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«Borders, batos locos and barrios: Space as Signifier in Chicano Cinema. Chicano cinema emerged as a tool for social and cultural change at a pivotal ...»

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Catherine Leen, ‘Borders, Batos Locos and Barrios: Space as Signifier in Chicano Film’, NUI Maynooth

Papers in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, No. 11 (November 2004).

Borders, batos locos and barrios: Space as Signifier in Chicano Cinema.

Chicano cinema emerged as a tool for social and cultural change at a pivotal moment in

both North American and Latin American history. The first Chicano films were screened

as the Chicano Movement gained impetus, following the foundation of the Farm Worker Press under the guidance of César Chávez and the establishment of the first Chicano Theatre, El Teatro Campesino, by Luis Valdez in the mid-1960s. 1 In his 1975 essay on the early years of Chicano cinema, Francisco X. Camplis suggests that a valuable model is provided by Latin American revolutionary cinema. He cites Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s Toward a Third Cinema as an important signpost for Chicano filmmakers in its emphasis on creating a counter cultural cinema that represented the experiences of a previously overlooked people. 2 Luis Valdez established links with Latin American filmmakers that were maintained and expanded by Jesús Salvador Treviño, the director of the first Chicano feature I am Joaquín in 1969. These links took on even greater significance when Treviño worked in tandem with Mexican cinematographers to produce his 1977 film, Raíces de sangre, which was both financed by Mexican capital and shot south of the U.S.-Mexican border. 3 1 The Chicanos: Mexican American Voices, ed. by Edward Ludwig, (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 9-13.

2 ‘Towards The Development of a Raza Cinema,’ in Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance, ed. by Chon A.

Noriega (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 284-303.

3 ‘Between a Weapon and a Formula: Chicano Cinema and its Contexts’, Chicanos and Film, p. 146.

1 The filmmakers that made the first Chicano films came from very different backgrounds and experiences, yet they shared a common goal in their efforts both to represent Chicano life and to overturn years of negative stereotyping of Chicanos in film. As Chon Noriega points out, U.S. films that did not ignore Chicanos entirely portrayed them in rigidly

stereotyped ways:

Feature films ‘about’ and ‘with’ Mexican-American characters … ‘localize’ or delimit them to certain genres: Western conquest, social problem and exploitation film… Filmic discourses on Mexican-Americans are ‘localized’ to violence (and sex) within narratives aimed toward a judgment that determines the appropriate place for the Mexican-American character.’ 4 The appropriate place for Chicanos suggested by North American films was on the margins, with male characters stigmatised as criminals and women portrayed exclusively as sensual objects of desire. Mexican filmmakers, meanwhile, either treated Chicanos as freakish misfits who had betrayed their country and belonged neither to Mexico nor the United States or ignored them completely, as Mexican critic Emilio García Riera


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Chicanos are not, of course, the only minority group to suffer such racist treatment in cinematic portrayals, and much has been made of the pernicious use of cinema to 4 ‘Internal ‘Others’ Hollywood Narratives ‘about’ Mexican-Americans,’ in Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas, ed. by John King, Ana M. López, Manuel Alvarado, (London: British Film Institute, 1993) p. 56.

5 Emilio García Riera, México visto por el cine extranjero, 5 vols (Mexico: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1990) p. 16.

2 disseminate national propaganda and damaging ethnic stereotypes. It is not inevitable that cinematic depictions of the ‘other’ should be negative, however. Nor is it impossible that racist portrayals be subverted and overturned by opposing or alternative representations,

often by the ethnic group in question, as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam argue:

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Chicano activists and members of cultural groups such as El Teatro Campesino were quick to grasp the fact that the very medium that broadcast such degrading images of their people could be a powerful tool in communicating a positive image of Chicanos to the wider world.

Even before the emergence of Chicano cinema, the space occupied by MexicanAmericans in the United States was a central preoccupation of Chicano and Chicana writers. Juan Bruce Navoa defines Chicano literature as ‘the production of a space of difference, an intercultural synthesis between dialectical forces, be they United States vs.

Mexico, urban vs. rural, English vs. Spanish or even rock ‘n’ roll vs. polkas.’ 7 Gloria Anzaldúa’s seminal text Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza vividly conveys the central importance of the border as a place between two cultures and the physical 6 Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentricism: Multiculturalism and the Media, (New York: Routledge, 1994) p.


7 Juan Bruce Navoa, Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature, (Texas: Arte Público Press, 1990) p. 31.

3 embodiment of the traumatic and unbridgeable division between Mexico and the United


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The violent nature of the language Anzaldúa uses here captures the very real dangers faced by Mexicans who attempt to cross the border illegally and are at the mercy of both the Border Patrol and the coyotes who transport them to the United States for a fee. The often cyclical nature of Mexican migration to the North means that this pattern of attempted exclusion by the North American authorities and exploitation by Mexicans who profit from human traffic is repeated again and again.

While the continued movement north by Mexicans is of course largely due to the desire to achieve a better standard of living and to escape poverty and unemployment at home, the real impetus is an often unrealistic belief that North America offers advancement and security for all, regardless of one’s origins or disadvantages. The lure of the American Dream cannot be overestimated and remains virtually undiminished despite much evidence that it is just that, an ill-defined cultural myth that is unlikely to be realised.

