The influence of Latinos on the social and cultural life of the US is most obvious in popular culture. Zorro movies, the classical Hollywood musical West Side Story, or the animated mouse Speedy Gonzales come to mind. In fact, in very different fields of cultural life the “Latinization” has long started: Pop music and the video clip (Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin und Christina Aguilera), but even such genuinely American film-genres as the action film and the road movie (e.g. films by Robert Rodriguez) document the profound changes in US popular culture. However, it is less known that since the 70s films were produced that did not only take up issues of the contemporary life and history of Latinos, but that were directed by individuals with a Latin American background.
One way to teach the social and cultural history of Latinos in the EFL-classroom, as this article wants to suggest, is by studying the history of US-Latino films. This topic allows for supplementing the more traditional method of reading short fiction for introducing aspects of ethnic diversity and cultural difference in America. Film gives students the chance to ‘experience’ the specific language, that is, the bi-lingual slang, Spanglish and Latino rhythms. It also has the advantage over literary texts that social environments (as, e.g., urban settings in the Southwest or the borderlands between the US and Mexico), specific folklore (e.g. Mariachi music, curanderos) and youth culture are visualized for the student not familiar with these issues. The study of US-Latino films also appears quite useful for discussing questions of ‘representation,’ such as the difference between being represented and self-representation, as well as between hetero-stereotypes (groups seen by other groups) and auto-stereotypes (as groups seen by themselves). Last but not least, studying US-Latino films in the EFL classroom might be a good entry for discussing parallels between European societies and the US, between different minorities, and between different experiences of migration, such as Latinos in the US and Turkish migrants in Germany.
In the following I will first briefly introduce some aspects of history, demography, and culture of the very heterogeneous ethnic group (1). Then I will outline some characteristics of the representation of ethnicity in Hollywood films (2). The third part gives an overview on films particularly suitable for discussing in class and for discussing two aspects in particular: First, the representation of Mexican-Americans—the biggest group of Latinos—in Hollywood before the 1960s (3), and, second, self-representation in Chicano film (4).
LatinosAccording to the last census, the United States are the forth-biggest Latin American country, following after Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.1 The demographic trend has led some critics to speak of the “Latinization” and “Hispanization” and “Mexicanization” of the US. The cultural and economic influence is quite apparent in many fields of everyday life, from TV and radio stations, pop-music, to the culinary habits of Americans.
However, the quantity of Latino citizens does not correspond to the political influence which still is rather limited on the national level (despite the media coverage they have got in the recent campaigns for the presidential elections). One of the reasons for the imbalance between the status as largest minority and political influence has to be seen in the heterogeneous character of this minority. In this respect, the historian Suzanne Oboler (1995) speaks of an “ethnic label”: The majority of US citizens with a Latin American background, Oboler argues, identify more strongly with their respective country of origin than with the continent as such. The national groups seldom appear united on political platforms.
The most important of these national groups of Latinos are: Mexican-Americans (67%), Puerto Ricans (8.6%) and Cuban-Americans (3.7%). Political interests are quite diverse: the old Cuban upper class who left Cuba after the revolution of 1959, socially and politically has very little in common with Mexican immigrants who, most commonly, work as field workers or cleaners. But differences between different groups of Latinos do not solely result from different origins, but are also based on very different experiences of immigration: Puerto Ricans, for example, due to the special status of the island, are considered US citizens—which grants them rights that the other groups (particularly Mexican-Americans) have had to struggle to achieve. For Puerto Ricans, this means that they are not particularly fond of defining themselves as Latinos, as there is not much to gain by such an identity marker or political alliance.
When trying to understand who Latinos are and when examining the cultural production by this group in the US, the history of the individual subgroups and of different regions of today’s US is of central importance. All through history, from the American revolution until today, the US interacted with different regions of Hispanic America. This makes US Latino history quite complex. First of all, Spain claimed much of the territory later acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; second, in 1763, after the French and Indian War, Spain lost Florida, which then became part of the British Empire, and after the American Revolution became Spanish again, before it finally became part of the US in 1819; third, the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, has had a turbulent history of US involvement and annexation which has resulted in large migrant communities in the US. However, in the following I will concentrate on a forth aspect of US Latino history: the history of the Southwest.
A major part of today’s territory of the United States was for a long time part of the Spanish colonial empire. The Spanish exploration of today’s South and Southwest of the US started in the early 16th century. The Spanish conquistador Ponce de León discovered Florida in the 1520s. One of the first reports on today’s Texas and New Mexico was by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca about his time with the Indians of the region.2 In the following years conquistadors took possession of vast regions of North America. But the Spanish only settled in the territory to a very limited extent. They were mainly interested in natural resources, foremost gold and silver.
In 1821 Mexico became independent. Now the development of the northern provinces was supported. Land was given away for very low prices, the settlers became Mexican citizens and mostly converted to Catholicism. The Americans Moses and Stephen Austin, in this period, were particularly active in bringing Anglo settlers to Tejas. By 1835 about 35,000 Americans lived in the province. When the influence of the settlers increased, the president of Mexico, General Antonio López de Santa Anna started to control the settlers’ activities. At some point the Anglos rebelled, and it came to a bloody fight in San Antonio, in the South of Texas. In 1836, in the Mission of Alamo, 200 Texans fought against 3,000 Mexican soldiers. Although at this point the Texans were not successful, they achieved independence a few months later. This was applauded in the US, some saw it as a triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism, others welcomed that the slave state Texas won over Mexico (that had abolished slavery after independence). The Texans then established the independent Lone Star Republic—that soon worked on becoming a member of the United States of America. A long and controversial debate started in the US, and finally in December 1845 Texas joined the Union. This led to a war with Mexico, the so-called Mexican-American war. U.S. troops conquered New Mexico und California, then the Gulf of Mexico. When Mexico City was conquered the war ended in 1848. Mexico signed the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, lost a third its territory, and received $15 million. California, part of this newly acquired territory, joined the Union first as a free state in 1850.
