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Film Briefs for Latino Studies

At lectures, I'm often asked by teachers to recommend course materials in Latino Studies. One strategy that worked for me was to use films. Here are ten titles that worked for me.
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At lectures, I'm often asked by teachers to recommend course materials in Latino Studies. Generally, the teachers want to maintain the students' initial enthusiasm and are looking for ways to interest them in the subject matter beyond the basic requirements.

One strategy that worked for me was to use films. I found a film could be a useful icebreaker, a relaxing way to initiate a classroom discussion about the people, events and the culture that they would be studying in their texts. Over the years, I developed a trusty list of films that I wove into my lectures. Most often, I used the films because they related to a particular theme, but it was also a way to breathe life into the texts, topics and research assignments the students would encounter throughout the semester. Here are ten titles that worked for me. You might find them useful for your classes.

The first four films highlight themes of migration, immigration and building community. Almost a Woman, by filmmaker Betty Kaplan, is based on Esmeralda Santiago's book of the same name. The story tells of the difficulties faced by a close-knit Puerto Rican family who migrate to New York City during the 1960s. It sheds light on adolescent issues of fitting in experienced by the pivotal character, Negi, and the unsettling decisions she is forced to make as the family's English language translator.

El Norte, an Oscar nominated film by Gregory Nava, depicts the grueling experiences of a Mayan brother and sister who escape when the Guatemalan army destroys their village only to face life threatening danger as they make their way illegally through Mexico, and then in Los Angeles.

In My American Girls: A Dominican Story, filmmaker Aaron Matthews* tackles an age old dilemma of immigrants who come to New York to make a better life. Hoping to return to their country of origin, they find the American ties that bind them to the U.S. are difficult to break.

Beyond the Sea, by filmmaker Lisandro Peréz Reyes, reveals a little known aspect of the Mariel boatlift. It tells the gripping tale of four Cuban families seeking to come to the U.S. The immigration entanglements imposed on them from U.S. and Cuban travel restrictions cause undue hardship to the families.

The quest for justice, equality and civil rights form the core of the next four films: Lemon Grove Incident, ¡Pa'lante, Siempre Pa'lante!, Walkout, and Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente! Both Paul Espinoza' award winning Lemon Grove Incident and Edward James Olmos' Walkout, document critical periods in Latino/Chicano history as they depict powerful community challenges to segregation, and the disregard for civil rights in California schools.

Lillian Jiménez' Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente! tells the story of an educator, a creator of community organizations and academic institutions, including ASPIRA, the organization that expanded educational horizons for Puerto Rican and Latino youth. Pantoja, one of four Latinas to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, received the honor in 1996.

Iris Morales' film, ¡Pa'lante, Siempre Pa'lante! tells the moving story of the formation of the Young Lords, and shows how a group of committed, militant youth tackled the long neglected problems of their barrio community.

Finally, two films that capture the power of women as labor activists and feminist thinkers are Sonia Fritz' Luisa Capetillo: A Passion for Justice, and the classic, Salt of the Earth. Capetillo, a leading feminist in the early decades of the 20th century, was a Puerto Rican labor organizer, a writer, and a reader in the cigar factories who fought for equality for women and justice for the working class.

Salt of the Earth depicts a year long mining strike in New Mexico during the 1950s. After a court injunction prohibited the Mexican American workers from picketing, their wives and mothers took the strikers' place on the line. Filmmakers, Paul Jarrico, Michael Wilson and Herbert Biderman were blacklisted for their political affiliations and the film was banned for many years.

That's my list. Hope it works for you. By the way, ask if any of your students can pick out a young Sara Ramírez (Callie Torres in Grey's Anatomy) among the children in Lemon Grove Incident.

Correction: This blog post originally misidentified the makers of 'My American Girls: A Dominican Story'

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