Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borders) is a hybrid-style music documentary that combines elements of observational cinema and other traditional techniques. It tells a story brimming with culturally relevant themes that — even in 2019 — are just as timely and significant as they were when acclaimed independent filmmaker Les Blank and co-director Chris Strachwitz shot it 43 years ago.
Chulas Fronteras may have only served as a celebration of the music genres that have impacted both sides of the Texas-Mexico border for generations (conjunto, Norteño, and other Tex-Mex regional and roots music) when first released (1976), but because of the current divisive political landscape, it’s now also an urgent reminder to Latinos nationwide that the traditions of our past can never be erased, appropriated or walled off without a fight. It’s in our blood.
Recently released as a 4K restoration, the bilingual documentary, which was selected for inclusion into the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in 1993, is visually breathtaking in its new format. The crisp footage of musicians — Lydia Mendoza (also known as La Alondra de la Frontera), Mexico-based Los Alegres de Terán, Narciso Martínez, and living legend Flaco Jiménez — transforms Chulas Fronteras into a surreal experience; it’s like watching a concert film compiled of digitally remastered home videos.
Blank and his production team get up close and personal with the musicians, not only as they perform some of the most essential songs of their careers, but also capturing authentic, everyday moments. Moviegoers will be transfixed when the camera sits idly by as Mendoza prepares tamales with her family, Jiménez beams proudly watching his son play the accordion and Martinez tends to an orangutan during his day job at a Brownsville zoo.
Chulas Fronteras comes to life when Blank and Strachwitz pay respect to the film’s bicultural surroundings with images of beautiful brown faces dancing cheek to cheek to polka music; family barbecues and farmworkers earning a hard day’s wage picking onions, carrots, grapefruit and other produce. In one scene, a trio of musicians play the classic song “Volver” outside of a ranch while onlookers listen. Charros briskly ride behind them on their horses, and the mesquite trees sway gently in the wind. It’s nothing short of cinematic serenity.
Then, of course, there’s the music itself — an inspiring and poetic soundtrack that radiates with raw emotion. Blank and Strachwitz incorporate some talking-head interviews into the piece, but he allows the corridos to speak for themselves. Lyrics about lost love, heartbreak, migration, social class, racism, political resistance, female empowerment and the blending of Mexican and American heritage cut deep.
“Whether I’m singing a corrido, a waltz, a bolero, a polka, when I sing that song, it feels like I’m living that song,” Mendoza says in the documentary. “I feel what I am singing.”
As a viewer and listener, that sensation resonates strongly throughout Chulas Fronteras and does so with a sense of purpose and pride. In an age where Latinos have become vilified from the highest office in the land and killed in the name of preserving a perverse idea of what America should look like and stand for, a documentary like Chulas Fronteras carries on. It calls attention to the amazing perseverance of the Latino spirit and the unwillingness to surrender what is truly ours — our history, our identity and our talent.
Chulas Fronteras is playing in theaters across the country.