Latinos and Cinema


In this same time period, Latinos were beginning to take matters into their own hands with respect to filmmaking. Latino feature filmmaking has its roots in political activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in particular the Chicano and Puerto Rican civil-rights movements. In the 1960s many Mexican Americans and other Latinos became involved with civil-rights activism, fighting for equal rights and respect for Latinos in US social institutions, including the mass media. It was during this period that the term "Chicano" began to be embraced as a label of pride by many Mexican Americans.

The fight for more positive film representations was fought on two main fronts by Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other Latino activists. On one front, Latino media-advocacy groups such as CARISSMA and JUSTICIA protested images that were seen as negative stereotypes and demanded training opportunities and employment for Latinos in the US television and film industries. On another front, some Chicano and Latino activists began producing short films in conjunction with their activism. These films are generally considered the first wave of Chicano, Puerto-Rican, and Cuban-American cinemas. These early activist-filmmakers included Moctesuma Esparza, Sylvia Morales, Jesus Salvador Treviño, Susan Racho, and Luis Valdez (b. 1940). Some were also among the first Latinos to be able to enter film schools and receive formal training.

These films of early Chicano and Latino cinema are notable for their anti-Hollywood and pro-movement ideals of promoting ethnic political consciousness and pride. Manifestos written by proponents and practitioners of early Chicano cinema, for instance, note its aim to serve as an antidote to how Latinos historically had been represented and employed in film. To this end, the tenets of Chicano cinema included a focus on education and uplift of Chicanos and the aim to serve as a countercinema to Hollywood. Many early Chicano films in fact were documentaries produced on shoestring budgets that highlighted social issues and celebrated Mexican-American culture and identity. Such films included Valdez's I Am Joaquin (1969), Treviño's Yo Soy Chicano (1972), David Garcia's Requiem 29 (1971), Racho's Garment Workers (1975), and Morales's Chicana (1979).

b. Delano, California, 26 June 1940

Writer-director Luis Valdez has often been described as the father of Chicano theater and cinema; he also is notable for creating bridges between these creative worlds and Hollywood cinema. The son of migrant farm workers in California, Valdez began his creative career as a playwright while a student at San Jose State University in the early 1960s. When a boycott of California grapes in support of Mexican-American farm workers began in 1965, he returned to his childhood home to participate in the efforts of the United Farm Workers (UFW). In support of the UFW he founded Teatro Campesino (the Farmworkers Theater) in 1965. The theater group served to inform, encourage, and entertain Chicano farm workers with its humorous and socially incisive skits called "actos," often performing on flatbed trucks in the fields. He also produced the short film I Am Joaquin (1969), based on an epic poem by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales, which celebrated Chicano identity and became an anthem of the Chicano movement.

Several of Valdez's theatrical projects made their way to film and television over the years. The first was Zoot Suit , a retelling of the early 1940s "zoot suit riots," during which Mexican Americans suffered injustices at the hands of white American servicemen in Los Angeles. Drawing from interviews and archival research on the related 1942 trial of Henry Leyva and eight other Mexican-American youths in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, Valdez crafted a play that foregrounded Chicano voices and experience in regional and national theater. Zoot Suit was the first play by a Mexican American to be produced on Broadway. As a film, Zoot Suit (1981) starred Valdez's brother, Daniel, and costarred Edward James Olmos in one of his first starring roles. Shot in just two weeks on a low budget, the film deftly brings the energy and theatricality of a full-scale musical to the screen. It is seen as a masterpiece of Chicano cinema and has served as an inspiration to a new generation of Latino filmmakers.

The critical success of Zoot Suit led to Valdez's second feature film, La Bamba (1987), about the 1950s Mexican-American rock singer Ritchie Valens. La Bamba was one of the first films distributed by a major studio in an effort to reach the Latino audience; both English- and Spanish-language versions were released by Tri-Star Pictures. Both Zoot Suit and La Bamba were instrumental in the growing interest in and openness to Latino filmmakers, actors, and film projects.

Valdez continues to live and work with Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, California. He also teaches at California State University, Monterey Bay.


Los Vendidos (1972), Zoot Suit (1981), La Bamba (1987), The Cisco Kid (1994)


El Teatro Campesino. (accessed 2 May 2006).

Fregoso, Rosa Linda. " Zoot Suit : The 'Return to the Beginning."' In Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas , edited by John King, Ana Lopez, and Manuel Alvarado, 269–278. London: British Film Institute, 1993.

Reyes, Luis, and Peter Rubie. Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television . New York: Garland, 1994.

Valdez, Luis. "Zoot Suit" and Other Plays . Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1992.

Mary Beltrán

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