Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chicana Films Need to be Included in Mexican American Studies Curricula. Award Winning Filmmaker Linda Garcia Merchant Tells Us Why!

By Guest Writer:  Filmmaker, Linda Garcia Merchant

Tony Diaz of Librotraficante and Nuestra Palabra, DAY ONE at Mercado Mayapan (photo by Kathryn Haviland)
I finally met Tony Diaz in person, in 2012, at a weekend conference that acknowledged the 40th anniversary of the Partido Raza Unida Convention at Mercado Mayapan in the Segundo Barrio area of El Paso, Texas.  One of the cornerstones of the modern Chicano Movement in El Paso, Mercado Mayapan, was originally a factory, that in 1981, was repurposed by a group of Chicana laborers, La Mujer Obrera, as a job training and social center.

I had "virtually" met Tony three years earlier when I was interviewed on his “Nuestra Palabra" show to promote several Texas screenings of my first film, Las Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana (2007).  Las Mujeres had been invited to screen at the Museo Alameda in San Antonio and was to be the debut of the Mexican American Community Center (MACC) in Austin as part of the 2008 Sor Juana Festival Tejas, sponsored by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. 

I continue to be a fan of the work Tony does with Librotraficante and, more recently, taking on the incredible challenge of creating a resource for Mexican American Studies (M.A.S.) in Tejas. 

"Reel Chicano Filmmakers" (L to R: Sean Arcy, Jesus Treviño, unknown,
Dennix Bixler, Linda Garcia Merchant (photo by Kathryn Haviland)
In June of 2014, Tony wrote an article for The Huffington Post, Latino Voices entitled, “Top 10 Chicano Films for M.A.S.” which included 15 of the top Chicano films to have as a resource for M.A.S.  I looked at the list and immediately tweeted a message to him that said, “Great!  Where are the women?  We make films too!"

Tony is a great guy and a true activist in the sense that the work is always about inclusion.   His immediate response was:  “What would a list of Chicana films look like?”

My first reaction was to create a list of films for M.A.S. by and about Chicanas.  But that wasn’t really solving the issue of inclusion.  If anything, it was keeping us as far apart as we have been in movement politics.  A list of films about Chicano culture should include films by men and women about Chicano men, women, and children.  As there are all types of films available that fit this requirement, I felt it should be one list, not two.  However, understanding that this list had already been published by The Huffington Post, there was a good chance there wouldn’t be a follow-up to correct or include what I felt was half a list. 

It was then that I realized the inclusion of the filmmakers as well as the films would be important to this list.  I realized it was personal.  I felt that the women left off the list, including myself, had made great contributions to our culture, and had done so with little fanfare or acknowledgement which continues to render many of us invisible to the history and contributions frequently recognized as “Chicano.” 

So instead of just giving Tony a list with run times and authors, I wrote a passionate statement about why the inclusion of Chicana Filmmakers was important to the M.A.S. resource.  Here is that statement:

I love being a Chicana Filmmaker because we are many things.  We are primarily activists moving cultural production forward.  We are provocateurs, inciting free thinking and daring conversation to come from the open-ended questions we shout in the stories we tell.  In Matilde Landeta’s Las Trotacalles, there is a death scene where the group of women standing around the bed of their dying friend are not dwelling on the sadness of the moment, but are having a heated conversation about the existence of God. Landeta manages to bring the emotional arc back from curious to poignant with the dying woman’s last words about faith that silences both the women and the audience. 

Martha Cotera, founding member of Mujeres de la Raza Unida, and Jesus Salvador Treviño, filmmaker,
on the opening panel of the 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Partido Raza Unida
Convention held at University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) (Photo by Kathryn Haviland)
We are risk takers, high wire aerialists tiptoeing over fields filled with the landmines of funding and exposure, cultural and gender insensitivities, resistance, and oppression, all while juggling actors, creative financing, production, distribution, and places to work, that will support us and our families. 

Chicana filmmakers are family, bound by the bond of Chicana-ism and filmmaking, and the many battles fought to get things done.  We teach one another craft and technique, understanding the importance of the auteur in the creation of product.  We do not engage regularly, but we connect when it is important to do so.  When we do engage, it is with the understanding that our bonds are as old as our history in this hemisphere, pre tribal and pre colonial.  I say this because it is how I feel about one of the Foremothers of Chicana Filmmaking, Sylvia Morales, producer of Chicana (1979) and A Crushing Love (2009). 

