In the little more than a week since the Cesar Chavez movie came out, there have been as many complaints as kudos about the handling of the complex story about the Mexican-American union organizer and civil rights leader. Some pointed out that Filipinos were left out of the story, others mentioned Chavez’s views about undocumented immigrants went unsaid and still others noted the role of women in the movement was downplayed.
Another concern that was aired had to do with the background of the film’s director, Diego Luna. He is of Mexican, not Mexican-American, origin. Chavez’s youngest son Paul Chavez told NPR that the family was initially concerned about “a Mexicano telling a story that is really about a Mexican-American Chicano in the United States,” but that they were eventually won over by Luna’s passionate commitment to the story and willingness to learn.
Luna was able to push through a project that had circulated around Hollywood without success for decades because he is considered “bankable.” And “bankability” is the most elusive and valuable currency in the notoriously risk-averse industry (Fast & Furious 7, anyone?).
A quick scan of other “Latino” members of the Tinsel Town A-list quickly reveals that most immigrated from Latin America or Spain: Luna and his compadre Gael García Bernal, Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, the so-called “Three Amigos” directors Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón, Penelope Lopez and Javier Bardem, Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Lopez, Robert Rodriguez, George Lopez. Only the last three individuals on that list were born in the U.S. The rest migrated to the U.S. after making a name for themselves in their home countries.
The perception that Latin American and Spanish stars are given preference over U.S.-born Latinos has long generated grumbling among the U.S. Latino creative classes. Film scholar Laura Isabel Serna believes that Hollywood’s embrace of directors and actors of Latin American or Spanish origin is related to the industry’s lingering discomfort with issues of discrimination and exclusion. “I have a colleague who calls them ‘white brown people’,” she said. “They are more palatable to the industry so they don’t have to deal with the messiness of history and identity politics.”
Luna has noted that when he was shopping the project to U.S. studios, the first casting suggestion made was Spaniard Antonio Banderas, who – ahem – does not much resemble a very indio Chavez. But by Hollywood’s logic of “bankability,” Banderas equals recognition by Latino and non-Latino audiences, which equals more tickets sold. Never mind the idea that authenticity might also sell.
To Luna’s credit, he cast U.S.-born Latinos – Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera – for the biggest roles in the film. But when Hollywood looks for stars, it tends to look to film and telenovela industries outside U.S. borders.
Importing Latino diversity from Latin America is not a new practice in Hollywood. Film historian Clara Rodriguez points out that “Latino” stars up until the 1960s were often foreign-born. She said, “When you look at the older actors, they all came from Mexico: Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, Katy Jurado.” Rodriguez attributes that strategy to “Good Neighbor” policies that aimed to lure Latin American audiences to see U.S. movies to promote American culture and values abroad. But she believes that demographic changes have made that approach outdated. “Now some 60 percent of us are born here. Do you really need to keep importing?”
Film scholar William Nericcio sees the fight for inclusion as a multi-generational project. He said, “Hollywood is really inbred, and it takes as much time to move up the ladder as it takes to organize a grape strike.”
In the 1980s, it seemed that the Hollywood citadel had opened a crack for U.S.-born Latinos. Directors Gregory Nava and Luis Valdez were making well-received, even successful Latino-centric movies such as El Norte (1983) and the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba (1987). And when there was interest in making a biopic of Frida Kahlo, the patron saint of artsy Latinas, Valdez was picked as the director. But the project was shelved after protests over the casting of a non-Latina as Frida.
A Frida movie was made a decade later by the Mexican-Lebanese, former telenovela actress Salma Hayek. Hayek, part of the import crowd, gained credibility with many Latinos by producing the mega-hit comedy Ugly Betty.
Some feel that Hollywood’s habit of green-lighting and highlighting immigrant Latinos will always come at the expense of homegrown talent. That it is a zero-sum game. But Nericcio disagrees, “The fact that we have cross-border collaboration between Chicanos and Mexican nationals, that’s a good thing.”
And it may be inevitable. Cesar Chavez is as Chicano a project as it is Mexican. The director is Mexican, many of the scenes were filmed in Mexico and a substantial portion of the financing came from Mexican sources. All of that was true as well for Instructions Not Included, which was the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever distributed in the United States.
We used to just import actors and directors from Latin America. Now we import investment capital, too, and use it to make movies about Latinos in the United States.