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‘Bordertown’ to ‘Bordertown,’ this Mexican writer’s journey through Hollywood

photo illustration of "Bordertown," the "Bordertown" cartoon, "Birth of a Nation," and Mission San Juan Capistrano
Paul Muni and Bette Davis in “Bordertown,” Bud Buckwald and Ernesto Gonzalez from the “Bordertown” cartoon, DW Griffith, “Birth of a Nation,” and Mission San Juan Capistrano.
(Illustration by Evan Solano / For The Times; Fox; Warner Bros. /Hulton Archive /Getty Images; Bob Grieser / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)
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Illustration for Hollywood's Latino culture gap

SPECIAL REPORT

Hollywood's Latino Cultural Gap

Times journalists examine the complicated history of Latinos in Hollywood and the actions being taken to increase their representation, which remains stubbornly low. FULL COVERAGE

Whenever I visit Olvera Street, as I did a couple of weeks ago, my walk through the historic corridor is always the same.

Start at the plaza. Say a prayer at the massive cross that marks the area as the birthplace of Los Angeles. Pass the stand where out-of-towners and politicians have donned sombreros and serapes for photos ever since the city turned this area into a tourist trap in 1930.

Look at the vendor stalls. Wonder if I need a new guayabera. Gobble up two beef taquitos bathed in avocado salsa at Cielito Lindo. Then return to my car and go home.

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I’ve done this walk as a kid, and as an adult. For food crawls and quick lunches. With grad students on field trips, and with the late Anthony Bourdain for an episode of his “Parts Unknown.”

This last visit was different, though: I had my own camera crew with me.

My last chance at Hollywood fame was going to live or die on Olvera Street.

I was shooting a sizzle reel — footage that a producer will turn into a clip for television executives to determine whether I’m worthy of a show. In this case, I want to turn my 2012 book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” into the next “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” Or “Somebody Feed Phil.” Or an Alton Brown ripoff. Or a TikTok series.

Anything at this point, really.

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For more than a decade, I’ve tried to break into Hollywood with some success — but the experience has left me cynical. Personal experience and the historical record have taught me that studios and streamers still want Mexicans to stay in the same cinematic lane that American film has paved for more than a century. We’re forever labeled… something. Exotic. Dangerous. Weighed down with problems. Never fully developed, autonomous humans. Always “Mexican.”

Even if we’re natives of Southern California. Especially if we’re natives of Southern California.

I hope my sizzle reel will lead to something different. I doubt it will because the issue is systemic. Industry executives, producers, directors and scriptwriters can only portray the Mexicans they know — and in a perverse, self-fulfilling prophecy, they mostly only know the Mexicans their industry depicts even in a region where Latinos make up nearly half the population.

Taquito specialists Cielito Lindo at historic Olvera Street on April 18, 2021.
(James Bernal for Reveal/The Times)

The vicious cycle even infects creators like me.

As the film crew and I left for our next location, I stopped and looked around. We were right where I began, except I now looked south on Main Street. The plaza was to my left; to my right was the historic La Placita church. City Hall loomed on the horizon. The vista was the same as the opening scene of “Bordertown,” a 1935 Warner Bros. film I had seen the night before. It was the first Hollywood movie to address modern-day Mexican Americans in Los Angeles.

What I saw was more than déjà vu. It was a reminder that 86 years later, Hollywood’s Mexican problem hasn’t really progressed at all.

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Birth of a stereotype

Screen misrepresentation of Mexicans isn’t just a longstanding wrong; it’s an original sin. And it has an unsurprising Adam: D.W. Griffith.

He’s most infamous for reawakening the Ku Klux Klan with his 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation.” Far less examined is how Griffith’s earliest works also helped give American filmmakers a language with which to typecast Mexicans.

Expectations are big for “In the Heights,” the rare Hollywood blockbuster to tell a Latino story from Latino creators and a mostly Latino cast. At this watershed moment, we look back on the complicated history of Latinos in Hollywood with a few significant highs and lows.

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Two of his first six films were so-called “greaser” movies, one-reelers where Mexican Americans were racialized as inherently criminal and played by white people (a third flick replaced Mexican bandits with Spanish ones). His 1908 effort “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” is the earliest film to use the slur in its title. Griffith filmed at least eight greaser movies on the East Coast before heading to Southern California in early 1910 for better weather.

The new setting allowed Griffith to double down on his Mexican obsession. He used the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano missions as backdrops for melodramas embossed with the Spanish Fantasy Heritage, the white California myth that romanticized the state’s Mexican past even as it discriminated against the Mexicans of the present.