This history of the Southwest is of immense importance for Latino intellectual history and cultural production. It has been taken up by quite a few films. In some regions, particularly in New Mexico, we find families and communities that trace their roots back to the Spanish colonial period. Missions and architecture of the Southwest are remnants of the Spanish and Mexican periods. But, by far most Mexican-Americans today are themselves immigrants from Mexico or are descendants of such immigrants. The history of immigration is characterized by waves: The first wave of Mexican immigration happened in the 1920s, during the Mexican Revolution. During World War II and in the 50s Mexicans came to the Southwest as so-called “braceros” (a similar concept as the German “Gastarbeiter”). Since the 50s the number of Latinos in the U.S. continuously increased: 2.6% (1950) to 12.5% in 2002, and 13.4% in 2003.
Probably the most specific characteristic of Latinos is that they maintain an intimate relation to the Spanish language even after a few generations have already lived in the US. While most other immigrant groups (such as Germans, Yiddish speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, and Italians) mostly lost their linguistic heritage at least after the third generation, Latino to a much larger extent are bilingual. Spanish advertisements, radio and TV channels, and print media are in fact experiencing a new boom.
Apart from the history of the Southwest and of immigration, a third aspect is important for understanding US Latino cultural production and the history of US Latino films: Identity politics, that in the case of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans started in the mid 60s, connected to the Civil Rights Movement of African Americans. Next to different groups of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans protested against discrimination, exclusion and economic exploitation.
Puerto Rican activists organized protest at the East Coast and in Chicago and founded the Young Lords Party, similar to the radical African-American Black Panther Party. While the Puerto Rican movement outside of the island was an urban and mainly student movement, the Mexican-American Movement was more diverse. There was a mainly rural movement of field workers and a mainly high-school, college and university student led urban movement in the Southwest. In California César Chavez organized and led strikes, starting in 1962. In New Mexico Reies López Tijerina re-claimed land rights of the local Hispanic population—land rights that were partly lost after the Mexican-American war. In addition to these rural protest movements, in the early 60s, in almost all urban centers of the Southwest, Mexican American students protested against racism, discrimination and exclusion.3
These protest movements are generally referred to as the Chicano Power Movement. The term “Chicano”—in Mexico originally used with a pejorative meaning, was made popular in Mexican-American communities in order to overcome the common term “Mexican” and the hyphenated identity of “Mexican-American.” Derogatory terms as “greaser” in the USA and “pocho” in Mexico were supposed to be substituted. This act of self-definition corresponded to the African American cultural nationalism, the so-called Black nationalism, that called for a return to lost African traditions and roots. With the self-definition the activists aimed at a terminological and symbolic disassociation from white Anglo-America as well as from Mexico. Therefore it is important to understand that Chicanismo did not aim at reproducing Mexican nationalism. Rather it is based on an identification with the pre-Columbian past. By emphasizing the kinship with Aztecs and other pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico, the Chicano Power Movement was explicitly directed against any kind of identification with Spanish origins and Spanish colonialism. The term and concept of “Chicano” thus are to be understood as means of identity politics. They have not been accepted as a term for identification by the majority of the Mexican-American population. In the decades since the movement, the term has mainly been used in contexts of identity politics, among writers and artists, and in academic discourse. Most universities of the Southwest offer interdisciplinary programs in Chicano/a Studies. More recently Latino Studies, with a broader approach, has gained more recognition all over the US.
Hollywood and EthnicityHollywood has a history of representing certain groups stereotypically, even in racist ways. Native Americans have been represented either as barbaric or as noble savages, African-Americans as intellectually feeble and as sexually threatening, Mexicans as lazy, deceitful and docile, or as Latin Lover.4 According to film historian Lester Friedman (1991) Hollywood follows two basic strategies when dealing with ethnic difference in the US. Either ethnic groups are represented in racist terms or ethnic difference is reduced to a mere superficial play of “symbolic ethnicity”: “actual ethnic culture values are irrelevant, but ethnic identification retains an emotional aura based on outer symbols” (27). Friedman further explains:
Films made by individuals who see themselves as representatives of ethnic groups, often indirectly respond to such representational practices of Hollywood. They seek different forms of dealing with cultural difference, stereotyping and racism in film. Film scholar Rosa Linda Fregoso (1993) argues that in U.S.-Latino cinema—an ethnic self-representation—as in other ethnic and minority film production, whether in major studios or in independent circles, cultural identity is depicted, staged and performed to question “the subject’s identity and position within dominant and oppositional discourses” (Fregoso, 28). In such films, “identity” and “culture,” as Fregoso puts it, “bea[r] quite a different investment” (28) than in mainstream cultural production.
Although academic research has established a corpus of films referred to as ‘US-Latino cinema,’ terms and definitions—as in most ethnic cultural production—are still under debate.5 Particularly the complex production system of feature films makes it difficult to define the meaning of the category ‘US-Latino cinema.’ Different aspects of film production become relevant: The ethnic identity of the director, the cast, the theme, the setting, and the financial backing. For example, Mexican-American identity is a central theme in such films as Salt of the Earth (1954) and Lone Star (1996) but neither director nor producer have a Latino background; still these films have been influential for the representational discourse of U.S.-Latino cinema.6 One could even discuss the Latinoness of Traffic (2000) directed by Steven Soderbergh which places issues of inter-American relations and Latinos in the US at the center of narrative. Another case in point is the director Robert Rodriguez who is of Mexican-American descent but whose movies do not take up the politicized aesthetics developed in the decades after the Chicano Movement. Rodriguez’ films are going beyond the social realist narrative style of most Chicano films. He certainly best qualifies as a ‘crossover’ as his films are popular among young audiences worldwide. However, due to his ethnic background, scholars have read his films as Chicano films.
As a way of relating to the problem of defining US-Latino cinema, I will highlight two aspects of the representational discourses to which these films respond and in which they partake: First, the representation of Mexican-Americans in classical Hollywood films, and, second, self representations of Mexican-Americans in film since the 1970s.
