by John Farr
John Farr recommends three classic films about Latinos in America.
El Norte (1983)
When the Guatemalan army murders their father, impoverished Quiche Indian siblings Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zadie Silvia Gutierrez) decide to make a dangerous trek north through Mexico, hoping to find a better life in Los Angeles as undocumented immigrants. Some help and others prey on the teens, on both sides of the border, exploiting their constant fear of being deported and returned to the misery of peasant life.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Bringing into focus both the plight of illegal U.S. immigrants and the persecution of Indian peasants in Central American nations, Nava’s “El Norte” is an eloquent, honest, and sobering testimony about the simple quest for freedom that defines us all. Nava spares nothing in depicting the trials of his cross-border hopefuls: Enrique and Rosa are beset by an unscrupulous smuggler, bullish cops and border agents, noxious employers, and even insensitive Chicanos. Brutal and harrowing, “El Norte” scrutinizes the hard lives and shattered hopes of undocumented workers with gritty, suspenseful realism.
Bread and Roses (2000)
L.A. organizer Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) wants to unionize a local janitorial service, largely comprised of illegal immigrants. Without rights, these workers are regularly abused and mistreated for substandard wages. Mexican-American worker Maya (Pilar Padilla) becomes a key supporter, risking her own position, much to the consternation of sister and fellow employee Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who must support a disabled husband and can’t afford to lose her job. With so much on the line, will the workers prevail?
WHY I LOVE IT:
The conflict between principle and practical reality is deftly explored by British director Loach in this affecting drama set in present-day Southern California, and features earthy performances by Brody and formidable newcomer Padilla. An intense, authentic depiction of our most vulnerable workers’ struggle for a decent life, the film underscores the importance of taking a stand, however daunting. Shedding light on the desperate lives of people largely ignored in contemporary times, “Roses” is a tense, moving story about those still seeking – and being denied – the American Dream.
Raising Victor Vargas (2002)
On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an upright, god-fearing Dominican lady (Altagracia Guzman) struggles to bring up her three grandchildren. The eldest, sixteen year old Victor (Victor Rasuk), is her biggest worry. A self-styled ladies’ man, the inexperienced Victor sets his cap for “Juicy Judy” Gonzalez (Judy Marte), a local beauty who seems way beyond him in wordliness. As Victor enters into the pitfalls and raptures of first love, Grandma imagines Victor indulging in a world of sin, which threatens to corrupt his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), the apple of her eye. Will Victor manage to steer this tricky course so that he gets the girl, while keeping his fiery Grandma under control?
WHY I LOVE IT:
This winning coming-of-age romance disarms the viewer with its authenticity and depth of feeling. Director Sollett coaxes incredibly natural performances from his young cast of unknowns, and builds a story that avoids the usual grim stereotypes about urban ethnic life. Though somewhat misguided, we know Grandma’s heart is in the right place; amidst all the conflicts that arise, an undercurrent of love remains. Both Rasuk and Marte do fabulous work, and their budding romance is believably and touchingly rendered. A wonderfully wise and human film.