Top 10 moments in Chicano Cinema according to this Chicano

Out of sheer boredom I started to think of my favorite moments from Chicano films – there are many. This took me on a trip down memory lane. This also took a lot longer than I expected and was a lot more difficult than I imagined. One, because the number of films is limited and many of the actors are the same, but also because there’s too many moments in the few films to choose from to squeeze into a list of just 10. Everyone has their own favorites, these are some of mine. 

This is not meant to be an all encompassing list as I’m sure I’ve forgotten some and overlooked others. There are many moments in mainstream films that feature a Chicano actor that could have been included as well. 

Without going into a huge dissertation about the finer points of Chicano film (and I could if I tried), for me, many of these scenes and characters resonate because we see ourselves and our experiences in them. It is related to the experience of why I started publishing books to begin with –  I wanted to see myself and those like me, on a bookshelf – because, sadly, that experience is so rare. It is the same in film. Don’t believe the Hollywood “woke” hype – we are still invisible in Hollywierd.  

When you see yourself reflected on the big screen it makes an impression on you – at least it did me. I don’t think that is as prevalent in other cultures because it is such a rarity in Chicano film, and when it’s done right, a treasure. 

As one of my readers pointed out:

It was more interesting, for me, to see what I was living portrayed on screen, because I wasn’t really seeing anything like how I lived/talked on a movie screen.” – Voodoodrew78

Note: These are personal choices that were either striking, memorable or related to my own personal experiences as a Chicano. As always, opinions will vary so I don’t expect people to agree with all or any of my choices. I included a brief (Ha!) reason why I chose the scene underneath the clip.   

I also included some runners up and responses from my Instagram post asking people what their favorite moments were – they’re at the bottom. Feel free to leave your choices/thoughts as well in the comments. 

Enjoy.

10. My Family/Mi Familia – Jimmy gets out of jail

This one is personal for me – it reminds me of my dad. In this scene, where Jimmy is released from the pinta, and the music playing is ‘Down on the Riverbed’ by Los Lobos, you are introduced to this character who just has this over the top attitude and coolness about him that says: chingon badass Chicano. You immediately like this guy and also know he’s not one to fuck with. Orale. Not only does he look like my dad in his younger days but carries himself the same way. The juxtaposition of the music, Jimmy’s swagger and confidence, the scenery and the extras in the scene are just perfect Chicano cinema in my humble opinion – perfect scene. 

 

9. Zoot Suit – “Don’t take the pinche play so seriously, Jesus!”

I couldn’t find a clip of this scene and had to take a picture from my own copy of the film. In it, Henry asks El Pachuco to leave and El Pachuco mocks him and breaks the “fourth wall” by involving the audience to laugh at Henry, which is brilliant. El Pachuco also challenges the reporter in the film and brow beats him into admitting he’s a racist prick, while illustrating the politics of the era that led to the Zoot Suit riots. It’s an amazing scene that features El Pachuco as an antihero, who battles the sailors as some kind of Zoot Suit superhero and ends with him reverting to his Aztec roots, backing away from Henry’s stripped brother and leaving Henry totally alone in isolation. I love the history, the pushback against the mainstream history narrative by a Chicano antihero and the harsh reality of what happened and how it leaves Henry feeling helpless and alone. Deep scene on many levels. 

 

8. Up in Smoke – Alice Bowie scene

Again, this one is personal. Being a lifelong musician and a Chicano at that, I have always loved Cheech’s musical endeavors on film and vinyl, be it Earach My Eye or Purple Haze in Born in East L.A. Alice Bowie is a favorite for many reasons but mainly because, as ridiculous as it is on screen, it’s what I wanted to be since I was a kid: a rock star. 

 

7. A Million to Juan – Ending montage

This is a long forgotten Chicano film that stars Brownlisted comedian Paul Rodriguez and was directed by him as well – pretty rare feat for Chicano cinema. I chose the ending montage scene because it wraps together a pretty vanilla storyline with a happy ending and humor – this is also rare for Chicano films! Imagine that – a happy ending! Who knew?

This film, while poking fun at a few stereotypes, does not delve too heavily into the negative side – again, rare. The characters in this film are just regular people and we do not have the threat of gangs, prison, cartels etc. that plague so many Chicano flicks. To put it simply, it’s a story about Chicanos living a regular life, struggling and triumphing – whoa, what a concept! 

Note :Despite liking this film, I do have to critique the love interest and wonder if that was a studio decision. My guess is yes. Paul’s love interest is played by Polly Draper, a white lady who they made up to look and act Mexicana. Kinda ridiculous all things considered…

 

6. Shrimp on the Barbie – Heart to heart scene

Speaking of ridiculous, I chose this film because of the opening scene monologue  – a conversation Cheech has with God. In it, he asks if he’s testing him and talks about how he thought moving from L.A. to Australia would be all sun, surf, beers and babes.  This is personal to my own life as I made a similar choice and had similar expectations, and just like Cheech’s character “Carlos,” I found myself in a similarly ridiculous situation of being a Chicano in a place that has no earthly idea what a Chicano is and all the “hilarity” that comes with that experience. His monologue might as well have been me talking to myself when I moved away from home and became “a stranger is a strange land.” 

