Summer in New York means sitting on a stoop somewhere while your neighbors crack open a fire hydrant. It’s hard to imagine the city coming back to life after enduring a polar vortex more than once this year. Since the winter is always long and dark and bleak and freezing and in case you forget what it’s like to feel feelings and see colors, here are 10 Latino NYC movies that will make you wish you had a stoop.
I Like It Like That
This Cannes-premiering New York film is a veritable who’s who of 90s Latino celebrities: Lauren Velez, John Seda, Rita Moreno, Jesse Borrego, etc. (Not to mention an appearance by the Barrio Boyzz, if you’re into that sort of thing.) The film, set in the South Bronx, tells the story of a young mother of three (Velez) who learns to make due with the help of her trans sister (Borrego) after her husband (Seda) is put in jail. It’s a generally upbeat movie about U.S. Latinos living their lives, the likes of which doesn’t seem to get made much these days. Extra points for including a trans character in 1994.
Raising Victor Vargas
Raising Victor Vargas details the romantic foibles of a group of Lower East Side teenagers, featuring breakout actors Victor Rasuk and Melonie Diaz (both of whom will show up in a few years on How to Make it in America.) After getting caught with Fat Donna, Victor sets out to rehabilitate his reputation by getting with Judy, the hottie on the block who has to be careful who she winds up with. The whole film is an ode to stoop sitting, public pools, blaring salsa, and teenage lotharios.
If Rita Moreno appeared in every film on this list, I’d be happy. She’s not, but at least she’s in this one as Miguel Piñero’s mother.
Piñero, in case you don’t know, was a slam poet and Tony-winning playwright who died in 1988 from cirrhosis. Between jail and drugs, Piñero developed a hell of reputation for hard living but even while he lived he was far more well known for his beautiful words. Benjamin Bratt plays this titular man with a cast rounded out by the likes of Giancarlo Esposito and Talisa Soto. An ode to a man whose veins were full of the Lower East Side.
Before Juan Bago, there was Orodito Balbuena, Luisito Martí’s bumbling television would-be immigrant, forever struggling to get from the D.R. to NYC. This, however, is Balbuena’s first feature film role. Dreaming of making a quick buck in the U.S. before returning to the D.R., Balbuena mortgages his D.R. home for a visa to the states but, as is the case with these things, runs into setback after setback once he arrives. Balancing broad humor with surprisingly real pathos, Nueba Yol is a great perspective on what it must be like to arrive in New York.
One of the oldest films on the list, this is also the second film directed by the acclaimed Leon Ichaso and if you’ve been paying attention, the stylistic similarities will be apparent.
In El Súper, Roberto and Aurelia are a pair of Cuban exiles living in New York in 1978 with their 17 year old daughter Aurelita. Roberto is the titular superintendent, pining away for Cuba and discussing the Bay of Pigs all while doing repairs and making sure the garbage is taken out. It’s a funny, poignant look at the life of Cuban exiles in NYC dealing with culture shock and loss.
Mariana (Paola Mendoza) followed her husband to New York after living on her own in Colombia for years. Not long after his family arrives, Antonio breaks the news that he got a new job in Miami and is moving. Days pass and Mariana begins to run out of money. She leaves him messages but he doesn’t call back. It becomes clear that Antonio is gone for good and Mariana is left to care for her kids, alone. It’s no surprise that Mendoza’s performance is relatable, sympathetic, and thoughtful. The film tells her life story and the role of Mariana is based on her own mother. It’s a film that shows exactly what New York can be: terrifying, crushing, and sometimes too much to bear but full of promise, opportunity, and new beginnings. It’s a place where a nightmare situation can become an American dream come true. Entre Nos is inspiring and uplifting, exactly what a movie should be.
Hangin’ With the Homeboys
Something a lot of you don’t remember is that before The Lord of the Rings, this is exactly the kind of movie New Line Cinema buttered its bread with. But even though this one looks like a lowbrow comedy (you’ll start getting flashbacks to The Pest) it’s a pretty solid early Leguizamo role. His portrayal of the stuttering Johnny is very different from his usual bombast in a movie that asks interesting questions about Nuyorican identity. The womanizing Fernando (Nestor Serrano) goes by Vinny and pretends to be Italian for status… even, apparently, when dating Latinas. As our four heroes make their way from the Bronx through Manhattan, their relationships are put to the test.
Don’t Let Me Drown
Don’t Let Me Drown, a kind of spiritual successor to Raising Victor Vargas, is a teenage love story between Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) two lost kids trying to find their feet again just a month after 9/11. After meeting at a birthday party the two begin to fall for one another, anchoring each other in the midst of all the uncertainty and intense emotion that accompanied the city’s struggles. While it’s sometimes rough to look back at 9/11 this funny, sweet movie might just be the best way to do it.
Before Night Falls
This is the film that earned Javier Bardem his first Oscar nomination really putting him on the map here in the States. Based on Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography of the same title, the film details the openly gay Arenas’ arrest for his sexuality, his eventual escape to New York, his life there with his friend and partner, and his death as a victim of the AIDS crisis. Before Night Falls is a beautiful movie with a triumphant performance from Bardem – who we love – and shows just what living in New York means to so many.
West Side Story
I needed more Rita Moreno on this list. Sue me. Sure, it ends with a few dead teenagers, sure it whitewashes most of the Puerto Rican characters, but come on –- is there any film more synonymous with being Latino in New York?
A film adaptation of the musical stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that changes the Montagues and the Capulets for the Jets (a hodge-podge of white guys) and the Sharks (a gang of recent Puerto Rican immigrants), West Side Story is a classic Hollywood sing-a-long schmaltz-fest.