The history of American Latino films in the United States is generally considered to begin with Luis Valdez 1981’s Zoot Suit. Since that time, a large number of dedicated screenwriters and directors have embarked on the production of such films, some through Hollywood and others through independent routes.
One distinct characteristic that has been conspicuous in most of the American films has been the use of stereotypes and comedy to explore the culture of different Latino groups and also deal with the issue of immigration from Central and South American nations into the United States (Barrera 45). Most of the Latino American films produced during the last three decade have revolved around this subject. In El Norte and Born in East LA are two of the films that fall under this category. A comprehensive analysis of the two Latino films reveal a lot of similarities particularly regarding their approach towards issues such as stereotyping and immigration.
Directed by Gregory Nava, El Norte was released in 1984 and received massive critical acclaim. The film in fact received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay during the 1985 Academy Awards. El Norte was lauded for its realistic approach towards the issue of immigration and its aesthetically beautiful and entertaining storyline. The strongest aspect of the film is its raw realism and elements of this realism are noticeable throughout the entire film. A myriad of theatrical devices are used to support the film’s main subject.
In the film, the director draws several mythical themes from Greek, Central American and Biblical texts to articulate an updated depiction of immigration and Latino stereotyping. The main characters of El Norte are embodiments of melodramatic sensibility. Born into a Guatemalan peasant family, the two siblings Enrique and Rosa endure great injustice and hardship in their exodus to California from Guatemala. Their journey is not entirely just geographical but is rather mythical. The film connection to myth is exposed through symbolism. According to Barrera, the two sibling’s journey is symbolic to the Mayan creation myth (the Popol Vuh): where the two heroes must go through a series of tests and trials before the can accomplish their goal. The two heroes represent a universe concept that is inherently dual (26).
The film is also characterized by stunning musical power that significantly helps to drive the theme and subject of the story. For instance, the first part of the film, the traditional Guatemalan culture is represented through lush countryside with people clothed in brightly colored traditional clothes, simple homes lit with candles and traditional Mayan music. Unfortunately this seemingly serene environment is ruptured by violence and fear when a rebel meeting is interrupted by soldiers and every single attendant is murdered (List 18).
In addition, music is used to accentuate the poetic dimension of the film for instance through a traditional Mayan folksong sung by Rosa before the burial of her father and also the voice over when the two siblings leave the village. The second part of the film also features some traditional mariachi music. From a US perspective, this is almost stereotypical given that the music plays in almost every Ro Grande and Don Pablo’s restaurant. In a certain way, this music helps to reinforce the film’s subject as well as one of its most conspicuous themes that is stereotyping (Yañez 34).
Born in East LA is more of a comedy rather than a drama. The film was directed Cheech Marin ( who also plays the main character) and was released in 1987. The hip and outrageous comedy is about a Mexican America young man from East LA who finds himself in immigration raid by official in a factory where he has gone to pick up a cousin. He is mistaken for an illegal immigrant because of his lack of official documentation and is consequently deported to Mexico.
Like El Norte, the film explores the issue of immigration and stereotyping but this time using a more comedic approach. The director uses his characters to portray most of the stereotypes, issues and jokes that spring up for immigrants and Chicanos in the United States. Just like El Notre, raw realism is one of the most distinct features of this motion picture, although it is represented in a smaller extent due to the film’s comedic inclination which makes it implausible for the entire content of the film to be taken literary. On reviewer states that Marin in attempt to ridicule some of the most common stereotypes overdoes some of the scenes to ensure that the film’s audience recognizes these stereotypes and sees the level of their ridiculousness (List 67). For instance, one example of a stereotype that is overdone is the supposed a “Chicano’s desire to have sexual intimacy with a white woman”. This is done using the French woman who is a frame of the film, appearing both at the commencement and at the end of the film. Many immigrants who make their way into America have the desire to be with a Caucasian woman because they think that this is part of the whole “American dream”. Alternatively, they think that having a typical American family will make them to be assimilated faster. There is the use of humor for instance, when Rudy, the main character is seen chasing the French woman through the streets of East LA. The director makes a mockery of this chase to hunt the American Dream and how ludicrous the need to be assimilated has become. Unlike El Norte, mythical elements are limited in the film and the plot of the film is entirely fictions. However, the inspiration of the film was actually drawn from music video parodying the hit song by Bruce Springsteen titled “Born in the USA”.
