For nearly 40 years, Gregory Nava has been one of the leading lights in the Latino film community. Long before larger-than-life self-promoters like Robert Rodriguez or Guillermo del Toro or Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nava opted to tell human-sized stories. Oftentimes, his movies dealt with the collision point between Mexican and American cultures. His first major feature was 1983’s “El Norte,” a moving chronicle of a brother and sister making the long and dangerous trek from Guatemala to America. The movie not only showed the difficulties of coming to America, but the equally difficult experience of assimilating. (The movie received a Best Original Screenplay nomination.) In 1995’s “My Family” (aka “Mi Familia”), Nava showed us the flipside of “El Norte” as it followed two generations of a Mexican-American family living in Los Angeles for nearly 50 years. The movie was filled with life, humor, color, and tragedy and contained an all-star cast including Edward James Olmos, Constance Marie, Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits, and newcomer Jennifer Lopez. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (1998) was a breezy and good-natured musical biopic of 1950s teen idol Frankie Lyman. The movie did a beautiful job of tapping into the everlasting appeal of the first wave of rock & roll music. Nava has also done fine work for television including the PBS series “American Family” and wrote the screenplay for Julie Taymor’s visionary biopic “Frida.”
But the movie that Nava is most likely going to be remembered for is “Selena” (1997), a musical biopic that simultaneously immortalized the slain Tejano singer and made Jennifer Lopez into a star. Much the same way that “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) was a touchstone for white American teens in the 1950s or “Boyz N the Hood” (1991) was a cultural marker in the African-American community, Selena has become almost sacred in the Mexican-American community. The contours of the movie may seem familiar—a bright and talented emerging star has a career cut short by tragedy—but what distinguishes Selena is what’s going on underneath the story. The movie depicts a loving, working-class Mexican-American family finding acceptance—and success—in America. And Jennifer Lopez gives a lightning-in-a-bottle star performance.
Nava, 72, is still active in the community. (He mentors many young Latinx filmmakers.) For the occasion of Selena’s 50th birthday, which would have been today, he got on the phone to discuss the origins of the project, meeting Jennifer Lopez for the first time, and the movie’s lasting legacy in our culture.
(Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
How aware were you, if at all, of Selena’s music before her passing?
I knew about her, and New Line had suggested that we could get Selena to sing “Angel Baby” for my film, “Mi Familia.” She was one of the candidates to actually sing that, and so I was aware of her, and I knew about her singing. She had a very low register of her voice—she had one of the most extraordinary instruments, certainly in Latino music, but I think in all pop music because she had a very low register, and she sang in the same registry as a man. When she sang her songs with her backup singers, they didn’t put it up an octave. She would sing in the same register, so she would have this incredible mezzo power in her voice, and that is very unusual for a woman singer, which is why we couldn’t use her for singing “Angel Baby” because “Angel Baby” was one of the highest sopranos in any pop music—it was way stratospheric, way up there, way out of her registry for that song. But I thought she was brilliant, of course, and I loved her music, and she was on the cusp of crossing over at that particular time. So when we were editing “Mi Familia” was when she was murdered, and it was horrific. I remember all of us were shocked by that event, and, of course, I eventually offered to write and direct that film.
How did that project first come to you?
Well, I think that the family wanted to make a movie of Selena, and they got on this very shortly after her passing. And the reason why they wanted to do this—and Abraham was very smart because there were so many rumors and negativity and people taking pictures off her dead body, it was just insane what happened—and Howard Stern saying all those horrible things about how I wanted to screw her coffin and things like that. It was just awful, and he was concerned about cementing her legacy and who she truly was. And he felt that the best way to do that was to make a major motion picture about “Selena.”
He wanted Latinos, and Chicanos specifically, to make this film. He had a lot of people approach him—Anglos and different people like that—and he didn’t want that. He felt that only Latinos would try to understand her, her culture and her world, her music. So the first thing he did was make an arrangement with Montezuma Esparza to produce the movie, and then together, Abraham and Montezuma approached me to write and direct the film.
