During Hispanic Heritage Month, [September 15-October 12] Latinos celebrated their culture and acknowledged their rich history. Many of us have in the past attended events with music and dance, and all of us are accustomed to hearing speeches, poetry, and songs inspired by our dynamic history and culture.
This year, however, most of us stayed home, not only because of the pandemic, but also because of a weak economy which has produced record job losses and an unprecedented number of work reductions and furloughs. Celebration is sadly not at the top of our “to do” list. But, while we are sheltered in place, we can watch some Latino movies.
The more movies we watch, however, the more we realize that Hollywood either doesn’t know Latinos exist, or thinks that movies made in Mexico or South America are sufficient for our film artistic tastes and appetites. The New York Times Sunday edition on October 4 cleared up a few things and nicely explained why we have a serious shortage of Latino movies that we can watch via Netflix or Amazon Prime, now the preferred sources for many movie fans.
Film critic Carlos Aguilar, a native of Madrid, Spain, lives in Los Angeles and is one of the nation’s most prolific writers on Latino films. His film reviews appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. When Jennifer Lopez, [J-Lo], did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role in “Hustlers,” Aguilar wrote in the New York Times: “J.Lo Was Robbed. Latinas Were Robbed.” Aguilar added: “A kind reminder that the Spanish-born Antonio Banderas, who earned a deserved nomination for best actor for “Pain and Glory,” is not Latinx.”
Aguilar raises a good point about Latino or Latinx identity. He excluded Banderas because Banderas is a Spaniard. Will everyone from Spain or Latin American countries who emigrated to the United States eventually qualify as a Latino/a? We do not have any information regarding Banderas’ citizenship. I would consider Salma Hayek, who was born in Mexico, a Latina because she has been a U.S. citizen for several years. Hayek was nominated for best actress for her lead role in Frida, a 2002 film which was not mentioned by Aguilar, but one that I recommend.
Aguilar excludes movies about Mexico or South America in his New York Times review and emphasizes U.S. Latinos in his title “American Latinos, Onscreen and Up Close.” His review is a “spotlight on 20 essential films of the past two decades.” I am a big movie fan, but honestly, I had not seen more than half of the movies he recommended. It is an excellent list, and I plan to keep the list with an intent to see all of his selections.
On Aguilar’s list is the wonderful film, “Tortilla Soup,” a 2001 movie I recently saw and which reminded me of “Like Water for Chocolate,” a 1992 Mexican film where many of the scenes are in the kitchen. The film “Tortilla Soup,” with veteran actor Hector Elizondo in the role of a gifted chef and father of three young women living at home, engages its audience because it doesn’t suffocate viewers with stereotypes.
“Tortilla Soup” was a hit for me. I especially liked Elizabeth Pena in her role as the older sister [she was 42 years of age in 2001]. I am sad that she passed away in 2014. In his review, Aguilar quotes Elizondo who states that he made the movie “because it was an empowering movie about love. And who’s going to argue with a movie about food, romance, and family?”
I look forward to seeing three movies mentioned by Aguilar: “Dolores” , directed by Peter Bratt, features the organizing struggles undertaken by labor leader Dolores Huerta. I met Dolores Huerta, the great labor leader numerous times when she was the United Farm Workers’ vice president working with Cesar Chavez. Of special interest to me is “Walkout,”  produced by Moctezuma Esparza. I taught in the Los Angeles schools when Latinos walked out of the Eastside schools in 1968. I also attended the University of California Los Angeles [UCLA] with Esparza. In 1970 when I met Esparza, there were fewer than 200 Latino students enrolled at UCLA and everyone knew one another.
There is also “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four,” a movie directed by native Texan Deborah S. Esquenazi. In the late 1990s four Latina lesbian women were wrongfully convicted for allegedly gang-raping two young girls in San Antonio, Texas. The film took seven years to make and legal scholars credit Esquenazi’s journalistic diligence with eventually leading to the women’s exoneration in 2016. The accusers recanted their story, and the four were released after spending nearly 15 years in prison. Esquenazi’s film was cited in the first paragraph of the court opinion.
I have seen “Spy Kids” by director Robert Rodriguez, and became a fan of his when he produced “El Machete,” a 1993 Sundance film festival winner. Aguilar does not mention any other Rodriguez movies. There are more than a dozen, but sometimes we have to do our own research to add to what the critics recommend. Another recent favorite of mine is “East Side Sushi”  that presents a Latina’s struggle in Oakland, California for recognition of her culinary talents.
The pandemic may be with us for several more months, and there are health options that we should follow: wearing a mask, observing safe social distance, and washing hands often. Many of us will not be going to movie theaters, [many are closing] bars, or indoor events where there are large audiences. So, I recommend a fair share of microwave popcorn and watching a good Latino movie.