During the formative years of the motion picture industry in the early 1900s, silent films exemplified the abhorrently racist and misogynist attitudes of American cinema towards Mexicans. The films Let Katie Do It and D.W. Griffith’s little known, The Martyrs of the Alamo, for instance, both characterized Mexicans as “greasers, bandidos, fiendish sex, and dope addicts.”
Film titles alone reflected Hollywood’s position of hatred towards Chicanas/os: The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908), Tony the Greaser (1911), Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), The Girl and the Greaser (1915), and Guns and Greasers (1918).
American cinema asserted Anglo superiority and dominion over Mexican men and women in such films as: The Mexican’s Revenge (1909), His Mexican Bride (1909), The Mexican’s Jealousy (1910), Carmenita the Faithful (1911), and The Aztec Treasure (1914).
While early films characterized Mexican men in negative racial terms, women were not immune to the racist images depicted in American cinema. In The Red Girl (1908), Chicanas were portrayed as villains. In other films, Chicanas were forced to turn against their own Mexican families such as in His Mexican Sweetheart (1912) and Chiquita, the Dancer (1912). Racist depictions of Mexicans have continued well after the silent film era ended.
Consequently, Chicana/o cinema emerged during the Chicano Movement in the late 1960s as a counter-narrative response to the racist and misogynistic cinematic renderings of Chicana/o images prevalent in American film narratives. Chicana/o cinema as an alternative metadiscursive aesthetic, framed the voice of the subaltern through a methodical metamorphosis of cultural knowledge production that challenged misrepresentations of the “Other.”
In “Postmodernism and Chicano Literature,” Rosaura Sánchez asserts that “The questioning and subsequent denial of the subject comes precisely at a moment in history when women and marginalized ethnic minorities are trying to assume their subject status to create a voice for themselves.”
Is it, however, permissible for the aesthetic of Chicana/o cinema to speak on behalf of a marginalized community? Chicana filmmaker Frances Salomé España, for instance, maintains that she does not speak for the Chicana/o community, but from the specificity of her experience as a Chicana living in Los Angeles.
The question as to what constitutes Chicana/o cinema has been a central debate in the emerging field of Chicana/o film critical studies. Rosa Linda Fregoso in The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture, for instance, describes Chicana/o cinema as a cultural trinity: films by, about, and for Chicanas/os. As the Chicano Movement struggle for self-determination declined, Jesús Salvador Treviño offered a redefinition of the Chicana/o cinematic landscape when he argued that films no longer have to be about or for Chicanas/os. Rather, the new criterion Treviño established for Chicana/o cinema was based on the idea that films were to be based on the means of production, namely films by Chicanas/os.
But what does the Chicana/o cinematic cultural trinity precisely represent? The Chicana/o cinema dialectic speaks from a space where the subject(s) is given an authentic voice to signify a collective opposition to the racist cultural production inherent in American cinema. Emblematic of recent developments in Chicana/o cinema to delve beyond the paternalistic images inherent in film is the work of experimental filmmaker Frances Salomé España.
Although Frances Salomé España contends that she does not speak for the Chicana/o community, her work clearly articulates an authentic Chicana feminist voice that will no longer be silent to the heteronormative archetypes established by American cinema. In her testimonio “On Filmmaking: A Personal Odyssey,” España speaks of “sobreviviendo the fracasos of beauty and brutal truth.” España credits the Chicano Moratorium (August 29, 1970) as a “massive purification ceremony and baptism of fire” for enabling and empowering her artistic spiritual path.
Through her experimental short films, España discards movie industry standards in favor of images that speak truth to meaning of Chicana visual aesthetics. España’s short experimental films: Espejo (1991), Anima (1989), Vivir (1991), and Spitfire (1992) give visual voice to the misrepresented and ignored experiences of Chicana femininity. The inception of mainstream cinema constructed the image of the Mexican woman in racial stereotypes: The Mexican Spitfire. This racist portrayal served to perpetuate the sexist exploitation and oppression suffered by Chicanas.
