A note on language to our readers. In this piece I use the term Latina/o because that is how the cast and crew refer to themselves and to those involved in the film. While I know not all people of Latin, Mexican, or Spanish descent identify this way, I am utilizing the language and identity markers that were used when I discussed El Chicano with Ben Bray and the all Latina/o cast.
This word means “myth” in Spanish. Myths help us make sense of our world both globally and locally. Myths can be about the living or about the dead. Myths can also be about those who have saved us from dark times and those who brought the dark times in the first place.
Myths have power to heal and transform.
Myths can bring us our heroes.
Writer and director Ben Hernandez Bray shows us the power of mito in his new film EL CHICANO. The first Latino superhero to roar onto the big screen. Bray wrote EL CHICANO ten years ago after he lost his youngest brother to gang violence. So this film is very personal to Bray as he clearly writes about what he knows and where he came from. Co-producer and writer Joe Carnahan left Bad Boys 3 to work on and write on EL CHICANO because Carnahan felt so strongly about Bray’s vision and story.
EL CHICANO is a film about family, spirituality, loss and grief, forgiveness, identity, culture, tradition, justice, and the gray that resides between the lines of black an white. The film is about the mito that shapes all of these things. Can EL CHICANO really be about ALL those things? The answer is yes. A resounding yes. This film examines how all of these things intersect for people in everyday life and the complexities of those intersections.
Set in East Los Angeles, EL CHICANO follows the path of twin brothers Diego and Pedro (both played by Raúl Castillo) whose lives take very different paths in life after, as children, witnessing the death of their friend Shotgun’s (David Castañeda) father, gang leader Shadow (Emilio Rivera) at the hands of El Chicano.
Twenty years after that fateful night, Diego chooses to become a LAPD officer and side with what he believes to be the right side of things. While Pedro chooses a different path that results in dire consequences for both him and his family. However, it becomes very evident to Diego that the myths he believes about Pedro are going to be challenged after the death of Shotgun’s clique.
EL CHICANO isn’t just a great film, it is an important film as it works to fill in the gaping silences in casting and on-screen representation for Latinos and Latinas who need to see themselves represented in truly positive ways and not just reduced to well-worn tropes. A clear example of this is the character of Vanessa (Aimee Garcia) who is a college-educated Latina who has returned to her community to teach in the school that she used to attend. There is also Jesus (Marco Rodriguez), who while coming from the streets has made it part of his life’s work to educate his community about their history and the history of Latina/os in East Los Angeles and all of California.
Bray has assembled an all Latina/o leading cast which includes George Lopez, Raúl Castillo, Aimee Garcia, Emilio Rivera, Kate del Castillo, Mr. Criminal, Noel G. Marco Rodriguez, Marlene Forte, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sal Lopez, David Castañeda, and Armida Lopez. These actors and actresses are an incredibly talented ensemble that all bring powerful performances to this film. Their performances and the story capture the audience from moment one and carry them through until the end.
Besides the importance of an all Latina/o cast and the diversity and representation that they are bringing to Anglo dominated Hollywood, Bray also addresses identity politics in EL CHICANO. He not only addresses the identity politics that play out between whites and Latina/os, but the identity politics that play out within the Latina/o community. A clear example of these kinds of politics is when Diego refers to his partner Detective Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) as a “Mid-Western Mexican” while discussing his partners lack of East LA knowledge with his captain (George Lopez).Then during an altercation, Shotgun (David Castañeda) refers to Detective Martinez as a “coconut” meaning he is brown on the outside and white on the inside. These identity politics are at the heart of many Latina/o experiences, not only Southern California but in “home” countries and abroad. For some, they are considered by whites as “too Mexican” or “too Latino” and yet within the community Latina/os can be viewed as “not Mexican enough” or “not real” Latina/os.
Spirituality and the supernatural play a large role in EL CHICANO. First, there is the idea of El Chicano as a folk hero who has protected the community beginning in 1943 when the Zoot Suit Riots broke out, through the Chavez Ravine Evictions of 1959, to the Watts Riots of 1965 to present day. His legacy of justice, protection, and vengeance spanning over 75 years. Then there is the concept introduced by Vanessa of the power that the dead have for the living. These are just a few influences that are part of Latina/o culture that lend to the authenticity of the characters and community portrayed in the film.
The importance of family is woven throughout the film. From blood family to chosen family that becomes like blood, EL CHICANO examines how sometimes your chosen family causes conflict with your blood family and vice versa. Marlene Forte’s powerful performance as Susana, Diego and Pedro’s proud and grieving mother, reminds the audience that family dynamics are complex and far from clear-cut. As El Gallo, Sal Lopez plays a well-rounded and fully realized cartel leader whose family and heritage come first and who uses illegal activities to push his political agenda. The love El Gallo has for his family is apparent as the audience experiences the chain of events that occur after the release of his son Jaws (Mr. Criminal) from jail. Both of these story elements in EL CHICANO demonstrate that good or evil, family is family.
While there is violence in the film, unlike many films where the action on screen telegraphs the violence coming from a ways away, the violence in EL CHICANO happens without warning really affects the audience. While some audience members might prefer the warning that other films give, that is not the reality of violence. Real violence usually happens quickly and without warning. Real violence is jarring and destroys quickly.
EL CHICANO takes place in East Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, but the film shot primarily in Canada. Production Designer Amy Brewster was sent to Los Angeles to spend time with Los Angeles gangs to make sure she brought authenticity to the film. Form the art on the walls, to the crust on the hot sauce bottles on Diego’s table, it was clear that Brewster has an eye for detail.
This film rightly takes its place among stories of heroes that need to be told. My hope is the this film is not the only story of El Chicano that comes to the screen. I hope Bray can turn EL CHICANO into a franchise. Because for this reviewer, I am waiting to be able to buy my own El Chicano action figure.
EL CHICANO is rated R and has a run time of 103 minutes.