Break of Dawn
A Latino/a politics of language

by Christine List

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 81-86
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

BREAK OF DAWN (1988) is an independently financed low budget film distributed by Director Isaac Artenstein and Producer Jude Pauline Eberhard through their company CineWest Productions. The film is an expanded narrative version of Arienstein's biographical documentary BALLAD OF AN UNSUNG HERO (1983) about Pedro J. González, a Mexican immigrant, who hosted and produced one of the first major Spanish-language radio programs in the United States. The film's director, also born in Mexico, grew up in Southern California and went on to complete a degree in filmmaking at UCLA. He was one of the original members of the Border Arts Workshop where he collaborated with Guilermo Gómez-Peña to produce BORDER BRUJO (1990), a video recording of Gómez-Peña's performance piece on linguistic identity and cross-cultural perception. BREAK OF DAWN, Artenstein's first feature, echoes the Border Arts Workshop's preoccupation with the importance of language as a marker of cultural identity and site of resistance. Through Artenstein's use of historical narrative, issues of linguistic self-determination become enmeshed with other political questions deriving from the era in which the movie is set and which still have relevance to the Latino community today.

The film opens on a shot of San Quentin prison. The colors in the shot are muted, slightly sepia, suggestive of an historical drama. Titles come up, indicating it is 1938. There is a cut to the interior of the prison. A Mexican man is standing before an Anglo prison warden. The abrasive warden interrogates the prisoner, demanding to know why he wrote letters in "Mexican" for other inmates. After withstanding the many insults from the warden, the prisoner finally becomes enraged and knocks the warden to the ground with one forceful punch. Guards rush in to restrain the prisoner and carry him off to solitary. During a long tracking shot in which the prisoner is lead to his cell, additional titles announce that this is the true story of Pedro González, who grew up in Mexico, served as General Villa's personal telegraph operator and who later immigrated to the U.S. in 1928.

This initial sequence establishes the director's cinematic strategy. He aligns the audience's point of view with that of González. The viewer interprets González' violent response to the warden as justifiable, and is gratified at his decision to endure solitary confinement in order to retain his dignity and his freedom of speech. Such positioning of the audience on the side of the underdog is typical of many contemporary social justice films. However, the protagonist in many Hollywood social justice films is often someone who is unenlightened, who does not acquire social consciousness until after suffering an injustice himself (or herself) or witnessing a series of injustices suffered by his or her oppressed ethnic friends (e.g. SALVADOR, CRY FREEDOM).[1][open notes in new window] In BREAK OF DAWN we have immediate identification with a Mexican immigrant who is already acting according to a conscious identity politics. Thus the audience is invested in this man's story from the outset and interprets the subsequent series of flashbacks from a position of commitment rather than naiveté and skepticism as is typical of other social justice films.

Using a basic flashback story structure, setting up the first scene with an act of heroism, and aligning truth with the Spanish speaker are all ways the director carefully conveys the ethnic experience to an uninformed audience. But the effectiveness of this approach has come under fife from Mexican film critic Jorge Ayala Blanco who argues that such tight control of the audience's perspective is not necessary, especially for a Latino audience. Ayala Blanco believes that Artenstein's lack of subtlety alienates some viewers who resent his formalistic didacticism.[2] Yet one could make a strong argument to the contrary. The film's opening scene manages to avoid these problems of cinematic pedagogy by making identification a pleasurable experience for the viewer. The viewer gets the satisfaction of temporarily subverting the evil warden through the opening fight scene where González' first act of rebellion against the warden is to answer him in Spanish. His words are translated for the viewer, but not for the warden so that the viewer (whether Spanish-speaking or not) is in on the insult and can identify with the act of self-assertion. Knowledge of the translation indicates a privilege leading to new relations of power in the scene, both physical and linguistic.

The use of Spanish becomes a theme in the film as the story develops through flashback. Pedro González and his wife, Maria, cross the border, where they are waved through at a check point by immigration men. This scene clashes with expectations for a stereotypical Hollywood image of border immigration, replete with narrow escapes and life threatening chases. Pedro and Maria are welcomed by U.S. authorities, not hunted down at gunpoint. In a subsequent scene during their journey north, they stop alongside the road. Next to them is a poor white family tending to their overheated car. In Spanish, Maria offers them water. As the whites rudely refuse her kindness, the audience perceives that it is ignorance of the Spanish language on the part of these whites which fuels some of their hatred for the Mexicans. Later, Pedro and Maria arrive at the home of their cousin's family in East Los Angeles. The conversations between them are bilingual. Each of the characters switches back and forth, at points stumbling to translate, but patiently succeeding in communicating. In one scene where Maria and Matilde (Pedro's cousin's wife) are hanging laundry in the back yard, they discuss their husbands with each other. As they compare opinions about theft spouses, their similar experiences as women and as wives helps them to transcend the linguistic limitations. A common horizon of experience based on gender as Mexican and Mexican American women becomes the basis of cultural/ linguistic interaction.

