By Gregg Barrios
"I operate from the belief that if you're really specific to a place and a people and tell their story, it becomes universal." — Jim Mendiola in Filmmaker Magazine.
Unlike other scenic and historical film locations, San Antonio has been shunned by Hollywood. Oh, films have been shot here: the silent classic Wings, or more recent fare such as Viva Max, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and Greg Nava's Selena.
Most filmmakers, however, have used this city as a backdrop to the story or as a substitute for another place, as in Living the Life, in which San Antonio fills in for Los Angeles. And San Antonio didn't even merit a walk-on in what some consider its most important story, The Alamo.
San Antonio has played home to many Mexican-American filmmakers, from Severo Perez, whose film version of Tomas Rivera's And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him appeared on PBS' American Playhouse, to Robert "El Mariachi" Rodriguez whose Spy Kids series was big box-office. Yet neither of these filmmakers has used the city and its culture as the main focus of their feature films.
That mantle has fallen on two local Chicano independent filmmakers, Efrain Gutierrez and Jim Mendiola. Two of their films are now available on DVD: Mendiola's Come and Take It Day and Gutierrez's Low-Rider Spring Break. Although both films premiered at the Guadalupe Cultural Art Center's CineFestival, they never had a commercial run locally, nor were they widely reviewed. But with the rise of the DVD format, the filmmakers' work could become available to a wider audience.
It can be argued that Gutierrez single-handedly invented Chicano cinema in 1976. His first film, Please Don't Bury Me Alive /Diles que no me entierren vivo, premiered at the old Century South theaters. It was groundbreaking, bringing the West Side barrio to the big screen. His second feature, Amor Chicano es para siempre, further solidified his reputation, playing in Spanish-language theaters in South Texas and prompting Mexican film producers to offer to distribute his films.
After his third movie, Run Tecato Run, which played throughout the Southwest, Gutierrez stopped making films and began raising a family. He had invested his money in a failed Woodstock-style Chicano music festival. Decades later, when Chicano students heard of his work and UCLA attempted to locate the films, Gutierrez returned to filmmaking with Low Rider Spring Break in San Quilmas, the first Chicano comedy made in the Alamo City.
Lowrider is filled with socio-political humor that reminds one of vaudeville or the traveling carpa (tent) shows that played in theaters such as the Alameda and El Nacional.
Gutierrez cast SA native Jesse Borrego (this fine local actor also has the lead in Mendiola's film) as a womanizing promoter sponsoring a low-rider car show to pay off his debts. As Gutierrez states in a title card: "Lowriding is about familía, arte, música ... Be proud of your firme culture."
Throughout the film, we are treated to marvelous retellings of local Chicano history - from the heirs of Martin De León who founded a colony in Victoria but were railroaded out of their heritage after Texas independence, to a Spanish-language TV announcer whose last name is a litany of Mexico's corrupt PRI presidents. The centerpiece is a mythical curandero trying to capture Davy Crockett. At one point, the curandero spots a guy in a coonskin cap who turns out to be Joe King Carrasco - the Tex-Mex nuevo-wavo musician whose professional name is a nod at local folk hero and drug lord Fred Gomez Carrasco.
The film was shot in the barrios and other San Antonio locales, including the Seven Oaks Resort on Austin Highway that recently burned down. The soundtrack is filled with music that reflects Chicano culture. For a scene on Nogalitos Street, we hear the following lyrics: "Going down to Nogalitos, looking for some barbacoa and Big Red. I could have got menudo but I got cabeza instead."
One of the first images in Mendiola's Come and Take It Day is of a young Chicano wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt and a faux coonskin cap, strutting along the River Walk's cement banks. He bumps into a young Latina who, upon gazing at this work of living art, immediately dubs him "a neo-hippie pachuco."
Mendiola's film is smart and cinematic. His Chicano quartet of characters includes a young heavy metal freak who admires Richard Ramirez, the LA Night Stalker; an "acculturated" North Side Mexican American; an ex-pinto who is a Catholic Zen Buddhist; and Nena, a young Ivy League graduate student home for the summer. They all meet and work at Café Ole where the tale unfolds as a corrido of a plan to find the lost treasure of Gregorio Cortez.
Mendiola's dialogue is so rich it takes several viewings to absorb the layers of social critique. His use of graffiti and photographs advances the story, as does the larger-than-life Bowie knife and Crockett cap. Jesse, the film's zen-zoot philosopher, dreams of going to Thailand, since it was never colonized. He sees San Antonio as "this Remember the Alamo, Sea World, buy a sombrero, tourist attraction of a town."
Near the end of Day, a character reflects on Gutierrez' philosophy that lowriding is cultura. "We mestizos can hybridize anything. You should see what we can do with a '64 Impala." •