‘Bordertown’ to ‘Bordertown,’ this Mexican author’s journey by means of Hollywood | Arts & Leisure

LOS ANGELES — Whenever I visit Olvera Street, as I did a few weeks ago, my walk through the historic corridor is always the same.

Start at the plaza. Say a prayer at the massive cross that marks the area as the birthplace of Los Angeles. Pass the stand where out-of-towners and politicians have donned sombreros and serapes for photos ever since the city turned this area into a tourist trap in 1930.

Look at the vendor stalls. Wonder if I need a new guayabera. Gobble up two beef taquitos bathed in avocado salsa at Cielito Lindo. Then return to my car and go home.

I’ve done this walk as a kid, and as an adult. For food crawls and quick lunches. With grad students on field trips, and with the late Anthony Bourdain for an episode of his “Parts Unknown.”

This last visit was different, though: I had my own camera crew with me.

My last chance at Hollywood fame was going to live or die on Olvera Street.

I was shooting a sizzle reel — footage that a producer will turn into a clip for television executives to determine whether I’m worthy of a show. In this case, I want to turn my 2012 book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” into the next “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” Or “Somebody Feed Phil.” Or an Alton Brown ripoff. Or a TikTok series.

Anything at this point, really.

For more than a decade, I’ve tried to break into Hollywood with some success — but the experience has left me cynical. Personal experience and the historical record have taught me that studios and streamers still want Mexicans to stay in the same cinematic lane that American film has paved for more than a century. We’re forever labeled… something. Exotic. Dangerous. Weighed down with problems. Never fully developed, autonomous humans. Always “Mexican.”

Even if we’re natives of Southern California. Especially if we’re natives of Southern California.

I hope my sizzle reel will lead to something different. I doubt it will because the issue is systemic. Industry executives, producers, directors and scriptwriters can only portray the Mexicans they know — and in a perverse, self-fulfilling prophecy, they mostly only know the Mexicans their industry depicts even in a region where Latinos make up nearly half the population.

The vicious cycle even infects creators like me.

As the film crew and I left for our next location, I stopped and looked around. We were right where I began, except I now looked south on Main Street. The plaza was to my left; to my right was the historic La Placita church. City Hall loomed on the horizon. The vista was the same as the opening scene of “Bordertown,” a 1935 Warner Bros. film I had seen the night before. It was the first Hollywood movie to address modern-day Mexican Americans in Los Angeles.

What I saw was more than deja vu. It was a reminder that 86 years later, Hollywood’s Mexican problem hasn’t really progressed at all.

Screen misrepresentation of Mexicans isn’t just a longstanding wrong; it’s an original sin. And it has an unsurprising Adam: D.W. Griffith.

He’s most infamous for reawakening the Ku Klux Klan with his 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation.” Far less examined is how Griffith’s earliest works also helped give American filmmakers a language with which to typecast Mexicans.

Two of his first six films were so-called “greaser” movies, one-reelers where Mexican Americans were racialized as inherently criminal and played by white people (a third flick replaced Mexican bandits with Spanish ones). His 1908 effort “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” is the earliest film to use the slur in its title. Griffith filmed at least eight greaser movies on the East Coast before heading to Southern California in early 1910 for better weather.

The new setting allowed Griffith to double down on his Mexican obsession. He used the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano missions as backdrops for melodramas embossed with the Spanish Fantasy Heritage, the white California myth that romanticized the state’s Mexican past even as it discriminated against the Mexicans of the present.

In films such as his 1910 shorts “The Thread of Destiny,” “In Old California” (the first movie shot in what would become Hollywood) and “The Two Brothers,” Griffith codified cinematic Mexican characters and themes that persist. The reprobate father. The saintly mother. The wayward son. The idea that Mexicans are forever doomed because they’re, well, Mexicans.

Griffith based his plots not on how modern-day Mexicans actually lived, but rather on how white people thought they did. This presumption nearly earned Griffith a beating from angry Latinos.