This emphasis on language is further developed in a pivotal scene in BREAK OF DAWN when Pedro listens to the radio and discovers that there is no Spanish radio programming in Los Angeles. After trimming his mustache to appear more "in style" (North American), he goes to the local station and asks to host a radio show. He is quickly turned away by the white station manager and told there is no market for such programming. The film then flashes forward to San Quentin. González is naked, in solitary, drinking water out of the toilet. The juxtaposition between the radio station scene and the prison cell foreshadows that González will have to pay a heavy price for bringing Spanish radio to the community.

The following scenes show that González does eventually get his own show on KMPC. It is an early morning music program called "Los Madrugadores" (The Early Riser's Show) which he hosts and performs in. The show is an immediate success, and Pedro goes on to become an immensely popular Spanish-speaking radio celebrity, reaching listeners all over the Southwest. González' ability to garner a vast Mexican American audience is soon recognized for its political potential. He is approached by an ambitious Mexican American police Captain named Rodríguez who asks Pedro to help with the reelection of the white District Attorney. For doing so, González is rewarded with a letter granting him permanent asylum as a political exile.

Later, a prominent Mexican American businessman, Senor Rosales, also requests a favor of González — to promote his stepdaughter for Queen of the Fiestas Pátrias (the Mexican ethnic festival) — in exchange for continued advertising revenues. González is then courted by a third member of the Mexican middle class, the Mexican Consul, Señor Dávila, who wants to use his radio program to lend support to unionizing Mexican immigrant workers in the United States. González agrees, despite threats from the District Attorney and Captain Rodríguez. Eventually, because of his pro-union stance, the District Attorney sets González up on a rape charge, offering him probation if he confesses to the rape he did not commit. González refuses to capitulate and is sent to San Quentin.


In her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa tells of how she and other Chicanos/as were forced to take speech classes in college in order to "get rid of our accents."[3] In the same essay, she quotes Ray Gwynn Smith on language rights: "Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?" (p. 53). To many Chicanos/as who came of age during the Chicano Movement, speaking Spanish was a political act, and, to some, it even became an indicator of being Chicano/a.[4] Decades later, the use of Spanish in Chicano art and culture continues to signify a symbolic quest for Mexican cultural roots which have been threatened by the many years of racist U.S. policies and various other assimilationist factors put in place since the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.[5]

Today, Spanish language and accent still serve as markers of cultural difference in the United States. Outside the Chicano/a community these traits identify Chicanos/as and Mexicans as Others. Within the community, Spanish language and accent indicate the degree of similarity and/or acculturation between Chicanos/as and Mexicans. Beyond this, speaking Spanish is emblematic of other more extended cultural ties and kinships, representing the bonds with Latin America and the Caribbean, legitimizing a Third World political consciousness on the part of Chicanos/as. Evidence of this expansion of ethnic identity to new transnational boundaries can be seen in the increased use of inclusive identifying terms such as Hispanic and Latino/a among Chicanos/as.

According to political scientist Felix Padilla, Chicanos/as expand their identity and position themselves as Latino/a when merited by the political demands of a particular situation. He also observes that the Latino/a identity label can only be successfully deployed as a mobilizing agent if it appeals to common sentiments or emotional ties within the groups. To guarantee its effectiveness as a means of producing solidarity, Padilla asserts the Spanish language must become a site of collective struggle within the community.[6]

BREAK OF DAWN appeals to this notion of collective struggle by tying Spanish language rights to a concrete situation of cultural/linguistic-based oppression and by insinuating this situation into contemporary experience. Artenstein shows that the peculiar Mexican-ness of González' identity is sometimes subsumed within his broader identity as a Spanish speaker. Therefore, the film not only articulates the Mexican American identity issues relevant to the 1940s, but also is suggestive of a potential "Latino/a" identity that has become a platform in the 1980s and 1990s by transforming Spanish-language expression into an alternative, competing public discursive space for a diverse spectrum of Spanish speakers.[7] In this way, BREAK OF DAWN very cleverly situates an internationalist, anti-imperialist agenda within the borders of the United States.[8]

