In the '80s and '90s, Hollywood released a slew of Latino films that became instant classics. There was My Family/Mi Familia (1995), Mi Vida Loca (1993), Stand and Deliver (1988), and, of course, the beloved Selena (1997). These movies became a revolutionary timeline of our Latino and Chicano identity. In a time of such intense scrutiny regarding diversity in Hollywood, it's bizarre to look back and see that we were represented on the big screen in the '80s and 90s, and, yet, today, our stories are scarce. What has changed from then and now? Did Hollywood have more Latino-backed creatives back then?
Gregory Nava, a director, screenwriter, and producer, is responsible for creating some of our most cherished films including El Norte (1983), which tells the heartbreaking and inspiring story of a young Mexican couple who encounter every obstacle imaginable in order to start a life in the United States, and Selena, the film that catapulted the career of Jennifer Lopez. He also wrote the screenplay for Frida (2002), and though he's been nominated for just about every award, the Oscar still alludes him. Ironically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just named him, along with Gael García Bernal, as members of the board of governors.
Back when Nava's Mi Familia/My Family was released Jimmy Smits, one of the stars of the film, spoke out about the crucial aspect of telling this story because it's one that many Latinos, especially in Los Angeles, can relate to.
"Most of the people on My Family are working for less than they usually get paid because they feel it's important that movies like this get made," Smits told The Los Angeles Times in 1995. "This is a film that presents Latinos in a positive light, and there aren't too many of those around."
Charles Ramírez Berg, professor in Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance and Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967–1983, credits the success of films such as La Bamba (1987) and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) directed by Robert Redford, for the increase of Latino films during these decades.
"La Bamba was one of the most successful movies in 1987," Berg said. "My take on it is, that film launched that cycle of Latino films. Producers and studios will follow success. So because of [La Bamba] there was an opening."
Berg speculates this is why Hollywood green-lighted Latino-focused films after that. He also attributed the surge in these kinds of films due to the careers of several Latino actors that starred in them, including Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña, and others.
One common theme that all of these movies share is that they told our story from a particular moment in time. Most of these films chronicled struggles from immigration to success here in the United States. Mi Famila showed us the illegal deportations of Mexican-Americans in the U.S., and La Bamba told the story our first Latino pop star Ritchie Valens. Maybe we just don't know how to depict the story of Latinos today?
"It's hard to do ethnicity because you want to make it entertaining and you don't want to preach or hit people over the head with the discrimination story and all of that," Ramírez Berg said. "Robert Rodriguez solved that puzzle."
The release of El Mariachi in 1992 by Rodriguez, a young Mexican-American filmmaker from Texas, was able to incorporate Latino culture in a way that didn't feel premeditated. Rodriguez said back in 2012:
"As a filmmaker and writer, you end up making stories from your own identity, so for me it's probably going to have Latin actors in it. Back on Desperado (1995), I didn't want to have this problem in Hollywood where they go: 'We can't cast Latin because we've never cast Latin before and we're afraid to be first.' So you had to be first in a lot of these things. It's what broke through barriers, but you're just following your heart. Because you want to see those faces on the screen, you want to open up the movie world. What was innovative back then is fortunately now more the norm."
By the late '90s Berg said that studios backed away from making more political stories that dealt with heavy issues such as about immigration and discrimination.
"The way [Rodriguez] makes movies is by creating genre films," Berg said. "El Mariachi is a thriller, but it just so happens that it takes place in a bordertown and everyone is speaking Spanish. And Spy Kids (2001) is just a film about kids trying to save their parents, but they happen to be Mexican-American."
Berg believes that today actors such as Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Michael Peña, and Zöe Saldaña will be able to incorporate Latino culture simply by just being Latino. Hopefully they'll be able to share our identity on the big screen in a way that doesn't fall into stereotypes — cholos, maids, and spitfire sexpots — but more as people leading interesting and complex lives.