Representation of Latinos in HollywoodZorro certainly has to be considered as the most famous popular narrative set in Spanish colonial California. The story was originally written by a pulp fiction author of Irish descent, Johnston McCulley (1883–1958). His Zorro character was first serialized in the story “The Curse of Capistrano” in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. McCulley often used California as a setting for his stories.7 He was not primarily interested in bringing attention to the history of California but rather he exploited the exotic atmosphere of the Hispanic past to write a romance that is in fact very strongly at home in the imagery of the US. Zorro tells the story of Diego de la Vega who after returning from his military education in Spain, finds his native California ruled by a corrupt governor. His father, the former governor, intimidated by the repressive atmosphere, refuses to lead a revolt of the peasants when asked to do so. Diego then starts his split life as an opportunist and as Zorro who defends the rights of the oppressed and finally is successful in liberating California from the corrupt governor. The historical context of Spanish colonialism in North America makes the different later versions (films and novels) particularly interesting for studying representations of latinidad in Hollywood, as well as the relation of gender and nation. It is significant that rather than the historical context, the motif of masquerade was what made Zorro most interesting for Hollywood. McCulley’s half-masked character inspired other masked-heroes of today, such as Superman and Batman—the context of Californian history in such transformations is given up.
The earliest Zorro film was the silent film The Mark of Zorro (1920) with Douglas Fairbanks as protagonist. As the film—faithful to McCulley’s original—is set in the Spanish colonial period of California, Mexican-Americans and the contact between Mexico and the United States—which took place decades later—are not explicitly made part of the cinematic narrative. However, at least as an implied sub-text, Zorro’s heroic and rebellious acts can be understood as a form of anti-colonial struggle; reading the film from such a perspective, the encounters between Zorro and representatives of the Spanish colonial administration, make Zorro into a hero of democracy. When acting as a representative of Spain, Zorro is weak, feminized and treacherous; when acting as locally rooted hero, he is virile, powerful and open to the sorrows of the people. In the latter role he most obviously acts as ‘American hero.’ His Americanness, however, does not only appear ‘hemispheric’—in the sense of opposing Spanish colonialism—but it can also be understood as contrasting the lifestyle of the ‘Hispanic world’—and in this sense it is implied that Zorro (Fairbanks) represents values, such as freedom and democracy, that the US claims to stand for.8
The second big Hollywood box office success was produced in 1940: The Mark Of Zorro with Tyrone Power, another version more or less faithful to McCulley’s original plot. It is a remake of the silent film version with slightly more emphasis on revolt against corrupt and tyrannical Spanish colonial power, a revolt that is led by “the Californian,” as Zorro is introduced right in the first scenes. More recently the topic was taken up anew in major Hollywood productions, this time with such famous ‘Latino’ characters as the Spanish Antonio Banderas in leading roles: The Mask of Zorro (1998), in which the old Diego de la Vega (Zorro) trains the bandit Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas) as his successor in order to avenge the injustice de la Vega had experienced in his later life. The plot is set in the Mexican period of California. In the end Murrieta (the new Zorro) liberates the slaves of the Mexican governor who work in gold mines.
The Legend of Zorro (2005), again with Antonio Banderas, removes the action even further from the historical setting of the original Zorro. The plot is set in 1850, when California wants to become the 31st state of the USA. Zorro (Banderas) in this movie is shown as a hero fighting for the “liberty” of California. In fact, the first scenes show him with lots of special effects rescuing a chest with the ballots papers from the hands of the bad guy, a devilish creature who seems to be opposed to Californian statehood. Zorro then delivers the votes to the governor. But, only in the last scenes California finally becomes a state of the US. In one of the last scenes Zorro’s wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) asks her husband: “Tell me, are we free?” And later she declares that the couple’s main concern and occupation is “the well being of the people”—Zorro here is not only a Robin Hood-like figure but appears to be acting as a Californian fighter for the right of democracy and American statehood.
Luis Valdez’ 1998 essay “The Face of Zorro” reads the history of Zorro movies in the context of U.S. Latino and Chicano identity discourses. Valdez writes that for him, when as an eight-year-old Mexican-American boy he for the first time in 1948 watched the 1940 version of Zorro, “the myth of the romantic Latin hero […] was born.” And he goes on examining the meaning of Zorro’s black half-face mask: “To an 8-year-old migrant Chicano kid, it was a revelation, and the start of a strange mystery: Who is this guy who’s supposed to be me? And for the last 50 years, as a playwright, activist and filmmaker, I have been looking under his mask.” Valdez brings attention to possible sources and historical inspirations for the figure of Zorro: Tiburcio Vásquez, the last of the California bandits and the last man publicly executed in the state, in San José in 1875, and another bandit, Joaquín Murrieta. However, despite such historical references possibly hidden in the figure of Zorro, and despite the Hispanic character of the fictional revolt of the Zorro narratives, as Luis Valdez emphasizes, no Latino actor has yet played the title role—Banderas in Valdez’ eyes comes close to it, as he at least is seen in the US public as being “Hispanic.” However, in Valdez’ assessment, the Hollywood versions ‘de-latinize’ the hero, turning the figure not only into a Hollywood film hero, but as the films imply, an American hero.
In 2005 Isabel Allende published Zorro—a novel that has been criticized for being written as a commission/order of Zorro Productions. Allende makes a move different from the last Hollywood version. She does not set the action in the future of the original Zorro (and in California as a state of the US). Instead Allende leads back into the past of Diego de la Vega (Zorro). The most significant innovation of the novel—and also the most interesting part—is that Allende gives Diego de la Vega an Indian mother and hence makes him a mestizo. Thus, in this narrative emphasis is less on a further ‘Americanization’ of Zorro, but rather a ‘Mexicanization’ or ‘Latinization’ of the hero takes place. Allende’s move—also the more recent Hollywood versions—give latinidad a new emphasis that seems to be related to, or an expression of, ethnic identity politics, and even more of the very recent tendency of mainstreaming Latino culture in Hollywood.
