My Hispanic Heritage in Film: The Old, The New, and The Internal Spark

Contributor Susu is back with an ode to her heritage.

My Hispanic Heritage in Film: The Old, The New, and The Internal Spark

I sit here with you, finally, after weeks of pondering the threads that might tie my next movie list together. Last month was National Hispanic Heritage month and as a daughter of Spanish-speaking parents, I humbly and proudly begin there, on that corner of a gorgeous and intricate tapestry of humanity and culture.

I am woven into the tapestry with thread the color of Cuba, which is where my parents and a long line of ancestors were born. Things B.C. (before Cuba) are still a mystery. My DNA shows no sign of indigenous blood, which means that the threads extend across the Atlantic to Europe and Africa. But that’s another story. For now, and for about 200 years, with the exception of my maternal grandfather, my family tree and its history is firmly rooted in the westernmost province of Pinar del Río, Cuba.

As simple as that should be, as singular a representation of culture it might offer, it is not. I discover that, as I try to choose the handful of movies to share with you here, there are in fact several Cubas that express themselves to me in life and in film.

The first is the mythological Cuba, the one that lives behind the mist of nostalgia that envelopes the pre-Castro-Revolution generation, the Caribbean Camelot set in lush mountainsides, swaying to the sound of town sociedades, and thriving with the hope of a sunlit main street. It is, in my mom’s words, the image of un pueblo alegre.

The second is the new Cuba, the one I visited for the first time 15 years ago, which is decidedly “other.” It’s an “other” so drastic that my mom, having been gone for 40 years, didn’t recognize it as she moved through its haunted streets again. While described by many as being “frozen in time,” the phrase is inaccurate. What’s frozen is still. Preserved. And that’s not the truth of Cuba. What might be the country’s motto is injected into every conversation: No es fácil. It’s not easy.  The island is structurally compromised by lack of resources and culturally limited by the lack of ideological flexibility, yes. But make no mistake, it not frozen. It is living, breathing, moving forward.

In writing this post and examining my movie list, I discover a third, more personal place. An internal spark. My guess is that it lives and breathes in all sons and daughters of immigrants. I don’t think of it, any more than I think of blinking or scratching an itch. But it’s there, at work all the time, activated when I switch from English to Spanish in conversation, or when I hear Salsa and absolutely…must…dance.

All three places, the old, the new, and the internal spark, are my heritage. Here are a few of the movies that shed some light on them:

