Notes on Chicano cinema

by Jason C. Johansen

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Recent festivals in San Antonio, Texas, and Mexico City reflect the wide spectrum of Chicano film. Given the non-rigorous definition of Chicano film, we have films that generally fall into one or more of the following categories: 1) films BY Chicanos, 2) films FOR Chicanos, 3) films ABOUT Chicanos. In addition to its assets, each category inevitably has its inherent weaknesses and limitations.

For example, the first category opens itself to almost any sort of film, providing it is made by a Chicano. Hollywood has seen a rock musical made by a Chicano; it will see a futuristic science-fiction feature-length film by a Chicano. The second category, films for Chicanos, correctly suggests that there are or should be films that address themselves to Chicanos. However, to what ends? The final category obviously allows for almost any sort of film providing it has a Chicano, regardless of the portrayal.

With all the categories, not one addresses questions of purpose. What is, after all, the function of Chicano film? Possibly, the function and purpose of Chicano film lies in the roots, origins, and determinants of the genre's development.

In his article on Cine Chicano, Jesus Treviño traces the roots of the genre to the early U.S. silents, which identified the Mexican as a "greaser," through the Western, with its bandits and loose women, as well as stereotyped portrayals by Dolores del Rio, Carmen Miranda, and Lupe Velez, the "Mexican spitfire."

The basis of his argument was the Chicano film developed as a response to the stereotypes, i.e., an attempt to rectify the traditionally distorted images. In passing he locates this notion of "cine Chicano as a response" as part of the larger sociopolitical movement, linked to the events of 1968: a Chicano student movement in Los Angeles, March; other student movements, Paris, May; and in Mexico City, October. Chicano consciousness specifically grew out of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 60s, the unionizing efforts of Cesar Chavez, and as a reaction to the war in Indochina.

The Chicano movement, like others, found film and media in general to be a useful tool in the communication of ideas. It provided exposure and an outlet for Chicano faces and voices. Films such as YO SOY CHICANO and CINCO VIDAS reflected the same attitudes that characterized the movement in the late 60s and early 70s: nationalism and the fomenting of ethnic pride.

The movement has since fragmented and generally gravitated toward two poles, liberal and radical. At one end, Chicanos have entered the middle class and embraced its liberal politics. They point to the relative increase in Chicano politicians, businessmen, and professionals as indicative of the success of the movement.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chicanos are increasingly looking at the exploited working class (witness the undocumented workers) as a symptom of larger problems: socioeconomic relations between the U.S. and Mexico and even between the U.S. and Latin America.

Now Chicano cineastes must decide what will be the function of Chicano film. As the nature of the movement has changed, so must the nature of Chicano film. Furthermore, since we see the problems of Chicanos as inextricably connected to those of Mexico and America Latina where, ultimately, symptoms vary little and causes are the same, Chicano film must see itself as part of the same relationship.

Obviously, Chicanos have limited access to the means of production, particularly capital. Therefore, it is likely that filmmakers will look (as they have been) more to the established industries of Hollywood, Mexico, and, possibly, Cuba. It seems less likely that Chicano film at the feature-length level will develop to any large extent with independent monies. Certainly, the documentaries will remain the major product.

Thus, as Chicanos look more to Hollywood and its imitator, Mexico, they must also consider aesthetic questions.

It is no accident that the portrayal of the Mexican in Hollywood has traditionally been degrading, insulting, and overly racist. Two new feature films, WALK PROUD and BOULEVARD NIGHTS, carry on the tradition. The rectification of the negative images is not merely a matter of placing Chicanos in creative capacities: writing, producing, directing, etc. Nor is it merely a matter of seeking to balance the negative with the positive. Chicano film must also take an ideological position response by recognizing the form and ideological function of Hollywood film.

Hollywood cinema is one of intellectual colonization. It attempts to pass off its distorted realities and values of a ruling class as natural and desirable to Third World peoples, including Chicanos. It is not a cinema that asks us to pause and reflect on our situation. Instead, Hollywood films attempt "to take our minds off” our daily problems by pretending to be entertainment, creating a feeling of well-being and a false sense of security. It is largely escapist fare.

Once we recognize form and content relationships and “signifier-signification” processes of Hollywood cinema, Chicano film can take the appropriate steps toward an alternative cinema — one that fills the gap created by Hollywood and its refusal and/or inability to impart socially useful information to Chicanos.

Chicano film as an alternative cinema requires at least some semblance of a theoretical foundation. Our compañeros in America Latina are way ahead of us in the game, and they provide the basis for the following:

1. The Demystification of Film

Hollywood filmmaking surrounds itself with a larger than life mystique. Dreams are realized on screen, stars are made, and Chicanos have been alienated. Bringing the filmmaking process to the community and soliciting its involvement places in its hands a powerful communicative tool, a tool which allows the expression of a people’s perspective, concerns, and reality. Chicanos need not be awed by a medium which has traditionally been kept out of their hands but of whose products they remain consumers.

2. The Decolonization of Minds

As Hollywood and other "foreign” films continue to offer us the ideology of the dominant culture, Chicano film must combat it. To minimize the acculturation process confronting Chicanos, Chicano film must not only reaffirm its respective culture but identify the false values and ideology delivered through the media.

3. Reflective and Open-Ended

Closure or that a film has neatly and conveniently resolved its problem often suggests that all is right with the world. For example, such is the ideology of the “happy ending." As viewers we are left satisfied, share in the film's sense of elation and feel good about ourselves. We are not asked to make a connection between the film's "enclosed reality" and our own reality. Chicano film must give cause for reflection by being open-ended, thereby directing our thoughts to an analysis of the Chicano experience.

4. The Altering of Consciousness

Filmic analyses of the Chicano experience, asking viewers to pause and reflect, ultimately must lead to an altering of consciousness. At no time has this ever been inappropriate to the Chicano movement but was and is still of primary importance.

5. Effect Social Change

However, any altering of consciousness must obviously work to effect social change, which necessarily must be the bottom-line thrust of all Chicano film. Given the ability of the medium to reach a wide audience, Chicano film must remain linked to and be an integral part of the revolutionary process.

6. A Chicano Film Language

Lastly, the development of Chicano film requires that it find a "film language” suitable to its needs. Such a language manifests itself through camera technique, editing strategies, cultural codes, and system of signs, all to accommodate the above considerations.

Obviously, the above can only serve as a general framework. As we acquire an understanding of the “colonizing" process of "First World" (Hollywood) cinema, we can begin to look for methods of "decolonizing." Similarly, vague terms such as “film language" require a sharpening of definition before making inroads toward a Chicano "film language."

Furthermore, as film continues to gain legitimacy in academic circles, likewise, Chicano filmmakers must and will broaden their filmic perspective by questioning form and content and the ideology inherent in the relation.


This article first appeared in the Chicano Cinema Newsletter, June, 1979. We thank them for their permission to reprint it. For more information on their activities, write: P.O. Box 32004, Los Angeles, CA, 90032.