‘We the Animals’ Photograph:( Twitter )
I sought out films that represented the American Latino experience with complexity rather than stereotypes, that provided a deeper understanding.
Hollywood still doesn’t get it.
Latinos are not a monolith. The context, details and nuances that go into telling the story of a family in Mexico City won’t be the same for the story of a family in Los Angeles, which would in turn differ for one in Miami. U.S.-born or -raised Latinos have unique life experiences, straddling the line between assimilation and pride in their heritage, which the big studios frequently fail to acknowledge. Such movies do exist, though often on the periphery. And they’re worth seeking out to help foster conversations about the intricacies of Latinidad. That’s why, as we observe National Hispanic Heritage Month, I’ve put together a list of must-watch films centered on American Latino protagonists.
Why is such a specific list necessary?
Largely untold in mass media or classrooms, the history of Latinos in the United States is long, winding and impossible to dissect in simple terms. Shaped by arbitrary borders in the aftermath of wars, colonization and waves of migration from nearly two dozen nations across the Americas, our presence is intrinsic to this country. Yet American Latinos remain mostly invisible in our collective narrative, which includes the images we consume.
We do get plenty of movies about Latino experiences, just not American ones. Every year festivals and theaters screen numerous films from Mexico and South America. Then there’s the work of the Three Amigos, the gifted Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, who tell lavish stories with great universality that we can all enjoy. The same can be said of Pixar’s “Coco,” the 2017 hit set in a small Mexico town with Mexican characters. American Latinos can see themselves and their families in it because of our inherent connections, of course.
But border-crossing stories or those set in Latin America don’t fill the void created by the lack of American Latino narratives. They don’t reflect the lives of, say, Chicanos in California, Tejanos in rural Texas or Nuyoricans in the Bronx, New York — specific identities that have faced oppression in the United States. Instead, the entertainment industry desperately tries to fit all Latinos under one label, devoid of nuance, often erasing Afro Latinos and Indigenous peoples.
As a Latino film critic in a field that is largely white, I put this list together with the goal of presenting a mosaic of realities. I sought out films that represented the American Latino experience with complexity rather than stereotypes, that provided a deeper understanding. The vast majority of these choices had a prominent festival presence and received great critical reception. Yes, it’s still rare to see such stories at major film festivals, and so titles that managed that feat — like the Sundance selection “The Infiltrators,” a formally inventive indie that highlights young undocumented people for whom this country is the only home they’ve ever known — stood out.
There were other considerations. In some cases, as with “Spy Kids,” they are rare examples of box-office success and recognition among mainstream audiences. I also took into account that when we talk about American Latinos, Mexican American stories dominate, so I tried to include movies from other points of view. And a handful of these choices deal with the intersection of Latino and LGBTQ identities, which I believe is also important. (The ability to watch these films now was also crucial, and several standout titles, like the indie drama “Manito,” weren’t available to stream. That must change.)
Many documentaries made the list — a mode that has been especially accessible for American Latino directors over the years. Three are portraits of emblematic figures, some examine how the justice system fails marginalized individuals, and one takes on the intricacies of Puerto Rican perspectives. A handful are intergenerational stories about the clash between old conventions and modern points of view. Others speak to the relationship between immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children.
What all the movies on this list share on an ideological level is a focus on identity that’s not Latin American but also not conventionally American, as defined by Hollywood. That they are truly American stories — accentuated by the beauty and in many cases the trauma of our ancestry — makes them invaluable.
‘Mucho Mucho Amor.’
First-person accounts explore the legacy of the Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado.
This documentary features interviews with American Latinos who found a connection to their heritage in Mercado’s ubiquitous presence on Spanish-language television for several decades; at his peak, he had a viewership of more than 120 million. But while the astrologer’s cultural stature was obvious to the directors, Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, persuading non-Latino executives to make the film proved an uphill battle. It wasn’t until Lin-Manuel Miranda came on board for a touching encounter with Mercado, featured prominently in the film, that others started to pay attention. At every step of the way, having other Latinos on their side in rooms where decisions were made was crucial. “As U.S. Latinos we are often considered too ‘foreign’ to be American and too American to be truly Latino,” Costantini and Tabsch said by email. “Walter managed to be a cultural bridge by entrancing our Spanish-speaking abuelitas (grandmothers) with words of inspiration while mesmerizing English-dominant millennials with a bold, unapologetic image that defied notions of gender and sexuality.”