Apart from Zorro-movies, Mexican-Americans and the history of the Southwest were taken up in many classical Hollywood movies, even before the 1970s. Salt of the Earth (1954) and Giant (1956) are two films produced before cinematic self-representation started in the late 1960s. These two films seem characteristic of ‘well-intentioned’ cinematic representations of the history of the Southwest and of Mexicans, representations that are trying to work against the exclusion of Mexican-Americans from US society and popular culture. Salt of the Earth is a film about the unity of workers across racial, gender and ethnic lines, as Gary Keller (1985) puts it, a “Hispanic-focused social problem film” (34). At its time it was a controversial project, not only because it dealt with an “ethnic minority’s emancipation” (Garcia Berumen, 86) but also because the filmmakers expressed working class sympathies. Due to these topics, Salt of the Earth was officially banned by an Act of Congress upon its release. Salt of the Earth has since been regarded as a landmark in political filmmaking.
The film narrative is built around a strike in a mining town in rural New Mexico. The majority of workers are of Mexican-American descent. Although the unity of the workers is emphasized, much attention is given to differences among them. Particularly the gender politics of the film are remarkable for its time. The central conflict is staged as one between a cold-hearted capitalist system and a local, situated, traditional New Mexican lifestyle that is represented as of Hispanic origin. The message is that the traditional New Mexican culture is threatened and destroyed by a capitalist order in which solely efficiency counts. However, the workers are using their own ways for establishing solidarity and unity. Towards the end of the film, two men disrupt a festivity at the protagonists’ home. The family and their friends are listening to music played by the recently acquired radio. The intruders want to take the radio away as the protagonist, due to the loss of pay during the strike, did not pay the installments. When the collectors turn the music off and take the radio out of the house, the protagonist grabs his guitar and makes clear that traditional guitar music serves the purpose just as well. In this scene the traditional guitar music, as exemplified in the corridos, is set against the modern Anglo culture which is shown as ‘alienating,’ as part of a consumer society mainly interested in raising profits.
In another scene towards the end, one of the strikers reports that he was told “to go where he belongs,” certainly referring to his darker skin color and Mexican appearance. The worker then comments that he was born in the neighboring state, Texas; other workers give similar statements. Such scenes depicting encounters between Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans show quite an exceptional sensitivity for, and political investment in, the situation of the Mexican-American minority as it was rather uncommon in American film in the early fifties. The extraordinary character of this representation of Mexican-Americans is reflected in the epigraphical note after the opening credits: “New Mexico: Home of the Brave who played most of its roles.” This epigraph shows that at the time it still was exceptional to see Mexican-Americans in major roles on screen.
Giant, directed by George Stevens, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, shows a critical attitude towards myths of Texan history and towards the treatment of Mexicans in Texas in the early decades of the twentieth century. Giant is a family saga, mainly set on the Texan ranch of the Benedicts, depicting the transformation from traditional cattle farming in the 20s to oil based wealth in the 50s. The movie starts off with Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a Texan patriot, visiting the East where he meets Leslie (Liz Taylor). In these scenes the East is framed as the civilized, high cultured opposite to Texas. The history of Texas is a theme of the movie right in the first scenes—but after this scene is not explicitly brought up again.
After having studied the history of her guest’s homestate, Leslie asks at breakfast: “We really stole Texas, didn’t we, Mr. Benedict? I mean away from Mexico.” Leslie’s remarks are then angrily denied by Bick who gives a brief lecture on the history of Texas. The mute but scandalized expressions with which everybody in the room responds to Leslie’s statement and the vigor with which Bick repudiates the accusation of robbery, emphasize that Leslie’s words violated a taboo. Her remarks can be read as the attempt of the repressed historical memory to enter the (white) American home, an attempt that apparently has to be silenced to maintain the order of the house.
Finally Leslie falls in love with the Texan. She decides not to marry the British Sir David, instead she marries Bick. The following train trip West is staged as a journey into the uncivilized, vast wilderness. The train arrives in the void, desolate desert and a “Mexican” servant welcomes the couple in Spanish. Leslie is irritated by Bick’s rough—and in her eyes “uncivilized”—treatment of the “Mexicans.”9 Leslie opposes the racist mistreatment of Mexicans throughout the film. Against the will of her husband and his fellow Texans she tries to improve the living conditions of her Mexican servants. Leslie’s standpoint here seems to be equivalent to the film’s anti-racism. However, despite such elements of social critique in the movie, Mexicans are represented as a collective without many internal differences and—which is even more important for the representational politics of the film—without agency. While considerable attention is given to class and gender conflicts among the Anglo characters, Mexicans remain racialized cultural Others. This does not even change when the Benedicts’ son marries the Mexican Juana and has a child with her.
The central contact scene of the movie takes place at a roadside cafe where the Benedicts have a stopover with their daughter-in-law and her baby-son. When the Benedicts enter Sarge’s Place, the owner welcomes Juana and her son with a dismissive facial expression. A moment later, Sarge comments on Bick’s order of ice-cream for his grandson with open hostility: “Ice-cream—thought that kid’d want a tamale.” At this point, to give even more weight to the announced conflict, a Mexican family is shown entering the restaurant. Sarge grabs the physically weak and small, old Mexican, lifts him up and tells him to leave the place. Bick comes to the defense of the Mexican and, when Sarge refuses to let the Mexicans take seat, starts a fistfight.10
The Chicano poet TinoVillanueva wrote a narrative poem about this fight. In Scene From the Movie Giant (1993) he describes his feelings as a teenager in 1956 watching Giant in a small movie theater and directs attention to the contradictory message of the film: While being critical of the racist mistreatment of Mexicans, the film at the same time leaves Mexicans without their own voice, without agency. After all, Sarge wins the fight and the scene ends with a focus on the sign: “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone.” Literary scholar Rafael Pérez-Torres (1998) rightly observes that Bick Benedict “assumes his position as liberator of the oppressed” (159) while “voicelessness [is] imposed upon the mestizo by the film” (156). While the camera focuses on the two Anglo men fighting, the Mexicans simply disappear from the scene. Villanueva translates this scene in poetic language from a Chicano perspective:
Hat heavily askew once more on the old
Man’s head, seized two fistsful of shirt and
Coat and lifted his [the Mexican’s] slight body like nothing,
A no-thing, who could have been any of us,
Weightless nobodies bronzed by real-time far
Off somewhere, not here, but in another
Country, yet here, where Rock Hudson’s face
Deepens [...]. (34).