When I received this offer to join with them, they didn’t have a deal with the studio at that time. They wanted to have me come in and come up with an idea about how to make the film, and then take it around to various studios and their networks to see about getting a project made. A lot of people were advising me to turn it down because obviously “Mi Familia” had been a big success, and “El Norte,” which was a big success, and they said, “You’re a very serious filmmaker, this is a pot boiler and she was killed by her fan club president, and you should be doing more serious work.”
I remember I was going for a walk, trying to decide whether or not I ought to do this film, and I met these two young Mexican girls—one was eight years old, and one was ten years old, at a park, and they had Selena T-shirts, and I remember asking them, “Why do you love Selena?,” and they looked up at me and they said, “Because she looks like us,” and boy, it was just like an arrow into my heart. I got welled up with tears, and I suddenly realized that these young Latina girls don’t have any images on the screen to identify with. They never see themselves onscreen—they have no princess. At that moment, I decided that I would do this film because I wanted to make it for those girls. Forget the critics and the tastemakers and all these types. I’m going to make a film for them, and they need this film. I’m going to put all the talent that I have in order to make a really wonderful film for them, and to make Selena’s beautiful spirit live.
So I said yes, and we then took the project around to all the various studios, and there was interest, but a lot of the studios felt that this was a TV movie; that it wasn’t really a big theatrical. Warner Bros. and Bill Gerber, who was president of Warner Bros., was a real hero for this film. He came from a music background and said, “I really want to do this.” He believed in my vision for the piece, and to make it a big epic theater piece with this young girl really embodying the spirit of her people and all of us, and of the land, of Texas. So he said yes, and we were off and running with Warner Bros.
I must say that the studio was marvelous, they really supported me totally throughout the whole production of the film. Bill Gerber really believed in my vision and he really supported me in realizing it, and we needed that support because it was a very emotional film to make, and a very difficult film to make.
For example, I said, “We’ve got to make this movie in Texas because that’s where she’s from, it’s got to be done in her land with her people. We’ll get the support we need in Texas,” and a lot of people in the production were like, “You can shoot it in Long Beach and sunny California. It’ll be cheaper.” But they said, “Yeah, you’re right, let’s do this in Texas,” and that, of course, turned out to be one of the best decisions that was made with respect to this film, because the support we got from the Texan community was unbelievable. We got production value from shooting this in Texas that we couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
One example, of course, was the Houston Astrodome scene that opens the film—that was actually shot at the Alamodome there in San Antonio, and we didn’t have any money for extras—it was a low-budget film. So we put a full-page ad out in the newspaper that said, “Come to the Alamodome on this particular day,” and 35,000 people showed up. They filled that stadium and that’s what you see in the movie. No one was paid, they just came to support the movie. That’s a beautiful thing, so I had the support of the studio, I had the support of the family, and they were all marvelous and I had the support of the Tejano community to an extent that I think no other filmmaker has ever gotten. 35,000 people. Can you believe that? I met Oliver Stone after the movie, and he was talking about that scene with me, and he was saying, “The most extras for ‘The Doors’ that I got was 10,000, and I had to pay them, and you got 35,000 and you didn’t have to pay them. That’s love.”
You worked with Jennifer Lopez first on “Mi Familia.” Tell me about the first time you met her.
I wanted an all-Latino cast for the family because they were Latino, so I wanted people to do Spanish and understood the culture, and I didn’t want some white actors—Marisa Tomei or what have you—I didn’t want that for the film, and those were some names that were suggested. When we made “Mi Familia,” we had Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales and Jimmy Smits, we had some good names for the male roles.
In my films, the female roles are just as important as the male roles, and the balance was important for me for that film. At that time, there weren’t any Latina actors who had a name, and New Line said to me, “You’ve gotta cast non-Latinas, you’ve gotta get Marisa Tomei and some of these actresses to play these parts because there are no Latinas.” And I said, “There are Latinas, there are brilliant Latinas, they’ve just never been given an opportunity, and I stuck to my guns and we had a war about this, and I am very stubborn. They finally capitulated, and they allowed me to cast all unknowns for their Latina roles in “Mi Familia.”
