Chicano Cinema

The Chicano cinema movement emerged in the late 1960’s inextricably intertwined with the communities from which it sprang.  These first films both embodied and gave voice to the larger social protest movements surging in Mexican-American enclaves across the Southwest United States.

Alienation, defiance, struggle and an exuberant pride were common themes in those early films; many of which showcased identity, history and calls to action. The early films captured the zeitgeist of the times, and gave voice to a community suffering extreme social and economic inequality in every aspect of American life. Misunderstood and routinely maligned within mainstream media of the time, or more often simply ignored, Chicano filmmakers, often with sparse funding and limited training, began to push back, creating a new dynamic body of work that portrayed Chicano characters, history and cultural expressions as dynamic, complex and vital.

1969 was in many respects the height of the Chicano civil rights movement and those first films reflect that reality.  It’s no coincidence that what is considered the first Chicano film was Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez’ 16 mm photo montage rendition of activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ epic poem I am Joaquin. The fact that Gonzales was in his own right, a central leader of the Chicano movement, is indicative of how many of those early films reflected a movement ideology.

Early work by Chicano filmmakers received mainstream accolades. Agueda Martínez: Our People Our Country, directed by Esperanza Vásquez and produced by Moctesuma Esparza was nominated for an Short Documentary Oscar in 1978. Director Greg Nava’s 1984 film El Norte, garnered the 1985 WGA Award for Best Screenplay Written for the screen and a 1985 Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay Written for the Screen.   Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (1985), Directed by Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz was It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1986.

Perhaps because the first motion picture was produced in 1888, It’s easy to think of the Chicano film movement as taking place in some distant historical time. But as was pointed out to me recently by Texas based filmmaker Jim Mendiola, many of the central early filmmakers, including Luis Valdez, Efrain Gutierrez, Sylvia Morales, Esperanza Vásquez, Moctezuma Esparza,  and Jesus Treviño are all still alive at the time I am writing this. The founders of this movement still walk among us and many are still making films.

Groundbreaking restoration efforts by Chon Noriega , during his tenure at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, in conjunction with the Universities Chicano Cinema Recovery Project have helped to ensure that those early films survive.  Early restoration of films like Efrain Gutierrez 1976 film Please Don’t Bury Me Alive, the first Chicano feature film, ensure that films made decades ago, do not disappear entirely.

After decades of frequent marginalization, within established distribution outlets, mainstream acceptance of early Chicano films for their “"culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" in the history of film in the United States, is increasingly evident in the growing roster of films selected for preservation as part of the National Film Registry. Below are just a few of the titles included in the registry.

  • I am Joaquin 1969 Directed by Luis Valdez
  • Chicana Directed by Sylvia Morales.
  • Real Women Have Curves, 2002 Directed by Patricia Cardoso
  • Selena, 1997 Gregory Nava

The world has changed tremendously since the foundational films of the Chicano movement. Film Festivals like the San Antonio CineFestival, originally called the Chicano film festival when it was founded in 1976 by Adan Medrano, now present themselves as an “annual celebration of independent Latinx and indigenous cinema.”

New labels have arrived to describe an increasing diverse community; Xicano, Latinx, Generation Mex. 50 years later, once outsider provocateur activists like Corky Gonzales, now has a major library named after him in Denver and was recently the subject of a Google Doodle.

As we pass the 50 year anniversary of the Birth of Chicano Cinema we recognize that

despite the tremendous changes in our society, issues of access to training, capital, equipment and distribution; still remain major obstacles for aspiring filmmakers.

Today our communities find themselves in a nation with nativism on the rise, anti-immigrant policies and mass deportations being pushed by politicians from both major political parties. In 2021, a UCLA Diversity report found that Latino actors accounted for 6.3% of all roles on Broadcast scripted shows. Latinos make up 18.5% of the U.S. population, with Mexican-Americans being the largest subgroup of 61.4. % or 37.2 million people, which is slighter under the total population of entire population of Canada. Yet, this large and geographically diverse ground of people are still systematically under-represented in all aspects of U.S. Media.

