Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, we’re looking into Sylvia Morales’ 1979 photo documentary about the oft-overlooked place of Chicanas in their own history, appropriately titled Chicana! Let’s get into it!
To properly contextualize today’s film, one must understand it exists in conversation with an earlier Registry entrant, which in its turn serves as adaptation of a key work in the Chicano Labor and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.
Crash coursing our way through a little history: In 1967, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, a Colorado boxer turned political activist who founded the Denver Crusade for Justice and the Congreso de Aztlán political party amongst other accomplishments, wrote and distributed the epic poem “Yo soy Joaquin.” Written from the perspective of a collective Chicano exemplar who has been slave and master and warrior and victim and boss and worker and everything between, it traces the scope of Latino history from its roots in pre-Columbian civilization through the Conquistador invasions and centuries-delayed revolutions into the modern state of disenfranchisement and disconnection from one’s origins, calling now for collective awakening and bleeding in the name of la causa towards self-determination. The work, held as the first to truly solidify and define “Chicano” as an identity formed in diaspora amongst the displaced and oppressed from across the Central American world held together by ideals of machismo and revolution, spread quickly in printed copy and live performance amongst members of the Mexican- and various Central-American communities, a massively popular call to action that inspired further works in its vein and a large portion of the virtues which formed the core of the movement. One vector for this spread was El Teatro Campesino, a theatrical company founded by Luis Valdez to entertain and educate the Chicano labor force on behalf of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, with renditions of “Yo soy Joaquin” common amongst their repertoire. Following Valdez’s retirement from traveling theatrical activism, he made his directorial debut with an adaptation based on Juanita Dominguez’s English translation of the poem in the 1969 short I Am Joaquin, a work which expanded the poem’s audience from laborers and Chicano communities into the wider moviehouse market.
Reading from the text himself in voiceover, Valdez’s film captures and enhances the solidifying pride in La Raza and the revolutionary furor of the poem’s rhythms quite accurately. His voice, clear and booming and attendant to the emotions of the moment, soaring with the triumphs of the Chicano people, sinking with the seemingly inevitable return to subjugation and humiliation. His backing audio, strings of sorrow, wails of pain, thundering cannonfire, eventually voices raised in chanting support of all Joaquin and the idealized Chicano is and should be. His visuals, a mixture of contemporary photography and historic record, artifacts and paintings and photos depicting the conquests, the rebellions, the back-breaking work in the fields, the death in foreign lands during wars in another’s name, the hope of what will be should the revolution succeed for true this time. It makes for impactful watching, the degree to which its ambition of total historiographical transformation of illustrated record into breast-firing mind-elevating pride in who La Raza were and what they can become through a single rallying cry succeeds evident in every second. The picture seems all-encompassing as you can get, inviting every dispersed identity from Latino to Español to Méxicano to whatever one prefers a place under the umbrella identity Chicano, a face amongst the many-faceted identity of Joaquin, a promise of dignity and respect and fulfillment in the new day when all embody the dual spirit of Aztec prince and Christian Christ.
We must note, however, I Am Joaquin does not adapt the entirety of “Yo soy Joaquin”; there are two passages from Gonzales’ poem which do not appear in Valdez’s picture. While their absence is likely best explained by a decision to cut portions that double back on already-expressed ideas after moving on to new focal points so the movie can readier flow from hard hit to hard hit, their exclusion is noteworthy all the same, one omission especially so for our purposes. The first of these deletions, concerning how Joaquin has bled in many ways, positioned in the midst of a shift from discussing historical events to modern context, is understandable through the aforementioned logic, for the poem and film alike place special emphasis on shed blood in plenty other passages. The second, though, placing Joaquin in the dark reflective eyes of the grieving Chicana wife-mother-sister-daughter who have seen too many husbands-fathers-brothers-sons sacrifice their lives, who stands with Joaquin in mutual ability to endure hardship, somewhat less so. Without this passage, the only mention of women in the entire epic poem is as a wife figure who has been killed and revenged a thousandfold, no thought towards her as even equal in bearing the brunt of life’s blows, if not one expected to march amongst those bound for the fight. A central population within Aztlán included amongst the many-faced millions who formed Joaquin in the poem is here excluded, her ability to endure and march on wiped away in the mass-market production of this poem.