Blending documentary footage with scripted re-enactments, this timely thriller follows undocumented youths risking their safety to infiltrate an ICE detention center in Florida to stop deportations.
“In Hollywood films, audiences are asked over and over to root for characters like ‘the outlaw,’ ‘the underdog,’ ‘the rebel,’” co-directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra said via email. There is something very American about characters who break the letter of the law as they pursue a higher moral code,” That description fits the protagonists of their hybrid feature “The Infiltrators”: a group of young men and women who came to this country illegally as children, fighting not only for their right to remain in the country they call home, but also for others in the shadows who have been victimized by the U.S. immigration system. The directors call their film the “‘Ocean’s 11’ of immigration” and their stars’ heroic quest — infiltrating a detention center to disseminate information to help detainees avoid deportation — is at once exhilarating and heart-rending.
After his sister receives an excessively harsh sentence and is ripped apart from her children, Rudy Valdez decided to capture the ordeal in a profoundly moving film documenting how the justice system failed a Mexican-American family.
Rudy Valdez, director: “When I started this film, I have to be honest; I was stuck in the thinking that people from nonwhite backgrounds needed ‘saving.’ I probably thought this way because it was all I had seen in movies and in documentaries growing up. What began as a personal story about my family grew to become much bigger. The critical need for it became clear, and I made the exact thing I needed to see when I was a kid. So often other-ized communities like mine are demonized. I wanted to humanize us. People who look like me can be heroes in our own stories, the authors of our own narratives. We are a part of the fabric of this country. People who look like me can be emblematic of what it means to be American.”
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’
The first major movie starring an Afro-Latino superhero, this is the story of a New York teenager, Miles Morales, who gains superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider and discovers that there are others like him across multiple realities.
Luna Lauren Vélez, star: “I’m really proud to have been part of this movie playing Miles’ mother, Rio Morales. I asked (the filmmakers) if they would do a screening in Puerto Rico, and they did. It was just absolutely amazing to see these kids’ faces when they saw themselves represented in this way, not only themselves, but to see their family, to see their relevance. A lot of people go back and forth, and there’s the concept of mainlanders and islanders. So many of them felt, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s like going to visit my tía, who lives in Brooklyn.’ The movie was a bridge. That was one of the most significant moments of my career.”
‘We the Animals.’
Adapted from Justin Torres’s best-selling novel, this drama set in upstate New York follows a chaotic, bicultural household that includes the sensitive young Jonah, his brothers and their father (played by Raúl Castillo).
Raúl Castillo: “If I can highlight one theme in ‘We the Animals’ that, to me, embodies Latinos in this country, it would have to be the story of the resilience of the human spirit. We are a resilient people, and that shows itself in the family of this film and in the character of Jonah, specifically. How vehemently we have been attacked and vilified in recent years and yet we still rise. That, to me, <em>is</em> the story of the Latino family in this country. Justin Torres gave us a great gift with his story about a young brown queer boy’s coming-of-age.”
This in-depth portrait of activist Dolores Huerta explores her fight for racial, gender and labor justice for more than 60 years.
While assembling material for the documentary, director Peter Bratt came across an old cassette tape of Huerta recalling how family members fought in U.S. wars, including a great-grandfather who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. On the tape, Huerta said that as a young girl she was proud to be an American and to be part of a democracy where people could organize and make real change. But as she watched Black and Brown people killed for demanding their civil rights, she went on to say, she had a devastating realization that in her birthplace she woud always be perceived as a guest or a threat. “I will never be an American,” she declared. Bratt said that “even though the sound quality of the tape was poor, we knew this had to be in the film. It captures what so many of us who were born and raised here continue to experience but are often unable to articulate.”
