Students give films’ maids and Marias a second look

Film series brings Latino stereotypes out of the darkened theater and into discussion

by Don M. Burrows

One man’s informal, on-campus movie nights have become a semesterlong series and the focus of an undergraduate course.

Miguel Vargas, a University alumnus who now works in the General College, started a film-viewing group in fall 2004 to explore Latino/Chicano movies. After each screening, Vargas led and now leads a discussion about the film and how it depicts Latino culture.

If the film doesn’t move from stereotype to reality, the group’s discussion will. The talks cover often-marginalized films by independent Chicano directors to Hollywood blockbusters.

“As the group started out, it was only my friends,” he said. “Throughout the semester, it gathered a sort of cult following.”

The films were shown, as they are now, at La Raza

Student Cultural Center in Coffman Union. This year students are examining the films through professor Louis Mendoza’s class on Chicano and Latino representation on film.

But the series also is open to the public. And Vargas said several people who aren’t in the class show up every week.

Vanessa San Jose, a student in Mendoza’s class and employee at La Raza, said that because the films this semester have been shown chronologically, she’s considered them in a different light.

“It’s really interesting to see how Latinos are portrayed when you watch older films,” she said.

Vargas agreed and said many older films present Latinos in caricature.

“Back in the day, there’s all sorts of stereotypes they had to play, and that was the only parts they could get,” he said.

Examples include the “Latin lover,” the exotic male archetype of postwar films and the female “spitfire,” such as Anita in “West Side Story.”

But he and San Jose still see such stereotypes in modern films. The banditos of earlier films have merely morphed into gang members in films today, Vargas said.

Mendoza said those earlier stereotypes turned more sinister in the postwar period as Latinos and Chicanos suffered from the same xenophobia as other groups did in the McCarthy era.

“You almost get an attitude at this time that anyone different is not American, is un-American,” Mendoza said.

The class has taken students through a crash course in Latino history so they can put the films in context. For example, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, escapism in films often took the form of exotic locales, which frequently led to Latin America.

Mendoza said the film study also has provided a foray into discussing social and political perspectives that otherwise might not make it into the classroom.

While Chicano filmmakers now take a more active role in writing and directing films, Vargas said, Hollywood often still restricts them artistically.

Nevertheless, films are important in that they reveal a cultural context that today is still significant to Latinos.

The films shown each Thursday, usually two per night, often are related thematically. Two weeks ago students watched two documentaries, and last week the class studied “Zoot Suit,” a 1981 musical, and 1987’s “La Bamba,” the story of singer Ritchie Valens.

“It’s a very slick production,” Vargas said of the latter, well-known film. “(Director) Luis Valdez really goes out of his way to re-create the way it was like in the ’50s with the music.”

Vargas especially is looking forward to next week’s showings, when the theme will be masculinity and machismo. La Raza will present “American Me” (1992) and “Blood In, Blood Out” (1993). Both take place in prison and deal with drug dealing, but in vastly different ways. Vargas said “American Me” moralizes on its story while “Blood In, Blood Out” is an empathetic crime epic in the style of “The Godfather.”

For Vargas, the importance of the series doesn’t hinge on whether one considers the films to be good, but rather what they can tell us about the cultural context in which they were produced.

“Whatever the outcome of these films,” he said, “whether the commercial success or artistic production is good or bad, I think it’s still important to explore the context of these films.”