As we discussed briefly when looking over Valdez’s future Registry entrant Zoot Suit, a work of Chicano art subtly advancing a macho perspective at the expense of acknowledging women in the community is hardly surprising. Though useful for bringing the traditionally valued public-facing gender together under one banner and projecting a strong, forceful image to the world, worship of machismo and masculine pride to the extreme has oft proven damaging to the Chicano community, regularly cited as a major reason the largest cultural and activist organizations fell apart across the 1970s, either as a result of the natural strain they placed on feminine and queer perspectives or as easy leverage point for federal-backed disruptors to splinter the group. Walks of life unflattering to the hypermasculine identity are forever at risk of erasure if not outright denigration under this framework. To this end, it’s not surprising we then find elements of the Chicana cinema scene that blossomed in the late 70s adopting approaches meant to counter the unfortunate erasure found in I Am Joaquin and argue the importance of women to the Chicano/a way of life by emphasizing their vital place in the communal history.
Today’s film is not quite the first to take this route, o’course. We find a similar strategy at play in 1977’s Oscar-nominated short Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country from director Moctesuma Esparza, with its emphasis on the old weaver narrating the fine details of her daily routine in various seasons and her view of herself as axel and pillar alike for the people in her life paired with footage depicting and emphasizing the same. It makes definite artistic contrast against the characterization of Chicano spirit as rising and stout-hearted and ready for the clash. For a more direct response to I Am Joaquin from a Chicana perspective, though, we must turn to Sylvia Morales, an early 70s UCLA graduate who made her bones amongst the burgeoning Chicanisma movement, advocating a feminist alternative to the concept of Chicanismo as those traditional “manly” values put the community under needless internal pressure as outside forces ramped up their own screw-turning. Following several years work as a camera technician at ABC Los Angeles, Morales made her own cinematic debut with a film adapted from a slideshow presentation on Chicana history by Anna Nieto-Gómez for a seminar at the Inner City Cultural Center. Retaining the same visual technique of pairing recent photography with art depicting Mexican- and Central-American history (plus a few sequences of live footage depicting modern Chicana life at the open and close), Chicana functions as, effectively, a direct response to I Am Joaquin’s casual erasure, presented from a different revolutionary angle.
At first, the commonality of tone may not appear evident, as Carmen Zapata narrates the piece with a voice suited to the lecture hall rather than the fist-raised crowd electrification in Valdez’s delivery of Gonzales’ words. In content, the short ditches the notion of drawing the viewer in as a representative spirit of the people in favor of simply detailing the history, noting such details as how the Aztec people worshiped the mother goddess Coatlicue and displayed signs of a communal property system with elements of a matriarchy despite the simultaneous presence of a brutal slave culture before the Conquistadores arrived to inflict even worse, how the arrival of Christianity in Mexico brought with it the idea of women as morally superior because they could endure the suffering and abuses brought about by the men who called them morally superior while abusing them, how every step from colonization to revolution to neo-colonization by industrial captains brought with it new excuses for why women should remain second-class citizens. All presented over a mixture of period artifacts and modern artwork depicting those dim past eras, all presented in an academic manner without such overt emotional direction in manner of speech or music as Joaquin’s sound direction, all backed by reference to specific figures within Chicana history. Their names and deeds are noted at length where similar famous Chicano persons simply zoom by as cultural references for Joaquin. Malintzin Tenepal, interpreter between the Spanish and Aztecs who hoped her role could bring peace and found herself used to further subjugation; Juana Inés de la Cruz, a proponent for women’s right to education who saw her library destroyed for her activism; Estéfana Goseacochea, mother to Juan Cortina and slayer of many a Texas Ranger; Valentina Ramirez and Carmen Robles, respectively crossdressing and transgender leaders in the 1910 Revolution — women whose blurbs alone prove the tale is not quite so exclusively male-dominated as the big picture flame-fanning version might imply.
On and on the wheel turns, and as Chicana moves closer to its modern day, one comes to understand how the same revolutionary spark continues here in contrast to the wilder-expressed version of such. At every turn, Morales’ presentation of Nieto-Gómez’s script is careful to note Chicana history can be understood as a constant, ever-shifting effort by the powerful and moneyed to deny women their personhood and rightful place as equal members of society, be it restricting access to education, or providing citizenship only through marriage, or exploiting their labor in the factories, or the tacit refusal to include any of these triumphs and tragedies alike in the popular history. While she acknowledges women are naturally present across all social strata, the oppressive wealthy included, she is firm in placing the working class and their indignities front and center, telling history from the perspective of those who either came from little or broke with the class of their birth to fight for those who had little. There is an established continuity across the financial interests of the Catholic Church to the landowners who rushed in after independence to the governors and presidents who took the northern extent of Mexico for the United States to the titans of industry who transformed the southwest into an industrial center, injust autocrats all motivated by the same interest in generating capital from those least available to speak or fight for themselves in view of overwhelming physical force and reinforcement of counterintuitive norms. Her heroes are Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons the labor organizers, Dolores Jimenez y Muro the Zapata supporter who pushed for equal distribution of land between sexes, contemporary organizers and advocates like Dolores Huerta and Alicia Escalante and Francisca Flores. Her history is one of a people and gender who’ve been fighting for equality of opportunity and fair ownership on the means of production long before the modern philosophical terms for these ideas came into vogue.
