With Cameras In Their Hands
Latino Filmmakers Reinvent Crossover Dreams
by Jim Mendiola
Right now, for some brief shining moments, at least, the best place to see Latinos on prime time TV is during certain televised NBA playoff games. Que loco, right? I mean, in a sport that has become an athletically expressive, full-court metaphor highlighting dynamic contemporary African American culture, America's inevitable Latino future somehow still manages to peek its way through. Forget for one timeout Latrell, Iverson or Kobe. Check out instead the brown-filled Alamodome stands during any home game of Los Spurs de San Antonio -- the hottest team in the NBA. You'll see what I mean.
The three-second South Texas crowd shots captured by the roving NBC and TNT cameras beam in their broadcasted gaze more Mexican Americans than has probably been shown during the entire history of prime time television and Hollywood films. See on network TV the brown fans cheer, scream at the pinche refs, and sing "Volver" at the half. Fan-tastic, as the NBA likes to say.
On the flip side, though, the fact that Latinos have to go this far to get their fair share of media face time suggests several conflicting conditions -- the kinds of issues likely to be brought up this weekend at The Future of Latino Independent Media Conference: First, what a depressing state of things it is when Raza has to go to these kinds of lengths to find some non-stereotyped representation in the great White void of American media; Second, throw a rock at any quintessentially "American" event, place, and/or historical moment and you'll hit a brown person; and Third, since those Spurs tickets don't come cheap -- even up in the nosebleed sections -- those Latinos in the stands represent the huge, and as-of-yet untapped market of brown people willing to spend many of their dollars on entertainment.
It's from the margins, once again, Latino participation in the mainstream asserts itself. This structurally peripheral existence -- changing incrementally every day -- hints at the still unexplored and unrecognized opportunities for not only a presence in mainstream media but a necessary creative hand in the self-representation.
Titanic, the biggest movie of all time, was made in Mexico. NAFTA, it seems, is going Hollywood, and with all its attendant economic, environmental, and cultural contradictions of exploitation and opportunity. (Not to mention the weird fact that the film's patrician English first class extras are actually Mexicans, and speaking Spanish between takes). U.S. Spanish language TV is flirting with bi-lingualism and bi-culturlsim. Boy toy Ricky Martin is Livin' La annoying Vida Loca everywhere you look. And even The Phantom Menace has a bit of Mexican style lurking about. In his latest space saga, the Modesto-born Lucas has gone beyond his earlier Carlos Castañeda appropriation of The Force to hijack for Episode I more cutting-edge brown style: Elder Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Irish actor Liam Neeson, proudly sports -- I swear -- that distinctly Mexican hair-do of close cropped sides and long pony tail in the back favored by many bass players of any number of Norteño bands. Bad ass, que no?
But the window may or may not stay open. Titanic is last year's news. Ricky Martin is, after all, from Menudo. And the Tin Duncan-led Spurs will soon win it all, exit prime time, and it will be back to business-as-usual in the brownless TV and Movie universe.
According to "Missing In Action: Latinos In and Out of Hollywood," a recent report by the Tomás Rivera Policy institute commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild, while Latinos represent a $528-million dollar annual movie admission market -- the largest percentage share of entertainment dollars by far among Blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites -- they still remain one of the lowest represented ethnic groups on television and film.
A Brief History of Chicano Film (or, the Cliff Notes Canon)
Thirty years ago, during the Go-Go days of the Chicano movement, this current and sad state-of-things was never imagined. Great and glorious things were to come. The promised Sixth Sun. Civil Rights. Political power. A dynamic brown cinema representative of a people and their distinct U.S. culture.
In this centennial of world film, Chicano cinema goes back only three decades. To an ex-boxer named Corky Gonzales and his agit prop poem, "I Am Joaquin." A text that for many Raza served as a neat and tidy artistic expression of all the political, historical and cultural rhetoric that informed the Mexican American civil rights movement of the time.
In 1969, Luis Valdez, practicing that calculated Hollywood tendency to adapt best-selling books to the big screen, adapted I Am Joaquin into what today is generally considered the first Chicano film. Crude, moving, and beautiful, Valdez' 20 minute film (essentially a series of filmed stills a la Chris Marker's L'jetee) embodied the unique Chicano artistic sensibility of rasquachismo -- a populist creative strategy of making inventive material use of what is available, generally with little or no money, and oftentimes with even less formal training.
