Made on a larger canvas, with a bigger budget and Hispanic stars (Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Edward James Olmos), My Family became Gregory Nava's breakthrough film.
Presenting Latinos in a positive light, this chronicle of a large family living in East L.A. is structured as a series of painful intergenerational clashes, juxtaposed against the indomitable endurance of blood ties. One generation after another, the Sanchez clan struggles against social limits foisted on them by their elders, the only constant factor is the racist surrounding.
“When you can't look to authority for protection,” Nava said, “you find other ways to protect yourself, and this is one of the reasons gang activity has become so prevalent. Gangs are an old part of Chicano culture, but unfortunately they're growing increasingly virulent. In the 1950s, the streets were safe for children and old people, and there were boundaries the gangs respected. But now-a-days there are security bars on the windows, a sad reflection on Latino life in L.A.”
The contribution My Family makes to the depiction of barrio life is that, “instead of putting gangs at the center of Latino culture, which the media have done, the family is at the center.” The gangs, the Catholic Church, immigration problems, and music orbit around the family, but for Nava, it's a universal story about a family that happens to be Latino. With all the difference between Latino and Anglo families, Nava wants to show that “we all have more in common than we realized. The family is one of those things.”
Through all the battles and violence, the characters never abandon the shelter provided by the family. “Because Latino culture in L.A. has been poor and oppressed, these people have always looked to their families for protection and strength,” Nava said of his film, co-written with his wife-partner, Anna Thomas. But the movie is not hopeful: “Following this family through three generations, it doesn't get less oppressed. People do move up and you see change, but you also see the development of a permanent underclass.”
Told from the point of view of Paco Sanchez (Edward James Olmos), who plays a writer, the story begins in rural Mexico early in the century, and follows his parents as they immigrate to California, carving out a life for themselves in less than hospitable environment. Early in the film, Mexican workers are shown building the Pacific Electric Car, along with other parts of the city. For Nava, this has become a permanent aspect in America: “Latinos are still doing the jobs nobody else wants to do–they're still washing dishes and digging ditches.”
An exhibition by Chicana artist Patssi Valdez prompted Nava to invite her to collaborate with art director Barry Robison in shaping the movie's visual look. Valdez's paintings became a reference point, with domestic scenes rendered in bold colors. Robison carried around color xeroxes of her paintings, because Nava wanted a literal rendition. “Valdez's colors are vivid, there's a cartoonish quality–hence, every room in the house is painted a different color.” “The safe way to do this film would have been in warm sepia tones with everything muted, but Nava went in the opposite direction,” Robison said of Nava's attempt at magical realism. For the 1920s, they used earth colors, referring to the folk art of Michoacan; the 1950s segment is dominated by pastel, influenced by the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; the 1980s are entirely congruent with Valdez style.
Nominally, the central figure is Chucho (Morales), a brooding “bad” boy who gets killed in the course of the action. But in actuality, the chief character is the house, a living organism that expands, contracts and takes on different characters as time goes by. As the tale progresses and the family expands, the house grows too. By the time the story jumps to the l980s, the colors have become intensely dark, and the house has begun to sag because there's been so much living in it.
New Line did an astonishing marketing for My Family, which after its premiere at Sundance scored with both Latino and arthouse audiences, reaching $11.1 million on some 400 screens.