By Katia Murillo-Valdez
We put together a starter list of the best Latino films made in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We narrowed our list by choosing films that:
- Were made by Latino filmmakers
- Star Latino actors
- Have a public purpose: they inform and inspire
- Are relevant to the Latino experience in the United States and include issues such as cultural identity, family, community, immigration, education and assimilation
- Won prizes or received critical acclaim
- Are feature films (documentaries are not included on this list)
Our top 10 Latino films are presented in chronological order and are not ranked. We know that you have your favorites, so we want you to “add” to this growing list of movies. Write a comment and let us know your must-see Latino film favorites.
Top ten Latino films:
El Norte (1983) – After the army destroys their village and kills their parents, teenage Mayan siblings Rosa and Enrique have to leave their native Guatemala. They make an extremely dangerous journey to Los Angeles, where they try to make a new life as undocumented immigrants. In Los Angeles they live in constant fear of deportation and struggle to survive and make a decent life through hard work.
Why it made the list: The indigenous people of Guatemala faced a wave of violence and massacres that forced them to flee, and half a million of them made the journey to the United States to escape persecution. This film gives exiles a human face, including the cultural shock experienced by some immigrants. El Norte was received very well by critics and won some important awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
La Bamba (1987) – The true life story of Mexican American teenager Ritchie Valens (born Ricardo Valenzuela), his rise to fame as a rock and roll singer and his early death in a plane crash at 17. During a road trip to Tijuana, Ritchie discovers the song that would eventually become his greatest hit, “La Bamba,” which he insisted on recording in Spanish.
Why it made the list: The film tells the story of a child of Mexican immigrants, who picked fruit in California as migrant workers. Even after changing his name, singing in English, making the “cross-over” and reaching the American dream, he kept his cultural roots alive and made the crucial artistic decision of recording in Spanish his own rock and roll version of a Mexican traditional song. It portrays the conflict of interracial relationships in the 50s, as we see that the father of Ritchie’s blond girlfriend, Donna, is very conservative and a racist who does not approve of the relationship. La Bamba got great reviews by top critics and received a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture in the drama category.
Stand and Deliver (1988) – Based on the real life story of Jaime Escalante, a dedicated high school math teacher in a tough East Los Angeles high school. He is determined to turn his students’ lives around, so he makes them learn calculus and helps to boost their self-esteem. The students gradually come to realize that the only way to escape poverty is to get an education. The Educational Testing Service is convinced that their high-test scores are the results of cheating. The students agree to retake the AP calculus exam, and they all pass.
Why it made the list: This is a true story of how a high school class of at-risk Latino students got unprecedented achievements in math thanks to the guidance and support of their teacher. Drawing from his own cultural heritage, Escalante formed a bond with his Latino students, using famous Spaniards and Latin Americans as role models. This film explores the contrast between the students’ home life and school life, showing their struggle to find the balance between the expectations of their parents and their own goals and ambitions. Edward James Olmos received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best actor. Lou Diamond Phillips received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor. The film won many Independent Spirit Awards.
My Family (Mi Familia) (1995) – Traces three generations of a Mexican-American family living in East Los Angeles. It starts in the 1930s, with the struggles faced by the first generation: a recent immigrant named José Sanchez, and María, a Mexican American woman. They meet, marry, face deportation and manage to raise a family. As José and María age, the focus shifts to their children and grandchildren.
Why it made the list: The movie shows many different challenges faced by Latinos, either immigrants or born in the United States during five decades. We see how the Sanchez children deal with youth culture and the Los Angeles police in the 50′s. Later in the 70s, the youngest son marries a Salvadorian refugee who otherwise would be deported.
Nueba Yol (1995) – A comedy about a widower from the Dominican Republic, Balbuena, who moves to New York City. But instead of finding the American dream, he is in a hostile environment and realizes that the prospect of easy money he had imagined does not exist. Unable to speak English and lacking a green card, it’s almost impossible for him to find work even as a dishwasher. He lives in his cousin’s already overcrowded household, and is threatened by drug dealers who see him as an outsider. But hope is not lost.