As described in Robert M. Henderson’s 1970 book “D.W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph,” the director was staging a religious procession in San Juan Capistrano for “The Two Brothers” when a large crowd “suddenly broke and rushed the actors” because they felt the scene mocked them. The company rushed to their hotel where the townspeople waited outside for hours. Only the intercession of the Spanish-speaking hotel owner stopped a certain riot. It was perhaps the earliest Latino protest against negative depictions of them on the big screen.

But the threat of angry Mexicans didn’t kill greaser movies. Griffith showed the box-office potential of the genre, and many American cinematic pioneers dabbled in them. Thomas Edison’s company shot some, as did its biggest rival, Vitagraph Studios. So did Mutual Film, an early home for Charlie Chaplin. Horror legend Lon Chaney played a greaser. The first Western star, Broncho Billy Anderson, made a career out of besting them.

These films were so noxious that the Mexican government in 1922 banned studios that produced them from the country until they “retired… denigrating films from worldwide circulation,” according to a letter that Mexican President Alvaro Obregon wrote to his Secretariat of External Relations. The gambit worked: the greaser films ended. Screenwriters instead reimagined Mexicans as Latin lovers, Mexican spitfires, buffoons, peons, mere bandits and other negative stereotypes.

That’s why “Bordertown” surprised me when I finally saw it. The Warner Bros. movie, starring Paul Muni as an Eastside lawyer named Johnny Ramirez and Bette Davis as the temptress whom he spurns, was popular when released. Today, it’s almost impossible to see outside of a hard-to-find DVD and an occasional Muni marathon on Turner Classic Movies.

Based on a novel of the same name, it’s not the racist travesty many Chicano film scholars have made it out to be. Yes, Muni was a non-Mexican playing a Mexican. Johnny Ramirez had a fiery temper, a bad accent and repeatedly called his mother (played by Spanish actress Soledad Jiminez ) “mamacita,” who in turn calls him “Juanito.” The infamous, incredulous ending has Ramirez suddenly realizing the vacuity of his fast, fun life and returning to the Eastside “back where I belong … with my own people.” And the film’s poster features a bug-eyed, sombrero-wearing Muni pawing a fetching Davis, even though Ramirez never made a move on Davis’ character or wore a sombrero.

These and other faux pas (like Ramirez’s friends singing “La Cucaracha” at a party) distract from a movie that didn’t try to mask the discrimination Mexicans faced in 1930s Los Angeles. Ramirez can’t find justice for his neighbor, who lost his produce truck after a drunk socialite on her way back from dinner at Las Golondrinas on Olvera Street smashed into it. That very socialite, whom Ramirez goes on to date (don’t ask), repeatedly calls him “Savage” as a term of endearment. When Ramirez tires of American bigotry and announces he’s moving south of the border to run a casino, a priest in brownface asks him to remain.

“For what?” Ramirez replies. “So those white little mugs who call themselves gentlemen and aristocrats can make a fool out of me?”

“Bordertown” sprung up from Warner Bros.’ Depression-era roster of social-problem films that served as a rough-edged alternative to the escapism offered by MGM, Disney and Paramount. But its makers committed the same error Griffith did: They fell back on tropes instead of talking to Mexicans right in front of them who might offer a better tale.

Just take the first shot of “Bordertown,” the one I inadvertently recreated on my television shoot.

Under a title that reads “Los Angeles … the Mexican Quarter,” viewers see Olvera Street’s plaza emptier than it should be. That’s because just four years earlier, immigration officials rounded up hundreds of individuals at that very spot. The move was part of a repatriation effort by the American government that saw them boot about a million Mexicans — citizens and not — from the United States during the 1930s.

Following that opening shot is a brief glimpse of a theater marquee that advertises a Mexican music trio called Los Madrugadores (“The Early Risers”). They were the most popular Spanish-language group in Southern California at the time, singing traditional corridos but also ballads about the struggles Mexicans faced in the United States. Lead singer Pedro J. Gonzalez hosted a popular AM radio morning show heard as far away as Texas that mixed music and denunciations against racism.

By the time “Bordertown” was released in 1935, Gonzalez was in San Quentin, jailed by a false accusation of statutory rape pursued by an LA district attorney’s office happy to lock up a critic. He was freed in 1940 after the alleged victim recanted her confession, then summarily deported to Tijuana, where Gonzalez continued his career before returning to California in the 1970s.

