My Family/Mi Familia, the most recent film by director Gregory Nava, presents an intense, poignant story: The major events in the lives of three generations of a Los Angeles Mexican-American family are crammed into a little more than two hours of screen time.
Nava, himself a member of a Mexican-American family from San Diego, is best known for El Norte, a 1984 Academy Award nominee for best original screenplay. This film told the devastating story of two Guatemalan immigrants, a brother and sister, who decide to risk the arduous journey north through Mexico and across the border into the United States.
Despite the critical success of El Norte, Nava had trouble securing Hollywood financial support for My Family. Most major studios were unwilling to back a project that had not hired a bankable movie star. For five years, Nava, his wife Anna Thomas (who co-wrote the script with Nava), and producer Nancy De Los Santos worked to find their own resources and to make the movie that they wanted to make.
Luckily, acclaimed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola stepped into the role of executive producer. Funding for My Family was no longer a difficulty.
Nava's film shares some striking similarities to Coppola's masterpiece The Godfather: A young boy leaves his homeland, journeys alone to the United States without any knowledge of English or any idea of what he might find; he marries a young woman from his own background and they live simply, work hard, and have several children. He even gardens in the back yard. The children grow up-he gives his daughter an elaborate wedding-and face an America where they are torn between the culture that their parents know and taught to them, and the culture of American movies, television, and ideals.
NAVA CHOSE TO FASTEN together My Family's scene shifts through a narrator, the Sanchez' oldest son, Paco, portrayed by Edward James Olmos. Paco's omnipresent voice explains in a soothing and loving tone how the Sanchez family is tied together by common decency, deep faith, and a pride, albeit sometimes fluctuating, in their Mexican heritage, despite the Los Angeles environment of extreme prejudice against persons with brown skin.
This film is not nearly as political as El Norte, but it intends to remind viewers that this country (after the original dwellers were cheated out of their land and/or murdered) has been populated by millions of humans from around the globe: people escaping religious persecution, economic catastrophe, or warfare. And too many of these immigrants have been tragically abused by the system that was designed to welcome them and protect them.
My Family contains some wonderful acting, some overacting, a terrific use of light and colors, and striking camera work. The film presents the Sanchez family's bilingualism realistically (English for day-to-day matters, Spanish for emotional, family-based issues), and life in East Los Angeles is depicted with grit and little room for sentimentality.
It does seem too long, and there's hardly time to breathe between each family crisis. Violent scenes include a gang knife fight and a horrific murder with a handgun, and the only nudity occurs in a bedroom scene when Jimmy, the youngest Sanchez son (played by Jimmy Smits) confesses his anger and rage at the racist world around him to his wife, a Salvadoran refugee named Isabel (played by Elpidia Carrillo).
Jose Sanchez reminds his children that the family is the most important thing in a person's life; Gregory Nava documents that reality in a powerful piece of work. It is lamentable that it took Nava and his associates five years and the patronage of Francis Ford Coppola before the film industry took interest in this thought-provoking and beautiful production about the strength of the Latino family.
JUDY COODE is administrative assistant at the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office. A former Sojourners intern, she is a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C.