So I was really fighting for Jennifer Lopez before I even knew that she existed, but I knew she was there because we have such great talent in our community, but they never get a chance. This is a major issue today—this is where a Latino writer/director is really fighting for our community to really be given an opportunity to show what brilliant talent we have. I’m always introducing Latino actors like Jennifer Lopez or Michael Peña or people given their first roles, but it’s really easy. It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel because there are so many brilliant actors who simply have never been given a chance.
So I first met Jennifer Lopez when she came to audition for “Mi Familia,” and she was brilliant, and I have to say that the others—Constance Marie and Maria Canals-Barrera, all of them were so brilliant in that film, and they’ve all had great careers. Of course, Jennifer has become an icon, but Constance and Maria, they have all done marvelous work and they were all great. “Mi Familia” was all their first movie.
But Jennifer was spectacular, she did such a beautiful job in that role, and she set the whole tone for the film because she is the first one you see, and it was interesting the way that when the film was released, it was the actresses that got all the great reviews. Who are these faces? I remember that when we first screened the film for Francis Ford Coppola, who was the executive producer for the film, he leaned over to me when he saw Jennifer in her first close-up, and he said, “Who is this actress? The camera loves her!” And he immediately used her for his next film, which was “Jack” with Robin Williams, he was so impressed with seeing her in “Mi Familia.”
So what was the process when coming to cast “Selena”?
One of the things that the family insisted on with respect to the movie is that they didn’t want to offer the role of Selena to anybody. They wanted to have an open call. They wanted to see who was going to play Selena. So we had an open call and thousands of women came to audition, both for young Selena and the older Selena. We had open calls in Chicago and in San Antonio and in Florida and in Los Angeles. We had 10,000 young actresses in Los Angeles alone. It was unbelievable. We were overwhelmed by this.
In addition to unknowns, we also told actresses like Jennifer Lopez and Seidy Lopez and Constance Marie and Salma Hayek—I took them out to dinner and said, “Look, I can’t offer you the role of Selena, you have to audition for this part,” and most of them did. Salma didn’t want to audition, and I understand that. The issue with Salma was, of course, what I wanted to do with the part and what the role was is an American girl. Selena didn’t speak Spanish, she had to learn Spanish, so she was a fluent English speaker. She spoke English like a young woman raised in Texas, whereas Salma has a very distinctive, strong Mexican accent. And I told her that she would have to audition, and that for her to do this part she would have to shed her Mexican accent and relearn how to speak English like somebody who was born in the United States. She wisely understood that that was not something that she would ever be able to do, and there was no way that would ever be able to win this role in an open audition, so she did not audition for the part. She always says that she was offered the role and she refused, but what she was offered was an audition, which she refused. She was never offered the role of Selena and she turned out down. She was offered an opportunity to audition for the role, and she turned that down.
Jennifer says, “Greg, nothing has ever come easy for me. I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve ever gotten,” and that’s true. She’s probably the hardest working actor I’ve ever known in the business, and she said, “I’ll put myself up for this part. I want to know if I’m the right person, and I’ll put myself up for it. If there’s someone better, then they should do it.” She told me that she had auditioned for “Evita,” even though Madonna had that role locked up, but that was what she was like. She said, “Yeah, I auditioned for that because I wanted them to know that a Latina could play Evita, even though I knew I would never get the part, I wanted to show them that a Latina could do it.” So that’s the kind of personality Jennifer has. She’s great.
So she put herself up there and of course, we did the auditions and there was quite a few professional actresses like Jennifer and Constance and Saidy who auditioned for the role, and there were quite a few actresses that had been total unknowns. And Warner Bros. had paid for a big audition with film and costuming and music, and she had to dance and act. It was a big deal. And we had this big soundstage, and we shot all these auditions on film, and then we sat down with the family and with the executives from Warner Bros., and we watched all of these auditions. One of the unknown actors won the part—Rebecca Lee Meza—who had come to the audition in San Antonio, she won the role as young Selena. So we did use one of the unknowns who had come to the open auditions.