Villanueva’s poetic language investigates the representation of contact between Anglo-Americans and Mexicans in Giant that is characteristic of the 50s: While living and struggling “here” (that is, in the US), they are perceived as belonging “not here” (that is, outside the borders of the US, outside the parameters of American culture); while anti-racist and inclusive, on the surface Giant keeps Mexican-Americans outside through its representational practices. Hence Pérez-Torres reads Giant in terms of a reproduction of American racial hierarchies.
The film ends showing Bick Benedict’s Mexican-American baby grandson next to his other, blond grandchild, the daughter’s son. Then the focus narrows on the darker skinned child, with Bick Benedict commenting: “My own grandson doesn’t even look like one of us. I swear, honey, he looks like a little wetback.” Although mestizo America has entered the Benedicts’ home and family, it remains marked as Other. The “Mexican presence” and “mestizo presence” (Pérez-Torres) are not represented as constitutive parts of the history and culture of Texas and the USA. Although Giant depicts Texas as a “contact zone” of Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans, the movie is very attentive and careful in demarcating “American” and “Mexican” cultural spaces. Cultural and ‘racial’ hybridity—if seen as the product of contacts between the Anglo-American and the Mexican-American—is thematized in the movie, it even is explicitly addressed by the protagonist, but it is represented as a problem and remains exoticized; hybridity is excluded from the film’s dominant ‘we’: “[he] doesn’t even look like one of us.” Pérez-Torres quite aptly writes about ‘Americanness’ in Giant:
Chicano Film: Self RepresentationsThe connection between protest movement and cultural production is most apparent in literature that employed and identified with the identity category ‘Chicano.’ Part of this was the Teatro Campesino, since 1965 led by the director Luis Valdez—who a few years later started to make movies—and the epic poem “I Am Joaquín” by Rodolfo Gonzales (1972 ). The Teatro Campesino was founded during the strike of the field workers in Delano (California), led by César Chavez in 1965. The theater pieces by Valdez take the living and working conditions of the field workers on stage. In fact, the workers themselves acted on stage.
Another writer, Alurista, made it one aim of the Chicano Movement and of Chicano literature to overcome ‘internal colonialism’—to use the terminology of the time.11 His manifest “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan” (Chicano Liberation Youth Conference 1969, Denver), was very influential for the formation of cultural nationalism and the symbolic language of Chicano cultural production. Based on the history and mythology of the Aztecs, the manifest declared a geographically not exactly defined area in the Southwest the “homeland of Chicanos.” In the name of the descendants of the Aztecs the manifest—and eventually the Chicano Movement—reclaimed their homeland in the Southwest. This homeland was called Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, that according to historians was located in the Southwest—which the Aztecs left towards central Mexico in the 1320s, before the Spanish arrived in the New World.
The neo-indigenous myth mixes anti-colonial rhetoric with a romanticized notion of the Mestizo, by referring to Mexican-Americans as the “Bronze People” and “La Raza”:
Literature, film, and other artistic expressions of the Movement demanded a collective return to the pre-Columbian roots of Chicano culture.12
In this context, about ten years after the release of Giant, the first films were produced that stressed the importance of ethnic self-representation. The early cinematic self-representation is characterized by attempting to establish a ‘rooted voice’ in the anglophone and Anglo-Saxon dominated cultural setup of the United States. One strategy to achieve this was Chicanismo, the cultural nationalist ideology that connected the ‘modern’ Chicano experience with indigenous cultures of pre-Columbian Mexico, primarily the Aztecs. I am Joaquín (1969) can be seen as characteristic of this strategy. I am Joaquín, the first Chicano Movement film (Garcia Berumen, 195), is a cinematic translation of the epic poem by Rodolfo Gonzales (1972 ). The compilation film was produced by Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino.13 Although the film articulates a radical criticism of capitalism and of United States domestic and foreign politics, I would argue, the film’s major theme is ‘cultural wholeness.’ The first frame shows the full circle of the sun; this image is introduced as a point of origin, a myth of rooted wholeness that has been lost. The narrative voice that leads through the film, represents itself as indigenous, as Aztec: “I am Cuautemoc.” The next frames show images of pre-Columbian cultural artifacts that are juxtaposed to images of modern American life. Quick cuts emphasize the contrast between a former traditional and heroic indigenous time (as it is idealized in the film) and the modern and Americanized ‘downfall’ (as the film criticizes the American lifestyle). As it is phrased by the film’s narrative voice: “The Anglo world has destroyed the culture and self of the Chicano.” The film’s representation opposes such cultural discourses of ‘mainstream’ America as British origins, American values, capitalism, the melting pot, and assimilation.
From today’s perspective, the pretty self-evident binary visual language can only be appreciated when considering that I am Joaquín was made in the context of a political movement. In fact, I am Joaquín can be considered a starting point in the history of US Latino cinema: films that do not only represent an ethnic group – as for example West Side Story, Giant or Border Incident—but films that locate political agency in the production process and in representation itself.
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez(1983), directed by Robert M. Young, continues the historical focus of Chicano films produced since I am Joaquín. However, this film does not continue the discourse of origins (Chicanismo). Rather than constructing the Chicano as heir of Aztec culture, Young’s film takes up Texan border culture. The film is based on Américo Paredes’ (1958) famous study of the border corrido, the ballad tradition of the border region of South Texas. Paredes’ auto-ethnographic investigation of the border corrido focuses on the ballad “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez” which he reads as a prototype. This corrido was first sung in the border region in 1901. As many ballads, “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez” is based on a historical incident of the Rio Grande Valley. The 1983 film is based on Paredes’ account of the incident.14
Looking for a horse-thief the sheriff of Karnes County comes to the house of Gregorio Cortez. Because of a misunderstanding a gunfight starts that leaves Cortez’s brother and the sheriff dead. Cortez escapes and tries to reach the Mexican border. The movie for more than half of its time shows the chase of Cortez and the publicity that the death of the sheriff and the chase got in the media of the time. Cortez is finally caught and is taken to prison. For the Mexican-American population of the region, Cortez quickly turned into a folk hero. Garcia Berumen emphasizes that Gregorio Cortez is “one of the first films to celebrate historical Mexican heroes” (199), which apart from a few exceptions (e.g. Viva Zapata!, 1952)15 was missing in Hollywood.