Yet despite these obstacles, the spirit of Chicano cinema lives on in those films that continue confront a monolithic “American” identity hegemony, speak out against injustice, and ultimately reflect the true diversity within of our communities. Ongoing production of Chicano experimental films, Queer Cinema, PBS style documentaries, Sci-fi films, animation, and the foundational “no movies” of the ASCO collective speak to the rich artistic genres embraced by Chicano filmmakers, past and present, with a story to tell.

I’ll end this missive where Chicano Cinema began; with Luis Valdez’ I am Joaquin poetry film. Its last line encapsulates much of what ultimately the Chicano film movement is ultimately about; a defiant declaration and a unique identity of resistance.

La Raza! Méjicano! Español! Latino! Chicano!
Or whatever I call myself,
I look the same, I feel the same
I Cry and Sing the same.
I am the masses of my people and I refuse to be absorbed.


We asked the artists to share their favourite movies | Le pedimos a cada artista que comparta sus películas favoritas


Les Quatre Cents Coups. Directed by François Truffaut, 1959
Ladri di Biciclette. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, 1948
Los Olvidados. Directed by Luis Buñuel, 1950
La Strada. Directed by Federico Fellini, 1954
Zorba the Greek. Directed by Michael Cacoyannis, 1964
Una Giornata Particolare. Directed by Ettore Scola, 1938
Jamón, Jamón. Directed by Bigas Luna, Olive Films, 1992
Gone with the Wind. Directed by Victor Fleming, 1939
Any of Martin Scorsese´s films.

The Magnificent Seven. Performance by Yul Brynner, 1960
Cyrano de Bergerac. Performance by Gérard Depardieu, 1990
Man of La Mancha. Performances by Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, 1972
All the Pretty Horses. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton, 2000
Dreams. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1990

I just saw The Power of the Dog (Directed by Jane Campion) it was really impressive.
I love everything that Shonda Rhimes writes. Her writing is so very complex.
The Fargo series has been really impressive.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Martin McDonagh, 2017. 

Giant. Directed by George Stevens, 1956
Amarcord. Directed by Federico Fellini, 1973
Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie. Directed by Luis Buñuel, 1972
Los Olvidados. Directed by Luis Buñuel, 1950
Ágora. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, 2009

Spirited Away. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2001
Nights of Cabiria. Directed by Federico Fellini, 1957 
Old Godzilla movies.

Selena. Directed by Gregory Nava, 1997
Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott, 1979 
Grizzly Man. Directed by Werner Herzog, 2005.
Once Were Warriors. Directed by Lee Tamahori, 1994
Truly Texas Mexican. Directed by Aníbal Capoano, 2021

There are too many great films to narrow it down but maybe I would say 
The Birds. Directed by Alfred Hitchock, 1963
Contact. Performance by Jodie Foster, 1997. Its cheesy but I love the relationship between the protagonist and her father.
Broadway Danny Rose. Directed by Woody Allen, 1984. The last scene is heart-wrenching
Nights of Cabiria. Directed by Fellini and performance by Giuiletta Masina (Fellini’s wife), 1957
… and OK, I admit it, Funny Girl. Performance by Barbra Streisand, 1968. 

The Godfather Part II. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
The Deer Hunter. Directed by Michael Cimino, 1978 
Deliverance. Directed by John Boorman, 1972

Again, it’s very hard to pin down five because I like so many… 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Directed by Byron Haskin, 1964
Stand and Deliver. Directed by Ramón Menéndez, 1988
Rear Window. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
The Milagro Beanfield War. Directed by Robert Redford 1988

Roma. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, 2018
Seven Samurai. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1954
Frida. Directed by Julie Taymor, 2002
Mary Magdalene. Directed by Garth Davis, 2018.
Beyond the Visible-Hilma af Klint. Directed by Halina Dyrschka, 2019
Birds of Passage. Directed by Cristina Gallego, and Ciro Guerra, 2018
Ash is Purest White. Directed by Jia Zhangke, 2018
The Mill and the Cross. Directed by Lech Majewski, 2011
Final Portrait. Directed by Stanley Tucci, 2017

Don’t Be a Menace. Directed by Paris Barclay, 1996
Wayne’s World. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, 1992
My Fair Lady. Directed by George Cukor, 1964
First Wives Club. Directed by Hugh Wilson, 1996

My preferences are international films, especially Japanese. The classic Japanese films: Shoplifters Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018; all of director Akira Kurosawa, and the fab Totoro.

Life is too short to waste writing inconsequential lists. 

Sleep Dealer. Directed by Alex Rivera, 2008
Infiltrators, Directed by Cristina Ibarra, and Alex Rivera, 2020 
Zoot Suit. Directed by Luis Valdez, 1981
Las Marthas. Directed by Cristina Ibarra, 2014
Birds of Passage. Directed by Cristina Gallego, and Ciro Guerra, 2018

Los Olvidados. Directed by Luis Buñuel, 1950
What Happened, Miss Simone? Directed by Liz Garbus, 2015
Sound?? Directed by Dick Frontaine, and performances by John Cage, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, 1966
The 13th. Directed by Ava DuVernay, 2016
Mississippi Masala. Directed by Mira Nair, 1991
Who Is Dayani Cristal? Directed by Marc Silver, 2014
Sleep Dealer. Directed by Alex Rivera, 2008
Under the Skin. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, 2014

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018.
Ready Player One. Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2018
Friday. Directed by F. Gary Gray, 1995
Mi Familia. Directed by Gregory Nava, 1995
The Matrix. Directed by Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski, 1999

I minored in filmmaking as an undergraduate. Films have been an essential element in my life. As a child I watched Mexican films in the early 50’s with my grandparents. I do enjoy a wide range of films; i.e. Oliver Stone to Lena Wertmuller, Fellini, and of course Buñuel. I also enjoy political documentaries.

Because of my love of comic books, I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the things I really appreciate is the growing diversity of the casts, directors, producers, etc.

The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972
12 Angry Men. Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1957
Citizen Kane. Directed by Orson Welles, 1941
2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968
News of the World. Directed by Paul Greengrass, 2020

The Boy and the World. Directed by Alê Abreu, 2014
Cruella. Directed by Craig Gillespie, 2021
The Grand Budapest Hotel. Directed by Wes Anderson, 2014
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. Directed by Kazuki Omori & Takao Okawara, 1993
My Neighbor Totoro. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1988

Any Pedro Almodóvar film but if I have to pick one, it would be Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios.
The Notebook. Directed by Nick Cassavetes, 2004
Thelma & Louise. Directed by Ridley Scott, 1991
The Hunger. Directed by Tony Scott, 1983
Gia. Directed by Michael Cristofer, 1998

Any Star Wars movies.
The Agony and the Ecstasy. Directed by Carol Reed, 1965
The Last Vermeer. Directed by Dan Friedkin, 2019

So many films. Directors include: Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott. 

Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang, 1927
The Right Stuff. Directed by Philip Kaufman, 1983
Selena. Directed by Gregory Nava, 1997
Pepe El Toro. Directed by Ismael Rodríguez, 1953
Macario. Directed by Roberto Gavaldón, 1960
El Mariachi. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, 1992
Like Water for Chocolate. Directed by Alfonso Arau, 1992
Átame. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 1989
Flash Gordon Saviour of the Universe. Directed by Mike Hodges, 1980
Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott, 1982
The Big Lebowski. Directed by Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen, 1998
The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont, 1994
Sleep Dealer. Directed by Alex Rivera, 2008
Prometheus. Directed by Ridley Scott, 2012
The Infiltrators. Directed by Cristina Ibarra, and Alex Rivera, 2020
The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Victor Fleming, 1939
Pink Floyd-The Wall. Directed by Alan Parker, 1982
The Shadow of Hate. Directed by Charles Guggenheim, 1995
Léon: The Professional. Directed by Luc Besson, 1994
Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2017
Heavy Metal. Directed by Gerald Ptterton and others, 1981
Heavy Metal 2000. Directed by Michael Coldewey, and Michel Lemire, 2000
Blazing Saddles. Directed by Mel Brooks, 1974
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Directed by Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen, 2001
Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Directed by Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones, 1975
A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2001
Minority Report. Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2002
Brazil. Directed by Terry Gilliam, 1985
2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968
Gatica. Directed by Leonardo Favio, 1993
Monty Python´s Life of Brian. Directed by Terry Jones, 1979
The Matrix Series
The Fifth Element. Directed by Luc Besson, 1997
Dune. Directed by David Lynch, 1984
The Aeon Flux Series.
Rashomon. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1950
A Fist Full of Dollars. Directed by Sergio Leone, 1964
Seven Samurai. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1954
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Directed by Sergio Leone, 1966

A Man for All Seasons. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1966
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Directed by John Huston, 1948
The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed, 1949
Vertigo. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958
On The Waterfront. Directed by Elia Kazan, 1954

I have more trouble here, because I like many different films for a short time and tend to re-watch political TV series more than movies: The West Wing [created by Aaron Sorking] and Madame Secretary [created by Barbara Hall]. Along that line, I do re-watch the films Wag the Dog [Directed by Barry Levinson, 1998] and Primary Colors [Directed by Mike Nichols, 1998]. All of this will let you know that I have a political bent. But as I said, I’m a child of the 60s.

Bless Me, Ultima. Directed by Carl Franklin, 2012
Como Agua para Chocolate, Directed by Alfonso Arau, 1992
Chocolat. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, 2000
The Color Purple. Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1985
High Fidelity (TV Series). Performance by Zoë Kravitz.

The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Victor Fleming, 1939
La Cucaracha. Directed by Ismael Rodríguez, 1959
Como Agua para Chocolate. Directed by Alfonso Arau, 1992
Amores Perros. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2000
El Laberinto del Fauno. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, 2006

El Laberinto del Fauno. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, 2006
Como Agua para Chocolate. Directed by Alfonso Arau, 1992
Amores Perros. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2000
Mirai. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda, 2018
The Farewell. Directed by Lulu Wang, 2019

À bout de souffle. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960
City Lights. Directed by Charles Chaplin, 1931
Black Narcissus. Directed by MichaelPowell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947
Soy Cuba. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
Chungking Express. Directed by Wong Kar-wai, 1994

Lists are NOT in any order of preference, just the way they came to my mind…
Nosotros los Pobres. Directed by Ismael Rodríguez, 1948
El Ángel Exterminador. Directed by Luis Buñuel, 1966
Selena. Directed by Gregory Nava, 1997
La Bamba. Directed by Luis Valdez, 1987
Brazil. Directed by Terry Gilliam, 1985
Casablanca. Directed by Michael Curtiz, 1943
It’s a Wonderful Life. Directed by Frank Capra (watch it every Christmas season)
Cinema Paradiso. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988
The Piano. Directed by Jane Campion, 1993

The Book of Life. Directed by Jorge Gutierrez, 2014
The Nightmare Before Christmas. Directed by Tim Burton, 1993
La Misma Luna. Directed by Patricia Riggen, 2007
Princess Mononoke & Ponyo. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1997 & 2008
Legend & Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott, 1985 & 1979
La Otra Conquista. Directed by Salvador Carrasco, 1998
El Laberinto del Fauno. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, 2006
The Last Unicorn. Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, 1982
The Little Mermaid. Directed by John Musker, and Ron Clements, 1989