Gregory Nava’s work as a Mexican-American film maker (of Mexican and Basque heritage) brought into focus several films that helped center Latinx people in their own stories that did not automatically cast them in negative stereotypical role such as criminals. While he may be better known as the director of the biopic of Selena, of slain popstar Selena Quintanilla-Perez starring a young Jennifer Lopez that helped launched her career, it is his film El Norte that caught the attention of Hollywood and most of the film world. One of his earlier efforts as a filmmaker, El Norte, a film about two siblings and their travels from Guatemala to Los Angeles managed to even get nominated by the Academy for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen at the 1985 Oscars.
After Nava caught the attention of Hollywood, My Family was his first feature film working in the Hollywood industry which led to more work as director, writer and producer. Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote of this film, saying “It’s an epic, the kind of bighearted, ambitious film that is rarely made these days — a film like “Gone With the Wind” or “The Godfather,” with a big canvas and lots of characters and a sense of destiny tracing itself down through generations”.* My Family is an offering that has a narrative easy to follow through its attention to detail through editing and vividly enhanced by color by way of mis-en-scene.
This film proves to be an endearing family drama of a Mexican-American family throughout the years that tackles heart break, reunions, death, and the connective tissue of a cultural identity that connects them all. Starting in the early 1930’s, the film starts with the heads of the family, the younger Maria (Jennifer Lopez) and the younger Jose (Jacob Vargas) living in Los Angeles and starting their family before Maria is cruelly separating from her family while pregnant in a deportation swept and finding her way back after much struggle. Once reunited, the film follows their lives as a couple and the lives of their six children as they grow up and find their way in the city. There is good, there is bad and everything in between but what serves to held them together through tragedy and joy is family: Jose mentions that “The greatest gift a man can have is his familia-his family.”
This film also explores the struggles of parenting and how generations clash with each other, how morals and point of views change over time. But there are constants too: the bridge that carries Angelinos from one part of the city to another, representing the road to responsibility, to work, to providing for one and their family. The bridge is seen throughout the film as well in the beginning and near the end. The corn field behind the house is another constant: once planted before Jose’s arrival to Los Angeles, its possible it was there when Los Angeles was still a part of Mexico, a connective thread of his heritage, of where he was from. The corn fields are also shown throughout the film through the generations with the instructions of “taking the broken pieces and planting it to make new corn stalks”.
It is a film that carries with it an enormous task of portraying the harsh truths of what life can bring but also showing families, in this case a Latinx family, which before this time hadn’t received much screen time in Hollywood that allowed them to be multifaceted with depth. Scholar Eric Roebuck places Nava’s film with another great in the film world: “Mi Familia is a sweeping generational epic in the same vein as The Godfather (1972). It tells the story of the beginnings of the Sanchez family, its fall, and its eventual redemption.”**
The narrative of My Family is one that is easier to follow because of the editing as the film is narrated by an adult Paco (Edward James Olmos) who is the oldest of the Sanchez children. The film opens to the present day of Paco as an older man and recounts the past of his childhood and before with his parents meeting. This is not a linear path for the narrative but perhaps more elliptical with flashbacks happening throughout film.
The narrator , Paco even mentions himself as a writer at one point of time and a shot of him typing up what must be this story, this story of his family on a typewriter came be seen briefly. Other features of editing help the audience see connections between people. For example when Jose first sees Maria for the first time in their younger days he is enamored. When she looks over, catches his gaze and smiles back at him there is an iris wipe as if he has tunnel vision, as if she’s the one she has eyes for. The next image we see is the two of them on their wedding day posing for photographs, stunned by the flash but happy, in love.
One thing that this film does very, very well is play up the duality of color throughout the film as an element of mis-en-scene using red and blue effectively to help set the scene and mood. Red, a color used for vibrancy, passion, love and anger is used to illustrate many scenes of action and happiness. Blue, a color to show depression, sadness, even grief is used to illustrate scenes where loss is felt. The wedding of the eldest Sanchez daughter Irene (Maria Canals-Barrera) leads the wedding party away from home all in shiny red automobiles. The patriarch of the family, Jose drives a less flashily red pickup truck across the bridge bring each day to provide for his family. Chucho (Esai Morales) the youngest of the adult Sanchez and the most troubled is featured in scenes with red often.
Charismatic Chucho dances in the street, teaching the young neighborhood kids along the scene ending with a sort of bird’s eye view gazing down at him and a line of children dancing around his red car.