‘Memories of a Penitent Heart.’
Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo grapples with the complexity of Puerto Rican identity as she traces the life of her late uncle, Miguel Dieppa, a gay man caught between his religious upbringing on the island and his romantic partner in New York City.
Cecilia Aldarondo, director: “There are parallels between my own experience and that of my uncle, even though he was raised in Puerto Rico and I was not, because to be Puerto Rican is to exist in a state of tremendous ambivalence vis-à-vis the idea of America. While some Puerto Ricans strongly identify as Americans, there are a lot of us who feel alienated from that category. Our American citizenship was forced upon us by colonialist practices; it’s not a choice. My uncle’s story is a Puerto Rican story that is inflected by American colonialist practices. The first time I ever heard my uncle speak in English was when I was making the film and I found a recording of him. I was so shocked because he had lived his whole life in Puerto Rico, and yet he spoke perfect English. There was a kind of convergence of different identities intersecting.”
‘Southwest of Salem.’
Accused of heinous acts, four Latina lesbians in San Antonio fight to prove their innocence.
Deborah S. Esquenazi, director: “The tale of American justice is something that we know is constantly demoralizing people of color, but I also think redemption is part of the American narrative. This is a story about four queer Latinas who made their own community inside a marginalized community. They lifted each other up while those in the state, those in their families, or those in their culture were trying to pull them down. I certainly believe that being women of color they were easy to indict. If they had been four white women, the allegations would have seemed ridiculous to begin with. Now what is worth celebrating, too, is that by the time they were fighting for exoneration, the culture had changed and people were champing at the bit to help them. There’s something extraordinary about that flip.”
‘Cesar’s Last Fast.’
Through never-before-seen footage from 1988, this powerful documentary humanizes labor leader Cesar Chavez as it dramatically chronicles his selfless and life-threatening protest against the use of pesticides on farmworkers. The film reminds us why his fight for civil rights still resonates today.
Richard Ray Perez, director: “When I was 4, I was attending a preschool program for low-income kids in San Fernando, California. Idealistic Chicano students from the local college would volunteer. One day I noticed (one of the college students) was plucking the grapes out of the fruit cocktail that came with our free lunch. I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you eating your grapes?’ He held up a grape and he described the horrible conditions under which the grape pickers were forced to work. Suddenly grapes became ugly in my mind and I couldn’t eat them anymore. My classmates all looked at their grapes and they too refused to eat them. At that moment, we inadvertently became part of a national grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez. Years later, I inherited a cache of dramatic footage of a 36-day fast Chavez undertook in 1988. My childhood experience joining the grape boycott, later learning that my father had been a migrant farmworker for decades, and the power of the footage I inherited made it clear that I had to make this documentary.”
‘Mosquita y Mari.’
Two 15-year-old Chicanas in Huntington Park, </em><em>California,</em><em> grapple with their sexual and cultural identities.
Aurora Guerrero, director: “I wanted to capture the ways in which children of immigrants navigate their identities while growing up in the States. As a kid I rarely saw my experience reflected onscreen, and if I did there was always a rejection of one’s immigrant parents’ culture, as if that was important to becoming fully American. But what I felt growing up was the opposite. It was the fusions of these two cultures that made for a unique and powerful expression. My goal was to paint a complex portrait of two Chicanas who struggle to negotiate their parents’ dreams for them, rooted in the idea of the American dream, and their own experiences with growing up Brown and queer in this country.”
‘Gun Hill Road.’
A Bronx transgender teenager clashes with her estranged and traditionally macho father.
“As a transgender Afro-Latina from the Bronx, I understood the lack of inclusion and visibility not only of transgender women in film, but specifically of Black and Brown transgender women,” said Harmony Santana, who became the first openly transgender performer nominated for a major U.S. acting award when she drew an Independent Spirit nomination for her performance in Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road.” Santana said transgender people of color face a unique struggle: They face the socioeconomic consequences of generational oppression in addition to a lack of acceptance from their own communities as a result of patriarchal ideologies and toxic masculinity. That’s why onscreen representation is a lifeline: “The mental, spiritual and physical changes a transgender person undergoes during their lifetime is something only another transgender person can fully understand, so when you are able to see people who look like you and share those similar experiences in a film, there is something within you that gains hope and feels less lonely in your experience.”
