Chicano personal cinema

by Willie Varela

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 96-99
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

"The border as metaphor has become hollow. Border aesthetics have been gentrified and border culture as a utopian mode for dialog is temporarily bankrupt." — Guillermo Gómez-Peña[1][open notes in new window]

Is the above quotation taken out of context? Of course it is. What else can one do with any type of discourse, especially cultural criticism? There is no text that is the final text. It hasn't been written. But I have to admit that Gómez-Peña's remarks have provoked within me a serious questioning of what it is that I am trying to do as a media artist living and working on the border, in my case, the El Paso-Juarez nexus. While this area is not nearly as "glamorous" or highly publicized as the San Diego-Tijuana border, which is where Gómez-Peña's initial notoriety sprang from, still this border area remains a crucial focal point for all the problems and possibilities that Gómez-Peña has outlined in his cultural commentary.

In 1971,1 bought my first Super 8 movie camera with money I earned as a census taker. It was a Vivitar 88P with three filming speeds, single frame advance, electronic power zoom (which went out within two months), and a pistol grip. This was to be the instrument with which I would carve a place for myself within American culture. Little did I know that I was embarked upon a long and bitter journey filled with rejection and misunderstanding. Not only would I have to work overtime to win acceptance from my white counterpart within the burgeoning avant-garde film "establishment" (a contradiction in terms, I realize, but not without foundation), but even my own people — other Chicanos — simply would not or could not understand my vision of a personal cinema, one rooted in the uniqueness of what each one of us is, i.e., an absolutely unique being in the history of the world, each with a unique set of baggage with which we negotiate existence.

To make a long story longer, I became, by default or definition, a Chicano experimental filmmaker: a living, walking anomaly, poised at the beginning of the 1970s to make films that would stand in resistance to American popular film culture. What a quaint mindset that was, but it was one that fueled my drive to make films for several years. Of course, over a period of time, living and working in El Paso, a cultural wasteland for all intents and purposes, I couldn't shake of the feeling that I was completely alone. What I didn't know was that I was completely alone. I was bereft of Chicano role models who were making personal cinema. Now, twenty-three years down the line, I have finally come to an understanding, if not an acceptance, of why there were no others, or at least very few others, making films that were in opposition to the hegemony of Hollywood commercial cinema. There was no future in it. More important, there was no economic future in being on the margin of the margins. There were no perks to be savored, no limousines, no business lunches to be taken, no incentives for a minority media maker to turn his or her back on an industry that, if penetrated, could bring money and power to those who would bring moving images of Chicanos and Latinos to a broad U.S. audience reportedly ready to devour images of these "strangers in a strange land." Indeed, the border as a metaphor and experience had become hollow and unrewarding.

But you see, the real problem lay in the incomplete educations of Chicano media makers who were ignorant of that "other" history of film, a history that began with Georges Méliès, continued through Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, got a kick in the pants from Maya Deren, saw new life through the eyes of Stan Brakhage, become ensnared in systems logic and a certain "passion" of the mind by the Structuralists, and finally found Story again in the New Narratives of the late 70s and 80s. I was in there somewhere, making films and going on the road to plead my case. I wasn't looking for a filmic "Spanglish," but a visual language that would acknowledge the reality that a Chicano must always have one eye pointing north and the other pointing south, with the occasional luxury of both eyes actually gazing inward, to the personhood that minorities are usually denied, and that we often deny ourselves.

It was with that half-formed idea of identity that I cast my net wide in search of role models to serve as affirmation of what I wanted to do, which was to make films. I found two such examples in the figures of ex-Beatle John Lennon and "heroic" independent filmmaker Stan Brakhage. In the ease of Lennon, I was more than a little familiar with the achievements and exploits of this rock star-turned-cultural hero. In the early 70s, media practitioners who toiled in the fields of popular culture were not yet granted the status of being bona fide "artists" the way many of them are now. Lennon was a maverick, a working class "hero" who wanted to be all that he could be. Subsequently, under the tutelage of Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, Lennon began to branch out from his previous role as that "obscure object of desire" for millions of teenage girls to multi-media artist. His experiments ranged far and wide, into experimental music, painting, drawing, photography, performance art, and — most important for me — filmmaking. He was a man who had enough money to do anything he wanted to do in whatever medium he chose, yet he chose to make 8mm home movies while holed up in a London basement apartment. This I learned from reading Jonathan Cott's lengthy 1971 interview with the Lennons in Rolling Stone. His choice of such a humble moving image medium made me sit up and take notice.

