Mi Familia/My Family - Character Construction of Stereotypes
Mi Familia/My Family Trailer
In this discussion I am talking specifically on how the film Mi Familia/My Family uses characters to offer representations that combat the racist representations many films construct.
Latino Americans throughout history have been regarded in this society as members of a community that is not and cannot become part of mainstream white society. Even those born in the U.S., those who are citizens, are treated as ‘Others’ and by definition has been enforced by the expressions of white power that subordinate the Latino interests to those of the majority. In this regard, the majority -meaning the white dominant culture- has constructed and exploited stereotypes on people non-white enforcing white power and white privilege which is critical to the maintenance of their own white identity.
American film has over the years embodied the stereotypical depiction of Latinos in cinema enforcing these racial inequalities and biases - projecting stereotypes as essential truths to a primarily white audience in which mainstream America tend to believe. This is the battle in which the members of the Latino community fight in their day-to-day lives.
Stereotypes common to early film representing Latinos was as a greaser - an oily, dark-skinned, mustachioed bandit – the ‘dirty’ Mexican for example. Others were depicted as lazy, content to do nothing but lie under a sombrero all day. Still yet we may have seen a Latino who was violent, cruel and hot tempered who eventually was given his due by a white man. While stereotyping in film and other media may at first appear to be innocuous, Latinos are consistently perceived as the hot-blooded lover, gang member, child-like or illegal immigrant and this helps shape how society perceives Latinos which they (white society) consider as outsiders. This reinforces the difference and distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ ( typically ‘them’ as anything other than being of the white race).
In contrast to the representation of Latinos in many films based on dominant cultural conceptions several films have surfaced that have Latinos both in front of and behind the cameras. Mi familia/My family is one film that is comprised of a majority of actresses and actors of Latino decadency in the featured roles.
Written and directed by Gregory Nava, the film Mi Familia did not focus on the traditional stereotypes of Latinos, instead portraying a more ‘typical’ family household trying to hold onto cultural values and traditions while striving for the American dream. The film focuses on several generations of the Sanchez Family. We follow Jose’s ( the father) journey to the U.S. in the 20’s, the family struggle in the 50’s, and the story finally culminates with the current struggles the family faces in modern day East Los Angeles. The story is narrated by Jose’s eldest son, Paco (portrayed by Edward James Olmos), as he chronicles his family’s life exlemplified by a rich tapestry of character and culture along with visual metaphors. Nava prominently features bridges throughout the film representing the huge divide between the Mexican-American community and the rest of Los Angeles.
Mi familia attempts to combat the racial construction of Latino people typically seen in Hollywood films-the stereotypical hot-blooded lover, gang member, the greaser, an entertainer or poor immigrant. In doing so, the film confronts some of the issues that have historically been oppressive to Latino-American people, such as crime, discrimination, economic hardship, while entwining the immigration policies, police discrimination and cultural biases that the Sanchez family experiences as part the Mexican-American community.
This film shows the various relationships that the family members have toward their cultural identities and their desire to become "Americans." As we follow the first generation of the Sanchez family, direct immigrants from Mexico, we see the desire to hold on to both their cultural traditions and values, as well as succeed in the American Dream. We see the fierce pride of the Latino culture shown through the character of El Californio, Jose’s distant relative who was ‘American’ well before the Manifest Destiny as Jose reaches current Los Angeles. We follow Maria’s struggle to return to her Family following her illegal deportation. We are shown close-ups of Jose’s rugged lined face depicting his struggle to keep his family together through adversity.
The second generation, the children of the Sanchez family, find that this ideal of their father is impossible. To them they are faced with the choice of either being Mexican or being American (Anglo) in their identities, while the outside institutions continue to define them. Chucho becomes the leader of a gang called the Apostles, in the 50’s to attain the power and status Americans ‘respect’. Although adhering to stereotypical characteristics- Chucho is a drug dealer who commits murder and is eventually killed by a ‘white’ police officer- given his due-Nava explains the social pressures that lead Chucho to gang life.
Then there is Jimmy, who as a child traumatically witnesses the senseless murder of Chucho. Although he does respond to the various losses in life with violence and is involved with criminal activity he eventually realizes that it is family that matters and he changes.
On a brighter note there is Guillermo who goes to law school, is successful . But at the same time he is accused of trying to be white, and he falls in love with a white woman. But unlike the typical stereotype there is no miscegenation to the relationship.
Mi Familia does not shy away from the fact that within the Mexican-American community there is gang violence and crime and other problems ( much the same as any community ) but rather than focus entirely on this fact, Nava directs to the audience a portrait of one family through their perspective of racism and life in the U.S. The film best of all presents the thematic theme of strong family ties, rich with culture, and the struggle to live the American Dream in the face of adversity.
 I use Latino(s) interchangeable with Mexican(s) to reference male-female groups of Latin American descent for this post.