The present day English-only movement can be seen, in part, as a reaction against the collective expression of these political/cultural connections and further read as another aggressive attempt on the part of the some Americans to eradicate all sense of distinct national culture and pride among Chicanos and Latinos.[9] BREAK OF DAWN was produced in the late 1980s, concurrent with the major campaigns for English-only regulations and the passage of the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Act.[10] As such, the film can be seen as timely commentary, having great significance as an interpreter of current anti-Mexican/anti-Spanish sentiment in the U.S. Teresa Montano and Dennis Vigil have argued that the English-only movement is a right wing attempt to systematically deny millions of Spanish speakers the right to bilingual ballots and bilingual education. They assert that this legislation, coupled with other factors of racism, would further diminish the already unequal political and economic status of Latinos in the United States. The state governments are, in essence, being asked not only to stop funding Spanish-language programs, but to also wipe out the cultural ties between Mexican/Latino populations which help to build solidarity and challenge the current systems of control.

Informed by this historical framework of language oppression and the English-only Movement, the narrative turning point in BREAK OF DAWN, the silencing of González and his radio program, represents the symbolic act of silencing an entire Latino/a culture. Stamping out the radio station also signifies the muffling of not only a linguistic group but also an "immigrant" group that suffers a class-based oppression as well. The narrative in BREAK OF DAWN skillfully develops a discourse on the connection between language, immigration and the working class oppression through several scenes showing the prevailing racist attitudes towards Mexican immigration and Spanish language use.

The second scene in the film, for instance, introduces us to the L.A. District Attorney who uses immigration as a firebrand for his reelection while campaigning before a hall of American war veterans. The strained rhetorical style of the District Attorney's speech ("They have taken all your food") and the mechanized nods of approval on the part of the veterans shown as reaction shots work as shorthand for "fascist gathering." While the film is a little heavy handed in its use of the D.A. as a villain who has only one motivation (to further his political career), it still manages to articulate a fairly complex analysis of the problems of immigration and self-determination proposed by González' story. This is done, for example, in the scene in which a barrio store is raided. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deports González' cousin and other customers to Mexico. In the next scene, the viewer learns that Pedro's cousin is in fact a U.S. citizen and sees the stress the arrest places on his family. Thus, the viewer is led to read the deportation incident as indicative of a racist immigration system which targets anyone who merely "looks Mexican." Foreignness is revealed to be a category based on appearances. The D.A.'s deportation rhetoric of the earlier campaign scene is even more suspect when it is considered in tandem with this later deportation scene.

The INS raid sequence also contrasts well with the scene in which Pedro and his wife freely cross the border. As we witness the violent ejection of previously welcomed guests, we begin to see the hypocrisy in the U.S. immigration policies.[11] Later on, the use of the immigration theme comes out again when González is rewarded with a letter of political refugee status for using his radio show to bring out the Mexican vote. The incident is played in a somber, ironic tone, for, earlier in the film, González proudly spoke about riding with Villa in the Mexican Revolution. To accept status as a political exile from Mexico, the country which he fought for, is a serious compromise for González, but one the audience reads as tragically necessary for González who must face the rampant deportations exacted upon his own community.[12]

The reference to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 in the film merits further discussion, especially insofar as the revolution was of serious concern to politicians and big business interests in the United States. A number of Mexican radicals and liberals such as Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, Antonio Villarreal and Juan Sarabia fled to Texas and other cities in the United States to escape persecution from the Díaz government. During their exile in the U.S., these Mexican revolutionaries published radical newspapers and began organizing Mexican and Mexican American workers into labor unions, encouraging the union leaders to move toward greater political activism.[13] It is also said that other radical influences from Mexico during this period included a plan to liberate Mexican and African American peoples in the United States by creating a separate nation for them within North America.[14] The U.S. government was fearful that these immigrants would ignite a working class revolt that would spread throughout the United States. Therefore U.S. officials aggressively pursued these dissidents. In the end, several Mexican radicals (such as the Magón brothers) were captured as the U.S. Cavalry and the Texas Rangers joined forces with the Mexican government to purge the border.

After the revolution triumphed in Mexico, land reform was implemented and several foreign controlled industries were nationalized.[15] American business interests and the U.S. Ambassador were upset with the anti-imperialist policies of the newly formed Mexican government There is substantial evidence that these business interests conspired with Mexican opposition forces to assassinate President Madero in 1913.[16] For many decades after the Mexican revolution the U.S. government continued to view their southern neighbor as a threat. This was the case during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) who was heading the Mexican government during the years when BREAK OF DAWN takes place. Cárdenas implemented many socialist economic reforms including the further expropriation and redistribution of lands to the poor and the nationalization of the oil industry.

