My Family, Mi Familia

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My Family, Mi Familia

Filmmaker Gregory Nava crafts a multi-generational epic in My Family, Mi Familia, a film that follows nearly 60 years in the life of a Latino family whose roots in the United States date back to the 1920s. Released in 1995, Nava's film addresses themes central to the immigrant experience. The financial success of My Family, Mi Familia demonstrated that audiences—specifically Latino audiences—were hungry for positive cinematic representation. Nava's insistence that an entirely Latino cast play his characters (as opposed to bankable Anglo stars) was a victory not only for independent filmmakers working within the Hollywood system but, more importantly, for greater verisimilitude and diversity in filmmaking.

Although he was born and raised in San Diego, Nava's own family tree has its roots in Tijuana. Nava has said that he was raised in a border world that experienced a "tremendous clash between the cultures." It is this culture clash that dominates many of Nava's films, such as the acclaimed El Norte (1983), a story of a brother and sister who flee Guatemala during a military coup and move northward, first to Mexico and then to California. Their struggle to adapt to a new culture provides the film with its moving drama and conflict. Nava gained much of his filmmaking experience while a student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) film school, where he made his promising first feature, Confessions of Aman (1973). Nearly all of his films have been collaborations with his wife and partner Anna Thomas, who acted as co-screenwriter and producer on My Family, Mi Familia.

Narrated by writer Paco (Edward James Olmos), one of José and María Sanchez's five children, My Family, Mi Familia begins when a teenaged José (Jacob Vargas) leaves his remote Mexican village in the 1920s to seek out his last surviving relative, an old man known as El Californio (Leon Singer), one of the state's original settlers. José finds work in Beverly Hills as a gardener for a wealthy family. There he meets and falls in love with their housekeeper María (played as a young woman by Jennifer Lopez). By the 1930s, the couple has made a life for themselves in California that includes two children and a third baby on the way. When the pregnant María (Jenny Gago) is mistaken for an illegal immigrant during a routine sweep, she is deported to Mexico and separated from José and their two children for nearly two years. Once they are reunited as a family, the Sanchez's story jumps to the late 1950s when their third child Chuco (Esai Morales), who has grown into a troubled and rebellious young adult, gets involved in a fight, kills a man, and is shot by the police in front of his younger brother Jimmy (played by Jonathan Hernandez and as an adult by Jimmy Smits). The family's story continues into the 1980s, and it traces the lives of the individual family members as they struggle with more sorrow and celebrate life's successes.

Masterfully photographed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, My Family, Mi Familia interweaves elements of magical realism (or dream realism, as Nava prefers to call the surreal stylization of films such as Like Water for Chocolate) within the epic story co-scripted by Nava and Thomas. Partly autobiographical and partly based on Nava's research of families living in East Los Angeles, the film also features mythical references including the pre-Columbian motif Ometeotl, or the creator couple, who are reflected in the characters of José and María. Bridges figure largely in the film as well, serving as literal and metaphorical images uniting different cultures, spaces, and characters.

My Family, Mi Familia received mixed critical reviews upon its release in 1995. The multi-generational story often was praised for its ambition but not always for its execution. The San Francisco Chronicle called it a "haunting, poignant, and joyful memoir," while Sight & Sound said, "Although three decades are covered … there is little sense of the complexities of the American immigrant experience."

Similarly, the New York Times review called the film "wildly uneven" but "grandly ambitious" and "warmhearted." Some critics argued that the film's themes are raised but never adequately addressed, and others suggested that the film reinforces Latino stereotypes of the patriarchal family and, through its narrative and stylistic choices, deprives the female characters of agency and action. Nearly all who wrote about My Family, Mi Familia, however, praised the film for its positive Latino portrayals. Nava's film received many accolades from community groups and national Latino organizations and won the prize for outstanding feature film at the National Council of La Raza Bravo Awards in 1995.

The film's bilingual title reflects both the filmmakers' desire to appeal to a broad audience and distributor New Line Cinema's fears that Anglo audiences would be disinterested in a film titled only in Spanish. In a rather bold marketing move, New Line launched an entirely Latino promotion that targeted specific cities and regions throughout the country. Traditionally, the Latino market is younger than average moviegoing audiences, and they are avid consumers of mass-market entertainment such as movies. Perhaps this statistic influenced the film's financial success: in its first week, My Family, Mi Familia had the number one per screen average across the country, earning more money during its opening weekend than any other film playing at that time. With a modest budget of $5.5 million, the film had grossed nearly $8 million by the end of 1995.

During an interview to promote the release of My Family, Mi Familia, Nava was quoted as saying, "We have to look to our roots to find our strength." The strengths of My Family, Mi Familia lie in its fictional exploration of one family's multicultural roots and each member's struggles to preserve their Latino heritage while making a better life for themselves within the often rigid culture of the United States. Nava believes the immigrant experience is one of great drama and conflict, and the story (and backstory) of My Family, Mi Familia reflects this experience.

—Alison Macor

Further Reading:

Huaco-Nuzum, Carmen. "Mi Familia/My Family." Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies. Vol. 23, No. 1, 1998, 141-52.

James, Caryn. "My Family." The New York Times. May 3, 1995, B2.

McCarthy, Todd. "My Family/Mi Familia." Variety. Vol. 358, No. 1,1995, 74.

O'Brien, Lucy. "My Family." Sight & Sound. Vol. 5, No. 10,1995, 53-54.

West, Dennis. "Filming the Chicano Family Saga." Cineaste. Vol.21, No. 4, 1995, 26-29.