Chicana, in plain words, is a film blunt and direct about viewing history through an intersectionalist lens with specific focus on the ways class warfare has damaged Chicana women and the ways Chicana women have been fighting just so fiercely as Chicano men every step of the way to far lesser recognition. Morales imbues the film with the socialist sentiments of her highlighted figures, casting ideas like communal property ownership, equal distribution of wealth, and the overthrow of those who would rob control of labor’s product away from the actual laborers in a favorable light. She names the names of those working to the ends at her time and points directly to their organizations, while pairing clips of their speeches with footage of the wide berth of disenfranchised across varying age brackets and job markets and life experiences with the uniting commonality of being Chicana. Where I Am Joaquin embodies the revolutionary spirit as the roaring lion atop a great mountain rallying the troops to recognize themselves as collectively wronged and collectively capable of retaliation implicitly framed as an act of violence even if not physically violent in itself, Chicana embraces the revolution as opportunity to educate and restore, the voice reminding all of the true meaning in solidarity with an eye on ensuring tomorrow’s rebellion is conducted in the name of specifically leftist goals and values.
Something we must keep in mind: though it is convenient to call the perspectives across the Gonzales/Valdez and Nieto-Gómez/Morales pairings respectively masculine and feminine for the ways in which they represent the virtues of Chicanismo and Chicanisma, the approaches used in each film are not necessarily nor inherently masculine and feminine in and of themselves. To claim only the masculine aggressive and only the feminine educative is to reduce both by stereotype and subsequently ignore the very lessons imparted in Chicano through its inclusion of women who fought the good fight on the frontlines, through sedition, through advocacy; as well as the value in I Am Joaquin as an introductory educative text couching history in its firebrand words distributed amongst the working class. The earlier film invited the latter by its incompleteness, but with both established as part of the Chicano/a cinematic canon, it is vital to remember both approaches are necessary for a successful revolution. Despite the assertions found within The Most Typical Avant-Garde in its section on Chicano cinema, that the increase in intersectional views in the movement aggravated its sublimation into mainstream American movie work even as they produced important academic texts, one needs only remember the constant refrain from Chicana to see this idea as bunk: the disadvantaged in diaspora and/or cultural oppression are forever pressured by the ruling class to conform and bend and reshape themselves to fit the present mold. The forces which stymy all major pushes for social change had already ground to life long before the community’s leaders and makers got to questioning the weaknesses in its tenets. I sense the movement born from I Am Joaquin would have seen its leaders and visionaries become members of the studios and networks regardless Morales and her fellow women directors’ reminders they and theirs had always been here, always stood strong in the fight. To cast them as contrary or antagonistic is to forget the agitator and the educator must work hand in hand if the agitated are to fight with any proper direction or the educated are to be spurned into action at all.
On a personal note in closing, I should mention the level of enthusiastic support I typically accord the message animating works of a revolutionary bent produced by traditionally disadvantaged or minority populations is a touch misplaced in this case, given my own race and geographic location. Solidarity now and forever, yes, across all walks of life, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact I am myself white living in a region of the southwest taken from its people by my nation as part of industrial railway ambitions, and thus exist where and how I do as beneficiary to centuries of imperialist policy, the very imperialist policy both I Am Joaquin and Chicana speak against. Being not very well off myself, I cannot simply up and move, nor do I think some kind of mass white flight out’ve southern Arizona is any kind of answer to any modern version of these centuries-old problems. I simply wish to note there is some conflict of interest when I get all full-throated about La Raza rising in revolution against the forces which led to their lack of power and purpose in the very land they once called home when I live on this land because people who look more like me than anyone else enacted the profit-motivated takeovers in the first place. It always does well to remember: while I can help some by raising awareness of causes and works related to them via this project, one should always seek out those whose lives are actually touched and changed by these matters, and listen to them long after I’ve finished speaking. Any Chicana author’s perspective on Chicana will forever trump mine in importance. Seek them out, hear their words, and always make sure your perspective on the films I cover comes from a broader base than one isolated body trying to cover an enormous berth of topics in their spare time.
And there’s another week down! Any thoughts this time round — about the picture, or Morales, or “Joaquin” or Aztlán, or anything really! Be sure to leave ’em in the comments, and keep your neck craned for another piece in two weeks’ time. When we reconvene, it’s another ’79 picture, with Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s documentary about the history of the Industrial Workers of the World, The Wobblies! You can rent or buy from YouTube, Amazon, or Google, or find yourself a hard copy of the restoration through a retailer the IWW wouldn’t be striking against for shitty practices today! See you then!
Registering the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.