The other catalyst was "visionary" filmmaker and polemicist Stan Brakhage. I learned about Brakhage from reading a biographical profile of his life and work that appeared in Sheldon Renan's book, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (1967). Once again, here was another artist who was devoting great amounts of time and creative energy to making films not only in 16mm, but also regular 8mm. Imagine! A filmmaker who didn't want to go to Hollywood, who had asserted that no less a film icon than D.W. Griffith had been responsible for the stunting of film as an art in America, and who had made a life commitment to seeing the hitherto "unseen." Amazing. These two men, white men, got my attention. In essence they were saying DO IT! And so I did.

Did I ever wish, in my heart of hearts, that they had been Chicanos? I suppose so. But more important to me was their example. They were involved in the realization of their own individual visions, regardless of their particular stations in life. Perhaps one was rich and the other perhaps not so rich, still, each posited the urgency of personal vision above all else. This was a heady concept for a Chicano to entertain, especially since minority artists had been trained to view themselves as "representatives" of the race or ethnic group they came from. Personhood, or a strong sense of individual identity, was always secondary to racial or ethnic identity. I was certainly no different in that regard. I fought hard to be who I was, primarily because that was the only way that I could free myself to be an artist. I knew there was no "future" in the conventional sense, but that was irrelevant. What was important was to seek my identity through the lens, to live through my eyes and thereby perhaps come to see things more clearly I knew I carried around with me everything I was — a college dropout, the son of a mail carrier, a young adult looking to others for affirmation, a Chicano — but soon enough I knew I was on my own. I occupied my own "border" within the geographical border that was El Paso-Juarez. Still, identity was not to be won easily. There were places to go and people to see before I would begin to think of myself as a Chicano who happened to make films and, sometimes, as a Chicano filmmaker. Little by little, I became more aware of the nature of my ongoing project as a filmmaker: the construction of a separate framework of aesthetics that would speak to the unique experience of being situated between two cultures, caught between the past and the future. The Border was a real place to me, but like so many other places in America, it was also a state of mind.

Despite its seeming status as a zone of the mind, the border is a real place. To some, all too real. And of course one way of dealing with the realities of border life, especially for an artist, is to develop a philosophy, an aesthetics. Gómez-Peña speaks of border aesthetics, with the emphasis on "border," as having become gentrified and bankrupt as a "utopian" model. For Gómez-Peña to assert that any system of aesthetics should serve as a "utopian" model seems to me to be naive and unrealistic. Wasn't it Buñuel who said we were not living in the best of all possible worlds?

But Gómez-Peña's remarks deserve to be read closely, for what he is saying is instructive. I hear the lament of an artist over the loss of "copyright" privileges. Gómez-Peña goes on to complain in his piece that others have unfairly taken the name Border Arts Workshop and have continued to survive, and even thrive, on the triumphs of their predecessors, of which he was one, while not producing any new work of their own. Thus, Gómez-Peña posits the idea of "ownership" of what is known as The Border, and by implication, the "aesthetics" associated with it. But I say that no group or individual can "own" the border, not the Border Patrol, not Anglos, not Chicanos. The Border remains a place where ideologies are constantly being negotiated, with the deck stacked in favor of the United States, and Mexico having taken its chips and gone home. What is left is fought over by "illegal aliens," Chicanos, and busybody Anglo arts activists who see within these various internecine struggles an opportunity to make a name for themselves.

Yes, the border, or the various borders to the south of the United States are the war zones they are portrayed as, but art is always the "bonus baby" that is thrown in the pot after political and economic power have been negotiated. (Interestingly, reports are just now beginning to surface in the local El Paso newspapers about Mexico's long overdue acknowledgement that the mass illegal crossings into the United States merit some examination. Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem, between 1989 and 1991, Border Patrol apprehensions of undocumented immigrants numbered in the neighborhood of 603,000. Fluid borders, indeed. And this figure is for the El Paso sector only!)

Still, since a city like El Paso is technically in the United States, this area, along with areas up and down the U.S.-Mexican border, manages to enjoy the few economic opportunities that still exist during this recessionary era. Unfortunately, the arts on the border have also suffered as the United States' fortunes continue to fall. But a certain perception as to the motivations for touting the arts on the border nonetheless continues to nag at certain segments of the Chicano arts community. That perception is that Mexican nationals are not really so interested in "crossing over" to partake of the eclectic culture which their brothers and sisters to the north have evolved, but rather to partake of the products of American consumer culture, which would include, but not to be limited to, movies, sports, magazines, clothing, appliances, audio equipment, and cars. In other words, are "they" really here to see us, or to see and enjoy the fruits of late capitalist consumer culture?

