Almost every West Coast to East Coast transplant has that shocking moment when they realize not everyone grew up watching and incessantly quoting classic Chicano films like Born in East L.A., Stand and Deliver, and Blood In, Blood Out. It’s hard to imagine a life where lines like, “His body is decomposing in my locker” and “Waas Sappening” aren’t a regular part of daily life. So, for those of you who are uninitiated into the Chicano gang life that has made it onto the big screen, prepare to get jumped in. And no, not all of the movies are about gangbangers but a lot of them are, some of them unintentional comedies, and almost half of the list are flicks that star Edward James Olmos. Here are ten Chicano films about our fallen heroes (Ritchie Valens and Selena Quintanilla), life in the barrio, crossing the border, and exceeding society’s expectations of what Mexican-Americans can achieve. In the words of EJO in Stand and Deliver, “All it takes is ganas.”
Director Gregory Nava made movie history when his 1983 film El Norte became the first American independent picture to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (Places in the Heart won that year). The film, which would be selected only 10 years later for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, told the three-part story of two Guatemalan immigrants, a brother and sister, who travel north through Mexico in hopes of reaching Los Angeles to start a new life. In the first part of the film, the siblings, Rosa and Enrique (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and Ernesto Gómez Cruz), escape Guatemala after their father is killed by government troops and their mother disappears. In the second part, Rosa and Enrique try to cross the Mexican border with the help of a coyote. In the final chapter, the duo makes it to the U.S but find that life is more difficult that what they had expected, especially since they are undocumented. One of most powerful quotes of the film comes when Rosa says, “In our own land, we have no home. They want to kill us. … In Mexico, there is only poverty. We can’t make a home there either. And here in the north, we aren’t accepted. When will we find a home, Enrique? Maybe when we die, we’ll find a home.”
“The day the music died” and all the events leading up to that fateful day are portrayed through a beautiful narrative in Luis Valdez’s 1987 drama La Bamba. The film stars honorary Latino Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens (born Richard Valenzuela), an American singer/songwriter/guitarist who broke through the rock ‘n’ roll ranks to become one of the most exciting new recording artists in 1958 with hits songs such as “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba.” The writer/director Valdez tells the story of Valens and his breakout success along with his tumultuous relationship with his brother Bob (Esai Morales), who was both proud and a bit jealous of his younger brother’s accomplishments. As most people know, Valens, along with fellow rock ‘n’ rollers Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” Richardson, were killed when their chartered airplane crashed on February 3, 1959. Unless you have a heart of steel, the final scenes in La Bamba are some of the most heartbreaking you will ever see. When Ritchie’s mom hears the news of her son’s death and screams out, “Not my Ritchie,” be ready to grab the tissue box.
Born in East L.A.
Cheech Marin showed the world that he’s more than just the stoner from the Cheech and Chong movies by writing, directing, and starring in this clever comedy. Rudy Robles (played by Marin) lives at home with his mom and sister and works at an auto body shop. His mom (Lupe Ontiveros) is going out of town and instructs him to pick up his cousin Javier (Paul Rodriguez) from a toy factory in downtown Los Angeles. When Rudy shows up at the factory he gets caught in an immigration raid. As the INS officer throws him in a truck Rudy yells, “I’m an American citizen!” It doesn’t matter, they don’t believe him since he left his wallet at home and doesn’t have an ID on him. In the truck, a fellow deportee calls him a “pocho pendejo.” It’s a predicament all U.S.-born Latinos can relate to; both at home and in our parent’s country we’re considered foreigners. Deported and stuck in Tijuana without an ID and barely able to speak Spanish he does anything he can to make money so he can pay a coyote to take him back across the border. He works at cheesy clubs that swindle gringo tourists and teaches some OTMs (people labeled by immigration officials as “other than Mexican”) how to act like vatos so they blend in when they get to California. “Waas Sappening!”
Stand and Deliver
More than 25 years ago a small, independently made Latino film was released in theaters. Starring the legendary Edward James Olmos and a young Lou Diamond Phillips, Stand and Deliver went on to become a box office success. For his portrayal of Jaime Escalante, a high school math teacher, Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor making him the first U.S.-born Latino to achieve that honor. Based on actual events, the movie tells the story of a Bolivian immigrant who teaches math at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to mostly Latino students. The school is faced with losing its accreditation and the students are failing miserably. Mr. Escalante, or Kimo as his students call him, decides to teach Calculus against the advice of the school administration. The chair of the math department says, “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates.” Kimo responds, “Students will rise to the level of expectation.” Stand and Deliver is a classic Chicano film that is just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. The jokes are hilarious and insightful. It is entertaining but raises important social issues and has an all-star Latino cast (including Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie Valens’ mom in La Bamba. “Not my Ritchie!”)
Actor Edward James Olmos took a huge albeit dangerous step in his career when he decided to direct his first feature film, American Me, a “fictionalized account” of the Mexican Mafia’s rise to power in the California federal penitentiary system from the 1950s to the 1980s. Olmos, who also took on the lead role, played Montoya Santana, a young man from East Los Angeles who becomes the leader of a powerful prison gang while serving time for murder. The character of Santana is loosely based on Rodolfo Cadena, the founding member of the prison gang La Eme (a.k.a the Mexican Mafia). It was reported that after the film debuted, Olmos received a number of death threats from Mexican Mafia members who thought the film would portray the group in a positive light. A rape scene in the film is said to be the catalyst for the murder of three of the film’s consultants by La Eme members who were angered by the group’s depiction in the movie. Along with the death threats Olmos received, court documents show La Eme also attempted to extort money from the actor/director. Despite the terrifying scenarios, Olmos found himself facing during this time, American Me became a cornerstone for Latino cinema in the 90s and a go-to movie for memorable quotes – “Yeah, for reals.”