Doesn’t Gonzalez and his times make a better movie than “Bordertown”? Warner Bros. could have offered a bold corrective to the image of Mexican Americans if they had just paid attention to their own footage! Instead, Gonzalez’s saga wouldn’t be told on film until a 1984 documentary and 1988 drama.

Both were shot in San Diego. Both received only limited screenings at theaters across the American Southwest and an airing on PBS before going on video. No streamer carries it.

How Hollywood imagines Mexicans versus how we really are turned real for me in 2013, when I became a consulting producer for a Fox cartoon about life on the U.S.-Mexico border.

It aired in 2015 and lasted one season. I enjoyed the end product. I even got to write an episode, which just so happened to be the series finale.

The gig was a dream long deferred. My bachelor’s degree from Chapman University was in film. I had visions of becoming the brown Tarantino or a Mexican Truffaut before journalism got in the way. Over the years, there was Hollywood interest in articles or columns I wrote but never anything that required I do more than a couple of meetings — or scripts by white screenwriters that went nowhere.

But “Bordertown” opened up more doors for me and inspired me to give Hollywood a go.

While I worked on the cartoon, I got another consulting producer credit on a Fusion special for comedian Al Madrigal and sold a script to ABC that same year about gentrification in Boyle Heights through the eyes of a restaurant years before the subject became a trend. Pitch meetings piled up with so much frequency that my childhood friends coined a nickname for me: Hollywood Gus.

My run wouldn’t last long. The microaggressions became too annoying.

The veteran writers on “Bordertown” rolled their eyes any time I said that one of their jokes was cliched, like the one about how eating beans gave our characters flatulent superpowers or the one about a donkey show in Tijuana. Or when they initially rejected a joke about menudo, saying no one knew what the soup was, and they weren’t happy when another Latino writer and I pointed out that you’re pretty clueless if you’ve lived in Southern California for a while and don’t know what menudo is.

The writers were so petty, in fact, that they snuck a line into the animated “Bordertown” where the main character said, “There’s nothing worse than a Mexican with glasses” — which is now my public email to forever remind me of how clueless Hollywood is.

The insults didn’t bother me so much as the insight I gained from those interactions: The only Latinos most Hollywood types know are the janitors and security guards at the studio, and nannies and gardeners at their homes. The few Latinos in the industry I met had assimilated into this worldview as well.

Could I blame them for their ignorance when it came to capturing Mexican American stories, especially those in Southern California? Of course I can.

What ended any aspirations for a full-time Hollywood career was a meeting with a television executive shortly after ABC passed on my Boyle Heights script (characters weren’t believable, per the rejection). They repeatedly asked that I think about doing a show about my father’s life, which didn’t interest me. Comedies about immigrant parents are cliched at this point. So one day I blurted that I was more interested in telling my stories.

I never heard from the executive again.

Five years later, and that Hollywood dream just won’t leave me.

I’m not leaving journalism. But at this point, I just want to prove to myself that I can help exorcise D.W. Griffith’s anti-Mexican demons from Hollywood once and for all. That I can show the Netflix honcho they were wrong for passing on a “Taco USA” series with the excuse that the topic of Mexican food in the United States was too “limited.” And the Food Network people who said they just couldn’t see a show about the subject as being as “fun” as it was. Or the big-time Latino actor’s production company who wanted the rights to my “¡Ask a Mexican!” book, then ghosted me after I said I didn’t hold them but I did own the rights to my brain.

When this food-show sizzle reel gets cut, and I start my Hollywood jarabe anew, I’ll keep in mind a line in “Bordertown” that Johnny Ramirez said: “An American man can lift himself up by his bootstraps. All he needs is strength and a pair of boots.”

Mexicans have had the strength since forever in this town. But can Hollywood finally give us the botas?