The film can be read as an examination of the importance of translation in the contact of cultures and ethnic groups. I would argue that it is a film about the social and individual consequences of a lack of communication, misrepresentation and mistranslation. The film does not only emphasize that Cortez was not guilty of theft, but also—and this is more important for the question of cultural contact—that the gun fight only started because of mistranslation and misunderstanding. At the end of the film the problem of translation is addressed from the perspective of Cortez. The sheriff’s assistant apparently did not know the difference between the Spanish words “caballo” (male horse) and “yegua” (a mare). When Cortez is asked on behalf of the sheriff whether he had traded a horse (the assistant used the word “caballo”), he responds negatively because he actually traded a mare (“yegua”). The sheriff interprets the answer as a lie and hence wants to arrest the Cortez brothers. When the brothers indicate that they would resist the arresting, the sheriff draws his pistol. Gregorio Cortez kills the sheriff in self-defense. In the encounter the negative stereotype of the Mexican horse thief was stronger than the will to communicate and the will to listen to the other; as Horst Tonn (2000) puts it, Cortez “becomes the victim of a combination of translation errors, racial bigotry and collective hysteria promoted by the press” (76). The theme of communication is taken up in many scenes of the movie. During the chase Cortez, e.g., meets a stranger who does not speak Spanish at all. They are sharing food and communicate through facial expressions and signs. In this scene openness for the other makes communication and exchange possible, despite linguistic incapacities and mutual distrust. In such instances the movie gives examples of productive and harmonious intercultural exchange.
El Norte, directed by Gregory Nava (1984), takes up the issue of illegal immigration. Earlier films such as Alambrista (1977), directed by Robert M. Young (Gregorio Cortez), had made this topic a central theme of Chicano film. El Norte, I would argue, is characteristic of the ‘new’ Latino cinema of the 80s; while holding on to the politicizing of cinematic representation this new wave of films made by Latino directors emphasizes the polyphone character of collective identities (in the sense of Stuart Hall’s “new ethnicities”) and works at “minimizing homogeneity” (Stuart Hall 1996); El Norte, among other things, investigates internal differences within the identity label ‘Latinos’ (see Oboler 1995). The characters of El Norte combine different Latino identities as diverse as indigenous Maya, Guatemalan military, Guatemalan middle class, Mexican, Chicano, illegal immigrants, documented immigrants, coyotes. The film recounts the migration experience of the Guatemalan sister and brother, Rosa and Enrique from their traditional community of indígenas through Mexico to California. The protagonists are shown on their desperate journey to ‘the North’ (el norte)—as the USA is referred to in Central and South America.
Analogous to the migration of the protagonists, El Norte is divided into three parts, each set in another country: Guatemala, Mexico, and the US. The idyllic undertones of “el norte” when spoken in Guatemala and Mexico, however, are shattered when the land of hope and freedom is finally reached. The social structure, the competition among fellow undocumented immigrants and the unscrupulous market system contradict the imagery of the American Dream. Similar to I am Joaquín, the search for ‘wholeness,’ that is, self-determined freedom, becomes a leitmotif, but the film does neither celebrate cultural origins nor does it romanticize Latin American societies. In the visual language of the film the search for wholeness, as in I am Joaquín, is expressed in the image of the full circle; however, here this symbol puts emphasis on the search, which the film shows as unfulfilled and endless: in Guatemala the full moon stands for the integrated community of indígenas, but it also announces the death of the father, which then, in a sharp cut, relocates the circle in the drum at the funeral procession. The second episode, set in Mexico, starts with the image of a truck driver watching the protagonists through the full circle of a spare tire, and ends with the image of border patrol helicopters seen through the full circle of the tunnel which leads Rosa and Enrique to the USA and in which they are bitten by rats—which will eventually result in Rosa’s death. The last episode takes up the image of the full moon again, while Rosa is dying of an infection transmitted by the rats. The tragedy of the protagonists is precisely that neither in their place of origin nor in Mexico nor in the US do they get a chance to live a rather self-controlled life. In Guatemala the indios are brutally mistreated and persecuted by the Guatemalan military and by ruthless landowners; in Tijuana the Guatemalan migrants are cheated and violated by coyotes that are exploiting the desolate solitude and desperation of those who hope to find a better life in the USA; in California the exploitation continues in a differently organized system.
One can read the movie as questioning not only the promise of the American Dream but also the potential intercultural exchange. At the end Enrique is successful in earning a decent living, he functions well in the capitalist market, adapts and learns to deal with Anglo-Americans. His sister, however, is not as successful. While she holds on to her cultural origins in dreams, Enrique wants to move to Chicago where he is offered a better job. The promise of material gain has made him blind for the sorrows of his closest kin. When his sister is dying in the hospital, he even considers not to visit her but to rather go to Chicago to start a new career. Despite the tragedy and the implied bleak prospect, many scenes on contact situations between Latinos and Anglo-Americans employ humor for illustrating the difficulties of intercultural communication, e.g. the border police trying to determine the national identity after the first unsuccessful attempt to cross the border, and Enrique’s first job offer; and especially Rosa’s confrontation with an American washing machine.16 The director Gregory Nava continued to examine the topic of migration and contact between Latinos and Anglo-Americans in his My Family (1994) and has since directed other feature films (e.g., Selena and Bordertown) and TV shows.
