Esai Morales and Jesse Borrego on ‘Mi Familia’ and Hollywood’s “War of Images” Against Latinos

CineFestival, the nation’s oldest running Latino film festival, just wrapped in San Antonio, Texas, a city recently deemed the probable birthplace of the breakfast taco. In addition to it’s food fame, San Antonio is the cultural corazón of Texas and maintains a community of raza that support the arts. So it makes sense, that 38 years ago, CineFestival was born during the Chicano movement and why it continues to hold a space in the city’s historic Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

Contrary to the typical film festival fashion of premiering a new blockbuster on opening night, CineFestival chose to pay homage to the 1995 classic, Mi Familia, directed by Gregory Nava. The epic drama stars some of the most recognized Latino/a actors in the industry, including Jimmy SmitsJennifer Lopez, Lupe Ontiveros, and Edward James Olmos. Mi Familia remains a cult classic for the Latino/a community and serves as an epic representation of our culture. CineFestival proved, with this choice, that they are festival for the people who celebrates #CineSoBrown.

In it’s simplest form, it’s a story about three generations of a family in East LA. The narrative encompasses many issues still relevant to us today – migration from Mexico for a better life, unjust deportation policies, and the consistent incarceration and targeting of poor men of color by police. It also honors the indigenous influence on our spirituality and how these beliefs guide our life choices.

Even 20 years later, Mi Familia resonates strongly across generations within the Mexican-American community. The opening night screening saw a packed theater, with many attendees standing in the aisles to catch a glimpse of the film. Most of the audience members stayed for the Q&A that featured a Mi Familia reunion of actors Esai Morales, who played the pachuco Chucho, and Elpidia Carrillo, who played Isabel, in attendance. The discussion was moderated by fellow raza actor, Jesse Borrego.

Afterwards, the party kept going with Esai Morales taking selfies with everyone who wanted one, including myself, and across the street, DJ Despienada graced us with some vinyl tunes while the lingering Latino film nerds networked. Gotta give it up for San Antonio though, because no backyard afterparty would be complete without tacos de weenie straight off the grill.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A.

Jesse Borrego on the importance of seeing movies during its opening weekend

As actors, we can be and do and say anything we want to, but as actual workers in the industry it is very difficult as artists to be able to express ourselves. Therefore, when we get an opportunity like this, you put all your heart, you put all of your passion, all your soul into it and it shows and that is the gift, as artists, we give to you. So when something like Mi Familia comes out at the box office it is so important you go the first two opening weekends. Those are the numbers that they register. Those are the numbers that they say, “oh Latinos don’t go to the movies.” They don’t really care about your culture, your color or anything when you go to the movies, but they care if a film has a certain cultural perspective and people don’t go. They register that and say, “oh see, they don’t care.” We are conditioned to view mainstream better than our own.

Esai Morales on how Latinos can handle their business

If we don’t tell our stories, if we don’t buy our novels, if we don’t have a rich history of literature, theatre, arts – like the Jewish-American community, like the Italian-Americans. They handle their business well. I’m not here to be jealous, I’m here to say hey how can we emulate their success? How can we tell our stories in a way where they don’t feel alienated and they can feel just as involved in our stories, as we are in theirs? Because, we are not one type of people. We have all the races in the world within us, from European to Asian to African. So how can we be better at telling our stories? and it starts here, with people like the Navas, the Valdezes. Making quality films that reach out to everybody that invite everyone to feel how we feel. So Oscars, will they change? I mean we could boycott it, but I feel our community isn’t monolithic. We are not even one community, we are communities and we don’t have a megaphone, we don’t have just one leader. If we see things that are not right, we need to raise our voices but in a dignified and firm way that says ya basta, you cannot do this anymore. You cannot perpetuate these tired stereotypes, you gotta support it. I think it’s changing. We are seeing more opportunities.

Jimmy Smits and Elpidia Carrillo in ‘Mi Familia’
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Elpidia Carrillo on Latinos boycotting the Oscars

I don’t think we should become members or vote or go against it or complain about the Oscars for Latinos. I think we have the responsibility to create our own. Just like that. We are not competing. They deserve what they have, and what they want and the way they want it. We cannot fight them. We need to create our own work. We need to make our own movies. That’s what we need to do. We need to go as writers, as musicians, as cooks, as whatever we do. We need to go and tell our wives, our children, our friends, the society, the audience. Thank you audience. This is what I did long ago. I don’t know if i’m going to keep acting, but I’m going to keep making movies with other people.

Jesse Borrego on why we do what we do

La cultura cura. That’s why we do what we do, that is why these things are so important to us, because 20 years later they can still resonate with you. You can relate to them. You can share them.

Esai Morales on the importance of showing who we are

We don’t matter to them, and when I say them, I mean the industry. We are a brainwashed society. We are conditioned every day, what we see in the media defines what is normal, what is funny, what is tragic, and we cannot continue to allow ourselves to be marginalized. I mean LA, this is where we live. LA is at least 40 – 60 percent Mexicano, if not other Latino. So what they are used to is seeing us mow their lawns, get their food, raise their babies, servile. I call them the four H’s of Hispanic Hollywood. Overly humble, overly hostile, overly hysterical, and overly hot. That’s the range of Latino. We have to grow out of those. I think it’s unfair to our Anglo, African-American, Asian brothers and sisters out there. It’s unfair to them. So let’s stop starving them of who we are.

Jesse Borrego on the war of images

It’s a diverse country, but like any other industry, it focuses on a power structure and that structure has not been Latino, it has not been about representing diverse American culture. Look at the American Western. I tell young kids studying media, it is a war of images. If you look at a hundred years of studying the American Western you will believe that prior to the Tennessee settlers or any Anglo settlers coming West there was nothing in the country but savage Indians and bandidos, which is a complete lie and fabrication if you look at American history. Just one hundred years of that particular technology and artform has influenced one hundred years of American Indigenous culture. If you are looking to the minister of culture to represent who we really are as an American experience, then each and every one of us has to take responsibility for our own story. And that is what we have done as artists.

I believe that the Mexicano filmmakers are doing the same thing. Each and every one of us as artists and as neighbors in the industry are taking responsibility for telling our stories. For us, it’s about supporting each other’s work. For you as an audience, it’s about supporting the work of these artists in what they are trying to do. A change is coming, it’s coming because the old ways of absorbing content is changing, it’s moving to a younger quicker form. If we are able to figure that out, and it may not be us, it may be the next generation. If they are able to figure out how to break that code, then we are going to be able to transmit our stories.

Jesse Borrego on the history of telling our own stories

Acuerdansé. We were telling stories before this technology. We were telling stories before there was electricity, before there was movies. We are not doing anything different than we have done for thousands of years as indigenous people.