Since I grew up in a household that was half Central American, the Latino culture has always been prevalent in my life. My mother was born in Nicaragua but her family moved to the United States in the early 1950s. My grandparents learned English, assimilated into American society and raised six children in their adopted home. The one thing they always insisted upon was that their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren never forget where they came from.
As a youngster, I was not allowed to speak English at home. It was a language reserved only for school and friends. If a word of English was mumbled at the dinner table or at a family gathering, the adults would simply say, “I did not understand you. Can you please repeat what you said in Spanish?” This continues today with the younger generation. Naturally, we all speak English yet we feel it is indispensable for our family, both culturally and linguistically, that we remember where we came from and that we take pride in our heritage.
This has not always been easy. The portrayal of Hispanics in the media is often disappointing, to say the least. It’s most always assumed that we’re poor, uneducated and disruptive. As a little girl, it used to bother me that Latinos were often pegged as the troublemaking foreigners.
In the past decade, however, things have changed radically. As a result of hard work and dedication Latinos are thriving worldwide. Things have also changed because the Latin American population has grown so much. While birthrates continue to plummet in Europe and elsewhere, the Latin American community grows more and more every year. This is mainly due to the fact that we still believe in a family structure, still believe in God and still believe that life is a right, not merely a choice.
Recently, I’ve taken great satisfaction in the success of Latino filmmakers. Two films in particular accentuate our deep heritage while also emphasizing the significance of human life and individuality.
Quinceanera, released in 2006, won both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Additionally, it won the Humanitas Prize, which recognizes movies that promote the dignity of the human person.
Quinceanera alludes to the Mexican ritual commemorating a girl’s 15th birthday. Similar to the American Sweet 16 tradition, the Quinceanera is much more than the marking of a birthday; it is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. This coming-of-age drama stars Magdalena (Emily Rios), a teenager from Los Angeles who finds herself inexplicably pregnant. Coming from a deeply religious family, Magdalena leaves her parents’ home out of fear and humiliation, to find solace and support in a great-uncle, Tio Tomas.
Magdalena’s boyfriend, Herman (J.R. Cruz), is a smart, ambitious young man who wants to take responsibility for his actions yet realizes that, in doing so, the course of his life will be changed forever. The youths are unsure of how the pregnancy occurred, which brings to light their inexperience and lack of awareness. The filmmakers (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) do a beautiful job of dealing with this delicate issue, showing diplomacy and sensitivity while educating the characters as well as the audience.
With themes such as acceptance, absolution and salvation, this movie is a must see.
Bella, scheduled to be released this spring, is a movie about José (Eduardo Verástegui) a Latino soccer star whose career comes to an abrupt end due to an unforeseen tragedy. Years later, he encounters Nina (Tammy Blanchard) a waitress who is struggling with an unwelcome pregnancy and faced with making an arduous decision. The warm, accepting and nonjudgmental comportment of José’s Mexican family helps Nina embrace her future while also helping José come to grips with his past.
Directed by Mexican newcomer, Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Bella is the creation of conservative Catholic Latinos who wanted to make a movie that bypassed the culture of sex and violence so prevalent in Hollywood today. Lead actor and Mexican heartthrob, Eduardo Verastegui, has stated that he is tired of Latinos constantly being portrayed as dishonourable and corrupt by the media. According to Verastegui, the group of virtual novices came together because of a mutual hope: “To create meaningful films that inspire the world and make a positive impact.”
Hollywood was taken by surprise at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival when Bella took home The People’s Choice Award — considered the top prize at the world’s most prestigious film festival. Its creators are hoping the movie does as well in movie theatres as it did in Toronto. An inspirational movie about choosing life over death, Bella is certain to tug at the heartstrings of even the most cynical viewer.
Aside from their ardent pro-life message, both Quinceanera and Bella do a beautiful job of shedding light on the Latino culture. Not only is it a culture rich in history, but more importantly it is a culture that places family and tradition above all else. It is through films such as these, with their sympathetic approach, that younger generations will be able to recognise and embrace the deeper values of our Hispanic heritage.
Guiomar Barbi lives in Washington DC. From 2001-2003, she lived in Rome where she worked at the US Embassy to the Holy See.