La Bamba (1987), directed by the founder of the Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez, who was also influential in the formation of Chicano film in the late sixties (I am Joaquín), translates the former ‘political’ approach to filmmaking to the genre of musical film—a genre quite popular for the representation of Latinos on screen since West Side Story (1961).17 In comparison to his earlier, more experimental musical film Zoot Suit (1981), a film version of his play, La Bamba takes on the more ‘mainstream’ and commercial form of the melodramatic teenage musical film. La Bamba chronicles the life of Richie Valens (Richard Valenzuela), a Chicano rock ‘n’ roll star who was killed in a plane crash in 1959 at the age of seventeen. Most significant for questions of intercultural exchange is the depiction of Richie Valens’ encounter with Mexican culture in Tijuana which results in a significant act of cultural translation: Valens makes a rock ‘n’ roll song out of the traditional Mexican song “La Bamba”; this creation can be seen as a hybridization, Mexican folk culture is transported to commercial US popular culture. In fact, Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” was the first Spanish-language song to make it to the Top-Ten pop charts (Garcia Berumen, 215). The hybridization of the song is paralleled by Valdez’s appropriation of the teenage musical which eventually may have helped to make this the first big financial success of Chicano film in Hollywood. However, Valens’ move from rags to riches does not have a happy ending. Valens’ death, although not related to social discrimination of any kind, signals the overall skeptical attitude towards the American Dream of success and assimilation. As Rosa Linda Fregoso (1993) has analyzed, the character of Valens’ brother, the anti-hero of the film, translates the history and presence of the urban and adolescent Chicano experience into the movie (38–48) and, I would say, into American commercial popular culture.
In the same year in which La Bamba was released, another film was made that is characteristic of the direction Chicano film has taken in the 90s with directors successful in Hollywood: Born in East L.A (1987), directed by Cheech Marin.18 This film uses comedy and humor— as, for example, the reference to the Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the USA”—for deconstructing both, the idea of the “melting pot” and the genre of the immigrant film. The protagonist, a Chicano who does not speak any Spanish, is deported to Mexico because he forgot his ID. The film recounts his experiences in Tijuana trying to cross the border. The scene of deportation, when the protagonist is confronted with real Mexican “illegals,” as a key-scene expresses the dilemma of Mexican-American identity: The Mexicans pejoratively call him “pocho,” but the American border policeman does not accept him as American citizen either when telling him bluntly: “Mexico is where you belong.”
La Bamba can be considered one of the most successful films made about the Chicano experience and it proved that there is a mass audience for Chicano-related films. Gang films such as Blood in, Blood out and American Me, as well as ‘local color’ films as The Milagro Beanfield War, directed by Robert Redford,19 have continued this tendency to ‘cross over’ to the mainstream audience. With the appearance of director Robert Rodriguez this success has taken on new dimensions. Films such as El Mariachi, Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn have been successful on a global scale; his ‘postmodern’ self-reflexive and symbolic treatment of ‘American’ themes such as violence and genres such as the road-movie, the western and the splatter-movie are at the same time ‘Mexicanizations.’ Rodriguez’ career seems to be characteristic of the observation that ‘ethnic cinema’ has meanwhile moved to Hollywood, and that the relation between formerly exclusive categories such as ‘commercially successful’ and ‘politically engaged’ is becoming more complex in recent years.
Gregory Nava’s latest film Bordertown (2006) tries to combine political engagement with mainstream commercial aspects, documentary-style drama with Hollywood romance and crime. Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas play journalists who investigate the unsolved rape and murder of up to 400 young women in and around Ciudad Juarez since 1993. The killings have been dubbed the “maquiladora murders” after the factories, close to the border with the United States where many of the young women victims worked. The maquiladoras sprung up since 1992 when the NAFTA was signed and many companies switched production from the US because costs were lower. Bordertown (2006) and, even more so, Babel (2006), directed by the Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu, were marketed and perceived as major Hollywood productions. Most interesting for the development of US Latino cinema, I find, is the way both films connect their depictions of border crossing not only with issues of Latino experience, identity and historical memory, but even more with broader issues of national and global significance. Individual experiences of Latinos and Latinas, but also the borderlands between the US and Mexico, are shown not only as regionally anchored; they are represented as globally interconnected.
2 After an expedition along the coast of West-Florida, Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked close to today’s Galveston (Texas). He then started a tour of several years through today’s Southwest until he encountered Spaniards close to the Pacific coast.
3 For the history of these movements cf. Muñoz (1989) and Oboler (1995).
4 Gary D. Keller (1993) distinguishes the following roles of Mexicans in United States film. Female: “Cantina girl,” “The Faithful, Moral, or Self-Sacrificing Señorita,” “The vamp or temptress.” Male: “Greasers,” “The Bandit,” “The Bad Mexican,” “The Gay Caballero,” “The Good or Faithful Mexican,” “The Hispanic Avenger,” “The Latin Lover” (40–69). See also Pettit (1980).
5 For an overview on the debate see Keller (1994), 208–11.
6 For an analysis of how Lone Star corresponds with Chicano cultural production and with the discourse of mestizaje, see Raab (1999).
7 While in Mexico the memory of the loss of almost half of the nation’s territory after the Mexican-American War is kept alive in public monuments, in history classes and in the general national imaginary, in the US public, particularly in the early 20 th century, when McCulley was writing, there was little interest in the history of one of the biggest states of the union.
8 For contextualizing analyses of The Mark of Zorro see Bejamin-Labarthe (2000), and Pettit (1980), 138–41.
9 I put Mexican in quotation marks, as in Giant it is obvious that most of the characters marked as Mexican are not from Mexico but were born in Texas and are citizens of the USA. However, in the movie they are simply addressed as “Mexicans.”
10 Arthur G. Pettit (1980) investigates the “racial politics” of Edna Ferber’s novel and brings attention to the fact that in the novel “the incident takes less than two pages, Bick is not present, and Leslie herself, after being called a chola, decides against telling her husband of her humiliation” (168).