Note: I forgot how freaking racist this film is…yikes! That’s worthy of a follow up article… 

 

5. Stand And Deliver  – Catch you on the street

There were a lot of scenes in this film to choose from but I chose this one because I remember cheering when I first saw it and also wanting to see Escalante kick Andy Garcia’s ass. When Escalante tells Garcia that if he sees him on the street he’s gonna kick his ass, it’s a moment that only Chicanos can relate to, I think, and something that reminded me of many encounters growing up either with my own temper of watching family/friends – a threat and a promise. Gone are the pleasantries and the bureaucratic process – watcha – we’re gonna take it to the street, pendejo. And I love that. It’s a push come to shove moment borne out of machismo and a little bit of the barrio, but it’s chingon and a favorite moment.  

 

4. Blood in Blood Out – Día De Los Muertos

I’m not sure if I should have ranked this one as high as I did but all I can tell you is the first time I saw this scene, I swelled with this weird sense of pride and was like: FUCK YEAH! It’s difficult to explain, I think, to outsiders, but the juxtaposition of the celebration of DDLM and the scenes of the muertos and the Aztec dancers painted up as the dead along with the systematic and cold blooded elimination of La Onda’s enemies was brilliantly filmed. It’s brutal and beautiful at the same time. Is it exploitation? Yes. But it’s well done and the payoff is worth it. When Danny Trejo shouts, “Para Montana!” and throws his knife down after Bonafide is killed I was elated, as were many others I’m sure. Perverse, but true! 

 

3. La Bamba – Ritchie Dies

This one is self explanatory. I think it would rank high on anyone’s list but I take for granted how much of an impact the film had on my generation. Even after all these years, watching this scene in its entirety chokes me up. It’s weird…but true. Maybe it’s because I am a brother and cannot imagine experiencing this and feeling Bob’s pain – and boy do we feel his pain.

I’d challenge anyone to watch the film and not be moved by the ending and the heart wrenching scene/montage of their mother, the funeral, Donna, and then with Bob screaming to the sky over the death of his little brother with the climax of Sleepwalk playing in the background.  You feel that shit. It is something that stays with you the rest of your life – you could argue Ritchie’s death haunts us through adulthood, as do his aspirations.

It’s one of the most moving scenes in Chicano film IMO. And I could have chose a bunch of scenes from La Bamba – there are a ton – but this one hits you the hardest and never leaves you. I bet you can hear Bob’s echo in your head right now.   

 

2. American Me – Don’t look at me

This scene, while it gets joked about endlessly online, is one of the darkest moments in Chicano film that I can think of. I remember first seeing this scene in the theater and feeling sick to my stomach as well as being disgusted with Puppet’s character. How could anyone do what he did?! And maybe that’s just me and maybe it’s my own bias as an older brother. But I cannot fathom doing such a heinous thing, I’d rather die. 

When Puppet looks to the sky and says, “God damn me…” after he strangles his little brother to death on the side of the road, leaving him bug-eyed and ashen, it’s so sincere – you can feel it in your gut that he will be. He is damned, not only as a character but as an actor as well – this is the kind of thing that people remember no matter how many other roles you have – it’s like a tattoo, and it’s stuck with him his whole career. He’s the “don’t look at me guy.” 

It’s hard to think of a more cowardly and evil thing to do on screen and it really put the exclamation point on an already dark film – a film filled to the brim with hard luck stories, dead ends, brutality and bad choices. Again, powerful moment; people make jokes out of context about this scene but when you really boil it down, I think it’s the darkest moment in Chicano film history. 

 

1. Selena – It’s Exhausting

This one was a no-brainer for me and really doesn’t need me to over explain it. I’ve written about this scene a bunch of times over the years and how impactful it was to see this on the big screen and to hear it said aloud. It was like: YES! Exactly this!! It verbalizes the never ending struggle of being Chicano and just how ridiculous it is and how hard we are on ourselves to try and fit in to two cultures. Abraham sums it up brilliantly and it’s something that we all deal with on a daily basis. As he says, it’s exhausting! Amen. 

 

Runners Up: 

ApocalyptoMayan city/ritual sacrifice

Despite the hate this film gets, I loved seeing visualization of what the mighty Mayan civilization might have looked like, even if it was historically inaccurate. This was another film, like My Family, where you could see the faces of family and friends in it and in the characters and that made a huge impact on me.  

Boulevard NightsFight on the Boulevard

This scene reminds me of what it was like cruising with the homeboys back in the 90s in Denver. Hot cars, hot girls and hot heads – ha! Good memories. 