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Feminine Writers of Coloration on Creating Leisure in a Yr of “Heartbreak and Horror” – The Hollywood Reporter

During a year of pain for so many, my mantra was, “Try not to complain.” After all, I am healthy. My immediate loved ones are healthy, and I was fortunate enough to keep working in a job I love in a year the pandemic drove many Americans into pantries. But like most people with a heartbeat, I could not avoid being emotionally affected by the traumatic events of the past year, and afterwards my work was also affected. For example, after George Floyd’s murder, I was moved to add a scene to a script that was supposed to be a celebration of the black hair. As written, it’s just a moment when two black women prepare their hair in silence. It is only when it ends that the audience realizes that one woman’s son, who is also the other woman’s husband, was killed by a police officer and they get dressed for the funeral. When director Bianca LaVerne Jones added Billie Holiday’s haunted lynch ballad “Strange Fruit” to the scene, I accepted that our streaming production would no longer be just a celebration because the moment we live in demanded more. It’s still hard for me to see this scene, but I realize it was necessary and it turned out to be one of the most memorable among the viewers. [Editor’s note: Goff’s The Glorious World of Crowns, Kinks and Curls premiered in March 2021 at Baltimore Center Stage.]

Like others I’ve spoken to, I’ve been overwhelmed with emotion in unexpected moments this year. Despite the laughter and light that has spent most of my days in the Zoom writer’s rooms, tears flowed when the subject of race or injustice of any kind or the black men in my life came up. And I was someone who took pride in the fact that my feelings in writing rooms weren’t getting the best out of me. But in a year filled with moments that represent the worst human behavior, not only was it hard to be at my best, but I frankly wondered if I had a right to be at all. Writing and laughing for a living can feel like self-indulgence when the world around you is on fire.

My bosses and colleagues, some of whom have faced their own challenges thanks to the pandemic, couldn’t have been kinder. But I wondered how it withstood other color writers, especially women writers with Black and Asian identities, in a year of so much heartbreak and horror for our specific communities. So I asked some of them. Your answers broke my heart and increased my hope at the same time. Some spoke of writing through the intense emotions, recalibrating their lives to keep their balance and refining their sense of their work. Because storytellers, in order to remind the world, with its many colors and cultures, of their humanity, are essential to the pursuit of equality and justice, and for some of us the most powerful political act we can undertake is simply to keep writing .

This story first appeared in the May 12th issue of Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to login.

HMS scholar amongst winners of annual Younger Writers Contest | Options/Leisure

HUNTINGTON – Since 1984, the West Virginia Young Writers Contest has celebrated student writing in the state as a result of the commitment to write in all subjects and to publish, display, and celebrate student writing.

That year, Huntington Middle School’s Claire Johnson won second place in seventh and eighth grades for her play “Zombies,” which is listed below.

Teachers and administrators in each county encourage students to submit letters for assessment first at school and then at the county level.

Entries can be submitted on any topic and in any genre of prose: fiction, non-fiction, short stories, memoirs or essays.

Executives at Marshall University’s Central West Virginia Writing Project then judge entries based on ideas, organization, voice, choice of words, sentence flow, and conventions. The state winners were announced to the public on Friday, Young Writers Day, which took place practically in Microsoft teams.

First-placed county winners receive certificates and participate in workshops with published writers / moderators on West Virginia Young Writers Day. State winners in each of the six competition categories will receive checks for $ 100 for first place, $ 50 for second place, and $ 25 for third place.

“Zombies” by Claire Johnson

Alone a young girl rested and slept soundly. Not far from her bed was a broken clock, the screen broken and the plug unplugged. The girl lay for long hours and slept soundly, without the screaming of the little clock. In her little house everything was quiet, still without the voices and steps of her parents who had gone to work long before. The girl didn’t like it when her parents left; she felt alone.

Have a chat, your parents would say. But she knew what kind of entertainment her parents meant. The kind that started with a screen and ended in despair, detachment and a throbbing headache. She would much rather explore, read, and create. Boredom was a more watchful parent than those who fathered her – boredom at least taught her lessons and sparked her creativity. Why can’t you be like the other kids? her parents would ask. They are all very happy with their devices. But the little girl didn’t want to be like the other children. She didn’t want to be a zombie.

She stumbled down the stairs and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Her house was perfect: every finish was pristine, not a single thing out of place, as if no one lived in the house at all – which she sometimes took to be true. She took her coat off the hanger and stepped outside into the crisp autumn air. She enjoyed the outdoors, much to her parents’ displeasure. They will chase Mud through the house, they would scold. I know you like to go outside, but why not just watch some nature documentary instead? The little girl did not understand her parents, nor did they understand them.