For contemporary Chicanos/as, the Mexican Revolution is often regarded as inspirational, a source of anti-imperialist fervor and a link with a revolutionary tradition. Villa and Zapata have become mythologized folk heroes in Chicano culture.[17] The mention of Villa and the revolution in BREAK OF DAWN evokes all these historical connections. As such the reference might produce paranoia on the part of a reactionary viewer, or a sense of victory and empowerment on the part of an audience which is invested in the spirit of the Mexican Revolution. For a Mexican audience, however, a sense of irony might surface when confronted with the film's revolutionary references, since many contemporary Mexicans feel that the ideals of the revolution have been betrayed by a government which is quick to make deals with U.S. business interests that lead to economic exploitation of Mexican workers (e.g. the maquiladora zones along the U.S.-Mexican border).

In BREAK OF DAWN, the allusion to the Mexican Revolution occupies its most prominent place midway through the film when González, after witnessing an attack on a labor-organizing meeting by the D.A.'s thugs, denounces the government's actions and then sings a ballad on the air which is critical of the U.S. The scene is done totally in Spanish. It is filmed with many point of view shots from the perspectives of the Mexican Americans who listen in the studio. The song evokes recognition, understanding and a feeling of empowerment on their part. At this point in the film, one senses that the Mexican revolution has finally spilled over the border. Language (Spanish), immigration, and labor organizing all congeal around the perspective of Chicano justice.

The director's argument is further solidified as we learn that the suppression of the Spanish language is intended as a means of controlling the working class. This is brought out as the narrative shows that the threats against González come after he uses the station as a voice for the masses of Mexican workers. In one telling scene towards the end of the film, the prosecuting attorney goes to KMPC and asks Pedro's boss if he understands Spanish, warning him that González has been advocating communism behind his back. This scene furthers director Artenstein's position on language use and class rebellion by tying the suppression of Spanish language rights to red baiting.

Anzaldúa says, "Wild tongues can't be tamed, they can only be cut out" (p. 54). BREAK OF DAWN articulates this position with its ending. After González is imprisoned, his wife (with the help of the Mexican consulate) rallies the Mexican American community to secure his eventual release. In a scene before he walks free, González is shown in his cell playing his guitar and singing a Mexican ballad, an eerie lover's lament. González is shot from outside the cell. The bars, in soft focus, intrude on our view of him; a rather literal metaphor for a voice which cannot be silenced even under official state repression. Later, in the final shot of the film, González is released from San Quentin. Several years have passed. Standing at the gate, he looks up at the sunlight. There is an ambivalent gaze in his eyes. Breaking conventions, there is no reverse shot of his wife or anyone else waiting for him outside the prison. The film simply ends on a freeze frame with titles superimposed telling us that he was deported to Mexico for many years, and that when he was finally allowed to return, his application for a pardon for his conviction was denied by the U.S. government. This final shot and title sequence set up a thought-provoking open ending to the story, tying the issue of cultural self-determination to a continuing historical dynamic in the present.[18] The titles let us know that González is still alive, yet, to this day, remains unpardoned and without a radio show/ forum or voice.[19]

In BREAK OF DAWN the importance of remembrance and its connection to identity formation are tantamount. The protagonist of the film establishes the link between the Mexican Revolution and Chicano resistance in the U.S. His character embodies what Teshome Gabriel refers to as the "screening of memory" which enforces and continues meaningful subjectivity begun in the past and extended into the future.[20] Gabriel stresses that this type of preoccupation with history by Third World filmmakers confirms their faith in the value of constant struggle. One can see that the interpretation carries over into an understanding of BREAK OF DAWN and the director's decision to make an historical narrative chronicling the struggle for Spanish-language radio programming at a time when the English-only movement and the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Act were foremost in the minds of many Latinos. Drawing connections between past acts of resistance and present situations underscores the filmmaker's own commitment to the notion of agency in Chicano/a art and to produce a product which is informed by both a linguistic- and classed-based analysis of Chicano/a history.


1. I refer to these films as a social justice genre, wherein the protagonist becomes the focal point of systematic social injustice. SANDINO (1990), MAPANTSULA (1987), UNDER FIRE (1983), THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) would be encompassed in the genre. Many of these films also fall within what Claudia Springer has identified as the Third World investigation film genre which typically positions the spectator in the role of cultural outsider identifying with the reporter/protagonist who acts as interpreter of the foreign experience. Claudia Springer, "Comprehension and Crisis: Reporter Films and the Third World," in Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema, ed. Lester Friedman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), pp. 167-190.