Other short films followed. Jesus Salvador Treviño's Yo Soy Chicano (1972) became the first Chicano film to enjoy a national broadcast, signifying the beginning of the ongoing browning of America. Sylvia Morales made Chicana, a feminist conterpoint to I Am Joaquin's more vato centered point-of-view. Morales' 1979 film also stands out as an early example of a self-conscious, self-critique of the very conventions of Chicano film -- a welcome occurance still rare to this day. Here in San Francisco, Mexicana/Chicana filmmaker Lourdes Portillo pushed equally sacrosant notions of proper Chicano subject matter. Her 1978 short film Después del Terremoto, about a Nicaraguan woman living in the Mission, was ahead of its time in its depiction of the complex pan-Latino demographic reality of U.S. brown life. Gregory Nava's El Norte (1983) would follow a few years later in this same expansive pan-Latino sensibility.
Meanwhile, over in Texas, Efraín Gutiérrez, a madman/visionary Tejano, wrote, produced, directed, acted in, and distributed Please Don't Bury Me Alive (1976), the first Chicano feature film -- with no film training whatsoever. And for those aesthete/windbags who dimiss Gutierrez' work with just that elitist and subjective critique -- "The films look bad! -- they miss the point entirely. Gutierrez' three feature films and successfull self-distribution strategies pre-dated by ten years the DIY entrepreneurial career strategy of Spike Lee -- not to mention, the so-called beginnings of the American indie film movement. Like Valdez, Gutierrez came from a theater background, but unlike Valdez' and his interest in a mythic Aztec past, Gutierrez' stories were contemporary and realistic; urban tales of gritty, Texas Mexican-American barrio life.
The "Decade of the Hispanic" then followed. And while other fields of Chicano cultural production challenged, tweaked and morphed their respective American genres (such as Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez' 50 issue run of of their comic book masterpiece Love & Rockets, as well as the formative Chicano presence in the early 70s L.A. punk music scene) Chicano cineama stayed somewhat conventional. Content, instead, to challenge by content alone. Still, no small feat considering its task of countering nearly a hundred years of celluloid absense or racist stereotyping.
Luis Valdez' 1981 Zoot Suit (starring Edward James Olmos) led the feature film way, followed by The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez in 1982 (starring Edward James Olmos), and 1988's Stand and Deliver (starring Edward James Olmos). If you detect a trend here, it only points out the absolute scarcity of Latino players -- on both sides of the camera -- just one decade ago.
La Bamba (1987), Valdez' biopic of 50s Chicano Rocker Richie Valens, was the decade's overwhelming financial success. Hollywood, however, didn't deliver on its tacit promise of capatalism rewarded and years passed before the studios took a major brown investment plunge once again. Apart from 1992's American Me and 1995's Mi Familia (both starring Edward James Olmos), it wouldn't be until Gregory Nava's Selena (once again, starring Edward James Olmos) that studio money would support a Latino effort. And this time, only because of the obvious and huge market potential even the most myopic of film execs couldn't ingore in the wake of the singer's death.
And, oh yeah, Cheech Marin emerged from his oeuvre of pot movies to make Born in East L.A. (1987). What began as a music video parody of Bruce Springsteen's Born In the USA, Marin's eventual feature highlighted the subversive potential of Chicano humor in a mainstream film. Marin's first directorial effort was later prize winner at the prestigious Havana film festival.
It's a Black/White Thing - And That I'll Never Understand
The discourse on race in this country is essentially a Black - White dialogue. Mexicans, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Filipinos, Bi-racials, Vietnamese, Dominicans and all variations of the above need not apply. Network and Hollywood studio executives, you can be sure, are not immune to this simplistic worldview. From Ally McBeal to ER to The Matrix, even the most well intentioned of efforts to portray a multi-cultural America fail to include Latinos in the mix. It's no real surprise then, that even progressive types such as filmmaker John Sayles can't shake his northeastern liberal tendencies and invent, for instance, a demographic anomaly in his movie on the Texas - Mexico border, Lone Star. Yes, of course their are African Americans on the border -- a few -- but the very essense and dramatic potential of the region is the contentious historic contact between the two cultures -- Mexican and Anglo. The resulting unique cultural synthesis -- a place and way of life writer Americo Paredes calls Greater Mexico -- Sayles couldn't leave well enough alone. It would be like insisting Julie Dash put a couple of East L.A. homegirls in the lyrical and regionally specific landscape of her Daughters of the Dust. Interesting, I guess, but a reality? Naah.