Why it made the list: This is a chronicle of a Latin American immigrant’s struggle to get a better life in New York City. It deals with issues of family and identity, such as Balbuena’s difficult relationship with his cousin’s teenage children, who are embarrassed by their Dominican origins.
And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him (1995) – Told from the perspective of Marcos, the 12-year-old son of Mexican-American migrant farm workers, the film follows their travels over the course of a year, each of its 12 sections linked to a month of the calendar, starting in Texas at the beginning of harvest season. Along their journey to the Midwest, Marcos and his family encounter a rich, difficult, and, at times, pathetic cast of characters.
Why it made the list: This film vividly portrays the troubles, injustices and tribulations faced by farm workers. Marcos discovers the power of family bonds to overcome hardship, and finds in himself a desire to learn and get an education. This is an adaptation of the acclaimed 1971 novel by Tomas Rivera of the same title.
Selena (1997) – Based on the true story of Selena, Grammy-winning recording artist and beloved singer in the Southwest and Mexico, it shows the relationship with her family and her rise to fame before she was murdered at age 23. Even though she started singing in English with her family band, didn’t like music in Spanish and adored Donna Summer, her father insisted Selena start singing in Spanish and do it from the heart as a Mexican-American. Selena learned to sing in Spanish and eventually to speak it. She also learned to love Latino music, which led her to become a regional star of Tejano music.
Why it made the list: This movie offers a glimpse into Texan-Mexican border culture, and an introduction to ‘música texana.” We see Selena trying to establish her own musical identity: her heritage is Mexican-American and her primary language is English, so she is between two worlds. As her father tells her: “The Americans jump all over us because we don’t speak perfect English, and then the Mexicans jump all over us because we don’t speak perfect Spanish.”
Real Women Have Curves (2003) – Ana is a bright, ambitious and overweight 18-year-old Mexican-American who lives in East Los Angeles. She has a chance to attend Columbia University on a scholarship, but her mother makes her go to work with her in a sweatshop. Over the summer she learns to admire the hardworking team of women workers who teach her solidarity and teamwork, but that doesn’t change the reality that it’s a dead end job with very low wages. Still at odds with what her mother expects of her, she is determined to pursue her dream of higher education, find love and build a future for herself.
Why it made the list: This film deals with the conflict between two generations with different ideals and identities. Ana’s parents are very traditional Mexican immigrants who really love her and fear losing her because they sense if she goes away to college she will return as a different person; while Ana realizes that leaving home to continue her education is essential for her to find a place in the world as an American and a Chicana. This film won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
A Day without a Mexican (2004) – This “mockumentary” takes a satirical look at what would happen if California’s Mexican population (both U.S. citizens and immigrants) suddenly disappeared. The disappearance coincides with a “pink fog” which surrounds the state. Many theories are brought up about what happened to the Mexicans, from terrorism to alien abductions and the Rapture.
Why it made the list: A controversial film that deals with how much California depends on its Latino population and explores the potentially catastrophic results if California-based Mexicans, who make up over a third of the state’s population, were to suddenly disappear: the lack of Latino gardeners, nannies, cooks, policemen, maids, teachers, farm workers, construction crews, entertainers and athletes would create a social, political and economic disaster.
Under the Same Moon (2007) – This is a road picture about a boy who crosses the Mexican border into the United States on a quest to find his mom. Carlitos is a nine-year-old who lives with his grandmother in Mexico, while his mother, Rosario, works as an undocumented maid in Los Angeles, hoping to someday bring him to the U.S. Unexpected circumstances drive both Carlitos and his mother to undertake journeys in a desperate attempt to reunite with one another.
Why it made the list: This warm drama humanizes the current immigration debate in the United States, showing a dimension of Mexican immigration that is hardly seen in other films: the loved ones left behind on the other side of the border. The film alternates between mother and son, separated by immigration law; but, as Rosario points out, the same moon shines on both sides of the border. It also portrays a variety of Latino characters, such as undocumented farm workers, second generation Mexican Americans, a music band from Northern Mexico and some lowlifes ready to prey on children.
What are your favorite Latino films? Write a comment and let us know.
Photo: Nataraj Metz