Thus, even as David Mogen points out the tenuous and even pernicious nature of the American Dream, saying, ‘The term “dream” suggest unrealised ideals...perhaps even a

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far beyond the confines of North America: 9 In his analysis of the way in which frontier literature creates a myth of the United States, he notes that the components of this myth are sufficiently adaptable to define the Dream “in any time or place, from any historical, regional or ideological perspective.” 10 Securing a presence in the United States that makes the achievement of the Dream possible is not straightforward, however, nor are the events of the past easily forgotten. In a recent essay entitled ‘The Hispanic Challenge,’ Samuel P. Huntington discusses what he sees as the threat that the persistent arrival of Hispanic immigrants presents to the American Dream. He acknowledges that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have a

particular right to feel ambivalent about their subaltern position in U.S. society:

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With some understatement, he recognises that the aftermath of the Mexican-American War is still something of a problematic issue for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, noting that Mexicans have not forgotten the events of the past and believe that they have special rights in these territories.

9 The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, ed. by Mark Busby, David Mogen and Paul Bryant (Texas: Texas and A & M University Press, 1989) p. 22.

10 The Frontier Experience, p. 24.

11 Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Hispanic Challenge,’ Foreign Policy, March-April 2004, p. 36.

5 Notwithstanding his acknowledgement that Mexicans were converted into second-class citizens in their own land and still suffer the consequences of this displacement, he insists that Mexicans can only be part of North American society if they are willing to assimilate.

He concludes by asserting that ‘There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society.’ 12 While the views espoused by Huntington are extreme, they suggest a lack of tolerance towards Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in U.S. society and illustrate the difficulties faced by those who are seen as aliens, even though many of them have always lived in what is now the United States. It is not surprising in the light of this contentious situation that many Chicano writers have emphasized the importance of land and of the creation of a home in their writings. In her novel So Far From God, Ana Castillo chronicles the fortunes of Sofia, whose estranged husband Domingo returns after an absence of two decades only to gamble her home away: ‘…the house, that home of mud and straw and stucco and in some places brick – which had been her mother’s and father’s and her grandparents’, for that matter, and in which she and her sister had been born and raised – that house has belonged to her.’ 13 Castillo’s account stresses not the personal betrayal experienced by Sofia but her outrage at being displaced from a property that represented her belonging to the society in which she lives, a belonging that is emphasized by the chronology of the generations of the

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Similarly, in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, the narrator, a young girl called Esperanza, longs for a house that her family owns, so that she can feel the security of belonging to a community and can have a home to be proud of, unlike the rented properties her family inhabits. Having been humiliated by a nun who forces her to point out her decrepit house, she longs for ‘a house a real house. One I could point to.’ 14 Esperanza’s shame at her substandard temporary home illustrates the gap between the American Dream and the reality faced by many Mexican-Americans.

Even the realization of the American Dream of owning one’s own home is fraught with difficulties. In Jose Antonio Villareal’s novel Pocho, the decision by the narrator’s father to finally buy a house in the United States, despite his longing to return to Mexico, leads to the breakup of the family as they embrace the American way of life and lose their values and culture. 15 A similar cautionary note about the dangers of becoming too Americanised by buying property is sounded by Sandra Cisneros in her most recent novel Caramelo. 16 Chicano cinema echoes the concern with space found in Chicano writing. Although the films referred to here are very different, they all use mise-en-scène to great effect to represent the Chicano experience, as well as dealing with sites that are pivotal to Chicano identity and its representation in film. As Rosa Linda Fregoso notes, two very different films that engage with the border, La Bamba and Born in East L.A., focus on “the spatial

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subjectivities.” 17 The batos locos referred to in the title of this paper are the gang members or criminals who form the bulk of U.S. media representations of the Chicano male and who inhabit marginal spaces associated with crime, particularly prisons. Finally, the barrio is a key setting for Chicano films, both as a testament to lives lived within the wider North American community and as an alternative to the sexualised or criminalised portraits of Chicanos so prevalent in U.S. cinema.

Before the 1990s, very few Mexican films featured Chicanos. One notable exception is found in the pachuco character created by burlesque comedian Tin Tan in the early sound period. The humour in his act derived from the linguistic peculiarities of MexicanAmerican pachucos, whose Spanish was liberally sprinkled with English words. The appeal of this comedy soon wore thin, however, and the deep ambivalence felt by Mexicans towards Mexican-Americans, even the comic, fictional one created by Tin Tan, led him to change his character. 18 His greatest career success was in the 1949 film El rey del barrio, in which he appeared as a streetwise Mexican slum dweller rather than a pachuco. 19 Alejandro Galindo’s much-lauded 1953 Espaldas mojadas does feature a sympathetic portrayal of a Chicana who falls in love with a Mexican immigrant called Rafael. She shares her sense of isolation as a person who is accepted by neither North American nor Mexican society with him, a concern he brusquely dismisses by saying that she could pass as Mexican, so it is not a problem as she would not be recognised as a 17 Rosa Linda Fregoso, The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 67.

18 Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 82.

19 Mexican Cinema, ed. by Paulo Antonio Paranaguá (London: British Film Institute, 1995), p. 167) 8 pocha. The real focus of the film is on Rafael and on the hazards of illegal border crossings. This message is underlined by repeated depictions of border crossings as fraught with danger and as possibly fatal.

Far more problematic is the depiction of border crossings in Arturo Ripstein’s 1979 La ilegal. This lurid narrative centres on the character of Claudia, who leaves Mexico to be with her married Mexican lover, the father of her child. When his wife persuades him that Claudia is a prostitute, she is deported and the couple takes her baby. She is forced to hire a coyote to help her cross back into the United States to recover her child. This illegal border crossing takes place after she and a group of illegal immigrants distract the Border Patrol then cross the Rio Grande. The fact that Claudia is dressed in a yellow cocktail dress and stilettos to make her crossing points to the fact that the film was conceived as a star vehicle for its actress, soap star Lucía Méndez, as Ripstein later admitted. 20 Clearly, the issue of illegal border crossings is not taken seriously here, and the border serves merely as a dramatic backdrop for a sensationalist maternal melodrama.

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