When it came to the older part, there was just no question—Jennifer was so brilliant in her audition, and she was the only one who channeled her dancing talent not to dance like she danced but to imitate the way that Selena danced. There’s a subtle difference there. That’s why her performance in Selena is regarded as one of the greatest in the history of musical biopics because not only did she have to do such great drama, and of course lip-sync so magnificently to Selena’s voice, she had to dance. She studied Selena’s dancing in the course of Selena’s career, and she danced like Selena when Selena was young, and then it changed to capture how she danced when she was a mature artist in the Houston Astrodome scene. She gave a marvelous performance, not only through her acting and lip syncing, but also through her dancing, and it all became one. When I watch the movie, it just gives me goosebumps when I see what a great performance and incredibly great job she did in capturing Selena’s essence. I think the heart of why the film is so well-loved to this day is really the incredible work that Jennifer did.
When the executives saw the dailies and rushes, did they realize this would be a star-making performance?
It was a star-making turn for Jennifer, and that was evident. I think that the popularity and the longevity of the film took all of us by surprise. Everybody loved the movie and seeing it in previews was incredible. We did a preview, and not just with the Hispanic audience, but with the Anglo audience, and everybody really loved the movie. They put it out and they made a lot of money and it made a star out of Jennifer, and in Hollywood terms, it was sort of like, “Okay, that’s kind of it.” But then the movie just went on and it just didn’t go away, and I think everybody was surprised by that. It became for years the number one played film on cable.
It was on cable that the film really crossed over to the mainstream audience, and it has become a tremendous, well-loved classic year after year after year. I would get these checks and be like, “Oh my God.” I couldn’t believe it. And, to this day, the film is played on cable all the time, and I had to do new versions of the film. I had to do a longer version of the film, because there was a demand for more scenes, and then then I did a shorter version of the film, and that thing just played and played. So, everybody, including me, was shocked and surprised by how well-loved the film has become. It’s the most popular film in the Latino community of all time, and just the moments from the movie that became iconic, like, “Everything for Selena” and the washing machine and “It’s time to be a Mexican-American.”
I went to a twentieth anniversary screening of the movie with Eddie Olmos at Cinespia, which is a big outdoor theater in Los Angeles. 6,000 people were there, and the Cinespia people told me that it sold out in about two hours. This is like 20 years after the movie was made—how do we sell out a field and have to turn away thousands of people? It was a huge screen and Eddie and I were there—he hadn’t seen the movie since it was first released—we’re sitting there and people were reciting all the dialogue with the movie. They had the movie memorized. They sang along with all the songs, they knew all the dialogue. The scene where Eddie does his monologue about how it’s tough to be a Mexican American brought down the house, and everybody was just like Selena—it was like the little girls that I met twenty years before. They were now all grown up. They were dressed like Selena, and now they had daughters dressed like Selena.
This movie has taken on a persona and a life of its own like nothing we have ever made or have ever seen, and down in Mexico as well, it’s huge. At a film festival, they had a sold-out screening, and everybody in Mexico loves that movie. One of the heads of Televisa told me, “Whenever we need ratings, we put on ‘Selena,’ and we always get through the roof ratings.”
I’d like to talk about a couple sequences, starting with Edward Olmos’ speech about how “you have to be more Mexicans than the Mexicans.” You are hitting on something that is obviously spoken in many Mexican-American dinner tables, but it’s obviously something that had not been vocalized in public, in a movie or otherwise.
One of the things that I noticed about Abraham was that whenever he wanted to talk with you seriously about something, it was always, “Let’s go for a drive.” You’d get into his van, his SUV, and the doors would be locked, and you would be trapped, and he’d be driving, and he’d be going on about whatever it was that was on his mind at that particular time. I was talking to his kids—A.B. and Suzette—and that’s what we’d do, we’d always get together, and I wanted to do a scene like that where they are discussing what to do about what is important because what the family was telling me is that those discussions would always take place with him driving around in the van.