The enormous role of characters in a film cannot be overemphasized. The choice of characters can make or break a film. When drawing up a comparison of the character in El Notre and Born in East LA, it would be wise to first consider the film’s two heroes. On one side is LA’s Rudy, an “odd man out” who is able to maintain his calm an sanity while he is stranded in an unfamiliar land by inculcating humor and sarcasm into everything that he experiences. On the other hand is El Norte’s protagonist, Enrique who suffers various qualms while retaining a naive sense of optimism about the futures. Yet, there are a lot of thematic similarities which can be observed between the two (List 34).
The first similarity is that both characters are alienated from their home or parent cultures. For Enrique, it is the traditional neighborhood that he left behind in his home country of Guatemala while in Rudy’s case; it is the average American lifestyle that he practices in Los Angeles. This obvious juxtaposition gives the audience a brilliant opportunity to assess the character’s experiences and settings through a set of “fresh eyes”. It appears that this situation presents the best method to expose the dismal nature of Tijuana, the Mexican- American border town where both Rudy and Enrique spend a considerable amount of time. This similar manner or method symbolizes the same message: the crooked coyotes, the suffering and the sultry clubs al contain a painful aspect of humanity that is all the more obvious to the unaware and un-local individuals.
Another distinct similarity between the two characters that is obvious is the resolve and the integrity with which they acknowledge the necessity to work. When Rudy is deported to an unknown territory, he is forced to involve himself with an unlikable club owner who pays him a meager salary. He however performs dutiful because he realizes his complete dependence on this trickling salary. Likewise, Enrique is employed as a waiter at a restaurant where his attitude and dedication are recognized but his race is shunned.
The audience could however adopt a more sympathetic attitude towards Enrique seeing that the character actually represents a real person. Unlike Born in East LA, where the characters are entirely fictional, El Norte is based on a real story from the director of the film Gregory Nava who details his harrowing experience of growing up in San Diego, California. Nava actually came from a family from the border and he also made frequent visits across the border to Tijuana where had relatives. Enrique and Rudy are indeed very different characters. Their varying perception of their personality and their environment is tailored to specifically suit their particular films. However, the similarities they exhibit without the consideration of their film’s themes show that the two do in fact represent the same heartbreaking tale.
El Notre and Born in East LA are just two of the films that have revolutionalized Latino representation in American motion pictures. While there is no absolute shortage of minority group representation in the mainstream American films, there is no debate about the general marginalization of non-whites in many films. In many films, the role of the main character that is the protagonist is often reserved for members of the majority race. Minority characters are often accorded minor roles of sidekicks, allies or victims. According to Barrera, minority film makers have therefore been making efforts to develop films whose stories centre on the members of their ethnic groups (78). This has been prevalent in many Latino films. Recent films have however witnessed a massive shift and there is a general cross over involving the exploration of many ethnic groups in one film.
It is films such as El Norte and Born in East LA that can be credited with this evolution in film making. The films helped to depict the plight of the often foregone American- Latino fraternity. They brought into light some of the plights facing this ethnic group and in the process helped to open the doors for the production of many Latino themed films as well as provided a platform for various Latino actors to venture into the America film industry and make a positive impact.
Barrera, Mario. "Perspectives in Mexican American Studies." Missing the Myth: What gets Left Out of Latino Film and Film Analysis. Ed. R. García. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.
List, Christine. Chicano Images Refiguring Ethnicity in Mainstream Film. New York and London: Garland Publishing:1996.
Nava, Gregory. El Norte. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. 1984.
Marin, Cheech. Born in East L.A.. Universal Studios Home Video. 1987.
Yañez, Richard. El Paso Del Norte: Stories on the Border. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003. Print.