Mi Vida Loca
Actor Jacob Vargas, who plays Bullet, stars in four of the 10 movies on this list.
Are you familiar with the names Sad Girl, Mousie, Giggles and La Blue Eyes? In 1993, filmmaker Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) directed and wrote the drama Mi Vida Loca, the story of a group of young Mexican-American cholas living in Echo Park in Los Angeles and struggling as members of a street gang. Actresses Seidy López and Angel Aviles play best friends Sad Girl and Mousie, whose relationship is severed when one of them sleeps with the other’s boyfriend and spurs a war among their crew. Jacob Vargas plays Mousie’s boyfriend Bullet, a drug dealer who ends up impregnating both girls and must continue to work the street to support his children and to keep his lowrider looking like a work of art. Along with being one of the first movies with Latina characters at the forefront, Mi Vida Loca marked the film debuts of actors Salma Hayek (Frida) and Jason Lee (Alvin and the Chipmunks), though they only had small roles. It was also the film debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Spike Jonze (Her), who had a minor part in the film.
Blood In, Blood Out
Filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who would go on to direct The Devil’s Advocate and Ray, takes the true-life story of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and creates a powerful, yet laughable, film about East Los Angeles gangs in Blood In, Blood Out. Set in the early 1970s, half-brothers Paco (Benjamin Bratt) and Cruzito (Jesse Borrego) and their cousin Miklo (Damian Chapa) start running with the gang Vatos Locos, which propels each of their lives in different ways. Although most people call the film Blood in, Blood Out, the studio who produced the film did change the name before release to Bound by Honor because they felt the initial title promoted violence, especially since the City of L.A. had just suffered through the 1992 L.A. riots incited by the Rodney King verdict. Like American Me, this film is one of the most quoted Chicano movies for lines like, “I don’t want his pork chop. I want his life” to “Hey, Cinderella, go find yourself a fella…” It’s a long saga (it used to come on two videotapes!) that will likely make you laugh more than cry but it’s one of those movies that are so bad, they’re good.
A Million to Juan
Taking the classic Mark Twain story “The Million Pound Bank Note” (which was made into a 1954 film starring Gregory Peck) and giving it a Latino twist, comedian Paul Rodriguez made his directorial debut with the 1994 rags-to-riches romantic comedy A Million to Juan. The film follows title character Juan López (Rodriguez), an undocumented worker living in Los Angeles with his young son and trying to make ends meet by selling oranges on the side of the road. Juan’s luck changes for the better and worse when a mysterious man in a limousine (Edward James Olmos) gives him a check for a cool million. The gift comes with a slight stipulation, however. Juan must give all the money back in one month. Now, Juan must decide what to do with the money while fending off people looking for a handout. Although the film received mixed reviews when it was released and didn’t do too much at the box office, A Million to Juan gave Rodriguez a new avenue to test out his Latino-centric comedy on his audience.
My Family, Mi Familia
My Family, Mi Familia might not get as much attention as Nava’s other two films on this list, but it definitely left an impact on its audience.
With an all-star cast of Latino actors, director Gregory Nava’s independent film My Family, Mi Familia saw the likes of Edward James Olmos, Jennifer Lopez, Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales and the late Lupe Ontiveros coming together to tell the epic three-generation-long story of an immigrant Mexican family living in East Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1980s. After patriarch José Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) makes his way to California from Mexico and starts a family, the drama unfolds between a host of resonating characters and themes, including personal tragedy, assimilation, and cultural identity. Both Smits and Lopez received Independent Spirit Award nominations for their performances and the film was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup (it lost to Braveheart). Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, My Family, Mi Familia opened the door for other films about the Mexican-American family experience to be told at the turn of the century, including Real Women Have Curves, Tortilla Soup and Quinceañera. In his review, late film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and said, “Rarely have I felt at the movies such a sense of time and history, of stories and lessons passing down the generations, of a family living in its memories.”
Almost twenty years after her death, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez is still a musical icon. Known as ‘la reina del tex-mex’ she was the first female artist to have a tejano hit. She sold more than 60 million albums making her one of the most successful Latina singers of all time. The movie memorializing her life, Selena, is iconic in its own right. Starring Jennifer Lopez as Selena, Edward James Olmos as her father, and the late Lupe Ontiveros as her fan club president, the film made millions of dollars at the box office. Directed by Gregory Nava, (El Norte, Mi Familia) it has its melodramatic, telenovela-esque moments and cheesy cutaways to a sparkly full moon and roses but the film is like a gift to her fans, their chance to see her perform one last time. The movie makes it clear that she was at a pivotal moment in her career, that she was about to crossover into the mainstream having just recorded an English-language album. And even though she wasn’t alive to witness it, her posthumous album, “Dreaming of You”, reached number one. Every time I watch it, it makes me tear up and incessantly repeat, “Anything for Suh-lee-nus.”