Well, what do you think? (I had to go to San Antonio in Summer 1992 as an invited guest of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center to actually meet and speak with a Mexican film programmer who was representing a group called Chicanos Noventas out of Mexico City and who was there for the expressed purpose of mending bridges between Chicano and Mexican media artists. For the first time, I actually heard a Mexican express some commonality between his people and their "representatives" to the north. Chicanos were no longer just "el malinche" but were rather a group to be taken seriosly. Ironically, he was not very well received as some Chicano media makers were still nursing some resentments apparenty sustained during a recent convocation in the capital city.) Chicanos, I think, recognize that Mexicans are in possession of the indigenous culture. They also recognize that Anglo-Americans are in possession of Eurocentric culture that still makes claim to being "the" world culture, however contested that claim may be. As for Chicano culture itself, I would say it is an eclectic culture. We take a little here, a little there, throw in Roman Catholicism, add a healthy dollop of Amencan-slash-Mexican-slash-Latino popular culture, bake until brown, cool, and serve. In the crevices of this cultural maelstrom is where the possibilities for Chicanos to function as personal moving image makers resides. Sooner or later, this space will open.

"An entertainer gives you those good old songs that you want to hear. An artist wants to give you what you don' know you want. Something you might know you want the next time, but never knew you wanted before." — David Cronenberg[2]

Here's a list of names: Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Ricar do Montalban. Anthony Quinn. Fernando Lamas. Gonzalez Gonzalez. Rita Moreno. Jimmy Smits. Andy Garcia. Richard "Cheech" Marin. Esai Morales. Edward James Olmos.

All of these people are, or were, in "show business," in particular, the commercial film business. They are entertainers. They help millions to "escape," to endure their struggle to survive in an increasingly polarized America. They perform a service. And I'm sure most, if not all, of them are probably decent people. But they are still giving us those same old "songs," those familiar tunes that most of us have grown tired of. You know which ones I'm referring to: the Latin Lover; the Distinguished Latino Gentleman; the Feisty Hispanic Dame; the New Age Hippie; the Mexican Court Jester; the Drug-Addled vato loco; the Barrio Boy with a Heart of Gold. These actors have all played "types" in the movies.

They have benefited from the suspension of disbelief that millions of moviegoers regularly engage in. They have shown millions of white moviegoers that Chicanos/ Latinos can speak perfectly good English, are presentable, even sexy, and that they can hold their own on the screen with white actors. But mostly, these individuals are noteworthy because they have succeeded economically. They have penetrated the Dream Machine to get their piece of the pie, which is all well and good. They have nevertheless also done their share to perpetuate stereotypes, and by working within the rigid production codes of the commercial film business, have contributed to the stranglehold that the industry has on moving image making in America and throughout the world. In other words, they have not really been agents of change. These people are admired and even revered in some quarters because they have made a lot of money, not because they have presented alternatives to many Chicanos and Latinos who aspire to work in film and television.

In the end, what is gained by criticizing a few Chicanos/ Latinos who have made it in the popular culture industry? Probably not much, but it does put into some perspective one of of the main reasons why any minority media maker would even want to get into the industry. Working with the moving image has never been a cheap proposition. Even making Super 8 films has become expensive enough to raise it above mere avocation, however serious it may be. The real reason some minority moving image makers aspire to work in the commercial film industry is because of the potential for reaching a mass audience. Imagine getting your film or video seen by millions of people. This is power. And this power can lead to serious money, and this money can lead to even bigger audiences and so on, until you become like Spike Lee, who considers himself more a businessman than an artist.

And this is where the minority media makers get lost. The power that comes with economic success more often than not will obscure whatever drive toward art was present in that individual. When you eat at the same table with the Devil, you better use a very long spoon.

Here's another list: Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Diego Rivera. Frida Kahlo. Rufino Tamayo. Luis Buñuel. Tina Modotti. Raul Ruiz. Fernando Arrabal. Andres Serrano. Luis Jimenez. Lourdes Portillo.

Perhaps not a very long list, but each of these people has made a serious and personal contribution not only to the cultures of their respective countries, but to world culture as well. These contributions will endure. They will not be obscured by the changing fortunes of the marketplace nor will they have to subject themselves to playing "types." They are unique.

Finally, a dream: Some Chicano/ Latino media activists think the only way to achieve power and visibility in Hollywood is to one day have a Chicano/ Latino studio boss. My dream would be to put Super 8 movie cameras or camcorder in the hands of hundreds, thousands of minority moving image makers. Then things would really get interesting.


1. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, "Death on the Border: A Eulogy to Border Art," High Performance, Spring 1991, p. 9.

2. "An Interview with David Cronenberg by David Breskin," Rolling Stone, February 6, 1992, p. 96.

Editor's note: Willie Varela's films are available from Canyon Cinema, 2325 Third Street, Suite 338, San Francisco, CA 94107.