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Gregory Nava: Living in el Norte

Why don't we ever see Latino families in the movies? All the other American ethnic groups have given us movies about their march through the generations, but Latinos, until now, have been represented mostly by crime movies and comedies, neither presenting their culture in an especially positive light. A Chicano I know went to see "American Me," a film by Edward James Olmos that is brave and powerful but unremitting in its portrait of a man destroyed by prison, and came out saying, "If I wasn't Chicano, this movie wouldn't have made me want to know any."

But now comes Gregory Nava's "My Family" (opening Friday at local theaters), a joyful film that reaches out its arms and embraces three generations of a Mexican-American family in all its dreams and sorrows. 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.

Will it succeed at the box office? At a time when other minorities - blacks, Asians - are box-office gold, there has never been a big hit about American Latinos. Only the personal clout of executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, who made a call to New Line Cinema president Robert Shaye, got a green light for "My Family," despite its commercial mix of romance, joy, violence and redemption.

The movie was directed by Nava, who co-wrote it with his wife and producer, Anna Thomas. They were Oscar nominees for the screenplay for Nava's "El Norte" (1983), the story of a brother and sister who trek from Guatemala to Los Angeles. For "My Family," which is set in a vibrant neighborhood tucked under a bridge in East Los Angeles, they put together an all-star Hispanic cast: Jimmy Smits, Olmos and Esai Morales play three of the sons of the Sanchez family, with other roles filled by faces newer to American audiences. Eduardo Lopez Rojas, Mexico's most famous actor, plays the family patriarch, and the beautiful Constance Marie, from "Salsa" and TV's "Santa Barbara," is a nun who turns into a political activist.

Most films about Hispanic-Americans have been crime-oriented. "My Family" is not. It is a family portrait that includes all kinds of heartwarming moments - family moments, involving food, birth, sex, religion, arguments, dreams, humor.

"That's what life is really like," Nava told me, the day after his movie's world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January. He is a tall, demonstrative man whose presence seems to express the exuberance in his films. Roller-coaster life

"In Latino family life, you can go from comedy to tragedy in a course of a day; it's a real roller-coaster ride. That's one of the things I think is exciting about our culture. I wanted to deal with the serious things, yes, but there are so many other things. I couldn't imagine making a film about Latino life without a lot of dancing in it, for example, because that's such an important part of our life."

And so there is a passage where a young man and woman who have both had a hard time of it, who have closed into themselves, begin dancing in the street, and that is their redemption. And there are other passages, of children who grow up and make their choices for right or wrong, so that the family produces a lawyer, a writer and a convict. There is the joy of a daughter who becomes a nun, and the shock when she turns "political." And a scene of incredible quiet power, where the two old parents of these generations share a cup of coffee and decide that, all in all, God has been good to them.

The movie was shot largely on location in East Los Angeles, in a real house on a real street in a real neighborhood - a street, Nava says, that "was incredible, because it had the backdrop of the bridge, and there was this dirt street, and when you arrived, there were all these chickens running around. I said, `This is it! What an incredible place!' Ten or 15 years ago, they would have thought the street should be paved over, but now, since it's lasted so long, I think it should be preserved forever as the last remaining dirt street in East Los Angeles." House provides focus

As the film begins, a young man from Mexico (Jacob Vargas) gets in trouble in his village and walks north to Los Angeles, in the early 1920s, to live with an elderly relative. He marries and moves into the house, which grows and changes through the decades with the family, until it becomes almost a character in itself. As the years go past, we see his wife (Jennifer Lopez) rounded up with thousands of other Mexican Americans (most of them U.S. citizens) and shipped by train far south into Mexico, as part of a brutal anti-``foreigner" movement under Herbert Hoover's administration. But she finds her way back, in a scene of incredible courage and persistence.

We see the family serve in World War II and we trace the rise of the postwar street gangs (described as "macho bull" by the narrator, a writer played by Olmos). The gangs recruit a son played by Morales. And in more modern times, we see a daughter (Marie) grow active in politics, a son (Enrique Castillo) become a lawyer, and another son (Smits) search for direction. The grandparents (now played by Rojas and Jenny Gago) stay where they have lived their lives, tending their garden. It is an American saga, all told by Olmos as the son who became a writer.

"I think Latinos have always had an innate understanding of the importance of family," Nava told me. "All the great novels from Latin America - One Hundred Years of Solitude, House of Spirits - they're always family stories that take place over generations. I wanted to make a movie in which the family itself is the protagonist."

He also wanted, he said, to show that family issues get handed down through generations: "All too often we see things get resolved very quickly in the movies. In reality, things are passed from one generation to the next, so by the time the Jimmy Smits character grows up, he's already inherited all this stuff that's happened to the family before. It's told with many different characters over three generations, but finally it's all one story, of this family and how they grow and change over the years." Struggled for backing

It is also, like many ambitious films, a project that almost did not get made. Although "El Norte" was a substantial box-office success, it was seen as an "art film," and Nava and Thomas were determined that "My Family" would be a popular, mass-audience film; although their focus was not about crime, Coppola's "The Godfather" was one of their inspirations, in the way it showed the generations of a family unfolding one after another.

One problem, Nava said, is that the Hispanic movie audience in America has never been as cohesive as, say, African-American filmgoers. "We expect this film to appeal to everybody, but if it's going to open strong on the first weekend - which is what the studios go by - it needs to appeal first of all to the Latino market. Because Hollywood wasn't sure that would happen, we were turned down by one studio after another."

Then Tom Luddy, who produces in association with Coppola and is a founder of the Telluride Film Festival, saved the project. Luddy, a fan of "El Norte" since he premiered it at Telluride, brought in Coppola's Zeotrope production company as co-producer with New Line, which is opening the movie on 600 screens for the May 5 weekend - the Latinos Cinco de Mayo holiday.

One of the things he wanted to do in the film, Nava said, was celebrate an artistic sense that makes even the poorest Chicano neighborhood bright and cheerful: "So often in the movies poverty looks grim and depressing. But in a Chicano neighborhood, even with a little money, the people make it look happy. We are a very house-proud people. The lawns are neat, and inside, every little knickknack is in its exact place.

"Chicanos haven't had a lot of chance to work in the film industry, so you don't have a lot of production designers and people you can work with. The visual genius of the community has gone into painting, and the most exciting painters in Los Angeles today are the Chicano painters. My favorite is named Patssi Valdez, and she does all these beautiful house interiors; they're gorgeous paintings. So we actually hired her - she'd never worked on a movie before - to work with us to design the interior of the house. Vibrant way of life

"So there are all these reds and purples and blues and all the vibrant colors, and they all come from her painting and reflect the vibrant reality of the way people decorate their houses in East Los Angeles.

"I wanted in the film to have this poverty reflect the beauty the people have and the pride they have in their homes. There's a false dichotomy in the movies: If it's rich it can be beautiful, but if it's poor, it must be horrible and bleak. The reverse can also be true. I think Orson Welles had an interesting angle on wealth in "Citizen Kane, where it's oppressive and horrible. In My Family, it's poor, but it is very beautiful, and I wanted to capture that in the film. I feel that there's no reason why a plaster flamingo against a pink wall can't be just as beautiful as anything in `The Age of Innocence.' "

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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