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Gregory Nava may
be UCLA's most famous Latino film graduate. Before Nava made Mi Familia,
Selena and Why Do Fools Fall In Love, he cracked the art-house
market for Latino cinema wide open with his raw, emotionally compelling independent
film, El Norte. Released in 1983, the English-subtitled El Norte, about two
young Mayan Indians, a brother and a sister, who travel from their remote Guatemalan
village to Los Angeles, was slow to find its audience, but once it did, it triggered
a landslide of low-budget features that led to American independent cinema's
current place on the world stage. Nava's most recent project, American Family,
was slated to be the first Latino family drama on network TV before CBS had
a change of heart. Nava resurrected American Family on PBS in January 2002,
with a cast of the best Latino actors in the industry — Edward James Olmos,
Sonia Braga, Esai Morales and Constance Marie, among others. American Family
is modeled after Nava's own Mexican-American upbringing. The non-commercial
PBS time slot more closely resembles the director's independent-film roots he
first explored as an M.F.A. candidate at UCLA.
Indie Latino cinema
is not the only segment of the industry impacted by UCLA moviemakers. Film and
television veteran Moctesuma Esparza has compiled producing credits that include
Price of Glory, The Milagro Beanfield War, Selena, Gettysburg and
Gods and Generals. Esparza is emblematic of Latino filmmakers who attended
UCLA in the 1970s. Compelled by the social activism of the era, Esparza brought
a new political awareness to television with his Emmy-winning Cinco Vidas, a
documentary that explored the Chicano civil rights movement in East Los Angeles.
Esparza also produced the Oscar-nominated short Agueda Martinez: Our People,
Our Country — he would later marry the director of that film, Esperanza
Vásquez '73 — and the landmark American Playhouse drama, The
Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.
"By the early
'80s," Noriega explains, "filmmakers like Moctesuma were funneling
the money they had made in documentaries to bring Latino stories into theaters.
Greg Nava, Moctesuma Esparza and Victor Nunez pushed the curve toward the more
cultural, biographical and regional stories destined for the big screen."
A blend of the
personal and cultural is the hallmark of a new generation of Latino moviemakers.
Artists like Cardoso, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores
Perros), Salma Hayek (Frida) and Carlos Carrera (The Crime
of Father Amaro) are, according to David Valdes, the Oscar-nominated producer
of The Green Mile, "indicative of filmmakers who relate to their cultures
on many levels, and are individualistic in their storytelling. I go back several
times a year to talk with (TFT) students," Valdes notes, "and I see
filmmakers with ethnic pride and a burning desire to delve into this treasure
chest of untold Latino stories."