In films such as his 1910 shorts “The Thread of Destiny,” “In Old California” (the first movie shot in what would become Hollywood) and “The Two Brothers,” Griffith codified cinematic Mexican characters and themes that persist. The reprobate father. The saintly mother. The wayward son. The idea that Mexicans are forever doomed because they’re, well, Mexicans.

Griffith based his plots not on how modern-day Mexicans actually lived, but rather on how white people thought they did. This presumption nearly earned Griffith a beating from angry Latinos.

As described in Robert M. Henderson’s 1970 book “D.W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph,” the director was staging a religious procession in San Juan Capistrano for “The Two Brothers” when a large crowd “suddenly broke and rushed the actors” because they felt the scene mocked them. The company rushed to their hotel where the townspeople waited outside for hours. Only the intercession of the Spanish-speaking hotel owner stopped a certain riot. It was perhaps the earliest Latino protest against negative depictions of them on the big screen.

Part of a growing cadre of Latino writers speaking out, staffers say the project came with a low budget, poor pay and a brutal schedule.

But the threat of angry Mexicans didn’t kill greaser movies. Griffith showed the box-office potential of the genre, and many American cinematic pioneers dabbled in them. Thomas Edison’s company shot some, as did its biggest rival, Vitagraph Studios. So did Mutual Film, an early home for Charlie Chaplin. Horror legend Lon Chaney played a greaser. The first western star, Broncho Billy Anderson, made a career out of besting them.

These films were so noxious that the Mexican government in 1922 banned studios that produced them from the country until they “retired... denigrating films from worldwide circulation,” according to a letter that Mexican President Álvaro Obregón wrote to his Secretariat of External Relations. The gambit worked: the greaser films ended. Screenwriters instead reimagined Mexicans as Latin lovers, Mexican spitfires, buffoons, peons, mere bandits and other negative stereotypes.

That’s why “Bordertown” surprised me when I finally saw it. The Warner Bros. movie, starring Paul Muni as an Eastside lawyer named Johnny Ramirez and Bette Davis as the temptress whom he spurns, was popular when released. Today, it’s almost impossible to see outside of a hard-to-find DVD and an occasional Muni marathon on Turner Classic Movies.

Based on a novel of the same name, it’s not the racist travesty many Chicano film scholars have made it out to be. Yes, Muni was a non-Mexican playing a Mexican. Johnny Ramirez had a fiery temper, a bad accent and repeatedly called his mother (played by Spanish actress Soledad Jiminez ) “mamacita,” who in turn calls him “Juanito.” The infamous, incredulous ending has Ramirez suddenly realizing the vacuity of his fast, fun life and returning to the Eastside “back where I belong ... with my own people.” And the film’s poster features a bug-eyed, sombrero-wearing Muni pawing a fetching Davis, even though Ramirez never made a move on Davis’ character or wore a sombrero.

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These and other faux pas (like Ramirez’s friends singing “La Cucaracha” at a party) distract from a movie that didn’t try to mask the discrimination Mexicans faced in 1930s Los Angeles. Ramirez can’t find justice for his neighbor, who lost his produce truck after a drunk socialite on her way back from dinner at Las Golondrinas on Olvera Street smashed into it. That very socialite, whom Ramirez goes on to date (don’t ask), repeatedly calls him “Savage” as a term of endearment. When Ramirez tires of American bigotry and announces he’s moving south of the border to run a casino, a priest in brownface asks him to remain.

“For what?” Ramirez replies. “So those white little mugs who call themselves gentlemen and aristocrats can make a fool out of me?”

“Bordertown” sprung up from Warner Bros.’ Depression-era roster of social-problem films that served as a rough-edged alternative to the escapism offered by MGM, Disney and Paramount. But its makers committed the same error Griffith did: They fell back on tropes instead of talking to Mexicans right in front of them who might offer a better tale.

Just take the first shot of “Bordertown,” the one I inadvertently recreated on my television shoot.

Under a title that reads “Los Angeles … the Mexican Quarter,” viewers see Olvera Street’s plaza emptier than it should be. That’s because just four years earlier, immigration officials rounded up hundreds of individuals at that very spot. The move was part of a repatriation effort by the American government that saw them boot about a million Mexicans — citizens and not — from the United States during the 1930s.

Following that opening shot is a brief glimpse of a theater marquee that advertises a Mexican music trio called Los Madrugadores (“The Early Risers”). They were the most popular Spanish-language group in Southern California at the time, singing traditional corridos but also ballads about the struggles Mexicans faced in the United States. Lead singer Pedro J. González hosted a popular AM radio morning show heard as far away as Texas that mixed music and denunciations against racism.

