Cheesy? Yes. Also, an American classic of stage and screen, this musical fiesta version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet gives New York City street gangs the Technicolor treatment. Yet, the “I want to live in America” number remains a Puerto Rican tribute to every immigrant who believed in the American Dream.
The Los Angeles street wars also get their musical in writer/director Luis Valdez’s stylish blend of a real-life murder trial, song, and street riots. The Sleepy Lagoon murders were an infamous miscarriage of justice, where Mexican youths were railroaded for their ethnicity.
In Miami, it was the Cubans escaping Castro’s dominance that took to the streets. And when it comes to crime, director Brian De Palma is at his overwrought best, in this modern crime classic. The remarkable rise and fall of Cuban drug lord, Tony Montana, gives a fiery Al Pacino the opportunity to redefine his iconic “Godfather” role, as the most foul-mouthed, coke-snorting gangster of the silver screen.
Not every Hispanic-American was on the streets. In the 1950’s, the burgeoning rock and roll scene gave singer Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) a way out of the barrio with his guitar. Sadly, he died in the same place crash as Buddy Holly before he was even 18. This biographical film, by director Luis Valdez, captures era, and the complexities of Mexican-American life through his life story.
Another Latin singer, with a meteoric rise and tragically early demise was Texas-born Selena. Little known to the general American public, she was filling the Astrodome and topping music charts. Her success was a family effort, and director/writer Gregory Nava uses humor, authentic settings and Jennifer Lopez to great effect.
“Born in East L.A.”
Need a comic break from the tragedy, injustice and musical numbers? Cheech Marin’s ode to his hometown East L.A. is a delightful farce involving an American of Hispanic descent accidently deported to Mexico. If you enjoyed his laidback, stoner epics with Chong, this riff off the Bruce Springsteen song is a smile.
“Stand and Deliver”
Edward James Olmos delivers a stellar performance, indeed, as a math teacher who miraculously uses calculus to inspire deadbeat students to get into college. Although the story has parallels to “To Sir with Love” and “Dangerous Minds,” the deft handling of the accusations of cheating, and Olmos’ nuanced portrait, keep the movie unexpected and authentically Latino.
“Real Women Have Curves”
With humor, local color, and acknowledgement of hard realities, this coming of age drama was a star making turn for “Ugly Betty” star America Ferrera as a teenager caught between her desire for college and her Mexican-American family’s traditional ideas of women.
“George Lopez: Tall, Dark & Chicano”
Though he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Lopez does know how to get a room full of Hispanics laughing. Darker and more biting than his talk show, Lopez’s stand-up speaks volumes about the Latino experience. “You think we don't speak English? We speak English. We speak Spanish because we don't want to speak to you.”
Two Central American Indians make their way to the Los Angeles through the many cultures of Latin America, and then try to make it in The North as illegal immigrants. A small but effective film by Gregory Nava humanizes the experience of so many Hispanic-American dreamers.