In Exile: Brief Notes on Chicana/o Cinema

The Chicano Movement fostered the development of a unique Chicana/o artistic, cultural and poetic aesthetic that stemmed from the idea that “there are no revolutions without poets.” The “poetic consciousness” of the Chicano Movement originated with Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ epic poem I am Joaquin, which at its core stressed the problematic of identity, while at the same time articulating an early vision of cultural nationalism.

Through cultural nationalism, the demand for Chicana/o self-determination echoed resoundingly in the streets, university campuses, and other institutions where Chicanas/os had been historically excluded. The Chicano Movement’s demand for self-determination catalyzed Chicana/o cultural productions in theatre, film, and television. The Chicana/o entry into the state controlled mass media and other cultural spaces provided them with a means of expression to voice their grievances beyond the Chicana/o community.

Chicanas/os were able to counter the prevailing stereotypes and racist images that were located within mass media by merging the politics of protest inherent in the Chicano Movement with a resurgence in the positive attributes of communal agency or community empowerment.

No longer were Chicanas/os going to be marginalized within the institution of mass media. Chicanas/os emerged as a small, but vocal force to be reckoned with inside and outside of the media/entertainment industry.

The initial impetus for the Chicano Movement occurred in 1965 when the United Farm Workers (UFW) joined the Filipino Delano-area grape strike. The UFW embarked on a national campaign to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers. Concurrent with the rise of the UFW was the emergence of Chicano theatre through the formation of Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino.

El Teatro Campesino helped organize farmworkers through an improvisational theatre style technique known as the acto that advocated the politicization of the men, women and children on the grape strike. The acto dealt directly with the experiences of farmworkers who were fighting for better wages and better working conditions against the patrón.

As the Teatro Campesino gained influence and prestige within the Chicano Movement, other theatre groups formed, eventually coalescing into El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán (TENAZ). At the core of TENAZ was the “Chicano struggle for identity, justice, and liberation.”

Harry Gamboa Jr., Chicano Cinema, 1976. Pictured: Harry Gamboa Jr. © 1976, Harry Gamboa Jr.

Harry Gamboa Jr., Chicano Cinema, 1976. Pictured: Harry Gamboa Jr. © 1976, Harry Gamboa Jr.

The politics of cultural nationalism intensified during the period of 1968-1973 with the entrance of a cadre of Chicana/o students into the university system. Through the campus activism of Chicana/o students, film schools at UCLA and USC were pressured into providing university space to aspiring Chicana/o students who upon their admission to the university began merging the struggle of the streets with the immaculateness of the classroom through the creation of both the New Communicators (1968) and the Ethno-Communications Programs (1969-1973), which gave rise to the ethnic independent film movement.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the merging of a Chicana/o activist spirit of resistance with the university film schools facilitated the rise of early Chicana/o filmmakers who were also active participants in the Chicano Movement, such as Jesus Salvador Treviño, Sylvia Morales, Esperanza Vasquez, and Moctezuma Esparza.

These Chicana/o activist students lent their vision of a counter-hegemonic narrative that would challenge traditional Euroamerican media images. For instance, the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War of August 29, 1970 inspired the film Requiem 29.

Requiem 29 was produced in the midst of Chicana/o resistance against American imperialism both in the international and domestic front. The film portrayed a cultural nationalism and identity located through a Chicana/o frame of reference where “the truth could be asserted” from the point of view of the Chicana/o community.

As the early Chicana/o activist filmmakers focused attention on negotiating and resisting the state controlled mass media, early attempts at accessing the institution of mass media turned attention to television, which through the Prime-Time Access Rule (PTAR) was forced to open its doors to excluded voices and images.

In particular, public television provided the grounds for developing a political generation that would produce a Chicana/o discourse based on the goals of the Chicano Movement. The early television shows gave rise to the cultural practices, histories and voices of the Chicana/o community through such programs as ¡Ahora!, Acción Chicano, and Reflecciones.

The Chicano Movement challenged American racist institutions and paved the way for connecting the struggles in the streets with those very institutions that Chicanas/os were suddenly finding themselves in as a result of the movement.

In the mid-1970s as the Chicano Movement was reaching its conclusion, it is no coincidence that Chicanas/os lost their “access” to the public media domain when the PTAR was rewritten. The shift from radicalism to professionalism within “Chicano Cinema” emerged within the ranks of the Chicana/o students who arrived on university campuses after 1974.

The artistic independence that the early Chicana/o activist filmmakers negotiated were now being regulated by the state controlled mass media because the spirit of activism was replaced with a return to the reformist politics of an earlier generation.

The golden age of Chicano cinema like the Chicano Movement marked a period when the Chicana/o community implemented the goals of El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán by mediating the “political” and “personal” for the self-determination of the Chicana/o community.

– C/S

Cultural Sovereignty

This entry was posted in Chicana/o, Chicana/o Art, Chicana/o Cinema, Chicana/o Film, Chicana/o Identity, Chicana/o Studies, Chicana/o Theatre, Chicano Movement, History, Knowledge, Los Angeles, Politics, Resistance. Bookmark the permalink.

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