In San Francisco, a stubborn father struggles to find common ground with his gay son.
Benjamin Bratt, star: “The sad reality is that we have largely been exoticized in American films, purposely ‘othered’ as a foreign entity or an encroaching source of menace. Which is bitterly ironic, because in terms of geography and history, our people were here long before the West and Southwest became part of the United States. In the film, we celebrate that history with the recognition of our Indigenous roots, from the Aztec dancers and public murals to the ceremonies and spiritual iconography that help define who we are. Added to that, the Chicano car culture originated as a uniquely American phenomenon. When white hot-rodders were jacking up their cars to go fast, homeboys were dropping their rides low, and slowing things down — a quintessentially countercultural move if ever there was one. And you can’t cruise without good music, so Motown and other Black American music became the soundtrack of choice. Cars, cruising and oldies, man: What’s more American than that?”
‘Don’t Let Me Drown.’
In post-9/11 New York, a Mexican American young man falls in love as his father works in the city’s recovery efforts.
Cruz Angeles, director: “When ‘Don’t Let Me Drown’ was released, it was rare to see stories about New York-born and -raised characters of Mexican descent, which is why it was important for the main character, Lalo, to be first-generation American. As an American, he was proud that his father was working in the World Trade Center cleanup, but witnessed how his contribution remained largely invisible. The film is not just a love story in a time of grief and uncertainty in the midst of an American tragedy where Latinx people also lost lives, but also shows a new generation, the Latinx millennials, realizing that they must be bolder to be recognized.”
About to turn 15, a Mexican American teenager, Magdalena, finds her life upended when she becomes pregnant in a poignant story that confronts homophobia and outdated views on womanhood.
Emily Rios, star: “What makes America great is its diversity. Most people are rooted somewhere else, but have their feet planted here. I love that the character I played, Magdalena, was the same. She was born here but still carried on her family’s traditions by celebrating a quinceañera, as opposed to a sweet 16. Filming ‘Quinceañera’ was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a family-oriented set. It felt warm and homey. I think a lot of us were grateful that we were showcasing American-born Latinos as just people while tying in our culture and traditions. But really, we were just telling a story about a complicated family. Our heritage was almost incidental, yet valued because of the lack of representation in the media at that time.”
Inspired by her teacher, a teenage girl leads the 1968 East Los Angeles school walkouts to demand better treatment for Chicano students.
Moctesuma Esparza, producer: “‘Walkout’ is one of the very few films that documents the Chicano civil rights movement, which was pivotal in the advancement of rights for Latinos in the United States. I chose to be a filmmaker in pursuit of social justice, and I had been seeking to get this movie made for more than 20 years until I finally got HBO to step up. To this day there are almost no American Latino movie stars who can (get executives to) greenlight a Hollywood theatrical movie. I had seen Michael Peña in ‘Crash.’ He had a small role but gave such powerful performance that I argued with HBO that he should embody the role of Sal Castro, a Chicano teacher. I pushed for Alexa PenaVega, who had been the star in ‘Spy Kids’ and who was very committed to our movie. HBO said they still needed a little bit more star power, so I went to Edward James Olmos and asked him if he would direct. That’s how the movie finally came to be.”
‘Raising Victor Vargas.’
Complicated family dynamics and a new love interest shape a confident Lower East Side teenager of Dominican descent in a vibrant slice-of-life narrative that shines for its authentic yet universally relatable portrayal of adolescence.
Victor Rasuk, star: “When someone says they recognize me from ‘Raising Victor Vargas,’ I can tell by the way they react that it meant something more to them than just watching a film — especially for Latinos. What makes it so special is that you rarely see an American story where the leads are all Hispanic. And yet people from any ethnic background can find it relatable, as it hits on important universal themes such as family and love. For me, it was really nice to be able to tell a story about the neighborhood where my friends and I grew up, where we all learned about the world, where we had our first love, our first kiss, our first heartbreak. The film is so close to my heart that it’s sort of bittersweet to watch it now, because there was a sense of innocence in my personal life as well as in my craft; it has some of the purest acting I’ve ever done in my career.”
