short, brown man,” Caballero performs stand-up before introducing brief skits presumably based on incidents in his own life.  In one scene, for example, he plays a man whose bike is stolen and is scolded in court by a judge who assumes that Caballero is the criminal rather than the victim.  In another scene, he goes job-hunting only to hear interviewers make derogatory comments about Puerto Ricans.  The film was and is beyond its years.  Each time I show it to students, I find that I have to remind them that it is okay to laugh at the material, for they are not used to seeing humor in matters related to race or ethnicity.  Like Sandra Maria Esteves, Sandra Benitez, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Gary Soto, and other authors in this chapter, Caballero had an effective way of providing social commentary without being didactic.  The DVD release rights to the film are rumored to be locked up because of an issue having to do with the film’s music. The world, it seems, is still not entirely prepared to view his work.
            In short, the process of selecting these five Latino films for our resource essays brought with it unforeseen challenges, but overall, the selections reflect the diversity of Latino cultures and Latino art.  Most importantly, the films serve as ideal resources for the classroom.  In the end, Latino Boom's discussion of these films serves not as an end point, but rather as a starting point for those who wish to place Latino films and Latino literature in a context that helps explain the real lives of the largest minority group in the U.S. 

 

 Last Updated: February 26, 2011
Copyright 2006 LatinoStories.com design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie