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Mar 25, 2015
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Towards a Rasquache Cinema: Chicano 3rd Cinema
by Rafael Flores
Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino performs in Jesus Trevino's 'Raices de Sangre'. photo: courtesy and © Jesus Trevino, 1978
Editor's Note: This article is published in tandem with '
Towards a Rasquache Cinema: A Manifesto
The word "Chicano" became popularized in the mid-1960s as part of the Mexican-American community’s cultural and political movement for self-affirmation and self- determination. The term was re-appropriated and adapted as part of the struggle to decolonize Aztlán, a Nahuatl name for the Southwest of the United States, which many young Chicanos defined as their homeland, an internal colony of the United States. (i)
Around the same time, Chicano filmmakers endorsed these revolutionary concepts and dedicated themselves to fight for fundamental changes in the power and organizational structures of the film industry in the United States.
By the 1980s, however, this political stance and call for autonomy from Hollywood was abandoned as Chicano filmmakers became less concerned with independent filmmaking and focused more on trying to penetrate commercial mainstream venues; in particular, television.
Film scholars have generally described this turn towards accommodation and conformism as a “shift from the ‘politics of representation’ to the ‘politics of professionalism.’” (Naficy: 239) This twist in ideology has been interpreted by some as the catalyst that came to reform cultural nationalist politics in Chicano cinema.
To be sure, it was not the call for a “politics of professionalism” itself that suppressed Chicano practices of Third Cinema, a Latin American movement inspired by Che Guevara which emerged among the anti-fascists of Argentina.
Rather, it was the push to abandon progressive, nationalist politics for the sake of “universalizing” the Chicano experience that doomed the Third Cinema movement in our community. Argentine directors Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s explain this as the act of separating “cultural manifestation from the fight for national independence” doomed Chicano Third Cinema. (Solanas & Getino: 19)
Humberto Sandoval delivering monologue in 'El Mundo LA' by Harry Gamboa Jr, (1992). photo: courtesy and ©Luis Valdez 1981
A systematic discrimination against Chicano nationalism and socialist ideas is clearly reflected Hollywood’s film industry. Similar to the experiences of filmmakers during the McCarthy era, in the 1970s, Chicano filmmakers like Jesus Treviño, Efrain Gutierrez and Harry Gamboa were initially discriminated against by major film studios, universities and museums because of their political and didactic cinema.
Like Third Cinema, Chicano cinema also has a socialist legacy insofar as early works were committed to the decolonization, independence, and socialization of Aztlán. Curiously, however, Chicano cinema has been largely excluded from the discourse that surrounds South American Third Cinema in the First World.
In addition to the political dimensions of its birth and evolution, and the themes elaborated in some of its productions, one of the clearest and most popular elements that situate Chicano cinema clearly within the Third Cinema framework is the practice of "rasquache" aesthetics.
History: Rasquache Third Cinema
Originally developed by Luis Valdez and the legendary Teatro Campesino out of Los Angeles, the concept of rasquachismo connoted something that is "chafa" (cheap, low quality). In this regard, rasquachismo refers to an impoverished means and condition of production, much like the modern use of the terms ghetto and barrio, that often compels artists to use their resourcefulness through all kinds of ingenious methods in order to articulate their creativity.
The result always is a culturally-specific form of originality that gives expression to a working-class aesthetic. This term was adopted by El Teatro Campesino and was eventually transformed into a justification for the “unpolished production value” that was the consequence of Chicanos having limited access to the resources that other, more privileged artists had or were granted.
Affording Chicano filmmakers the opportunity to bring issues such as exclusion and working-class values to the forefront, rasquachismo allowed Chicano artists to embrace their working-class aesthetic and apply it to their praxis as a unique mode of cultural expression.
Scene from the first Chicano feature film, 'Please Don't Bury Me Alive!' Efrain Gutierrez in his Texas hometown. photo: courtesy and © Efrain Gutierrez, 1978
I see this distinctive style as a variant of Cuban film director and screenwriter Julio García Espinosa’s “imperfect cinema,” a theory that predates Argentine directors Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s introduction of the term “Third Cinema.”
Through its close association with the working-class, trade unionist, “socialist-oriented” United Farm Workers movement (in which Luis Valdez participated directly, and which gave birth to the Teatro Campesino), rasquachismo also bears similarities with Brazilian director Rogério Sganzerla’s “aesthetics of garbage,” since both criticize the exploitative relationship between the Third World’s forces of production and the First World’s practices of over-consumption.
One major difference between these two theories, however, is that in the Chicano context the Third World forces of production reside and function within the metropolis itself, as part of an internal colony named Aztlán.
Another concept that was developed at around the same time and which resembles the concept of rasquachismo is the French term "bricolage." Both of these terms describe the process by which artists make resourceful use out of whatever materials they may have at hand.
What’s more, they are also terms that are commonly associated with postmodern aesthetics and improvisation. The materials in the environment are often pantomimed—this and improvisation being key characteristics of El Teatro Campesino’s interpretation of Brechtian techniques.
One must be careful in drawing this comparison, though. In a European, First World context, bricolage involves the choice, a willful act on the part of the artist who wishes to experiment with new ways of creating art. Rasquachismo, on the other hand, is borne out of need and the lack of other material resources. Despite the affinities these two concepts may have, bricolage holds special status as an accepted, well-respected theory in cultural studies and the visual arts.
Edward James Olmos breaking the fourth wall in Valdez's 1981 movie 'Zoot Suit'. photo: courtesy and ©Luis Valdez 1981
The few Chicano film scholars currently active in the United States (e.g. UC Santa Cruz's Rosa-Linda Fregoso & UCLA’s Chon Noriega) superficially acknowledge the idea of rasquache aesthetics without seriously delving into the relationship it has with Chicano Third Cinema.
In mentioning this, it is not my intention to detract from the important contributions Noriega and Fregoso have made to the field. Rather, I merely aim to point out what may be in part a result of the paucity of Chicano film scholars in academia, a problem that in turn is key for the understanding of the exclusion of Chicano cinema in mainstream, First World circles.
If Chicano cinema is mentioned at all in relation to Third Cinema or diasporic cinema, it is usually an honorable mention at best. Evidence of this is found in Hamid Naficy’s "An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking". Following Noriega’s lead, he states: “Despite these ‘cinema of imperfection’ beginnings, Chicano cinema moved away from a straight inscription of politics toward a ‘politics of professionalism’.” (Naficy: 239)
Apparently, Naficy prefers not to challenge Noriega’s problematic use of the concept of “professionalism.” The issue that nobody seems to have addressed yet is that Noriega’s concept of the “politics of professionalism” (or universalism) is a polite way of describing the politics of conformism or reformism that became dominant in Chicano cinema during the 1980s. (i)
To their credit, both Naficy and Noriega acknowledge the increasing penchant of Chicano filmmakers to create stories with “universal” appeal that draw in “cross-over audiences.” A close look at the Chicano films produced since the 1980s, however, reveals that the term “crossover audience” seems to be synonymous with an “Anglo-American audience.”
In truth, Chicano cinema’s effort to appeal to Anglo audiences is primarily driven by financial motivations. As a filmmaker, I can appreciate the need to generate profit from our products, including culturally-specific films. Nevertheless, it is troublesome to see that the desire to appease “cross-over” audiences at the expense of addressing the needs of Chicano spectators has become the standard and not the exception.(ii )
Early Chicano Cinema: Efrain Gutiérrez and Jesus Treviño
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chicano filmmakers had adopted an oppositional stance with respect to the “cross-over audience” demands. In fact, early Chicano films like Efrain Gutiérrez’s "Please Don’t Bury Me Alive!" and Jesus Treviño’s "Raíces de Sangre” explicitly resisted the pressure to serve English-speaking audiences by not providing subtitles for the Chicano-Spanish dialogues. (iii )
Instead of satisfying the information demands of the dominant audience, these films linguistically challenged Anglo, English monolingual spectators to operate in the same code-switching mode that Chicanos are usually forced to adopt.
The decision to write dialogue in Caló, and thus exclude monolingual Anglo-Americans (and monolingual Spanish-speaking Mexicans for that matter) from the revolutionary/separatist ideas often expressed in these films can be thought of as an alternative form of “media jujitsu” that is classically associated with canonic Third Cinema filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene. Despite the resemblance between this linguistic practice and the well-accepted theory of “media jujitsu” in Third Cinema, "Please Don’t Bury Me Alive!" and "Raíces de Sangre" have been conspicuously excluded from this part of the academic discussion.
It can be argued, of course, that by refusing to translate films for English-speaking monolingual audiences, filmmakers are merely reversing the dominant/subordinate polarity. This ideological posture fuels the “separatist,” “reverse racism” arguments frequently wielded by conservative forces.
But, as film scholars Ella Shohat and Rober Stam have asserted, “By defamiliarizing and reaccentuating preexisting materials, they [the films] re-channel energies in new directions, generating a space of negotiation outside of the binaries of domination and subordination, and in ways that convey specific cultural and even autobiographical inflections.” (Shohat: 331)
Efrain Gutierrez in first Chicano feature film, 'Please Don't Bury Me Alive!'. photo: courtesy and © Efrain Gutierrez, 1978
In other words, the linguistic strategy of refusing to provide translations for the monolingual audiences paradoxically levels the playing field so that issues of exclusion can be confronted directly. Furthermore, the preferential treatment of Caló-speaking audiences opens this discussion up to Latin America thereby creating a dialogic relationship between the First and Third Worlds.
We must remember that these two films are the first bilingual narratives produced in the U.S., and the first U.S./México co-productions ever made. Yet, despite their historical primacy, as Noriega has correctly noted, these films were excluded from the American Film Institute's (AFI’s) 1998 list of the “100 Greatest American Films Made.” This thrust to erase these films from the collective national memory is symptomatic of the biased perspective of public institutions when determining what should be part of the in universities’ curricula, or considered “classic American cinema.”
Some intellectuals argue that prejudice and modern powers of exclusion are so dispersed that one cannot lead political opposition in one clear direction. However, when the exclusion of Chicano cinema from the U.S. media industry is investigated further, it becomes very clear where the blame should be placed.
Other than the AFI, organizations like the FCC, CBS, PBS, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, and the FBI, among others, are guilty of ignoring the demands and complaints of various Chicano artists and activists. In his autobiography, "Eyewitness: A Filmmaker’s Memoir of the Chicano Movement", Treviño courageously names specific CEO’s and other corporate representatives who have shamelessly excluded Chicano productions.
Political legislation also played a large role in limiting the presence of Chicanos in the TV and film industries. As Noriega explains it, “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 seriously undermined such media activism and was followed two years later by a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that rescinded the FCC affirmative action program.” (Noriega: 179)
Despite his efforts to denounce the prejudicial practices of Hollywood with the goal of revolutionizing the American media industry, Treviño ultimately became a commercial television producer; part of the very system that excluded him. His subsequent career trajectory indicates that he was eventually compelled to abandon his culturally-specific stories and embrace the “universalism” force-fed by the mainstream by directing episodes for "The O.C.", "Chicago Hope", "Dawson’s Creek", etc.
This assimilative outcome notwithstanding, his first feature, "Raíces", clearly manifested an oppositional political stance. Framed as an agitprop work, the mode of production it adopted was politically motivated to produce, screen, and distribute Chicano cinema outside the Hollywood market. Indeed, the struggle to resist assimilation into popular North-American culture and politics, together with the solidarity of Mexican and Chicano workers across the border, is the central dramatic conflict in the film.
The film's protagonist, Carlos, is a young Ivy League lawyer who is initially presented as the stereotypical Americanized sellout. Despite the intense alienation between him and his fellow Chicano activists, he eventually rediscovers his obligation to his community and emerges as a socialist leader.
'Raices de Sangre''s thrilling climax as the lead characters incite a riot. photo: courtesy and © Jesus Trevino, 1978
The "malinchista", or sellout, is a stock character in Chicano cinema that can be traced back to the allegorical characterizations of El Teatro Campesino. The malinchista is in some ways the Chicano equivalent of the Cuban "gusano," insofar as both represent assimilative forces that become obstacles to cultural nationalism and revolution.
The last sequence in "Raíces" best captures the revolutionary implications of Chicano nationalism. In this climactic scene, Carlos and his fellow Chicano activists march on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico border as an act of civil disobedience. At the same time, the Mexican workers march on the other of the fence that separates them from their Chicano counterparts.
Carlos helps carry the coffin of a comrade that has fallen victim to the brutality of the repressive police forces. Armed police officers, border patrol agents and owners of "maquiladora" (border factory) anticipate a violent uprising.
The film ends with the activists breaking “the fourth wall,” staring directly into the camera and chanting “Viva la Raza!” as they prepare to battle the institutions that enforce the border and the separation of workers who share the same blood, the same roots, and the same class interests.
Obviously, this melodramatic ending has serious implications. By interpreting the protagonist’s conflict as a political allegory for the director’s own condition, it becomes clear how the film mirrors Treviño’s own ideological conflict. It can be argued, therefore, that the finale is geared to agitate the Chicano/Mexican audience and propose the idea of a united revolution across the border.
Contrary to the popular humanist interpretation of the Chicano movement, this commentary on the separatist role of the border is perceived as violently unpatriotic. Not surprisingly, "Raíces de Sangre" has been excluded from the American cinematic canon. Nevertheless, it is important to rescue this film and situate it within the larger history of American cinema.
The founding members of the New Latin American Cinema movement praised "Raíces" for its unique perspective regarding the relationship between internal colonialism and neocolonial dynamics. They were also impressed by the young filmmaker’s effort to create Third Cinema within the United States; as a result, Treviño was the first Chicano invited to speak at the Comité de Cineastas de América Latina in Havana.
However, despite making important political connections with filmmakers like Espinosa and Birri, Treviño returned to the U.S. and continued to focus his career on television and other mainstream pursuits.
One can only wonder if the history of Chicano Cinema might have been different if Treviño had chosen to nurture those connections and continue to make films outside of Hollywood’s system of production, distribution and screening. Treviño’s early indictment of imperialistic institutions and subsequent assimilation into the mainstream best characterizes the paradoxical hybridity of Chicano filmmakers in the United States.
Clearly, hybrid identities do not fit neatly into conventional categories. For this reason, Chicanos often feel compelled to negotiate their hybrid character by either subscribing to culturally assimilative practices or engaging in militant cultural nationalism. Several terms have been coined that describe this experiential condition as it relates to binary conflict and diasporic communities—e.g., Noriega’s “schizo-cultural limbo,” and African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois’ “double consciousness.”
Personally, as a Chicano filmmaker examining his own psychological state with respect to Third Cinema, I favor “paradoxical hybridity.” (iv) The ideological conflict between cultural nationalism and American assimilation can be viewed as either beneficial or antagonistic. It can be counter-productive since it reduces worldviews to simple binaries, but it can be beneficiary insofar as it provides the individual with a culturally-specific “epistemological advantage.”
Many Chicano filmmakers craft dialectical or dialogical resolutions to this cultural conflict by rationalizing their political allegiance to either side of the assimilative/militant divide. Detailed comparisons of the careers of directors like Robert Rodriguez (dialectically assimilative) and Harry Gamboa, Jr. (dialogically militant), serve well to substantiate the validity of this argument.
Far less common are Chicano filmmakers who adopt a dialogical interpretation of this conflict in which the multiple elements of hybrid identity and ideology remain autonomous, thereby refusing to be relegated to either side of the binary.
How do filmmakers explore this ambiguous cultural "positionality"? Why have these voices been historically excluded from academia and the film industry? Is the theoretical exploration of binaries damaging or reductive? What options exist for militant cultural nationalists who wish to penetrate the mainstream in order to reach a larger audience?
These questions may be helpful for Chicano filmmakers to recognize their own paradoxical hybridity if they aspire to create Third Cinema in the United States. To become comfortable in approaching these questions dialectically or dialogically is a practical way of negotiating the paradoxical positionality that Chicano filmmakers have always held in this country.
Alienated, homeless Chicano in 'Fire Ants for Nothing'. photo: courtesy and © Harry Gamboa 1994
The Birth of the 'No-Movie': Harry Gamboa, Jr.
Harry Gamboa Jr. is an admirable example of a militant Chicano artist who, remaining loyal to a rasquache aesthetic, has adopted a dialogical interpretation of his own paradoxical hybridity and moved on to explore the possibility of creating Third Cinema in the United States.
By regularly employing untrained actors and creating his own distribution network, with an average budget of $150 per film, Gamboa has been able to support his cinematic endeavors and function independently in the film industry. Famous for his oppositional expression and guerilla mode of production, Gamboa remains one of the few Chicano filmmakers that have not submitted to “cross-over” demands of universalism and conformity propagated by other directors like Treviño in the 1980s.
In fact, rather than compromise his own view of the mainstream and pursue a career in television, for a long period of time Gamboa worked as a bus driver to support his filmmaking endeavors.
Today, at least for me, Gamboa remains one of the most important Chicano filmmakers since his mode of production and revolutionary concept of the “No-Movie” opened up new artistic avenues for militant Chicano filmmakers who search for a way to create modern variants of Third Cinema in the United States. Much like Treviño in "Raíces", by similarly excluding Anglo audiences from his culturally-specific narratives, Gamboa brought issues of exclusion and the desire to compete with commercial cinema to the forefront of the Chicano artistic agenda.
What aesthetically distinguishes Gamboa from almost every other Chicano filmmaker is his pioneering work and preference for experimental, unconventional media: VHS, mail art, and consumer digital cameras. Congruent with the political agenda that drives his films, Gamboa refuses to be categorized in a reductive manner and prefers to identify himself as a mixed-media Chicano artist.
By using technologies (VHS, Hi-8 and digital camcorders) and terminology (Chicano) that are popularly regarded as “outdated,” Gamboa succeeds in aesthetically criticizing the assimilative outcomes of Chicano Third Cinema that resulted in 35 and 16mm film productions.
From 'L.A. Familia' by Harry Gamboa Jr. photo: courtesy Harry Gamboa Jr. ©1993
Specifically, "No Movie", "L.A. Familia" and "Fire Ants for Nothing" all independently stand out as three avant-garde short films that best characterize Gamboa’s surreal practice of rasquache aesthetics.
All these films allegorize the Chicano filmmaker’s marginality and struggle to create Third Cinema by eliciting testimonies from characters like a Chicano revolutionary, a Chicano teen who becomes a gang member or a homeless man who roams the streets. These characters spend most of their time wandering, disoriented while they philosophize on exclusion, Chicano culture, and Aztlán.
These testimonies consistently break “the fourth wall” and would come across as documentary interviews, if it were not for the dreamlike score and surreal tints of color that Gamboa utilizes to share his characters’ nauseous and disorientated state with the audience.
Through these diverse voices and testimonies, all of these films directly speak the revival of rasquache aesthetics as a means to stress the Chicano filmmaker’s limited access to public institutions and economic resources—which relegates our cultural endeavors to the margins of the film industry and academia. Gamboa’s explicit utilization of video cameras is a direct response to film schools and distribution companies’ exclusive use of celluloid. It is clear that these costly items have been an obstacle that consistently prevents Chicanos and other ethnic minorities from engaging a career in film production.
Although Gamboa is not as socialist-oriented as some of his predecessors, it can be argued that he explores his own paradoxical hybridity to promote the psychological decolonization of Chicano filmmakers and fight for the survival of a Chicano Third Cinema. The paradoxically hybrid nature of Gamboa’s mode of production is best described by C. O. Chavoya:
“No-Movies appropriated the spectacle of Hollywood even as they critiqued the absence of Chicano access and participation in the mass-media; moreover, albeit somewhat ironically, No-Movies fulfilled the goals of the nationalist Chicano cinema movement to gain control of the means of production by inverting its methods” (Chavoya: 58). (v )
Despite this insightful comment, Gamboa’s strategic appropriation of Hollywood’s spectacle is not as dialectical as Chavoya makes it seem. Rather, Gamboa’s approach to the negotiation of his paradoxical hybridity, as it pertains to his militant beliefs and Hollywood practices, actually is a dialogical posture.
As Benavídez has noted, Gamboa’s oscillating utilization of rasquache and Hollywood aesthetics is in constant flux: “[He] has split himself in two, to become simultaneously the raw-edged artist (who resists imposed parameters and disdains reverence) and the moderating auteur (who feels obligated to do more polished completed work).” (Benavídez: 5)
Gamboa’s ambiguous aesthetic characterizes a dialogical approach to filmmaking that remains open to interpretation and welcomes further experimentation. Nonetheless, one must be careful in applying this interpretation since other Chicano filmmakers, like Robert Rodriguez, have manipulated this approach to disguise their commercial films as variants of Third Cinema.
The original mariachi from Robert Rodriquez's groundbreaking and quite commercial no-budgeter, 'El Mariachi' (1992). photo: courtesy R. Rodriguez
Co-opting Rasquache Cinema: Robert Rodriquez
Similar to Gamboa’s revival of rasquache aesthetics, Rodriguez adopted a micro-budget approach to feature filmmaking when producing his film "El Mariachi". Apparently, when he began to work on it, his first feature-length film, Rodriguez still confronted the ideological dilemma that labels Chicano directors as malinchistas if they subscribe to Hollywood’s values of sex, violence and spectacle.
"El Mariachi" was such a successful phenomenon that it opened doors for Rodriguez, and it was immediately followed by "Desperado", a remake created for a mainstream (Anglo) audience. Many critics felt that with this Rodriguez had “sold out” to Hollywood, because he stopped using Mexican actors and he abandoned his rasquache aesthetic. Critics like Martin Flanagan reductively accused Rodriguez of assimilation.
I feel, however, that Rodriguez’s choice to embrace First Cinema is rooted in a more complex set of circumstances that parallels Treviño’s artistic trajectory. Rodriguez’s penchant for hyperbolic violence strongly suggests that he created the original “El Mariachi” as a Hollywood action film in order to supply the “American” demand for bloodshed. (vi) In a sense, Flanagan’s comments regarding how "El Mariachi" was ultimately replaced by “the glossy, cine-literate stylistics” of "Desperado" are true. (vii)
Nevertheless, the aesthetic choices that Rodriguez makes in "Desperado" only reflect the big budget that he now enjoyed, and the very choices he would have made in "El Mariachi" if he had had sufficient funds from the start. This point obviously obscures whether one would consider "El Mariachi" an example of Third Cinema, because we do not definitively know whether or not Rodriguez sincerely considered Third Cinema as an alternative.
More importantly, it leads us to ask a larger question. Does a big budget and high production value always designate a picture as First Cinema? What is the relationship between cinematic style, production values, funding, and political intentions? Naficy feels that “for accented films [...] amateurishness is not a liability but a distinguishing feature” (Naficy: 242).
Bringing out the big guns in Rodriquez's Hollywood remake of 'El Mariachi', 'Desperado' (1995). photo: courtesy R. Rodriguez
Similarly, Laura Marks claims that, “Certainly much of intercultural cinema qualifies as what Julio García Espinosa (1970) calls ‘imperfect cinema’ because the makers’ resources are limited.” (Marks: 10) Despite these claims that categorize a Third/Accented/Intercultural Cinema style as amateurish and, therefore, imperfect, the same cannot be said of "El Mariachi".
Popularly praised for its low budget ($7,000), critics fail to acknowledge that regardless of the appeal its amateurish character exerted on the public, it cannot be totally categorized as Third Cinema because it fails to criticize neocolonialism and the capitalist system of film production in terms of its actual production process. The main support for this argument actually comes from Rodriguez himself.
In his own “10 min film school” featured on the El Mariachi /Desperado special edition DVD, Rodriguez actually admits that in order to maintain a low budget he exploited Mexican actors and simply “didn’t pay them.” (viii ) This leads one to question whether Rodriguez’s principal motivation to create the film in Mexico was economic or social.
It could be argued that the film is like Third Cinema, because it was intentionally created in Spanish (with English subtitles) for Chicano/Mexican audiences. But this linguistic approach was not intended to resist the dominant audience’s influence; instead, this was a disguise strategically created to market the film as an exotic product.
Thus, Rodriguez’s exploitive practices and calculating use of Spanish epitomize his capitalistic motivations to market "El Mariachi" for Anglo audiences. These elements subsequently secured “his place within the Hollywood studio mainstream.” (ix)
Despite the disapproval I share with Flanagan for insensitive directors who abuse actors, Mexican people and the Spanish language for profit, it is inaccurate to consider Rodriguez’s actions merely as cultural assimilation. Rather, Rodriguez’s choice to align himself with First Cinema can be considered as one dialectical resolution to the paradoxical hybridity that plagues the Chicano filmmaker. In other words, Rodriguez felt that he had to create movies that catered to Anglo audiences in order to succeed in Hollywood and profit from it as a Chicano director.
When we interpret “El Mariachi” as a semi-autobiographical exercise in which Rodriguez attempts to come to terms with his production values and ethics, it becomes clear that conforming to the dominant ideology was not an easy choice for him. Associating the actions of the protagonist with those of the director helps explain the difficulties that Rodriguez must have encountered when deciding to align himself with First Cinema. The obligation that Chicano filmmakers feel about faithfully preserving Mexican traditions is reflected in Rodriguez’s portrayal of the protagonist—a transporter of culture with an existence that is threatened by technology.
New Age DJ-piano player in 'El Mariachi' speaks to Rodriquez's complicated relationship to technology. photo: courtesy R. Rodriguez
This concept is best illustrated in the scene where the musician asks for employment in a bar and finds out that the post is occupied by a man that plays music with an electronic keyboard (a symbol of mechanical reproduction and “modernity”). During this sequence, as the "neo-mariachi" prepares his keyboard, the velocity of the footage is accelerated in order to convey how modernity speeds up time.
This can be considered part of Rodriguez’s paradoxical style in the sense that a binary between real-time and fast motion is simultaneously constructed and transgressed. Careful observation of the film scenes show that every time money and deception are introduced to displace or kill Mexican/Chicano culture (represented here by the protagonist), the fast motion effect is used to communicate technology accelerates time and tries to consume tradition.
Furthermore, Rodriguez’s paradoxical relationship to technology parallels an ethical threshold that is crossed when the mariachi undergoes a gradual process of role reversal. Forced to become a killer in order to survive, the protagonist abandons his guitar, a traditional, cultural weapon, and takes more modern and lethal weapons (guns).
Paradoxical hybridity exists in this case in that, although the mariachi pleases the ear/audience/soul by giving pleasure (as a musician), he also kills the body by inflicting pain (as an assassin). The ironic nature of this paradoxical conflict is that the musician ultimately becomes the killer, or, in other words, he is transformed into an assassin who murders his own people and culture.
Although the guitar is literally and metaphorically used as a weapon of cultural preservation throughout the film, the ending of the story seems to suggest that Mexican culture will inevitably be destroyed by technology. This idea is verbally expressed by the mariachi when he returns to Domino’s bar. In this scene the lights cast a half shadow (x) on the protagonist’s face as his voiceover states: “technology has robbed me of my culture.”
In interpreting the mariachi’s conflict as an allegory for Rodriguez’s own experience, it can be said that "El Mariachi" utilizes “the dialectics of validation” to expresses how his ancestral culture is being diluted by economic considerations and folk fascination with technology. (xi) Associating the dramatic conflict with Rodriguez’s choice to conform to First Cinema, it becomes clear that his decision operated as a survival mechanism that strengthened his budding cinematic career. Although the director presumably would like to preserve his cultural identity (as the protagonist clearly does), capitalist society compels him to utilize technological tools that alter his “character” and ideology. (xii )
Perhaps Rodriguez was conscious that his use of technology and need to create some sort of spectacle contributed directly to "robbing" or "killing" the traditional foundation of Chicano cinema and deliver a politically diluted product to the “First World” audience.
Dream sequence of drug transport kid trying to have a little fun in 'El Mariachi'. photo: courtesy R. Rodriguez
In this sense, Rodriguez may be allegorizing the protagonist’s conflict to achieve some kind of therapeutic resolution to his own dilemma. Because Rodriguez’s fascination with technology has eventually led him to create films like "Desperado" and "Sin City", which utilize more spectacle, action, violence and enjoy bigger budgets, it can be affirmed that he certainly chose to produce First Cinema. Whether he ever consciously considered Third Cinema as an alternate route is debatable despite Naficy’s inclusion of "El Mariachi" in his list of border/accented cinema.
It remains clear, however, that "El Mariachi" can be read as an exercise in introspection that dialectically attempts to resolve Rodriguez’s individual form of paradoxical hybridity. Borrowing Saldívar’s concept of “the dialectics of validation,” I would argue that Rodriguez explores ethical and political borders that reflect his own paradoxical hybridity. (xiii) El Mariachi also complicates the limitations of reading the film as a transparently autobiographical artifact by blurring the separation between fiction and reality. (xiv)
Although the movie is clearly not based on his life, by superimposing his own political dilemma as a Chicano filmmaker onto the protagonist, Rodriguez fictionalizes his decision to conform to First Cinema. Along these allegorical lines of interpretation, El Mariachi can be thought of as the capitalistic antithesis to Raíces de Sangre, since it justifies an exploitative mode of film production in which Chicanos benefit from t he exploitation of Mexican labor.
Even though it could be argued that “El Mariachi” bears rasquache characteristics, unlike Raíces de Sangre, the film thematically fails to promote the decolonization and independence of Chicano cinema or Aztlán. Therefore, El Mariachi fails to comply with the two criteria (nationalist content and rasquache form) that this analysis uses to classify Chicano Third Cinema. (xvi)
Upon comparing the cinematic careers of Treviño, Gamboa, and Rodriguez, the reasons for which socialist-oriented Chicano cinema has been suppressed in this country become clear. In addition to Hollywood's external forces of exclusion, internal factors within the Chicano filmmaking community have contributed to the disappearance of Chicano Third Cinema. The politics of conformism/universality have reigned supreme in the United States since the 1980s and have doomed the political and artistic innovations that came along with an early socialist-oriented Chicano cinema. Despite the current state of conformity within the Chicano artistic community, it is absolutely essential that Chicano films like Raíces de Sangre be included in the “Classic American” and Third Cinema canons.
As a Chicano activist-filmmaker who defends his own historical legacy and aspires to create Third Cinema in the United States, I can only encourage my likeminded Aztlanense compatriots to practice rasquache aesthetics. If we encounter economic obstacles like the lack of access to 16 and 35mm celluloid, which impede us from competing with wealthier filmmakers, we must embrace digital filmmaking to combat and promote the fall of those elitist obstacles.
I must also encourage Chicano academics to push for advancement in our field by following the examples of universities like Cal State Los Angeles, which has established the first “Reel Rasquache” Film Festival. By re-visiting the films of Valdez, Gutiérrez, Treviño, and Gamboa we will learn that exclusively addressing the dominant audience is not the only way to create change for Chicanos, and that we can utilize our cinematic heritage as a catalyst for progress. We need not worry about offending the Anglo audience because we refuse to translate our dialogue and fight for the decolonization of Aztlán.
Dreams turn to nightmares for lots of kids in Northern Mexico, from 'El Mariachi'. photo: courtesy R. Rodriguez
Let our films speak out as an act of resistance against our neo-colonialist film industry and those academics that encourage conformism in Chicano cinema; those who assist the efforts to erase any dissident voices that contest this hegemony. We must echo the thoughts of revolutionary intellectuals like Solanas and Getino who understood that, “Neocolonialism makes a serious attempt to castrate, to digest, the cultural forms that arise beyond the bounds of its own aims. Attempts are made to remove from them precisely what makes them effective and dangerous, in short, it tries to depoliticize them…or, to put it another way, to separate the cultural manifestation from the fight for national independence” (Solanas & Getino: 19).
Even if other Americans of Mexican origin do not agree with my comments about decolonization and socialism, they must admit, at the very least, that we all have a responsibility to “remember and respect our specific immigrant history and that notable movement of the 1960s that placed Chicano on the intellectual, cultural, historical and political map.” (González: 1)
Beyond the film industry, we must recognize the similarity that Chicano Third Cinema history has with larger political movements in the United States. Currently, the racial profiling and apprehension of Chicanos and other Latinos in Arizona and elsewhere is a phenomenon that further reflects the discriminatory practices of public institutions in the U.S. To exacerbate our alienation, Arizona is now attempting to pass HB 2281, a proposition that seeks to ban Ethnic Studies programs (including courses on Chicano cinema) throughout the state. Despite many activist efforts, HB 2281 is expected to take effect on December 31, 2010, upon which many Chicano, African-American, Asian-American and other academics will not be able to teach their classes any longer, and thus will be forced to seek jobs in other tolerant states.
As I reflect upon these issues, I am reminded of the activists of the 1960s and 1970s, like Harry Gamboa and Jesús Treviño, who were beaten by police for reciting nationalistic chants at marches, rallies, and other political protests. It is almost as if history is repeating itself and Chicano activists are fighting the same battles they fought forty years ago.
Considering the increased militarization of the border in recent years, the demise of La Raza Unida Party, the abandonment of and even scorn for the word Chicano, the mounting rates of incarceration among Latinos, the exponential growth of the Mexican immigrant population, and the almost non-existent representation of Chicanos in popular media (due in part to the FCC abolition of affirmative action), it is not surprising that the unresolved issues of the 60s and 70s are coming back to haunt us.
To conclude, I would like to acknowledge those who feel theories of Chicano identity, Aztlán, and Third Cinema are overtly didactic and outdated. The words of the fine Chicano poet Rigoberto González best describe how I feel about this matter:
“I'll tell you what bothers me more: the fact that artists can scoff at politics and call themselves apolitical and declare themselves beyond ethnic or identity labels—except when it's convenient to them, like when filling out a grant proposal or seeking out a publication venue. All of a sudden Latino or Chicano becomes a commodity—a way to build an audience and support. If an artist wants to exist outside of these landscapes, pos órale, more room for the rest of us. But no, these are the artist scabs, the literary gusanos, the two-faced bordercrossers who arrive at the buffet to partake (emphasis on the take) at the table that has been set by activists, advocates, allies, and anybody else who's building community centers, not thrones."
"As for those who fear alienating a white audience, I say, wake up and recognize that you're insulting your base audience. Brown people read and watch films as well. Chicano is a dynamic word, a dynamic movement, and anyone who believes otherwise (that it's static, that it's a blast from the past) hasn't been keeping up with the artist-activists of today.” (González: 1)
i Perhaps because of Noriega’s personal close relationship with the Chicano directors of the 60s and 70s (which has subsequently enabled UCLA to secure distribution rights to many important Chicano films), he felt that he could not directly criticize filmmakers like Valdez, Treviño or Gutiérrez.
ii To find evidence that supports the increased desire to appease the Anglo audience’s desire for “universality,” one only needs to consider the commercial success of recent Mexican directors like Cuarón and Iñárritu. Films like Babel certainly reflect this desire to respond to the calls for universality while also becoming high examples of “professionalism.”
iii The language that these characters speak in is called “Caló,” a hybrid linguistic phenomenon that combines formal and informal varieties of English and Spanish, relying heavily on neologisms and code switching. Obviously its use has similar political implications as the term Chicano. The ignorance of contemporary academics, their unfamiliarity with Chicano culture and history, has spawned the term “Spanglish” (a depoliticized—or highly politicized—version of the term “Caló”).
iv I use paradoxical hybridity in the cinematic context as the narrative or aesthetic exploration of hybridity and binary conflict as it relates to cultural, political, and psychological borders.
v One cannot help it but point out Gamboa and Treviño’s similar paradoxical hybridity, insofar as they both denounce Chicano filmmakers’ limited access to and participation in the mainstream despite their shared dependence on Hollywood spectacle and melodrama.
vi I put the word “American” in quotations because, obviously, the citizens of the United States are not the only Americans. This linguistic appropriation of the term asserts U.S. dominance over the rest of the Americas.
vii Flanagan, Martin. Process of Assimilation: Rodriguez and Banderas, From El Mariachi to Desperado. University of Sheffield, U.K. -
viii Rodriguez, Robert. El Mariachi. Special Edition. “10 Min Film School”. 1992.
ix Flanagan, Martin. Process of Assimilation: Rodriguez and Banderas, From El Mariachi to Desperado. University of Sheffield, U.K.,
x The half shadow is a technique utilized in order to conceptualize the mariachi’s dual role as a musician and killer. Perhaps for Rodriguez the half shadow represents the paradoxical conflict between American modernity and Mexican tradition.
xi José David Saldívar. The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History (Durham and London: Duke University, 1991), p. 3.
xii Character in this case assumes a double connotation that refers to both Rodriguez’s personality and his protagonist.
xiii José David Saldívar, The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History, p. 9
xiv This is well illustrated by the three dream sequences involving a child and the various images associated with death (a severed human head and a threshold leading into a cemetery). In a key scene, the child is bouncing a ball that bears the colors of the U.S. flag. He rolls it toward the Mariachi and the ball suddenly transforms into a human head—which, curiously, is a replica of Rodriguez’s own head. For me, the association between the influence of the First World (the basketball) and the death of the artist (the musician and the film director) embodied in the surreal symbolism respond to the director's awareness about his complicit role in the killing of the ancestral culture and the resulting therapeutic need.
xv To Rodriguez’s credit, he is extremely conscious of the fact that if he were to promote the separatist goals of the decolonization of Aztlán, his Anglo fan base would disappear.
Consulted Works: Texts
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Publishing: London & New York.
Revised edition. © 1991.
Benavídez, Nora. Harry Gamboa, Jr.: L.A. Urban Exile.
Chanan, Michael. The Changing Geography of Third Cinema. (Screen. Special Latin American Issue Volume 38 number 4 Winter 1997) University of Glasgow, Scotland. ©1997 p. 375
Chavoya, C. O. Social Unwest: An Interview with Harry Gamboa Jr. Wide Angle - Volume 20, Number 3, July 1998. © 1999 Ohio University School of Film. pp. 55-78
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co,
University Press John Wilson and Son, ©1903.
Espinosa, Julio García. For an Imperfect Cinema. In New Latin American
Cinema, edited by Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University
Flanagan, Martin. Process of Assimilation: Rodriguez and Banderas, From El Mariachi to Desperado. University of Sheffield, U.K. -
Gamboa Jr., Harry. Urban Exile. University of Minnesota Press. ©1998
González, Rigoberto. On Being a Chicano Poet. (Blog entry) Xican@ Poetry Daily. --
Guneratne, Anthony R. and Dissanayake, Wismal. Rethinking Third Cinema. New York: Routledge. ©2003. pp. 15, 31-37
Hobsbawm, E.J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth,
Reality. Cambridge University Press: UK. © 1992.
Jameson, Fredric. ‘Art Naïf’ and the Admixture of Worlds, in Rolando Tolentino’s (Editor), Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures. (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001). p. 249.
Marks, Laura. The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham and London: Duke University. ©2000 p. 10
Minh-Ha, Trinh T. Framer Framed. New York: Routledge. ©1992.
Minh-Ha, Trinh T. Cinema Interval. New York: Routledge. ©1999.
Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University. ©2001. pp. 239-242
Noriega, Chon A. Shot in America: Television, the State, and the
Rise of Chicano Cinema. University of Minnesota Press. ©2000.
Leal, Luis. Aztlán y México: Perfiles literarios e históricos (Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1980). pp. 51-62.
San Juan, Jr., E. Cinema of the “‘Naïve’ Subaltern in Search of an Audience in Rolando Tolentino’s (Editor), Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures. (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001). p. 276
Saldívar, José David. The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History. Durham and London: Duke University. ©1991 pp. 3-9
Shohat, Ella & Stam, Robert. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge. ©1994 pp. 260-269 & 328-332
Solanas, Fernando & Getino, Octavio. Towards a Third Cinema.
Afterimage No. 3, Summer 1971, pp. 16-30 (reprinted in Cineaste Vol.
4, No. 3, Winter. ©1971.
Treviño, Jesús S. Eyewitness: A Filmmaker’s Memoir of the Chicano Movement. Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press. ©2001
Consulted Works: Films
"El Mariachi" Rodriguez, Robert. México/USA, 1992, 81:00, Columbia Pictures
"Fire Ants for Nothing" Gamboa Jr., Harry. USA, 1992, 8:00, Harry Gamboa Jr.
"L.A. Familia" Gamboa Jr., Harry. USA, 1993, 37:00, Harry Gamboa Jr.
"The Perfumed Nightmare" Tahimik, Kidlat. Philippines, 1978, 91:00, CFMDC, Flower.
"Please, Don't Bury Me Alive!" Efraín Gutiérrez, USA, 1976, 81:00, Efraín Gutiérrez
"Raíces de Sangre" Jesús Salvador Treviño. México/USA, 1979, 94:00, Corporación Nacional Cinematográfica (CONACINE)
"Salt of the Earth" Biberman, Herbert. United States, 1954, 94:00. Independent Production Company (IPC).
Rafael Flores is an award-winning filmmaker and educator from Seattle, who Executive Directs the Green Eyed Media arts collective, teaches film production at the United Roots Media Arts Center in Oakland and can be reached
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Posted on Apr 24, 2014 - 06:22 PM