Your intrepid blogger here, just back from Newport Beach, California, and the 10th annual National Association of Latino Producers (Nalip) 10th annual conference. For those raza unaware of Newport Beach it's a rich-ass city in Orange County, a city best know for a mall called Fashion Island, one-time home of NBA badboy and ex-Spurs Dennis Rodman, and, according to wikipedia as of October 2008, a city whose political demographics broke down into "35,870 registered Republicans and 13,850 registered Democrats" Nuff said.
For those raza unaware of Nalip, it's a membership organization of independent film and TV producers, which is a polite way of saying it's a membership organization of filmmakers who can't get their work funded, broadcasted, or respected. It's like a gathering of Brown Rodney Dangerfield's, networking about, but using Spanglish in their punchlines, dependent, usually, on various uses of the word "pendejo."
Highlights of the conference was spotting Luis Valdez schlepping his own luggage (a reminder that our Chicano icons are indeed mortal); the screening of Alex Rivera's new sci-fi movie Sleep Dealer (ok, I didn't actualy SEE the Nalip screening -- but I've seen the movie twice already -- just dropped in for Alex's Q and A, which was funny despite homeboy never using the word "pendejo"); I also like visiting old friends, and last but not least, getting a personally autographed copy of Josefina Lopez's new novel, Hungry Woman in Paris.
As part of the 10th anniversay program the organzers invited writers to talk about an issue or event that has been significant to making Brown film in the last 10 years. I wrote about my anoyance with the narrow minded tendency by execs and film writers to expect any Latino film to automatically be a film about immigration. I coulda wrote more but they only gave me a 1000 words. Read it after the jump...Oh, and the pic of the groovy guy in the dapper hat and cool shade I'm including as conference photo? That's legendary underground Latino filmmaker Gustavo Stebner strking a pose.
After the Border, Back to the Past
By Jim Mendiola
We are, the saying goes, a nation of immigrants. That is, of course, until we’re not. At that inevitable assimilating moment, so-called – when we move to the suburbs, mangle the present subjunctive tense of our mother tongue, and/or TiVo 30 Rock over anything on Telemundo – we become…I don’t know…Americans?
If I had to pick one condition radically different in the U.S. Latino cultural landscape of today versus the onda back during the first NALIP conference ten years ago, it would have to be the relatively recent and disproportionately amped attention paid by mainstream America on Immigration: What’s up with the wall? Will the damn wetbacks ever learn English? Did you see the half million of them march in the streets? With Mexican Flags? They’re stealing our jobs. And why oh why do they swim in the ocean with their jeans on? The sky, it seems, if you believe the rhetoric, is truly falling
It’s this fear coupled with a sudden and stark recognition that’s propelled the xenophobic pundit careers of Lou Dobbs and his nativist ilk, fueled countless Republican campaigns both school board and presidential, not to mention spawned a couple of years worth of hilarious Ask a Mexican columns (where I stole the swimming in jeans joke, by the way). Bewildered gringos stand dazed and confused.
And that, I submit, is not a bad thing.
It’s a classic Be-Careful-With-What-You-Wish-For situation.
These days, for better or worse, “Latino” equals “Immigrant” and “Immigrant” equals “Latino.” Lost in the mainstream’s reconfigured and simplistic demographic reduction is any acknowledgement of those suburban-living, Spanish-impaired, punk rock-loving, Netflix-ordering, 30 Rock-watching middle class raza: second-, third-, and fourth-gen brown people comprising the overwhelming majority of U.S. Latinos. Conveniently forgotten is a history, of a Meztizo /Mexicano / Tejano / Californio / Mexican-American / Puerto Rican / Chicano / Salvadoreno / et al. way of life existing in this country since before Plymouth Rock and dramatized on the screen by filmmakers such as Luis Valdez and his I Am Joaquin since 1968.
If Ken Burns hates Mexicans – as evident in his exclusion of their historically accurate participation in his WWII documentary – then America as a whole hates complexity. And when it comes to dealing with Latinos, Hollywood, of course, follows Main Street. Which explains the studio’s meager and unmemorable output the last decade.
But as indie film stalwarts would argue, who needs Hollywood anyway? (Love in the Time of Cholera anyone?) For rich and character-based stories told from the way more interesting margins we’ve got American Independent cinema. There we find rich and diverse American voices such as early Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes, Julie Dash, and Miranda July. And, finally, for an indie-friendly career launching pad we have, of course, the Sundance Film Festival.
But how diverse are these indie-distributed, Sundance-debuted Latino films in the context of the total brown American experience? There’s the rub.
While a cursory list of the successful Latino films from the past ten years of Sundance fest highlights the festival’s commitment to showcasing Latino movies, especially in comparison to the scarcity of brown narrative feature production in Hollywood, you can’t help but to notice a certain indie trend in what constitutes a proper brown film:
Padre Nuestro, the story of immigrant identity theft, Maria Full of Grace, the story of an immigrant drug carrier; La Misma Luna, the story of a plucky immigrant kid crossing the border; Don’t Let Me Drown, an immigrant teen-age love story set in post 9-11 New York; Sleep Dealer, about virtual immigrants and the exploitation of labor; and the latest Sundance hit, Sin Nombre, the story of an immigrant Honduran and her gang banger friend with the scary MS tattoos and large guns.
Except for 2002’s Real Women Have Curves, what's happening is that more and more the notion of what defines a "Latino" film, both to studios and the indie world alike, is that a Latino movie has to be about immigrants and has to be in Spanish. Absent from this narrow view of contemporary Brown life is anything deviating from the stories of humble maids and busboys, intrepid border crossings, the dreaded migra, and "lessons to be learned from it all.
For the record, and before my immigrant carnals lump me in with the Minutemen, let me clarify my observation. It’s not that I’m hating on the immigrant movies as much as I am lamenting the lemming like rush to narrow the definition of Latinos, and, consequently, of a brown film.
Alisa Valdez-Rodriguez, the writer of the The Dirty Girls Social Club has been trying, unsuccessfully, to her best-selling novel onto the screen for years. Now, I’m the first to admit the breezy Sex in the City meets telenovela narrative may be to everyone’s taste – Roberto Bolano it ain’t – but homegirl’s got a point when she recounts in her blog this anecdote about another U.S. Latino movie’s struggle for a greenlight:
“In 2007, Touchstone Pictures pulled the plug on "Deep in the Heart of Texas," a feature film starring Eva Longoria, about a fully assimilated Mexican American woman, saying there is nothing particularly "Latina" about an educated, professional shopaholic from Texas; meaning, the character is "too American" for audiences to believe as "Latina". (Meanwhile, Texas is no longer a majority-white state, and most Latinos there speak English…)”
While Eva Longoria wouldn't be my first choice to articulate the complexity of raza life circa 2009, you get the picture. Hollywood's probably the only place in America where an illegal immigration status is beneficial for career advancement and/or an official synopsis in the Sundance festival program. Unitl Nothing Like the Holidays, by my admittedly off the top of my head reckoning, there has only been one indie and/or major studio release by a U.S. Latino filmmaker in the last couple of years -- and that's only if you're generous and count Kenny Ortega's High School Musical 2.
We are, the saying goes, a nation of immigrants. And we’re not. Just like our Latino movies should be stories about immigration, but also about much more.