Now, he never did the speech about how “it’s tough to be a Mexican-American,” but they would talk about, “Well, should we do this, or should we do that?” And I also knew that they had issues with Selena’s Spanish because it wasn’t very good. She could sing really well because she memorized the lyrics. Of course, at the end of her life, she was fluent, but at that particular time, she spoke okay but it was problematic. She’d go to Mexico and people would always criticize the way she would speak, and then in America, she would get criticized for how she spoke English, because we kind of speak Spanglish.
There were actually three crossovers because the first crossover was as a woman in the Tejano music scene because it was a male-dominated music scene. So Selena becoming the most successful Tejano music act was the first big crossover: being a woman in a man’s world. Then the next big crossover was being successful in Mexico because Chicanos were looked down upon in Mexico, and for her to go to Mexico and be hugely successful, that was another big crossover. And the other crossover was of course at the end of her life when she’s now singing in English and crossing over to the mainstream pop audience in the United States.
We showed her crossing over and becoming the biggest Tejano music artist, and now I wanted to make a big to-do about her conquering Mexico, so I thought, “Alright, she would be concerned about her Spanish because she knows how we’re regarded there, so I’ll do the scene of them in the van.” Here’s my moment to put in what all of us feel—what I feel, what I’ve talked about with my family, what you talk about with your family—about how tough it is to be a Mexican American, and I am going to give voice to us in a movie and what we all privately think.
That’s one of the things that I think you need to do in films. You see Coppola doing that in “The Godfather” with Italian-American things and other filmmakers doing that, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we do that for our culture?” So I voiced that in the film, and that monologue is entirely me writing my feelings about that and putting them into Abraham’s mouth for that particular moment, but I felt you could do those kinds of things in drama. It was justified because this was at the root of his concern with taking him and her to Mexico, and I thought, “Well, here is the moment where I could put this in.”
And, of course, that’s become one of the most well-loved scenes in the movie and Eddie’s performance was … he knew it. I didn’t have to direct him in how to do that. [laughs] He grew up in East L.A. and he had those feelings his whole life, so it came very naturally to him and he loved doing it.
I also like to talk about my sister’s favorite scene, which she calls the “Latino ‘Pretty Woman’ sequence.” It’s Selena’s shopping spree in the mall just to show off, and the ladies don’t realize who she is. It’s a real crowd-pleaser.
Yeah, and it’s not only something that happens to us, it’s also something that happens to African Americans. Kirk R. Gardner, who was my Steadicam operator and did such a brilliant job on all my films, he is African-American and he loved that scene. He said, “Man, this happens to us all the time.” So it is a favorite scene, I think, for all communities of color, because it is a way to really define the racism, but in a way that is very triumphant and is based on something that really happened to Selena. She really did bring her friend to go to Grammys, and they did not have a dress, so they went to the Beverly Center to buy the dress, and they actually had this happen to them. A friend whose name I am blanking on right now told me this story.
Now the word didn’t spread that this was Selena, but that was something that we did because that was based on another incident that happened to Selena, so we kind of put the two of them together and have this moment where you can really see how the Mexican community loves her. It is an upbeat scene. One of the things that I like to do, and one of the things that’s really great about Latino actors, and I think all really great actors, but I find this is really true with Jennifer and Saidy Lopez, who was with her in that particular scene, is they are fantastic improvisers. They color outside the text fantastically. When they are in the boutique, looking for the dress, I just let Jennifer and Saidy go to town, and gave them a lot of emotional freedom, and they brought so much emotional life to that scene.
And then I just let them move the way they wanted to move. It really set the tone for the scene so that at the end, when she looks over at the sales lady and tells her that they don’t want the dress, she was emotionally where she needed to be, because that was a cutting moment. I think that in order to create moments like that, which the audience loves so much, what you are looking for as a director with the actor is you want the spontaneity. If you don’t have spontaneity, the audience doesn’t react to it. So for scenes like that, I’d really like to give the actors a lot of leeway, I’d like to give them a lot of freedom where they could move where they want, where they could come up with lines in the moment that come to them, and really pump the spontaneity of the moment, because when I’m sitting with audience in previews, the minute there is spontaneity, they love it. The audience always reacts to it, and in order to make that scene work the way it did, it had to have a tremendous amount of spontaneity, and that’s the way I directed it.
