Film

BAM’s Program on Chicano Cinema Reclaims Attention for an Underrepresented Community

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Despite Los Angeles’ large Mexican American population, Hollywood has always stayed away from its brown neighbors. Sure, there were occasional crossover stars from Mexico, like Dolores del Rio and Ricardo Montalban, but it took a long time before U.S.-born Mexican Americans started catching the same breaks as their Mexican-born counterparts. (The Mexican stars that made it into the Hollywood fold were often titans in their country before going north.) Their sidelining was generally a matter of course until the Seventies, when the homegrown Chicano activism that began a decade prior spilled over onto the silver screen, and Mexican Americans were able to tell their stories for moviegoers for the first time.

In its latest series, “¡Sí Se Puede! Pioneers of Chicano Cinema,” BAMcinématek brings these Chicano experiences back to the multiplex. For the next week, you can access a wide swath of work, from initial, scrappy shorts documenting communities ignored by Tinseltown to box office hits of the Nineties that took the industry by storm long before #OscarsSoWhite ever steered watercooler conversation. Christened with an activist spirit, those early works on Chicano issues proved to be a source of comfort and inspiration, and also served as a rallying cry for enduring in the fight against discrimination. Jesús Salvador Treviño’s Yo Soy Chicano (1971), which runs just under an hour, tells the story of Mexican Americans from the days of Montezuma to the foundations of the Chicano movement through artifacts and archival footage. Teaching Chicano history is something that remains controversial in some parts of the Southwest; even if not overtly conceived as such, Yo Soy Chicano stands as a political statement meant to defy the racist attempt to erase Mexican Americans from the country’s textbooks.

Yo Soy Chicano, however, takes a mostly traditional look at men and women in Mexican American society, and almost never mentions Chicanas. An answer to Salvador Treviño’s macho-inflected look-back lesson can be found in Sylvia Morales’s Chicana (1979), which recaps the history of women’s exploitation throughout Mexican history. The film justly depicts the work of crucial activists like Dolores Huerta, who fought for farmworkers; Alicia Escalante, who fought for social services; and Francisca Flores, who founded the Chicana Service Action Center in Los Angeles to help young women to find employment. Here, women are no longer in the shadows — they’re carving out a space as leaders in this new era of Chicano culture. Accompanying Morales’s original short at BAM is her 2009 follow-up, A Crushing Love, which runs nearly an hour and follows activists and single moms as they struggle both to raise their children and raise up their communities.

The earliest films on view are far from feel-good stories, but they were sometimes made with the intention of being inspirational. That tone shifted profoundly with 1983’s El Norte: Gregory Nava’s unrelenting look at immigration stripped away any notions of Ellis Island romanticism. It’s the grim journey of a brother and sister who flee violence in their native Guatemala for the U.S., only to find that their place of salvation is no less hostile. It’s a heartbreaking film, passionately told, detailing the characters’ harrowing journey and the difficulties they face when perceived as either unwelcome invaders or sources of cheap labor.

Immigration is a part of many Mexican American stories, but not all. However, at one point or another, just about everyone in the community has heard of, and enjoyed, the music of the Tejano  artist Selena. The singing sensation from Texas was one of the first U.S.-born Spanish-to-English crossover successes before her murder in 1995. Although her career was cut short, her story was immortalized in a wildly popular biopic that introduced Selena and her music to new fans, giving her legacy a second life. During one scene in Selena (1997), the character’s father (Edward James Olmos) perfectly sums up the double-or-nothing problem facing every immigrant kid on either side of their culture: “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!” 

Through these movies, shorts, and other projects, Chicanos shared their stories of struggle and triumph. They defied Hollywood stereotypes with representations of important figures and gave Chicano heroes the movie-star treatment. These films weren’t perfect — many were shot on modest budgets or cast non–Mexican American actors as the leads, as is the case with La Bamba (1987) and Selena. Even so, the works gave Chicano audiences a means to feel seen and celebrated. Other Latinx communities adopted these Chicano heroes as their own, since they, too, were excluded from Hollywood. Collectively, the Latinx audience has grown to occupy a curious position — as one of the most-represented demographics among moviegoers, but one of the least-represented on screen. Hopefully, the wall that keeps Latinx talent out of Hollywood will continue to fall, and we can persist in telling our stories again and again. ¡Sí Se Puede!

‘Sí Se Puede! Pioneers of Chicano Cinema’
BAMcinématek
Through March 22

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