Filmmaker Sylvia Morales with María Cotera, Chicana feminist, activist, University of Michigan professor,
at the 2011 MALCS Summer Institute at California State University Los Angeles  (photo by Linda Garcia Merchant)
When I first met Sylvia Morales, I was just beginning production on my first film, Las Mujeres.  Sylvia was beginning work on A Crushing Love.  It was Chicano Filmmaker, Jesus Treviño, who said we should meet as we were working on similar projects. 

Sylvia is tall, striking, as only Latinas can be beautiful, and the owner of the most piercing set of eyes that can and do stand as judge and jury at any moment.  “So you want to be a filmmaker,” she grumbled, a tiny smirk on her lips and looking at me with that famous raised eyebrow.  “Well, be prepared to always be broke and never completely satisfied with what you’ve done.”  She then went on to tell wonderful stories of her experiences at the Denver Youth Conference and what it took to make Chicana (1979).  To this day, I relish every moment of that first meeting and carry forward the important lessons I have learned from Sylvia about why we do what we do. Sylvia continues to mentor my work with honest feedback and constructive suggestions. 

Jesus Salvador Treviño shooting The Women Legacy Panel (photo by Kathryn Haviland)
The highlight of my filmmaking career has been two opportunities  to work with Sylvia on projects.  First, in 2006, shooting Martha and María Cotera’s interview at my cameraman’s house in Evanston for A Crushing Love.  Then in 2011, shooting panels and interviews for the Chicana Por Mi Raza Oral HistoryProject at the MALCS (Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social) Summer Institute at CSU (California State University) Los Angeles, including a presentation of Madres Por Justicia by Teatro  Chicana.  Those four days in Los Angeles were the most exhausting and exciting of my life. 

I believe that Chicana/Latina filmmakers have a special Y chromosome imprinted with the words “not impossible.”  It is how I can rationalize our need to make films through the personal and economic challenge that comes from making film in a world consistently hesitant or disinterested in supporting us.  It is a challenge that presents itself as time away from children, spouses, and relationships in general.  Filmmaking insists on a complete state of distraction during pre- and post-production, that begins with the creative acts, with writing scripts, and continues through the editing of footage, and concludes with the endlessly expensive lottery of festival submission. 

Jesus Salvador Treviño shooting The Women Legacy Panel with Martha Cotera (photo by Kathryn Haviland)
However, this list isn’t just about the challenges that come with stories we tell.  It is about the simple fact that we are telling them.  Our “filmmaker” foremothers: Matilde Landeta, Sylvia Morales, Nancy De Los Santos, and LourdesPortillo, learned the structure of our craft and then redesigned that form in shapes that reflect a thousand years of tias, comadres y abuelas, teaching us how to tell a tale. 

Consider a young Latina in El Paso, Tejas; another in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and yet another in Las Vegas, Nevada watching A Crushing Love (Sylvia Morales, UCLA BA, MFA), Señorita Estraviada (Lourdes Portillo, San Francisco Art Institute MFA), or La negra Angustias (Matilde Landeta, Assistant Director during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema).

While she watches these films, what seeds are planted in her mind, about the possibility of making film and becoming a filmmaker?  Does she go on to become the young woman that makes Las Marthas or Mosquita Y Mari?  I know she does.  I know we do. 

1.   Chicana. Director/Writer: Sylvia Morales (1979) (Classroom clock: 23 mins). History of Chicana and Mexican women from pre Columbian times to the present (Women Make Movies, distribution)

2.   A Crushing Love Chicanas, Motherhood and Activism. Director/Writer: Sylvia Morales (2009) (Classroom clock: 58 mins). Sequel to Chicana, Morales asks the question of Chicana activists and their children, how do they successfully juggle the needs of both the community and their families. Morales takes the question a step further by turning the camera on herself and her daughter.

3.  Senorita Extraviada, Missing Young Woman. Director/Producer: Lourdes Portillo (2001) (Classroom clock: 74 mins.) Story of the murdered women of Juarez Mexico is presented in a way that demonstrates the genocidal nature of the tragedy and the lack of action by the government.