You worked with the cinematographer Edward Lachman on both “Selena” and “Mi Familia.” What was the discussion you had on lighting scenes and making use of colorful filters?
I’ll tell you something interesting about Ed Lachman and how I came to work with him. There was a cinematographer who I thought was the greatest cinematographer working at that particular time, and one of the greatest of all time, and that was Néstor Almendros, and of course, he was Latino and loved “El Norte.” He said, “I want to work with you,” but by the time we came to work on “Mi Familia,” Néstor had passed, and so I was not able to work with Nestor. But Néstor Almendros’ gaffer, the guy who does the lighting, was John DeBlau, and John is a brilliant gaffer. The cinematographer that he worked with after Nestor passed was Ed Lachman, so I approached Ed and I said, “Would you like to do this movie, ‘Mi Familia’?” He was working with Néstor’s gaffer and I knew that together with Ed, who obviously was very familiar with Néstor’s work, that we would be able to get that look that I loved in Néstor’s films.
That isn’t to say that Ed doesn’t have his own brilliance. He is a great cinematographer, and he brought a lot to the dance, but he was an independent guy. I’m an independent filmmaker. Ed is not a big studio DP. This is a man who works for independent filmmaking. He knows the rough and ready nature that we gotta work and doing stuff like the end scene that I was talking about, which probably isn’t the way that a big studio DP would approach it, but he was rough and ready and a guerrilla kind of DP, so he was very much in sync with the kind of work that Néstor Almendros did. He had been Néstor Almendros’ gaffer and he was independent like me, so it was a marriage made in heaven that we were able to work under the difficult conditions that we would have to do in order to do a film like “Mi Familia,” and then also a film like “Selena,” because I like to use natural locations and natural light and a lot of single source shot keys. I like that kind of a look, and Ed understood that, and John could deliver it, and I like to give the actors a lot of freedom of movement. I don’t like to light and then tell the actors where they’ve got to stand. That’s just not my style. I like to let the actors find the life of the scene, and then get in there with John and Ed and say, “Okay, how are we going to shoot this? What are we going to do lighting-wise to magnify what the actors are doing? How can make this life even stronger with the lighting and our camera moves?”
I’ll give you one example since you brought up “Mi Familia.” The scene in “Mi Familia” where Toni (Constance Marie) is convincing Jimmy (Jimmy Smits) to marry Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo) because she’s got to be married to a citizen in order to not be sent back to El Salvador, where she will be killed. He’s just out of prison and not interested in dating her, so Toni has to really convince him. So when I was rehearsing with the actors, the scene was written for them to be in the living room and he’s watching TV as the scene begins, but I just kind of let these actors have some freedom. I just said, “Do whatever you want, let’s find some life here.”
So, naturally, Jimmy gets up and starts moving away because it wasn’t written that way, but that’s what you would naturally do if you don’t want to do something. Of course, she can’t let him go, so she starts pursuing him, and pretty soon, they are moving all over the house with her chasing him and him trying to avoid her. He goes into the bathroom to take a whiz, and she breaks in, and it was fantastic, I loved it.
So they said to me, “Greg, how are we going to shoot this, because we are all over the house?” I said, “Look, your job is to give the scene life, you’ve done that. Our job is to find a way to capture it.” So they did it on the day for John and Ed, and they asked beforehand, “How are we going to do this? To bring this down is going to be really hard because they’re in the living room, they’re in the dining room, they’re in the hall, they’re in the bathroom, they’re at the back door—they are all over the house. This will take a week to shoot.” So I said, “Why don’t we do it all in one shot? Just have a Steadicam in hand and follow them all throughout the house. And they said, “Okay, that sounds like a good idea but now we’ve got to light the whole house.”