The films of España deconstruct negative images of Chicanas and, more importantly, function to empower women through poetic verses and images that are more expressive of their lived experiences. In her personal “acts of translation,” España does not treat her women characters as victims, but as resistors and cultural survivors.
Indeed, this is reflected through her careful selection of film titles and content: espejo=mirror; anima=spirit/soul; and vivir=to live. Admittedly, the film title Spitfire leads one to suppose that it is an attempt at political satire. The film, however, is just the opposite. The film demonstrates the feminine symbols of power by reconstructing the indigenous past through images of Mexica deities. This film, then, is an angry, but empowering response to the racist portrayals of Hollywood’s spitfire image.
In Espejo, España reflects on childhood memories that she “had to learn to embrace.” As in life, the images in the film are in a constant struggle to interpret the past from the perspective of the present, and as such, España captivates the viewer through the arrangement of abstract images that only a child can comprehend. The mirror is used symbolically to reflect what Chicanas/os have either lost or put away deep in their corazón for fear of what it might reveal.
As if (re)discovering our ancient Mexica past, España summons the spirit of the Tlamatini (wise person) whose role in our ancient civilizations was to preserve, protect and pass down the tradition of the Huehuetlahtolli (cultural legacy). As the most esteemed of all the teachers, the Tlamatini’s first and most important goal was to help his students know and understand themselves.
If you were the Tlamatini’s student, he would start by putting a mirror in front of your face because knowledge of self came first. In excavating the past, España admits: “I was always in the tree, so I was safe.” Admittedly, España suggests that there is no danger in reconstructing the past, especially when attempting to come to terms with who you are/were. Chicanas must confront their own espejo as difficult as it may be for it is their only way to self-liberation: it is knowledge of self.
Anima visualizes the iconic El Día de los Muertos celebration through the eyes of three women. In juxtaposing images of the cemetery with that of the women painting their faces in the form of skulls or the imagery of death, España recalls Jim Morrison who, in The Lords and the New Creatures, echoed this sentiment: “The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death.”
Contrary to the “fear of death” that Jim Morrison spoke of, España suggests that we return to our indigenous roots, which celebrated both life and death. España demonstrates the appeal of El Día de los Muertos as made possible through the perseverance and survival of Mexican women for they are the primary defenders of Chicana/o culture.
In Vivir, España critiques the traditional heteropatriarchal patterns that consistently correlate women in the Eurocentric defined passive role of mother, wife, and daughter. Furthermore, España surreptitiously articulates a critique of the expectations of women’s sexuality through the image of a woman wearing a white dress inside a birdcage.
It is a heteronormative prescribed condition to expect women to remain sexually pure before marriage. Hence, the white wedding dress articulates the amazing grace of the woman and the birdcage functions as the entrapment of a woman’s personal development. España’s visual poetics is to empower women by demystifying marriage. Women must break out of their own birdcage.
España’s cinematic vision exemplifies the artistic progression of Chicana/o film. What started out as a cinema of resistance has evolved into existential images of the Chicana/o lived experience. España articulates the many voices that are often ignored and misrepresented by mainstream cinema. España has gone beyond the formulaic styles that have perpetuated stereotypical images of the Chicana/o nation. More importantly, España has established the cinematic framework for others to contribute and aspire to. Although the notion of Chicana/o film is only about 40 years old, the future of Chicana/o cinema provides a visual and poetic forum that may serve to empower our communities.
By allowing women to speak, think, and act for themselves in her films, España hopes that Chicanas can regain their sense of self and dignity that was expropriated with the coming of a patriarchal system. España proposes that women continue to find alternative methods to comprehend their reality. For España, it is through the creation of cinema, for others, as she suggests, might well be through the essence of just living life, or to “vivir” for it is knowledge of self.
Originally published on August 26, 2011 in AztlanReads.com and ¡Ban This!: The BSP Anthology of Xicana/o Literature edited by Santino J. Rivera.
– part of an ongoing series of essays on the Chicano Movement, the Brown Berets, and Chicano Studies as part of my thesis/dissertation.