It is with some irony, then, that I turn to the ideas of the one African American writer who most captures the emerging hybrid sensibility/strategy of a new post-movimiento generation of Latino filmmakers, and future of brown film.
There is a patented, vertiginous moment in a Greg Tate essay ("Cult Nats Meet Freaky-Deke") where the self-described Flyboy in the Buttermilk expounds in his usual dizzying and apt rhetoric on a liberating aesthetic current among certain enlightened Black artists. He talks about those anti-essentialist folks who "feel secure enough about Black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of their inheritance." (Substitute “black” for “brown” in the above quote and it sounds like many contemporary U.S. Latinos.) A 150 plus word litany then ensues where the provocative writer headbumps pairings of seminal influential artist types as evidence of his theory of how seemingly disparate cultural influences actually make cogent sense when incorporated by certain enlightened black artists.
Just a sampling from Señor Tate’s intentionally contradictory two-page list: "...George Clinton and George Romero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lisette Model, Zora Neale Hurston and Akira Kurosawa...Jah Rastafari and Johnny Rotten...Anthony Braxton and Bruce Lee...Antonin Artaud and Amira Baraka...Fredric Jameson and Reverend James Cleveland," and on and on and on.
Absent, of course, in Tate's glib Who's Who are any American artists of the Brown variety. Now I mention this not so much to dis brother Tate (OK, maybe just a little -- those who preach post-modern pastiche, after all, should practice it) but more so because the guy's on to something.
“...Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix...?”
That’s cool. But how about certain Chicano/Latino artists that also easily navigate and reference and knowingly subvert all that pop America -- North and South -- has to offer. Take Luis M. Meza's sublime 1996 ultra low budget feature, Staccato Purr of the Exhaust. In that very cool ultra low budget feature Meza mixes the influences of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jim Jarmusch, and lo-fi rock and roll into a new American idie film sensibility.
The point being, of course, not to lay down some unproductive one-up-manship in referencology with African American artists -- 'cause Prince Paul or the RZA would totally kick our Latino ass in that kind of sampling mano-a-mano -- no, what matters here is illustrating just another example of the culturally specific, all-encompassing power of mestizaje -- our people's predeliction for hybridity and mixing -- our necessary mastery of two cultures -- the creation a natural brown aesthetic informing our movies. It's a distinct creative strategy that's worked in the past, and being transformed for the future.
New Makers/Changing demographics
As recently as 1984, Jesus Trevino, one of the pioneer practioners/theorists of brown cinema wrote "that Chicano cinema is the northernmost expression of New Latin American Cinema." For a newer generation of self-identified Chicano/Latino filmmakers, 1984 signals not so much a continued glance South for inspiration, but the beginnings of the American independent film movement.
For some of this new post-movimiento generation Latin American cinema has as much practical relevance to their second-, third-, or fourth-gen Pocho lives as the French New Wave. Interesting, yeah, and maybe some shades of affinity at times, but Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Rose Troche, et.al. are the filmmakers to emulate.
As the first generation of filmmakers continues its strategy of Hollywood access, other avenues are developed by newer makers. Ela Troyano, creative of the muy wacky Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst is My Waffen, is taking advantage of the recent bi-lingual/bi-cultural interest of the Spanish Language networks and directing episodic television. Peruvian-American and honorary Chicano, Alex Rivera, maker of the Star Wars informed identity video Papapapa, is working some crazy entrepreneural, grassroots, Zapatista thing down in Cuernevaca, Mexico. Frances Negron-Muntaner [accent on the ‘o’ in Negron] who’s Brincado el Charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican challenged expectations of Latina sexuality and gender, focuses her academic skills on a weekly column of politics and pop culture in a Puerto Rican newspaper out of Miami.
Building upon the first wave of “resistance and affirmation” filmmakers, these, and other newer makers are adding to the idealogical onda with queer theory; class issues; anti-essentialist labels of self-identity; assertations of regional differences; and a pan-Latinoism that questions Chicano dominance. But as evident with the continuing self-representational struggles of the past, it's a battle that will not be won overnight.
So what’s an interested media consumer to watch until this newer generation of Latinos begins to make an impact in films and television?
Well, there’s still the NBA playoffs on TV. And that's better than nothing.
Orale, Tim Duncan.
Go, Spurs, Go!