That’s when I first met Kirk Gardner. He came in with the Steadicam, and, to this day, Kirk says, “This is the greatest Steadicam shot I’ve ever done.” We had Kirk, and then John and Ed had to light outside the house set, and this set was built outside, but it was a set. We had to light the outside of it because we couldn’t have any lights in the house, since they were moving through the whole house. They were figuring out how to light each part of the set, and we had Jimmy and Constance move throughout the house, so they had to move lights out and put lights up, and then they moved to this part of the house and those lights came down, and the other lights came up. It was really complicated.
Sometimes the actors went long, and the camera ran out, so those didn’t work, but I think we did it in about 12 our 14 takes. The last take was perfect—it’s the one you see in the film—and we actually finished early that day.
Representation is being talked about a lot now. What do you want to see on the big screen that hasn’t been shown to you yet?
Oh my God—the whole story of who we are! We have so many great stories to tell, and we have only scratched the surface. Hollywood doesn’t want to make our films, and when they do make our films, it’s “Dora the Explorer” or a Latino version of “Father of the Bride.” Screw that shit! I want to see our story of who we are, both in the past and now with the crisis at the border. Think of all the incredible things that we have with our immigration issues. Our world is a volcanic one that is exploding. We have tremendous issues of identity and how we have been a part of building this country.
The deportations of the 1930s happened to people of Mexican descent, and most of those people were forcibly deported by the Hoover Administration to solve the Depression, which was blamed on us. This is one of the most incredible stories in the history of this country. We know about the slavery, we know about the genocide of Native Americans, we know about the Japanese Americans being put in camps, but nobody knows about the deportations. This is the only time that the United States has deported U.S. citizens. Well, that’s the reason it’s never done on film, and I did it in “Mi Familia.” Jennifer Lopez is deported at the beginning of the film. I brought that story to the screen, but people still don’t know this story. My grandfather was deported. This is very personal to me, and this is why I did “El Norte,” and why so much of my films deal with immigration and with the injustice of immigration, because my grandfather was deported. My father was raised without a father because my grandfather was deported.
I wrote an op-ed about this in The Los Angeles Times. That story has not registered in the national consciousness—the way the whole Southwest was taken from us. There are more lynchings of people of Mexican background in Texas and California than any done by the Ku Klux Klan, and these lynchings were not done by some secret organization, they were done by the Texas Rangers and the California Rangers. They were done by law enforcement. Lynchings, beheadings—they used to behead banditos and put their heads in jars. There is so much awful stuff that has been done to us. All of these incredible stories go on to this very day. Look at the border. And what does Hollywood make? “Dora the Explorer.” It’s insulting, really.
The African-American community has done a much better job with getting their story told. Look at this year alone—you’ve got “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “One Night in Miami,” “Da 5 Bloods”—great, great films. And you’ve seen “12 Years a Slave,” “Harriet” and these great African-American movies are made and getting on the screen, and they are getting this country to deal with the African-American experience. And they haven’t made all the films that could be made and should be made, so they are still lagging behind, but they are getting their story told. We’re not, and there are so many stories that need to be told. Hollywood isn’t doing it, and it’s tragic. They had that Annenberg report that was released about the erasure of Latinos from in front of and behind the camera in the last ten years.
We are better with films like “Mi Familia,” “El Norte,” “Selena” and “Stand and Deliver,” but today, there has been nothing. We cancelled our film awards because there was nothing to award. Nothing has been made in the last ten years, and that’s what the Annenberg report said: “erasure.” Then they just came out with a new report a couple weeks ago about how Netflix isn’t doing any Latino films—like two percent, which is nothing compared to the size of our population and the importance of our population. I could go on and on about this. We are at a critical point. The inclusion and diversity movement is important, the doors are opening, but for us, they are still closed, so we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of doors to break down, and we have a lot of stories to tell.