Training DayShit Pushed in 

The ridiculousness of this scene is memorable when they ask the cop the famous question and then proceed to prepare to ritually murder him in the bathtub. Definitely made an impression. 

Colors21st St House Party

There’s lots of memorable scenes in Colors but this one sticks out as a reminder of what house parties used to look like back in the day – the styles, music, hair, the girls, dancing, beers and weed…the drunk guy almost falling over. All very familiar. 

My FamilyJimmy marries Isabella

I love everything about this scene – Jimmy’s humor and his sister’s ego – their parent’s insolence and wisdom about what is sacred. Great, great scene. 

Born in East L.A.Jesus likes cerveza

The comedic genius of Paul Rodriguez. ‘Nuff said. 

 

Your Picks: 

“The whole movie Stand & deliver but when Jaime Escalante tells the students math is in your blood. So many moments lol.”

“My Family. Either the wedding toast or when the kid goes crazy calling the white people “ pinche gabachos” I laughed my ass off. The whole movie resonated with and my family.”

“One of my favorite go to scenes is in the movie Selena when the father is talking to his family about not being American enough for America and not Mexican enough for Mexico, we gotta work twice as hard. I felt that to my core and still my go to scene for the question “what does chicano mean.”

“Another is in American Me. When the father sees his youngest son leaving with the homies somewhere and he goes to call him and he looks down and see the pachuco tattoo on his own hand. And he gets a sense of sadness and shame. To me it showed how history repeats itself and he wasn’t able to break the cycle for his own sons.”

“The movie La Mission is great too. I love the whole movie. 2 scenes in particular. One where the main dude is telling the younger guys about the true origin of the virgin Mary i believe. And the other is after he finds out his son is gay and they try to reconcile. But instead of talking about it they just sit down and eat together. It’s powerful to me because that’s how a lot of Mexican Chicano families are. If you don’t talk about it then the problem doesn’t come up and has to be addressed. Just a powerful scene that I’ve seen within my own families dynamics.”

“Zoot Suit and Boulevard Nights for how the people around me talked, Cha-Cha from Grease for her all around Chicana vibe and not giving a fuck around white kids, Colors and Mi Vida Loca because the hispanic gangs were what I grew up around, El Santo y Blue Demon movies for being something bad ass that came from Mexico when I thought nothing cool came from Mexico, La Bamba because Bob was a terrible person but we still love that dude (like family members), also, when Richie buys his mom a house, West Side Story for that “stick to your own kind” line in that song (fuck Natalie Wood, tho).”

“It was more interesting, for me, to see what I was living portrayed on screen, because I wasn’t really seeing anything like how I lived/talked on a movie screen.”

“Mi Familia, where Paco (olmos) is narrating and says: “It didn’t matter if you were a citizen, like my mother. If you looked Mexicano, you were picked up and shipped out. She had just been out shopping. She wasn’t allowed to come home. My father was never told. She was all alone, and she was pregnant.”
Unfortunately, that was the first time I was made aware of our history back in the 90s when I watched that movie. It inspired me to read more about being Mexican in Los Angeles. By that time, I had moved to San Diego, but sadly, I wasn’t fully aware of our history. It broke my heart.”

 
“La Bamba when Ritchie dies gets to me every time. Stand and Deliver because it has a positive message. Bless me Ultima because it represents New Mexico. The Salt of the Earth is a great classic. Zoot suit when they are getting ready to go out 😂.”
 
 
“Also born in east LA had lots of funny parts. I think cheech definitely deserves a spot.”
 
“The cemetery scene blood in blood out. Familia is always familia no matter what.”
 
“Hands down for me Mi Familia when chucho says fuck la dignidad. He was fighting his identities what was expected of him from his family and him seeing himself as a Chicano.”
 
“My choices may not match what you’re looking for, but I don’t think we have a lot of contemporary films about Chicanos or the complexities of our identity . So I’ll just put out there that I loved Vida, a short series based on “Pour Vida ” by Richard Villegas Jr. It had a Chicana show runner and an all-Latina writing staff. Tanya Saracho, the showrunner is now even getting support for developing her own film studio in collaboration with UCP which will bring more content like Vida to the screen.”
 
 
“I know you’re not asking so I promise this is final note, but among the momentous scenes of this series is when some “woke” Chicanos protest a Chicana owned bar for gentrifying their neighborhood (they’ve brownlisted them as you say), and we come to see the problems of turning on each other in our own community. Nobody has covered our own infighting so well and nailed it. I’ll ✌️ out now.”
 
“La Bamba when Richie’s name is anglicized and Bob protests. And the scene where Connie gets upset because Ritchie didn’t get to play and says  “They don’t know who they’re dealing with. My granddaddy was a full-blooded Yaqui Indian!” Both scenes resonate on a historical sense but also personal becaue I’m a Valenzuela and my great-grandmother was Yaqui and my mom would regularly say something to the same effect.”
 
“I mean there’s only like 10 Chicano films so just pick one from each movie smh lol.”

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