4. Corpus:  A Home Movie for Selena.  Director/Producer: Lourdes Portillo (1999) (Classroom clock: 47 mins.) It has been said that this documentary presents Tejana singing star Selena Quintanilla 'from a Latina Feminist perspective'. Portillo chooses to include Latina scholars commenting on the lasting fame and iconic nature of her memory.

5.  La Negra Angustias. Director: Matilde Landeta Writers: Matilde Landeta and Francisco Rojas Gonzalez (1949) (Classroom clock: 85 mins.) At last a film about the Mexican Revolution with a woman leading the revolutionaries.  Starring María Elena Marques, who is better known for her role in Emilio Fernandez's film, La Perla.  

6.   La Trotacalles.  Director: Matilde Landeta (1951) (Classroom clock: 101 mins.) The second of three features Landeta was able to make within the male dominated structure of  the Mexican film industry. The film is about a group of streetwalkers, but without the moral judgements often applied to women in this profession.

7.    The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in American Cinema. Producers/Directors: Nancy De Los Santos, Susan Racho, Alberto Dominguez (2002). (Classroom clock: 90 mins) A wonderful documentary that presents the rich and little known contributions on both sides of the camera by Latinos in Hollywood.

  8.  Pilsen: Port of EntryDirector: Kenneth Solarz Producer: Nancy De Los Santos (1981) (Classroom clock: 28mins.)  Documentary on the life of the Fraga family in the Pilsen neighborhood in  Chicago. Interesting in that it touches on the challenges of maintaining cultural pride with the ever present threat of gentrification.

9.     Antonia: A Chicana Story. Directors: Luz Maria Gordillo and Juan Javier Pescador (2013). (Classroom clock: 55 mins.) One of the foremothers of Chicana studies, Antonia Castaneda's life is presented through her writing along with interviews and conversations with colleagues and friends.

10.   My Filmmaking, My Life Matilde Landeta. Director: Patricia Diaz Producer: Jane Ryder (1990). (Classroom clock: 30 mins.). A documentary that presents the life and work of Mexican director Matilde Landeta.

11.  Mosquita Y Mari. Director/Writer: Aurora Guerrero (2012). (Classroom clock: 85 mins.) A coming of age story of young love that runs right into the fast paced life that is immigrant community. Written and Directed by Aurora Guerrero, this film is beautifully shot by Uruguayan cinematographer Magela Crosignani.

12.  Las Marthas. Director: Cristina Ibarra (2014). (Classroom clock: 66 mins.) A wonderful documentary on a little known annual debutante ball that honors the legacy of George and Martha Washington in the border town of Laredo Texas. Ibarra speaks to class and culture, inclusion, body image, and the public image of young women chosen to participate in this gala event.

13.  Adelante Mujeres. Director/Producer: National Women’s History Project (1992). (Classroom clock: 30 mins.) A quick and comprehensive study of the contributions of Latinas through history.

14.  Palabras Dulces, Palabras Amargas. Director: Linda Garcia Merchant (2009). (Classroom clock: 45 mins).  Featuring six original works of the multicultural, multigenerational spoken word ensemble La Dulce Palabra Spoken Word Ensemble.

15.  Las Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana. Director: Linda Garcia Merchant (2007) (Classroom clock: 93 mins) Recounts the turning points of six Chicanas who answered the call to action and came together at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston.

Linda Garcia Merchant (photo by Kathryn Haviland)

Linda Garcia Merchant, an award-winning filmmaker and Independent scholar, is technical director of the Chicana Por MiRaza Project, a community partner for the Somos Latinas Oral History Project and the Chicana Chicago/MABPW Collection Project, a member of the LGBT Giving Council of the Chicago Foundation for Women and a board member of the Chicago Area Women's History Council. Watch the trailer for Linda's latest production 'Yo Soy Eva' , being released this fall.


Belinda Acosta said...

Fabulous list!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this important insightful piece!

Anonymous said...

Tell it, Linda!

Giora said...

Thanks for all of this information. I really like the Movie "Selena".

Vincent Mata said...

Good for you Linda, proud of you, don't stop now!

Unknown said...

Great resource! Thanks!