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Last week, I had a discussion with Erika Valenciana about the 25th anniversary of La Bamba, one of the most influential films in my life, where she met Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña and Lou Diamond Phillips. She knew I’d get a kick out of the story because she’s my female doppelganger. We’d studied and worked at many of the same places, shared coworkers, teachers and friends and both made films about our nieces before finally being introduced last year. We share a bizarro connection that’s best explained by the five most influential films on my childhood development… 4 of which I share with Erika.
La Bamba (1987) This film about Ritchie (with a T) Valens is an anthem for young Chicanos because it lays out a blueprint for our lives in mainstream America. From finding ways to make our names more palatable, to facing discrimination in love and the workplace, to holding onto a culture that’s only a fleeting memory; The story of Ritchie Valens has echoed throughout my life like Esai Morales’ screams echoed through East Los Angeles at the end of the film.
Stand and Deliver (1988) My life’s recently evolved from that of Angel Guzman (Lou Diamond Phillips,) rebel student that can’t find a way to sit at his desk without creasing his pants to Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos,) a teacher that pushes his students to learn material that others think they can’t learn… I have a long way to go in this journey but I’m on the path.
There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. *Math* is the great equalizer… When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is *ganas.* *Desire.* – Jamie Escalante
The Princess Bride (1987) This film taught an entire generation to appreciate the stories of their elders and it put the special connection between grandparents and grandchildren on display along with the power of storytelling. It planted a seed in my brain that grew into an urge to tell stories and so much more. Looking back, I can also see that Inigo Montoya was a great influence on me because of his accent, passion for his craft and beliefs that are hard for others to understand.
The Neverending Story (1984) Another little brown-haired boy with a book… funny that I hated reading growing up but grew to love storytelling. I’ve heard that bilingual brains are wired differently and I’ve recently begun to wonder if that’s what made me more of an auditory learner than a visual one. Turning words on a page into images never came easy to me in the way it does through listening. I imagine there was push from publishers to get kids like me away from TV screens and back into libraries but I came away with a different result… Much in the same way that we try to pull our current youngsters away from video games while they continue to change the medium to suit their evolving needs.
The Last Dragon (1985) This is where my film list diverges from Erika’s. The previous 4 films were also part of her top five but her last one was Mary Poppins… yuck. I much prefer the story of Bruce Leroy, a black king-fu student in Harlem. Stuck between two cultures, Bruce Leroy’s symbolic journey to become a Master turns real when he’s confronted by The Shogun of Harlem. This film is long overdue for a remake.
Blood In, Blood Out (1993) – This was originally my fifth selection before realizing that it actually marks the end of my childhood. In fairness Erika may have gone along with the Last Dragon. This film, about a set of cousins in East L.A. that each take radically different paths in life, spoke to me because it made me think of my cousins, Issac and Abraham Soto. We all came out of similar circumstances but ended up on different paths. Our hardships weren’t as traumatic as the film but there were some parallels.
The Wrath of Grapes - This is a short documentary about the Farm Workers Strike in California. My Mom sat me down to watch this at a young age. It was my first exposure to the harsh realities of migrant life. Footage of babies born without limbs and airplanes spraying poison on the workers as they worked in the fields were etched in my brain but it would be years before I’d realize the impact that VHS tape had on my path as a filmmaker.