March 10, 2000

History of Chicano Cinema's Rise Told For First Time by UCLA Scholar Chon Noriega in New Book


The rise of Chicano cinema as a powerful expression of the Chicano civil rights movement - closely linked with television, government regulation, and media reform - is told for the first time in a new book by Chon Noriega, UCLA associate professor of film and television, publications director at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, and author and editor of numerous books on Latino media and culture.

In "Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema" (University of Minnesota Press), Noriega analyzes an enormous body of work by Chicano filmmakers created in a time of Chicano social movements, political activism and changes in the telecommunications industry. He shows how a generation raised in the '50s and early '60s successfully fought its way into the film and television industry.

"Shot in America" combines scholarship in Chicano cultural history, sociology, television, and mass communications, as well as provides an institutional analysis of the industry and an analysis of government regulation. The book is the first attempt to bring these diverse fields together.

Noriega, who served as co-chair for the first national conference on Latino independent media last year and was named as one of the "Most Influential Hispanics" in America last year by Hispanic Business, believes that recent trends in television are detrimental to Latinos and their communities.

"Through 1974, television entertained us, informed us at a national level and kept us connected to our local communities," Noriega said. "We all laughed at Lucille Ball and kept informed through Walter Cronkite, but a significant level of programming, called prime time access - between the nightly news and prime time entertainment - was devoted to serving the local community interest. Television stations were required to develop programs that reflected community needs. These prime time access programs were very popular, but were never designed to make money. It was 'narrowcasting' ahead of its time."

The Prime Time Access Rule, established in 1970, led to Chicano documentaries, produced as specials or segments within public affairs series, that reflected the priorities of the Chicano social movement, Noriega said. By the time the access rule was rewritten in 1975, however, local television stations had started showing syndicated game shows such as "Wheel of Fortune" and entertainment shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Hard Copy" instead. Also faced with reduced foundation support for social issues, "Chicano producers quickly lost their access to a prime time audience," Noriega said.

Why did syndicated game shows and entertainment replace programs serving local communities?

"The reason was that if L.A., Long Beach and San Diego are all developing local community-based programs, it's cheaper to show an episode of 'Entertainment Tonight' that is being sold to 29 markets and split the production costs across those 29 markets," he said.

"We don't have a unifying electronic culture any more," Noriega added. "Now we have broadcast television, cable, pay-per-view, we pop videos into a VCR; instead of three options, we have more than 50. We have entire networks keyed around niches the networks didn't want to deal with in the '70s such as a woman's channel, an African-American channel, attempts to create a Latino channel.

"Under deregulation, the prevailing assumption has been that diversity of channels will lead to diversity of content and ownership, when, in fact, it has intensified mergers, leading not just to concentration and downsiz-ing, but to a global integrated oligopoly. While both capital and the mass media have gone global, consumers have become increasingly local. Surfing the Web or flipping through eighty-odd channels gives us the sense of global reach, but we are rarely more than consumers. The quantitative expansion of choice obscures its qualitative same-ness."

Noriega begins his history of Chicano Cinema with Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino's 1969 film adaptation of Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales' 1967 epic poem, "I am Joaquin," the most influential poem of the Chicano movement, Noriega said. Gonzales' first-person narrative of independence provided many Chicanos with their first exposure to the leading figures and major events in Mexican and Chicano history.

The first generation of Chicano filmmakers "emerged from the context of the farmworkers' struggle and the student movement, where political activism and poetic discourse developed together as part of a social movement that drew from and addressed the experiences of Chicanos in the Southwest," he said.

"I am Joaquin" was shown on national television, as well as at farmworkers' rallies, within the urban barrio, in classrooms and at film festivals. The film "signaled a new era in Chicano self-determination in film and television, and remains one of the most powerful Chicano films ever made," Noriega said.

In 1979, Sylvia Morales presented the first feminist critique of "I am Joaquin" with her film "Chicana," which depicts the Chicana history that Valdez's film "overlooks," Noriega said.

"I am Joaquin" and "Chicana" opened and closed the first decade of Chicano cinema, a decade in which film functioned as an "extension of the Chicano movement." Chicano cinema, he said, has pursued both reform and revolution.