11 Alurista is the pen name of Baltazar Urista Heredia.
12 For a more detailed account of the relation between cultural nationalism and literature cf. Heide (2004), 11–52.
13 For detailed information concerning the production and the reception of I am Joaquín see Keller (1994), 194–95; on the history of El Teatro Campesino see Rahner (1991).
14 On Paredes and the corrido tradition see Heide (2007), also Heide (2004), 97–144. Cf. Sorell (1985) for further information on the relation between Paredes’ book and the film.
15 For the history of production and reception of Viva Zapata! see Pettit (1980), 224–31.
16 Such scenes make the film particularly useful for class discussion on topics of intercultural communication.
17 Later examples of popular Latino musical films are The Mambo Kings (1992) and Selena (1997).
18 On Cheech Marin’s comedies see List (1996), 27–57, and Fregoso (1993), 49–64.
19 Keller (1994) refers to Blood in, Blood out and The Milagro Beanfield War as “Hollywood film with Chicano content” (207).
Benjamin-Labarthe, Elyette. “American Cinema: The Mark of Zorro and the Chicano Canon,” in: Lomelí and Ikas (2000). 81–98.
Broyles-González. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda. The Bronze Screen—Chicana and Chicano Film Culture. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press 1993.
Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Garcia Berumen, Frank Javier. The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film. New York: Vantage Press, 1995.
Gonzales, Rodolfo. Yo Soy Joaquín/ I am Joaquín. New York: Bantam, 1972 .
Hall, Stuart. “New Ethnicities,” in: Houston A. Baker Jr., et al, eds. Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 163–72.
—. “Minimal Selves”, in: Houston A. Baker Jr., et al, eds. Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 114–19.
Heide, Markus. Grenzüberschreibungen: Chicano-Erzählliteratur und die Inszenierung von Kulturkontakt. Heidelberg: Winter, 2004.
—. “Contact Languages: Orality, Hybridity, and the corrido of the Texan-Mexican Border Region (1848 to 1958, and beyond),” in: Alfonso de Toro et al, eds. Estrategias de la hibridez en América Latina: Del descubrimiento al siglo XXI. Franfkurt: Peter Lang, 2007. 133–46.
Hoffmann, Bert. “Die Lateinamerikanisierung der USA: 38,8 Millionen Latinos in den USA: Kurze Erkundung einer neuen Macht.” Brennpunkt Lateinamerika: Politik, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft, 2003. 115–22.
Keller, Gary (ed.). Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources. Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1985.
Keller, Gary. Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview and Handbook. Tempe: Bilingual Review/Press, 1994.
List, Christine. Chicano Images: Refiguring Ethnicity in Mainstream Film. New York and London: Garland, 1996.
Lomelí, Francisco and Karin Ikas, eds. U.S. Latino Literatures and Cultures: Transnational Perspectives. Heidelberg: Winter, 2000.
Muñoz, Carlos Jr. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. London and New York: Verso, 1989.
Noriega, Chon A., ed.Chicanos and Film: Essay on Chicano Representation and Resistance. New York: Garland, 1992.
Noriega, Chon A. and Ana M. López, eds. The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Oboler, Suzanne. Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Paredes, Américo. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958.
Pérez-Torres, Rafael. “Chicano Ethnicity, Cultural Hybridity, and the Mestizo Voice,” American Literature 70, no. 1 (March 1998): 152–76.
Pettit, Arthur G.. Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980.
Raab, Josef. “Chicanos and Anglos: Mestizaje in Jovita González, Gloria Anzaldúa, and John Sayles,” ZAA 47, no. 4 (1999): 344–56.
Rahner, Christiane. Chicano-Theater zwischen Agitprop und Broadway: Die Entwicklung des Teatro Campesino(1965–1985). Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1991.
Sorell, Victor A.. “Ethnomusicology, Folklore, and History in the Filmmaker’s Art: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” in Keller (1985), 153–58.
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—. “The Face of Zorro”, 1998, www.salon.com/mwt/feature/1998/07/cov_22feature.html.
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Border Incident, dir. Anthony Mann (1949)
Viva Zapata!, dir. Elia Kazan (1952)
Salt of the Earth, dir. Herbert J. Biberman (1954)
Giant, dir. George Stevens (1956)
West Side Story, dir. Robert Wise (1961)
I am Joaquín, dir. Luis Valdez (1969)
Yo Soy Chicano, dir. Jesús
Alambrista!, dir. Robert M. Young (1977)
Raíces de Sangre, dir. Jesús
Seguín, dir. Jesús
Zoot Suit, dir. Luis Valdez (1981)
The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, dir. Robert Young (1982)
El Norte, dir. Gregory Nava (1984)
La Bamba, dir. Luis Valdez (1987)
Born in East L.A., dir. Cheech Marín (1987)
Stand and Deliver, dir. Ramón Menéndez (1988)
The Milagro Beanfield War, dir. Robert Redford (1988)
American Me, dir. Edward James Olmos (1992)
The Mambo Kings, dir. Arne Glimcher (1992)
El Mariachi, dir. Robert Rodriguez (1992)
Blood in, Blood out (also released as Bound by Honor), dir. Taylor Hackford (1993)
My Family, dir. Gregory Nava (1994)
Desperado, dir. Robert Rodriguez (1995)
Lone Star, dir. John Sayles (1996)
From Dusk Till Dawn, dir. Robert Rodriguez (1996)
Selena, dir. Gregory Nava and Moctesuma Esparza (1997)
Traffic, dir. Steven Soderbergh (2000)
Tortilla Soup, dir. Maria Ripoll (2001)
Spanglish, dir. James L. Brooks (2004)
Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2006)
Bordertown, dir. Gregory Nava (2006)
Markus Heide is Assistant Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at Humboldt University Berlin. In 2007 and 2008 he was a visiting scholar at McMaster University, Hamilton (Ontario), Canada. His publications include articles on Herman Melville, the history of Pan-Americanism, and U.S.-Latino cinema, as well as a monograph on Cultural Contact in Chicano/a Literature (2004) and a book on The History of Canadian Film (2006, with Claudia Kotte). His current research project focuses on American travel writing of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.