Luis Fonsi, Shakira, Kelly Rowland and Solange Knowles appeared on Nickelodeon’s “Taina,” a turning point for kids TV with a pivotal role for young Latinas.

By the time “Bordertown” was released in 1935, Gonzalez was in San Quentin, jailed by a false accusation of statutory rape pursued by an L.A. district attorney’s office happy to lock up a critic. He was freed in 1940 after the alleged victim recanted her confession, then summarily deported to Tijuana, where Gonzalez continued his career before returning to California in the 1970s.

Doesn’t Gonzalez and his times make a better movie than “Bordertown”? Warner Bros. could have offered a bold corrective to the image of Mexican Americans if they had just paid attention to their own footage! Instead, Gonzalez’s saga wouldn’t be told on film until a 1984 documentary and 1988 drama.

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Both were shot in San Diego. Both received only limited screenings at theaters across the American Southwest and an airing on PBS before going on video. No streamer carries it.

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Hollywood Gus

How Hollywood imagines Mexicans versus how we really are turned real for me in 2013, when I became a consulting producer for a Fox cartoon about life on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The title? “Bordertown.”

It aired in 2015 and lasted one season. I enjoyed the end product. I even got to write an episode, which just so happened to be the series finale.

The gig was a dream long deferred. My bachelor’s degree from Chapman University was in film. I had visions of becoming the brown Tarantino or a Mexican Truffaut before journalism got in the way. Over the years, there was Hollywood interest in articles or columns I wrote but never anything that required I do more than a couple of meetings — or scripts by white screenwriters that went nowhere.

But “Bordertown” opened up more doors for me and inspired me to give Hollywood a go.

While I worked on the cartoon, I got another consulting producer credit on a Fusion special for comedian Al Madrigal and sold a script to ABC that same year about gentrification in Boyle Heights through the eyes of a restaurant years before the subject became a trend. Pitch meetings piled up with so much frequency that my childhood friends coined a nickname for me: Hollywood Gus.

My run wouldn’t last long. The microagressions became too annoying.

The veteran writers on “Bordertown” rolled their eyes any time I said that one of their jokes was clichéd, like the one about how eating beans gave our characters flatulent superpowers or the one about a donkey show in Tijuana. Or when they initially rejected a joke about menudo, saying no one knew what the soup was, and they weren’t happy when another Latino writer and I pointed out that you’re pretty clueless if you’ve lived in Southern California for a while and don’t know what menudo is.

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The writers were so petty, in fact, that they snuck a line into the animated “Bordertown” where the main character said, “There’s nothing worse than a Mexican with glasses” — which is now my public email to forever remind me of how clueless Hollywood is.

The insults didn’t bother me so much as the insight I gained from those interactions: The only Latinos most Hollywood types know are the janitors and security guards at the studio, and nannies and gardeners at their homes. The few Latinos in the industry I met had assimilated into this worldview as well.

A Hollywood rookie and an Oscar-nominated producer trade notes on the hurdles they’ve encountered trying to bring Latino stories to the screen.

Could I blame them for their ignorance when it came to capturing Mexican American stories, especially those in Southern California? Of course I can.

What ended any aspirations for a full-time Hollywood career was a meeting with a television executive shortly after ABC passed on my Boyle Heights script (characters weren’t believable, per the rejection). They repeatedly asked that I think about doing a show about my father’s life, which didn’t interest me. Comedies about immigrant parents are clichéd at this point. So one day I blurted that I was more interested in telling my stories.

I never heard from the executive again.

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A pair of boots

Five years later, and that Hollywood dream just won’t leave me.

I’m not leaving journalism. But at this point, I just want to prove to myself that I can help exorcise D.W. Griffith’s anti-Mexican demons from Hollywood once and for all. That I can show the Netflix honcho they were wrong for passing on a “Taco USA” series with the excuse that the topic of Mexican food in the United States was too “limited.” And the Food Network people who said they just couldn’t see a show about the subject as being as “fun” as it was. Or the bigtime Latino actor’s production company who wanted the rights to my "¡Ask a Mexican!” book, then ghosted me after I said I didn’t hold them but I did own the rights to my brain.

When this food-show sizzle reel gets cut, and I start my Hollywood jarabe anew, I’ll keep in mind a line in “Bordertown” that Johnny Ramirez said: “An American man can lift himself up by his bootstraps. All he needs is strength and a pair of boots.”

Mexicans have had the strength since forever in this town. But can Hollywood finally give us the botas?

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They’re newlyweds from the same Jalisco town. He moved to L.A. at 2; she came three years ago. What’s on their TV? Netflix in English or Pantaya in Spanish?

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