And up on the screen? One survey taken in the mid-90s revealed that of all the characters portrayed in these movies, only 2.5 percent have been Latino. You can pretty well guess, too, what sort of characters we're talking about. There have been exceptions, a few fine moments for Latinos in Hollywood, but for the most part, it's been maids and drug dealers, basically. Little surprise, then, that if you're looking for any sort of halfway realistic snapshot of Latino life on the screen, you have to turn to the independents.
Interestingly enough, most surveys of independent Latino cinema begin with a white director, Robert Young. He was already 32 when he made his first feature-length film in 1957, a documentary called Secrets of the Reef. He bounced around the studios and major television networks for a while, turning to more politically engaging subjects, trying and not always succeeding to get them seen.
Then came Alambrista!, his first fictional feature. The handheld camera work, the gentle telling of the brutal story of illegal farm laborers, the touches of humor as Roberto, one of them, tries to blend in with the gringos, all led to a Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1978. That - and the funding secured from PBS and the National Endowment for the Humanities by producer Moctesuma Esparza - made possible The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, featuring an early important performance by an actor who would become a stalwart of Latino filmmaking: Edward James Olmos.
In the late 80s, Olmos would star in the film that would do the most to begin to unravel Latino stereotypes in the movies. He pulled a De Niro and put on 41 pounds to play Jaime Escalante, a high school math teacher in East LA. Escalante became a local media darling when he convinced his unruly class to study up for an advanced placement test - in calculus, no less. When they all passed, the Educational Testing Service refused to believe the results. The class was accused of cheating (by Andy Garcia in the movie, by the way), but Escalante convinced the kids to take it again.
Great material for a movie, thought Ramon Menendez. But it would take four years and a lot of running up against tightly shut doors before Stand and Deliver would get made. The movie did well at the box office and Olmos was nominated for an Oscar. He'd go on as well to help found the Los Angeles International Latino Festival in 1997. The San Francisco Bay Area Latino Film Festival got rolling at about the same time, but the Cine Latino! festival in San Francisco, put on by Cine Accion, the Latino media organization that has thrived the longer than any other in the US, preceeded both by four years.
Menendez went Hollywood for a while, and not all that successfully, either, but has most recently popped up again with the low-key Tortilla Soup, a remake that does for south-of-the-border cuisine what the original, Eat Drink Man Woman, did for Taiwanese delicacies.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back to 1984, back to El Norte. Gregory Nava's epic tale of a brother and sister, Enrique and Rosa, heading from Guatemala to what they hope will be paradise in the North, did well in the art houses and inspired a whole generation of Latino filmmakers. "From Mayan jungle mills to American sweatshops," writes Greg Merritt in Celluloid Mavericks, "it takes us where other movies have never been."
In Cinema of Outsiders, Emanuel Levy is of two minds about Nava. Levy admires the accomplishment of El Norte, but finds the director an "unabashed melodramist" with a "penchant for overwrought narratives and schmaltzy soap operas. Nava's films, like his later Mi Familia, have enough subplots and sentiments to qualify them as TV miniseries." Not necessarily qualities that did Nava any harm, though, when it came to filming the life of Latino superstar, Selena.
Before getting to the Next Big Thing, a few honorable mentions. Leon Ichaso emigrated to the US from Cuba when he was just 14. He told BOMB magazine about his 1979 feature debut: "El Super was about a Cuban man who couldn't accept the fact that he was here in the cold and the snow, or that his daughter was becoming Americanized and that he had no world to go back to. At the time, I was working as a copywriter and making TV commercials. I made El Super with money from Goya commercials. That was the beginning of the do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-a-movie-made approach."
In 1985, Ichaso made the bittersweet Crossover Dreams (1985) capturing an essential Latino dilemma and giving Ruben Blades his breakthrough role. Blades plays a salsa performer who abandons his friends, his audience, his very identity in an ill-fated attempt to make it big. Two years later, Columbia Pictures would release a similar story; La Bamba, though, was based on a real-life crossover musician, Ritchie Valens.