We Need Documentaries About Latina Americans, Too

Chicana Power by Flickr User Kris Kables

Chicana Power by Flickr User Kris Kables, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Miroslava Chávez-García

A few months ago, while I screened Sylvia Morales’s La Chicana (1979), a film about the historical and contemporary roles of Mexican and Mexican American women in the United States, it hit me that before this film no one had pieced together a comprehensive look at the continuities between Chicanas and Mexicanas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sitting in my class, along with ninety of my students, I realized that Morales was among the first to create a documentary on the lives of women of Mexican- and indigenous-descent as they shaped and influenced the histories of their families, communities and societies through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also struck me that no one had done anything similar since then. Morales’s follow up thirty years later, A Crushing Love (2009), for instance, focused primarily on a smaller group of Chicanas. Today, we have yet to see a comprehensive film tracing women’s roles and relations in areas of the economy and polity as well as in the cultural and social life of Spanish-speaking peoples. In my view, this is a sad commentary on the state of Chicana and Mexicana history in film.

Unfortunately, the PBS Latino Americans (2013) series does little to rectify the gaping hole in the filmic representation of Chicanas, Mexicanas and Mexican American women, particularly in the first two episodes. It is true that women are mentioned and do appear in the Latino Americans series, but it is as members of the elite or as “women worthies.”  Seldom are the ordinary women’s lives rendered in a way that gives us a sense of what their lives were like in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Moreover, in no instance do the early episodes in the series focus on the role of gender and sexuality in shaping conquest and colonization – a theme explored by many historians of Spanish-speaking women in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Antonia Castañeda for instance, has described vividly the ways in which Spanish soldiers’ rape of California Indian women was part and parcel of the Spanish Crown’s attempt to retake control of its northern territory. Those same acts of war, however, nearly threatened the entire enterprise when California Indians launched repeated reprisals against the indignities suffered by their communities. Gender, as many scholars now agree, was pivotal to many other areas of life, including family and community formation, inheritance, and family networks as well migration and immigration. However, the film granted little attention to the ways in which ideas about men and women’s roles in their families, communities and societies influenced Spanish-speaking communities.

As a historian, I recognize that Latino Americans addresses many of the themes I cover in my Chicana and Chicano Studies introductory courses, and does so in a way appealing to a general audience. I enjoyed, for instance, learning about the personal experiences of repatriation as told through the eyes of the woman whose family was returned in 1935 when she was a young girl. I found her story heart breaking and not just because she — along with up to 500,000 peoples of Mexican-descent – were forced to go to a country many of them had never known before, but also because of her mother’s earlier death to tuberculosis, a disease that ravaged Mexicanos living in Los Angeles at the time. Motherless and now landless, she and her family were forced to come to terms with survival. I was left wondering as to how the loss of her mother had re-arranged their family dynamics and how it impacted her in the long term. While we learned that she left school to help her father, we know less about how that experience shaped her future as a young woman coming of age in Mexico and later, the United States.

I note these gaps not to blast the “failures” of the Latino Americans series, but rather to remind us and everybody else that we – as members of the public — still have little understanding of the ways in which gender and sexuality shaped Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. Southwest. What we need is a richly textured, nuanced and in-depth filmic representation of Chicanas, Mexicanas and Mexican American women in the past and present. We currently lack representations of Latinas in all their diversity, including regional, racial/ethnic and class status. Such representations are long overdue. It is my hope that the Latino Americans series has inspired others to take a long look at the role and relations of mujeres shaping their families and communities as well as the larger society. These are stories that still need to be told.

Dr. Miroslava Chávez-García is a Professor in the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Chávez-García is the author of States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) and Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s(Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006).

4 thoughts on “We Need Documentaries About Latina Americans, Too

  1. Felicity Amaya Schaeffer

    Thank you Miroslava and Cynthia for posting such a comprehensive post on the need for more documentaries highlighting the struggles and achievements of Latin American, Chicana, and Mexican women, and especially the centrality of gender and sexuality in contests over war and empire across the Americas. While there is significant research and books on this topic, your point is well taken that the importance of this project at this historical moment is crucial. I am thinking in particular of how current struggles over U.S./Latin American global policies and governance harkens back to a history of sexual conquest, the role of marriage in the conquest of land and bodies, and the need to think transnationally about the production of reproductive technologies and struggles around reproductive justice across many borders. We need to look across the Americas to how the feminization of labor sets women on the move (or conversely stuck in place) into sexualized industries from maquilas, to the sex trade, to domestic and nanny work as well as the organizing done by Central American women, Mexican women and Chicanas in the U.S. There is still so much to be done to bring into intimate proximity the struggles and challenges by women who put pressure on the masculinist and sexist state apparatus motivated by profit and control, cheap labor and a carceral approach to bodies out of bounds.

    1. MMiMi

      Thanks for the comment! Definitely the documentary left so many areas unexplored and you’ve just rattled off a significant list of subjects, themes, and issues that still need to be made aware to the public. As your own work and that of other Chicana/Latina scholars have shown, gender is central to the shaping and reshaping U.S.-Latin American relations, policies, and practices. Perhaps the shortcomings will motivate others to take up the call for a comprehensive look at Chicanas and Latinas.

  2. Linda Garcia Merchant

    Hi, my name is documentarian who couldn’t agree with you more. However the challenge we have in getting our work to you is with our lack of access to traditional channels of distribution. We are caught in a financial circle and struggle with the frequent question, ‘do we raise money to make films, or to get them screened and in festivals?’ For example, I’ve made eleven docs on Latinas since 2007. I’ve screened at MALCS, NACCS, NWSA, and ASA along with a number of universities across the country. The conferences and memberships to organizations come as a personal expense as I do not have an affiliation with a university. We don’t pay student rates for hotels, for meals, for conferences, for airfare…well you get the idea.
    Until we can create some sort of a support system that will encourage the production of film by latinos for latinos, that lack of resource will continue. Does it keep me from producing film? Not in the least. That same filmmaker you referred to, my personal hero, Sylvia Morales once said to me, ‘so you want to be a filmmaker? well you’ll always be broke and you’ll never be entirely happy with the finished product, but you will always love what you do’. I do and I will continue to produce docs on pioneering latinas.

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