  1. The Lost City (2005), directed by Andy Garcia, written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante: “Everything I love is in this movie, including my kids.” These are Andy Garcia’s words while promoting the film in interviews. My words would be “epic poem.” The story is set on the island itself in the year leading up to Castro’s revolution in 1959, and is centered on the conflicting ideologies of three brothers. Among the elements I love most are the cast of mostly Cuban actors, and a soundtrack of original, classical music that reduces me to tears.
  2. Before Night Falls (2000), directed by Julian Schnabel, written by Julian Schnabel, Cunningham O’Keefe, and Lazaro Gomez Carriles. Based on Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir of the same name (Antes Que Anochesca), the story visits Arenas’ struggles from destitute childhood to homosexual manhood in an unforgiving culture of fear and repression. To know that Arenas began writing this book after he was diagnosed with HIV, knowing that his life would end and how he would end it is its own tragedy and triumph. Javier Bardem as Arenas is flawless. Keep your eyes open for Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, who looks so much like one of my uncles I had to do a double-take.
  3. Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y Chocolate) (1993), directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, written by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Senel Paz. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve popped this movie into my DVD player. It stars a delicious Jorge Perugorría as gay man and intellectual, and Vladimir Cruz as fiercely heterosexual male and devoted son of the communist revolution. I love every single thing about this movie, beginning with the fact that it was actually filmed in Cuba. I don’t know how the cast was able to film this story. The themes and conversation between these characters is strictly forbidden by the state, prompting the authorities to ban the movie on TV for 20 years after it was released in theaters. It is the only Cuban film ever to have been nominated for an Oscar and oh yeah, it was produced by Robert Redford.
  4. Guantanamera (1995), directed by Tomas Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, written by Eliseo Alberto, Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio. Peruggoría stars in this film as well, but this time as a truck-driving macho man with a sexual partner at every stop along his route. The story, though, is not just about him, but about Cuba itself. If you want a story of how things “go” in modern-day life and the spirit in which the people on the island approach their struggles, this would be the one to watch. This is another one I’ve countless times for its authenticity, absurdity, and laugh-out-loudness.
  5. Chef (2014), directed and written by Jon Favreau. I admit it. More often than not, I watch a movie from the comfort of my couch. Which means I fall asleep. My commitment to the movies and creativity forces me to watch a film again and again until dammit, I get through the thing. This, however, was not the case with “Chef.” It is a joy, a gem, and a riot. To add to Jon Favreau’s signature style and conversational wit, we have John Leguizamo as his character’s partner, a Cuban sandwich truck as the “dream,” and a few moments of perfection from another favorite, Bobby Cannavale, who delivers the word “lechón” like a philharmonic delivers Mozart. Cannavale is half-Cuban, which explains his perfect pitch.
  6. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), directed by Walter Salles, written by Enesto “Che” Guevara, Alberto Granado and Jose Rivera. As most know, Ernesto Guevara is a complex figure, received by some as hero and by others as cold-blooded assassin. In silent deference to my tribe I rejected this particular film for a long time, believing it would depict a romanticized version of a man I didn’t want to know or forgive. In the end, my curiosity and desire to understand took over and years after it was released, I watched it. You don’t need a critique from me to know it’s a wonderful film. I am glad that I watched it and would like to believe that as a young man, Guevara’s intentions were true, and that he was, like many in power, tragically derailed by his ego. Gael García Bernal (as Che) and Rodrigo de la Serna (as Alberto Granado) are magical together.
  7. Spanglish (2004), directed and written by James L. Brooks. To start, I am not an Adam Sandler fan but was happily surprised by his role as quietly desperate father, husband and chef. I choose this movie for this list, though, because of Paz Vega and Shelbie Bruce, who play immigrant mother and American daughter in ways too familiar and plentiful to enumerate. Translating conversations between my mom and non-Spanish-speaking folks is the story of my life, and this movie handles that reality with humor, grace and dignity. Plus, Cloris Leachman. I could not love a woman more.
  8. Dance With Me (1998), directed by Randa Haines, written by Daryl Matthews. This one’s a feel-gooder, a love story with the requisite gorgeous people who don’t get along at first but find each other later. There’s nothing really different about this film’s themes and conflicts, nor is the acting a thing of Oscar-worthy proportions. But there is a scene…in a club…with Albita, a famous Cuban songwriter/singer, performing…where the Salsa just…takes OVER. I‘ve watched that scene a thousand times. It is pure joy. I saw this film in the theater with my mom. In the middle of that same club scene, just as I wondered whether my dad – a fantastic dancer in his youth – had danced like that, my mom pulled me close and said, “Así era en Cuba.” “That’s how it was in Cuba.”
  9. The Mambo Kings (1992), directed by Arne Glimcher, written by Oscar Hijuelos and Cynthia Cidre. The book “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” by Oscar Hijuelos was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And so, imagine my surprise when the movie version was a travesty. I don’t know what would have saved it or made it right, but I believe it begins with casting someone other than Armand Assante, whose rendition of Cuban Male is a constant sucking in of the cheeks and strutting like a peacock. Everything about him was wrong, from his accent to his sense of rhythm, and the movie suffers dearly for it. And yet, here it is on my list because Antonio Banderas does do justice to his role, because my beloved Celia Cruz appears in several scenes, and because of a perfect moment in a club scene in which a man, an amazing dancer, jumps out of his chair and begins a conga line. It is everything.
  10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), directed and written by Woody Allen. I don’t have one heck of a lot of patience for Woody Allen’s characters. There, I’ve said it. And so again, I didn’t run to the theater to watch this when it first came out, even though I would watch Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz read the newspaper. But one day I watched.  And holy cow, when Bardem’s character proposes a trip to Oviedo, I nearly broke a kneecap as I hurled myself closer to the screen. You see, Oviedo, a town in northwest Spain, is where my maternal grandfather is from. I know close to nothing about him. He died when my mom and her siblings were too young to remember him. Oviedo is the one item on my bucket list, my mystery, and a branch in my tree that I hope to learn more about one day.

This post is dedicated to my father, Oscar, who passed away 37 years ago, and who is fully responsible for the part of me that absolutely…must…dance.


Susu is getting her movie fix here and I couldn’t be happier about it, but she writes regularly at Sin Zapato, a barefoot blog wherein she shares insights on being. Take a look at it here or via the link on this blog’s home page.

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