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A Cinco de Mayo Homage: 5 Great Moments in Mexican-American Cinema

A Cinco de Mayo Homage: 5 Great Moments in Mexican-American Cinema

Happy Cinco de Mayo! As it turns out, the holiday isn’t all that celebrated in Mexico. Not that this should stop any Americans from going out and getting their margarita on, but it’s kind of funny to think about. In light of the oddly US-centric form this celebration of Mexican victory has taken in recent years, I thought I’d take a look at some of the brilliant contributions the Mexican-American community has made to cinema. Here are 5 close-ups of particularly noteworthy films and filmmakers, from the earliest days of Hollywood to just last year.

1981’s “Zoot Suit”

Director Luis Valdez also wrote the original play from which he adapted this film, a fictionalized account of the 1943 riots in Los Angeles. Narrated by Edward James Olmos in quite the performance as El Pachuco, the archetypal Zoot Suiter, “Zoot Suit” takes an intense look at the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial which kicked off the riots. Valdez, who has been called the father of Chicano theater, had been producing plays since the early 1960s, but this was his first foray into the world of cinema. Olmos is pretty fantastic, a sort of dark conscience following our protagonist around with his colorful suit and enormous mustache. The Lalo Guerrero music is also wonderful. It appears that the whole film is on YouTube, so check out the opening after the jump.

Anthony Quinn, Dolores del Rio and Classic Hollywood

Dolores del Rio was the first major Mexican star in Hollywood, having arrived in the silent period and really coming into her own in the 1930s. She led such films as “Bird of Paradise,” in which she plays an island princess that doesn’t talk too much (because the producers didn’t like her accent), “Flying Down to Rio” and “Madame Du Barry.” It’s a mixed legacy, given the exoticization of her persona and the somewhat problematic roles she was given, but her accomplishments are still worthy of recognition. Here’s a clip of a del Rio number from the 1935 Busby Berkeley musical “In Caliente,” which excellently illustrates the awkward and often racially ridiculous films of the period, alongside the actress’s unmistakable charisma.

About that horrendous make-up on Pat O’Brien. An unfortunate stylistic choice plagued the whole period, a sort of Mexican “brownface” that Hollywood used instead of hiring Latino actors. It also probably played into del Rio’s decision to refuse an offer for the 1934 biopic of Pancho Villa starring Wallace Beery in pretty awful make-up, which she considered an anti-Mexican film. 20 years later, Anthony Quinn would win an Oscar for such a movie, opposite an equally painted Marlon Brando. Quinn was born in Chihuahua, Mexico to Francisco Quinn, a rider with Pancho Villa. He grew up in Los Angeles, and his publicists regularly made sure that his Irish heritage was emphasized over his Mexican. Still, he got to be the one actual Latino in the cast of 1952’s “Viva Zapata!” Here’s the trailer, a second intriguing illustration of classic Hollywood’s racial difficulty.

John A. Alonzo

The first Hispanic American ever to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars and the first to be invited into the A.S.C, John A. Alonzo produced some of the highest quality work of the 1970s and 80s. His pioneering of hand-held cinematography was crucial to the development of the form, and his first-hand experience in acting allowed him to really effectively capture some of the finest performances of the period. He’ll probably be remembered most for his work on “Chinatown” and “Scarface,” but I’ll always have a fondness for the more understated photography of 1971’s “Harold and Maude.”

Gregory Nava’s “El Norte”

The first feature of San Diego-born writer/director Gregory Nava, this film has a special place in the world of American independent cinema. It’s the story of two young indigenous Mayans in Guatemala who travel through Mexico on their way to a new life in California. With extraordinary strength and skill, Nava (who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Anna) guides his characters through an intense journey across unfamiliar territory. It’s perhaps the best film made about Latin American immigration into the US and was the first US-made independent film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. If you like 2009’s “Sin Nombre,” by fellow Californian Cary Fukunaga, you should definitely give this a look.

Robert Rodriguez

One can’t really end this list without mention of the Mexploitation films of this charismatic Texan auteur. He’s taken the art of exploitation cinema and run with it, creating a whole crop of movies that are not only extremely entertaining but really add something to the American cultural landscape. I loved “Machete,” for example, a movie filled with grindhouse sex and violence but which also had some hilariously astute things to say about the place of the Mexican-American community in contemporary politics and society. Also, it’s just plain awesome, and a sequel would be nice.

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