‘Real Women Have Curves.’
A Mexican American teenage girl rebels against body shaming and sexism in a coming-of-age story based on Josefina López’s play.
America Ferrera, star: “When ‘Real Women Have Curves’ came out, it was the first time so many people were seeing themselves onscreen. It really resonated because it challenged so many cultural norms about what the standards of beauty are and also the cultural pressures and expectations for young women. I was lucky enough to get to travel the world meeting audiences that connected with my character: a 17-year-old chubby Brown Latina. I got to see how she transcended all of those labels. Another reason it’s still spoken about as iconic, as far as Latino films go, is because of the sad reality that there just haven’t been that many films about American Latinos since it came out in 2002. There have only been a handful of stories that are specific to a young Latina’s experience as an American, as a Latina in this country. One story about a Latino family does not satisfy the range of depth of the American Latino experience.”
In this landmark action adventure, which showed that a big-budget Hollywood film starring Latino characters could become a successful franchise, the Cortez siblings become precocious spies to rescue their kidnapped parents and save the world from impending doom.
Robert Rodriguez, director: “When ‘El Mariachi’ (his 1993 Spanish-language action tale) won Sundance, the idea of a Mexican American filmmaker was suddenly more embraced by the industry. I found I now had the opportunity to hire Latinos both in front and behind the camera, many of them for the first time. Making movies became very mission-based for me. Until ‘Spy Kids,’ most films with Latinx leads relied on tropes of gangs or criminal activity to show drama and conflict. But I wanted to make an adventure film inspired by my family. To appeal to a wider audience, I made them spies. The studio said, ‘This is a terrific story, but why risk appealing only to a smaller audience by making the family Hispanic? Why don’t you just make them American?’ I said, ‘They are American, in fact they’re all based and named after my family, and even my Uncle Gregorio actually is a special agent in the FBI.’ There was still resistance. And since there was literally no other Latinx movie in existence that I could point to as a model showing how this could work, I finally argued, ‘You don’t have to be British to enjoy James Bond. The more specific you make the characters, the more universal they become.’ Somehow that convinced them, and the ripple effects of sticking to that decision can still be felt today.”
Food brings together a loving but strict chef and his three daughters, each on a personal journey to independence, in this comedic portrait of a middle-class Latino family that touches on the still relevant topic of cultural assimilation.
Héctor Elizondo, star: “Of all the movies I’ve done in 54 years, this was one of the sweetest. It depicted a Latino family without victimization or simple-minded determinism. It didn’t perpetuate any stereotypes. The character I played was such a responsible father, raising three girls on his own and expecting something great of them. One of them was played wonderfully by the late Elizabeth Peña, who was of Cuban heritage. She was one of the most heartfelt people I’ve met who also had a great sense of humor and a strong sense of justice, which I share. Early on in my career, as an actor with Puerto Rican ancestry, I made the decision not to take on any negative portrayals of Latinos. I can always make a living somehow, but I’d rather not do it by distorting my people. I made ‘Tortilla Soup’ because it was an empowering movie about love. And who’s going to argue with a movie about food, romance and family?”
Finding an outlet for her frustrations inside the boxing ring, Diana Guzman, an unruly teenage girl, defies gender conventions.
Michelle Rodriguez, star: “There’s something a person can touch on when they are telling a story that reaches far beyond the umbilical cord of your culture, and I think the desire to break free from society’s idea of what a woman is and what she can do is what the film represented. Diana Guzman was definitely fighting against the machismo of Latino culture, but when you step outside all the boundaries of the cultural aspects, the story is about what women around the entire planet are feeling collectively. And that’s when you start speaking the universal language that makes the movies that come out of Hollywood so powerful. I mean, ‘Girlfight’ inspired ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ I love that aspect of it, because for me it’s about what breaks through the barriers of communication.”