Reel-Life Portrayals

Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

As a child growing up in Mexico City, Jorge Cervera Jr. was forever traveling to and from the movie theater with his mother and grandparents.

"They were really fanatics about the movies," he remembers.

And there was a lot to be fanatical about. It was the golden age of the Mexican cinema, a time when directors such as Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, cinematographers such as Gabriel Figueroa and actors such as Maria Felix, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendariz and Mario Moreno were turning out classic films by the dozens.

But what Cervera remembers more than the films themselves were the roles the actors played. There, up on the big screen, were Mexicans playing doctors and lawyers, politicians and poets, lawmen and lawless men.

"They represented us fairly," he says.

That was a sharp contrast with the way Hispanics were typically depicted in U.S. movies. Here, they were pushed around by John Wayne, shot at by Gary Cooper or cast as simpletons and ne'er-do-wells. And those were considered the better roles.

"As an actor I was always confronted with all the stereotypes that Hollywood has bombarded us with over the years," says Cervera, who has appeared in more than 100 U.S. film and television projects in the last 30 years. "For some reason, we are always portrayed as drug dealers, bandits, murderers or what have you.

"Hollywood does not show us as human beings with all the good and bad and with feelings. If they are only showing one kind of image, [kids] are going to believe that about themselves."

Motivated by that fear and inspired by the belief that "if we don't do it, nobody will," Cervera mortgaged his house, sold his collection of classic cars and unloaded a family business he'd run for 18 years to fund a $1-million-plus project his wife scripted and he produced, directed and starred in. The result, "Julio y Su Angel," is among the featured attractions at the San Diego-Baja California Latino Film Festival, one of a growing number of festivals that have sprung up in recent years to celebrate the Latino film experience.

The festival--which will screen films Tuesday through Saturday, at 7 and 9 p.m., at San Diego's Horton Plaza--will present eight other features, including films from Brazil, the U.S., Colombia, Mexico and Cuba, as well as 30 shorts ranging from three to 49 minutes in length. The films are not premieres; in fact, most have been out for years. But the goal has never been to debut movies, says Ethan van Thillo, the 5-year-old festival's founder and director. Rather the aim is to show pictures that "depict not only a positive portrayal of Latinos but also a more accurate portrayal."

"The festival screens works that tell histories and stories never published in school books and never before displayed on the big screen. The festival shows young Latinos and the general public . . . that there are Latinos in the community doing exciting and important things."

In years past, the festival, one of 10 major Latino film festivals in the United States, was held at San Diego-area universities and focused mainly on student work and short films. And, in fact, the festival's free nightly themed program of short films will be held at San Diego State University. But by moving the main venue to the city's historic Gaslamp District and expanding the list of features to include well-known works such as 1988's "The Milagro Beanfield War" and the 1943 Mexican classic "Maria Candelaria," which won an award at the first Cannes Film Festival, Van Thillo is hoping to expand both the size and diversity of the festival's audience.

An opening-night tribute to activist-filmmaker Moctezuma Esparza, producer of "Selena," has also been added, emphasizing another of the festival's goals: to recognize emerging Latino filmmakers.

"For me, it's an important thing that our community gets to honor our own," says Esparza. "And while it is a wonderful feeling to be honored, I also see it is as an important thing for me to do to give back to the community, to accept these invitations and to make the time to be with the people who are feeling honored themselves because they have been given a movie and programming that makes them feel good and that honors them.

"Which is really what my goal is. My goal in life is to create three-dimensional human images of Latinos in the United States for the world."

That was Cervera's goal as well when he set out to make his first film. Shot on location in Veracruz, "Julio y Su Angel," which screens Friday, is an emotional, Dickensian tale of an orphaned boy and the curmudgeonly old recluse he mistakes for his guardian angel. And while two of the film's heroes are Mexican--a third, ironically, is from San Diego--so are its many villains, imbuing the movie with a portrayal of Latinos that critics say is more honest than most mainstream Hollywood pictures.

"What we're talking about is balance," says Alex Nogales, chairman of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, an advocacy group that, among other things, monitors the media for stereotypic or offensive treatment of Latinos. "We're not against being depicted in those kind of very horrific and negative roles. Because sometimes we're the bad guys. But the majority of times we're not.

"As long as there's a balance, there's no problem."

Well, one problem perhaps. For Gabriel Figueroa Jr., son of the legendary Mexican cinematographer, a balanced script isn't necessarily enough. Today's films also frequently lack values, he says, which is why his father's pictures (which include "La Perla," "Los Olvidados," and "Macario") remain popular after more than 50 years.

"These old Mexican films, they have candor. And they portray certain values that society was in touch with," says Figueroa, who accompanied his father's films to four festivals last year and is already scheduled to appear at three more this year. "I don't think these new movies necessarily go for that. They go for [special] effects and they go for very plain, mediocre stories."

There's nothing mediocre about Figueroa's most famous work, "Maria Candelaria," which also screens Friday. With the legendary Dolores del Rio in the title role, the film, set in the famous floating gardens of Xochimilco, tells the story of an Indian flower merchant and her struggles against a community that will not let her forget her past. The movie created a major stir in the U.S. and Europe following World War II and played a vital role in shaping Latin American popular culture at home and popularizing it abroad.

"In a way, it's an archetype," says Gabriel Figueroa Jr. "It's how Mexico was portrayed in the movies, but it was not necessarily like that. I think it's astonishing how people react to these images.

"People went into the theater houses with their grandparents to see the film and they still enjoyed them and they relate to a certain ideal of Mexico, what Mexico was then. And there were certain values that were in those films that are still ideals that Mexican society has. And I think that is very important to certain people."

But, asks Cervera, is it important to the right people?

"Is Hollywood going to listen?" he says. "Hollywood says movies do not change minds; I disagree. Movies are the No. 1 educator. If you're 6 or 7 years old, it does leave a residue.

"It takes not only the Hispanics, but it takes society to make the change. It has to cross over. We all need each other."

Other features scheduled to screen at the festival include "The Milagro Beanfield War" on Tuesday; "Destination Unknown" and the Brazilian film "How Angels Are Born" on Wednesday; and on Thursday the Colombian films "Edipo Acalde," a gripping present-day version of Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and "La Nave de los Suenos," an emotional and challenging film about six stowaways on a ship bound for New York City and the moral dilemmas they encounter en route.

The festival closes Saturday with Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales starring in the new film "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit," to be followed by "Quiereme y Veras" and "Madagascar," two Cuban films.

* Information is available by phone at (619) 230-1938 and on the festival's Web page at

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World