There’s so many that I could go on for hours talking about all of the great stories that we need to tell for our country and really for the world. So in answer to your question, it’s a huge challenge that I, as a filmmaker, face, and I’ve been called the Godfather of Latin Cinema, and I am still working at trying to get these stories told. But for all the young filmmakers that are coming up, the doors are starting to open, and it behooves them to let their voices be heard, and to get our stories told is a tremendous responsibility that they all have, and during the pandemic, I’ve had Zoom meetings with hundreds of filmmakers. I just did one last night with a bunch of Latino-Chicano filmmakers, and I’ve done them for filmmakers in Mexico and all over the country, trying to inspire our young voices to really get their voices heard. It’s critical, it’s what we need, and I salute you for the work you do as a writer and a critic to shake the foundations of our film world, and to insist that the doors open for us, and that our voices be heard, and our stories be told.
Do you feel that your movies like “El Norte” and “Bordertown” were ahead of their time and should be out in theaters now?
“Bordertown” is such a powerful film. There were some issues with getting that out, but “El Norte,” just before the pandemic, was brought out as a Fathom Event. It was in 250 theaters around the country. The Academy did this big restoration, and we had a huge screening at the Berlin Film Festival, so “El Norte” is a film that has gotten a lot of play because of the situation. When we played it in Berlin, there were 900 people in the audience, and it got a huge standing ovation. They said, “This film doesn’t feel like it’s 30 years old, it feels like it was just made because nothing has changed, and if anything, its message is more relevant today.” So, yes, I think that these are films that do need to be seen, and “El Norte” has been, and I do want to work on seeing if we can get “Bordertown” out for people to see at festivals at least because it’s a film that really has a powerful message.
Is that available on a streaming service?
It isn’t. It’s available on DVD, but we’re looking into seeing if we can get it streamed and get some focus on it because it’s a very important film, I think. It’s one that I’ve very proud of and has had a tremendous impact, actually, within its own world.
How has “Selena” impacted you personally? When someone finds out that you directed “Selena,” what reaction do you get?
It’s unbelievable. I’ll tell you a story. I was at a weight loss spa, and I was on a treadmill, and there was a guy next to me on a treadmill. He was a good ol’ boy from Texas, an older guy, and we were doing the treadmill together, and he’s asking me what I do—I get this question all the time—and I said, “Well, I’m a filmmaker.” He goes, “Oh really? Have you made any movies that I might’ve heard of?” And I thought, ‘I hate getting that question,’ but I said, “Well, I’ve made a few things,” and he said, “Tell me what.” And I said, “Well, I made a movie in Texas.” He goes, “Really? What was it?” And I thought, ‘Oh god, this guy is a good ol’ boy, and ‘Selena’ is about the Tejano community. The relationship between the Tejano community and the Texas community is problematic at best.” Anyway, so I said, “‘Selena.’” And he says, “‘Selena’? That’s my favorite movie! That’s the greatest movie about Texas ever made!” And from that point on, this guy was all over me. He wouldn’t leave me alone. He was buying me everything he could get. He was treating me to everything you could imagine. We snuck out one night for a steak dinner with the greatest bottle of wine, and he wanted to pay for everything, because I made “Selena” and he loved “Selena.”
I’ve gotten that response from the Latino community—from Tejanos and Chicano. They love the movie, and when they find out I made it, oh my God, you couldn’t imagine it. But what amazes me is everybody loves that movie. I’ll meet some blonde shopkeeper at a store in Orange County, and boy, when she found out I made “Selena,” she went crazy. She said she saw it as a little girl, and she identified with Selena. All these women identified with Selena, and so many men and women relate to the father-daughter relationship. Women’s relationship with their fathers is such an important part of their lives, and they tell me that movie “Selena” meant more to them because of her relationship with her dad.
Nick James, who was the editor of Sight and Sound magazine, saw “Selena” at a film festival, and he came up to me afterwards and said, “It’s not my kind of movie, but I cried. I have a daughter, and I’ve gotta tell you, it made me cry.” And I thought, ‘It touches people because it reaches a deep human level. That’s what I wanted to capture. I really wanted to capture Selena’s spirit in that film, and that’s what we focused on in doing it. It’s such a tragic event, and there is no way that you can bring Selena back, but I wanted to do everything I could to try to bring something positive to this horrific tragedy.