2. Jorge Ayala Blanco, "Artenstein y el Mito del Cine Chicano," El Financiero, 10 Sept. 1990, Cultural Sec., p.71.

3. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Book Co., 1987), p. 54.

4. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, "Tomás Ybarra-Frausto on Mestizaje," Cine de Mestizaje (NY: El Museo del Barrio, 1991), p. 26.

5. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo contained democratic guarantees, which could have allowed for an integration of Chicano/a culture into the larger society. It contained provisions to protect the land, language, religious and political rights of the conquered Mexicans living in the Southwest

6. Felix Padilla, Latino Ethnic Consciousness: The Case of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago (Notre Dame: University of Noire Dame Press, 1985), pp. 61-79.

7. For further discussion of the use of Spanish as a competing alternative public discourse see, Flores and Yúdice, "Living Borders/ Buscando America: Languages of Latino Self-formation," Social Text: Theory/ Culture/ Ideology 8.2 (1990): 57-84.

8. Ironically, it has been the colonialist-like aggression of the U.S. which has caused multiple Latino identities to become collective as one strategy for ethnic survival.

9. The main organization behind the English-only Movement is "U.S. English." Claiming more than 300,000 dues paying members, the predominantly Anglo organization hired a Chicana, Linda Chavez (former Reagan appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission), as its national spokesperson. The group has been successful in obtaining the passage of English-only laws in California and Florida, states with high Latino populations. According to Teresa Montano and Dennis Vigil the fundamental reason for the attack on Spanish speaking Americans is because Latinos pose a strategic threat to monopoly capitalist control of the southwestern United States. They argue that the Latino population explosion in the sunbelt region will destabilize the area leading massive Chicano uprisings in the next century. This threat is understood by the Anglo bourgeoisie, and, hence, the upsurge in efforts to acculturate Chicanos by decimating their language. See "English-only: Right Wing's Power of Babble," in Forward: A Journal of Socialist Thought 8 (Spring, 1988): 51-83.

10. The Simpson-Rodino law mandated strong penalties against employers of "illegal" immigrants. The bill has been criticized by Chicano groups who say that it unfairly targets Mexican immigrants and promotes anti-Latino sentiment throughout the country.

11. Since 1929, U.S. policy towards Mexican immigration has vacillated considerably. During periods of economic prosperity when labor shortages occurred in the southwest, Mexicans have been encouraged to cross the border. When the economic climate shifts, Mexican immigrants have been and continue to be expelled in large numbers. For an historical account of this immigration history see Juan Ramón García, Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); and Abraham Hoffman, Unwanted Mexican-Americans in the Great Depression (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1974).

12. The Mexican Revolution was a major factor in the displacement of Mexicans to the U.S. Many soldiers and supporters of revolutionary leaders like Villa, Obregón, Carranza and Zapata fled political persecution from their own government. It is probable that close to one million Mexicans crossed over into the United States between 1910 and 1920 although a publication of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. puts the number closer to two hundred thousand. See Meier and Rivera, The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans, p. 235.

13. For instance, the Magón brothers published Regeneración in San Antonio, St. Louis and El Paso. Later, while in Los Angeles, Ricardo Flores Magón published La Revolución. In southeastern Arizona, Praxedis Guerero organized copper miners into a union called Obreros Libres (Free Workers). See Meier and Rivera, The Chicanos, p. 119-123.

14. Annando Navarro, "The Evolution of Chicano Politics," Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 5 (Fall 1972): 61.

15. The Mexican Constitution of 1917 gave the Mexican nation exclusive rights to subsoil minerals.

16. Kenneth F. Johnson, Mexican Democracy: A Critical View (New York: Praeger, 1978), p. 44.

17. For an explanation of how these references play a part in Chicano Art see Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (Los Angeles: UCLA Wight Art Gallery, 1990).

18. This ending is unconventional from two standpoints. From a Hollywood standpoint, it is clichéd to show a man released after being wrongly convicted go to his wife or family. In a more leftist film, one would expect to have him reunite with the community that he sacrificed for and who pushed for his release.

19. For further discussion of Spanish language radio stations in the U.S. see Felix Gutiérrez and Jorge Reina Schemendt, Spanish Language Radio in the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979).

20. Teshome Gabriel, "Thesis on Memory and Identity: In Search of the Origin of the River Nile," Emergences 1: 130-137.