She looked at the trees that lined her meadow. She enjoyed the park, but it always hurt to see it. Every person who sits on the benches is fascinated by the virtual life into which they have plunged desperately. She would watch from a distance and notice small details. She was very good at it and noticed details. Her parents called it a nuisance, annoyed that she paid more attention to other people than to her screen. Your device teaches you things that are far more important than observation.

The little girl disagreed.

She walked along the stream and watched the ducks chase each other in circles, longing for the ignorant bliss that she was sure they felt. She walked down the street and entered a small cafe. The little girl always enjoyed the little café and drank her tea from mini tea cups. While she waited in line, she watched the people in front of her. The one in front appeared to have headphones on and moved its head in a bass beat that was so easy to hear for someone who listened closely. No one but the little girl seemed to be listening closely, too intrigued by her ex’s new girlfriend, or at least the girl who was sitting at a nearby table. She scrolled and scrolled, and her eyes narrowed every time her ex showed up in her feed. The little girl looked away. She knew when she was invading someone’s privacy.

Finally, when it was her turn, she went to the cash register. She just pointed at the menu, her finger barely reaching across the counter for the cashier to see. He nodded and turned his gaze back to the computer screen in front of him.

After a few moments, a young looking boy in an apron presented her mini teacup and the little girl took a seat in the back. She liked the back of the little cafe – it gave her a clear view of everyone in it. When she was done, she skipped the door she came in and gave a rare smile to a woman on her way. The woman was too busy with her screen to notice.

The little girl was walking the inner streets of the city, her least favorite place. The sidewalks were full of people, but somehow it was the place where she felt most lonely. Everyone was walking back and forth, their heads buried in their screens. The little girl was often tossed around by a distracted pedestrian who was too focused on his own virtual life to notice a lonely child. That was what bothered her the most, the reason why she was most tempted to pick up her screen and pretend to enjoy the desperation and headache it brought with it: the feeling of belonging, the feeling of acceptance in a society that would otherwise never accept it. These thoughts are way too great for someone your age, their parents would complain. The little girl agreed.

She wandered the city alone, tears marking the agony she felt – alone, calm, suffocated by the walking zombies that surrounded her. Slaves to their own devices.

CN Movie Workplace, Native American Media Alliance current writers seminar | Arts-entertainment

TULSA – The Cherokee Nation Film Office partnered with the Native American Media Alliance to launch the first Native American Writers Seminar.

The new initiative aims to help Native American Indians break into the entertainment industry by supporting new and developing writers.

The week-long virtual seminar, slated for this July, includes several writing-intensive workshops, as well as individual mentoring and group sessions that focus on developing existing scripts and preparing for scholarship submissions.

“The Cherokee Nation Film Office is pleased to present this new seminar for aspiring Native American screenwriters. We are experiencing a renaissance where television and film audiences crave more varied stories,” said Jennifer Loren, director of the film office. “The need to develop more Native American screenwriters to sit down at these tables and create this content is immediate. We believe workshops like this are an integral part of the pipeline already set up by the Barcid Foundation, the Native American Successfully supplied writers has access to Hollywood decision-makers. “

The Native American Writers Seminar offers in-depth feedback, insights into prestigious scholarships and their application processes, rigorous writing sessions, and access to seasoned industry professionals.

“We are honored to partner with the Cherokee Nation Film Office on this new endeavor. With the success of our television and feature film writing laboratories, we continue to develop new ways to support our artists,” said Ian Skorodin, CEO of the Barcid Foundation .

The submission deadline for this year’s intensive is now open and applications are accepted until May 14th.

Established in 2019, the Cherokee Nation Film Office’s mission is to increase Native American presence in all areas of the film and television industry while creating opportunities for economic development and jobs in the Cherokee Nation.

NAMA is a community-based organization that brings the real Native American voice to the entertainment industry and offers unique programs that educate the non-native population.

For more information or to submit an application, visit https://nama.media/inaugural-native-american-writers-seminar-call-for-applications.