In the scene at the dance hall that leads to a knife fight where he accidentally kills his rival: Chucho wears a red shirt and his date, a red dress. Late afternoon brings police cars in search of him with orders to take down on sight; their spotlights looking bright red in the sunlight, come nighttime they are blaringly red and haunting.
Our first scene where blue makes its appearance in a way to hint at the first major tragedy to hit the Sanchez family at home in their city is the night that Chucho dies. Being estranged from the home by his father because of his behavior, the family gathers one night, and Jose anxiously is beside himself. He leaves the family room where the rest of his family catches up and watches television. Paco follows him into a bedroom with blue painted walls as he attempts to reassure his father that the prodigal son will be home soon.
Jose is still visually distressed. It is night when a blue overtone when the police find Chucho’s hiding place in the warehouse, hunt him down and kill him in front of his younger brother, a young Jimmy (Jonathan Hernandez ). Blue also seen to some as a calming color is mostly seen as a distressing color that paints the night of Chucho’s murder as tainted one trauma that comes back to haunt the family.
Red introduces key scenes in different relationship in the film as well; Toni (Constance Marie), the second Sanchez daughter who became a nun returns home to announce that she’s gotten married. She shocks her entire family when she reveals that not only did she turn her back on her vows to God but her new husband, a former priest, gave up his as well! Her flashback of their passion filled tryst in a field in South America that lead to their union is filmed in a reddish golden light. When the narrative returns to introduce an adult Jimmy (Jimmy Smits) hardened by being in trouble with the law, his confident stroll down the street coming back home from jail bathed in that same golden red sunlight.
When Toni and her husband who work in an Immigration office take on a case to help a young woman to not be deported, her brilliant idea is to marry her to an American citizen to ensure her status. When she approaches her brother about the plan for a fake husband at their family home, Jimmy is livid and he retreats further into the house. The part of the house he retreats to has a hallway of painted red walls and he gets more explosive to closer and closer he gets to that section of the house.
Jimmy marries Isabella (Elpidia Carrillo), the young woman whose legal status was unsure and joins as his legal wife. Once snarky and unruly Jimmy begins to soften with the once timid Isabella, now bold who brings color to his life. In the scene where she switches out his cassette tape of oldies for salsa music and dance with her in the streets she wears a red tank top. She keeps coaxing her to dance with her until he does making him acknowledge the chemistry between them.
Later after making love, in the blue hued night time they have a heart to heart where Jimmy reveals his deep seated anger and the trauma from seeing Chucho being killed in front of him. This is catalyst for the anger that has made him act out and look for trouble that has manifested throughout his life. Isabella confesses how lonely she feels in this city, and how her childhood trauma also came from seeing a family member killed in front of her: her father. This parallels her to Jimmy and they comfort each other. The blue toned night scenes in the film are often somber and reflect the quality of life and death, of passion and sadness so well.
Jimmy and Isabella’s love does not have a happy ending : she dies in childbirth giving birth to their son. Paco’s voice over of his mother’s words saying mothers who die in childbirth join the spirits who help bring the morning sun, a very important task, are heard as a bloody sunrise lights up the screen. Jimmy loses his center, the color that Isabella brought to him, and goes back to a life of petty crime: at night time scene shows him punching a fist through a pawnshop display case with red cloth lining. A saddening blue toned scene of Paco visiting the incarcerated Jimmy with reveals a man broken seeking isolation, not wanting family to visit. A happier end after several attempts to reconcile with his young son finally pay off as the two embrace each other tearfully in the red hued sunlight in the corn fields behind his family home.
For Chicano families and audiences, Mi Familia proved to be an example of what could be possible for them in terms of representation featuring a cast of actors and actresses who looked like them with a director also of Mexican heritage who called the shots as auteur . Set in the city of Los Angeles, this tale of a family with roots to Mexico, of generations that clashed and multifaceted characters that were centered in a narrative still have relevance today. Being enough of a success to bring director Nava to do more work in the film industry means more opportunities and exposure for Latinx filmmakers and talent.
Perhaps we can confer that he helped pave the way for others as recent Oscars winners (for directing) have been awarded to Latinx such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu for 2015’s The Revenant and this year’s Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro. Mi Familia sits as a fascinating offering that has a narrative that is easy to follow through its attention to detail through editing and vividly enhanced by color by way of playing up the duality of color.
* Ebert, Roger. “Gregory Nava: Living in el Norte | Interviews | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, www.rogerebert.com/interviews/gregory-nava-living-in-el-norte.
**Roebuck, Erick, and Congalton, K. Jeanine. Latino Rhetoric: “Otherness” in the Films of Gregory Nava (1999)