Noriega divides Chicano cinema into three overlapping periods, and provides detailed analysis of the major events in each period:

Between 1968 and 1977, Chicano media activists made reformist demands on the news and entertainment media linked to social protests;

Between 1974 and 1984, Chicano filmmakers made radical demands directed at the television industry, but were dependent on noncommercial funding sources for production. Filmmakers' sense of their social role function became more radical;

Since 1981, "the beginning of the so-called Decade of the Hispanic, Chicanos were recognized as consumers, and Chicano producers and advocates have made increasingly corporatist demands upon both the state and broadcast industry." In the '90s, Chicanos began to be involved in film production and distribution.

Noriega examines the history of Chicano protests against advertisers, television networks and the film industry, many of which involved derogatory Hollywood stereotypes of Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and other Latino groups.

The Chicano media reform movement began after Frito-Lay Corp. launched in 1967 a national advertising campaign featuring an unshaven, cunning, sneaky, leering "Frito Bandito" who stole Anglos' corn chips at gunpoint. The Frito Bandito commercials appeared first on children's television shows, and expanded into all television and print advertising. For four years, this advertising campaign increased corn chip sales until Frito-Lay reluctantly dropped the campaign under pressure.

In the late '60s and early '70s, several companies used advertisements featuring Mexican revolutionaries. Elgin ran a newspaper advertisement that portrayed one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, as a common thief willing to kill for Elgin watches. Bristol-Myers showed a gang of banditos on horseback whose leader stops to spray on Mum underarm deodorant. Most corporations dropped the offending advertisements after the initial protests, but Frito-Lay put up the most resistance.

"What is interesting about the Frito Bandito," Noriega said, "is that we are supposed to identify with him. Even in the more offensive ads, we are supposed to want what the bandito wants: nonessential consumer items. The Frito Bandito encouraged viewers to co-opt outside threats to the American way of life by adopting the revolutionary and military style through consumption. Threats were rendered humorous, and consumption was offered as a form of counterinsurgency within the white middle-class home."

In response to protests, Frito-Lay "sanitized" the Frito Bandito, making him less grimacing and more friendly. Further protests, meetings, legal action and Congressional hearings followed for many months before the campaign succeeded in ending the ads.

In 1968, two Chicano groups formed to confront such stereotypes in advertising: Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors (IMAGE) and the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC). Both groups wrote letters to advertisers, held press conferences and threatened boycotts.

"The most interesting thing about these two groups," Noriega said, "is that their initial strategy was based almost entirely on a moral appeal to corporate America to do the right thing. Through the threat of boycotts, the NMAADC redefined Mexican-Americans as a consumer group rather than a political constituency. Through the development of a 'talent bank,' the group worked to increase Latino employment and creative control within the mass media."

To this day, Latinos and other minorities are "often the subjects of films and television, but are not part of the apparatus making the stories," Noriega said.

"The critical issue," he said, "is access to decision-making. There won't be a significant change in content or real inclusion until the people who are able to make or influence decisions are also integrated. It's going to be somewhat easier for Latinos to make films or be actors, but Latinos are not going to get films distributed and will have God-awful roles until they are in place as decision-makers.

"Every decade since the 1970s, the press has been fascinated with the story that things are looking bright for Latinos, the 'sleeping giant is about to awaken.' Latino advertising agencies and business advocacy groups make the argument for social change based on demographics and market share. They make that argument partly because it's the only avenue open, but it's a dead end. Latinos already go to the movies more than any other group, already watch more hours of television than any other group, and already have stronger brand loyalty than any other group; we already do these things with the industry severely under-representing us, so the industry has no motivation for change.

"The reason the government regulates television and the reason why the people own the airwaves is that television is a basic infrastructure for the nation; it's how we know about ourselves. Corporations get free access to the airwaves if they agree to serve the public interest. That is why we used to have community affairs programs, and why the news used to be structured as a loss leader rather than as a profit center. A certain level of programming was done because it served the public interest, not because it made a profit. That notion of television in the public interest has been dismantled systematically through-out the '80s. Starting in 1979, we saw the drop-off of almost all community and public affairs programs. Since then, the focus moved to lowering production costs and increasing advertising revenue. Broadcasting continues to be based on selling audiences to advertisers."

Noriega, who joined UCLA's faculty in 1992, is writing another book on Chicano feature films, and is conducting the first comprehensive study of the Screen Actors Guild's Latino members.

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