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Exclusive Interview: Professor Chon A. Noriega

Professor Chon A. Noriega is one of the prominent experts on Chicano cinema. He's helped recover and preserve many independent films, including the first three Chicano-directed feature-length movies, and has published widely on the subject. He's a distinguished professor in the UCLA Department of Film, Television and Digital Media, and former director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (2002-21). I couldn't be more excited to have gotten the chance to ask him a few questions regarding Chicano film, art and history. Many thanks to Professor Noriega for taking the time!

Your renowned book, Shot in America: Television, the State and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, outlines the origins of Chicano cinema, and I was wondering if you could speak about the process that led to you doing research on this topic, as well as its contemporary importance.

Shot in America emerged out of my dissertation, Road to Aztlán: Chicano and Narrative Cinema (1991). If that sounds a bit like the chestburster scene in Alien (1979), it’s not that far off. The book felt like an endoparasitoid, nourished on the dissertation, but almost entirely alien to its structure and purpose. The dissertation looked broadly at Chicano-themed narratives in U.S. feature films since the 1930s. That history consisted of at least ten Hollywood social problem films before the 1960s, followed by a handful of Hollywood gang films, and then starting in 1976 about a dozen Chicano-directed feature films, most of them independent. That’s twenty-something feature films about Mexican Americans that were made over a six-decade period in which Hollywood produced about 40,000 films. This minimal representation was compounded by the fact that nearly half of the Chicano-directed features were missing at the time I wrote the dissertation. Once I completed the dissertation, I did two things. I started tracking down the missing films, eventually locating and archiving existing prints; and I started revising my dissertation for book publication. But before starting on the revision, I knew that I needed to write a paragraph or two about television, since the Chicano movement era filmmakers got a foot in the door of the industry by way of public affairs programming. That paragraph grew to several pages, then several dozen pages; and, as it continued to grow, I divided the text into two chapters, and then divided it two more times until it became the entire book, or Xenomorph….

Writing Shot in America raised questions that required me to delve into television history, federal regulation, foundation funding, and civil rights policies/programs, but it also required me to understand the relationship of social movements to the state at a theoretical level. Typically, social movements and the state (as a set of institutions) are seen as categorically different from each other. In my own research, though, I found a lot of blurring between the two at the level of social actors and public discourse—that is, what people did, and what they said. Needless to say, these ways of looking at a documentary or a public affairs program were all outside my formal training in humanities-based cinema studies, wherein we “read” films and videos as texts. It took time to learn and integrate these new areas. But perhaps the most difficult thing for me was to move beyond the periodization established by the filmmakers and their films, since it occluded an earlier media reform movement. That movement’s emphasis was on putting a foot in the door in order to get “minority” filmmakers into the industry—as employees, as creators, and as change agents. So by saying “move beyond,” I do not mean that I rejected their historical perspective. How could I? I just needed other perspectives on the larger timeframe in which the idea of “Chicano cinema” developed. These filmmakers were my role models: against all odds, they made films, played a lead role in the circulation, promotion, and theorizing of their work, created media collectives and institutions, and forged alliances within and outside the U.S. I adopted their model as a scholar. Rather than just teach and publishing scholarship, I set out to curate film programs, conduct oral histories, archive filmmakers’ films and papers, work with foundations that supported filmmakers (but not Chicano or Latino filmmakers), and so on. It was not enough to create a text, whether film or book; one had to participate in and try to change the social institutions within which media production existed, but that had allowed almost no access for a large and growing part of the national population.

Along with being one of the preeminent scholars on Chicano film, you’ve also curated art exhibits that help center Latino voices. I’m curious how/if you view Latino film as being in conversation with other artistic mediums (painting, photography, creative writing etc.)? What are some connections or spaces of interaction that you’ve seen between the two?

That’s a good question, since it speaks to the tension between disciplines organized around specific mediums (literature, theater, music, art, moving image, et al.) and a larger concern with aesthetics, expression, meaning, and social being. In the field of film and video, I developed as a scholar, teacher, programmer, and archivist in the early 1990s. I was active in film programming over the next decade, working with community-based, alternative, mainstream, and international venues. In 2009, I curated a month-long program on Turner Classic Movies, which I co-hosted with Robert Osborne, that showcased 32 films, many of them never shown before on TCM.

Meanwhile, I curated museum exhibitions, starting with a rather ambitious show of eight site-specific installations at Cornell University in 1993. These included large-scale works on the campus grounds, the museum’s public spaces, and its main exhibition gallery. I was interested in exploring the history of installation art through the example of established Latino artists—a provocation within the field, but not one without merit: several artists had been doing installation since before installation was codified as a contemporary art form; and others drew upon much earlier forms of site-specific art in the Americas. The exhibition also explored the interplay of mediums that installation art made possible, including film, video, silkscreen, photography, painting, sculpture, and found object. Since then, most exhibitions I have curated have explored questions that cut across art forms, including video.

There’s a lot to say about this exhibition, which was called Revelaciones/Revelations: Hispanic Art of Evanescence, especially its attempt to occupy a normative space for art history previously defined by whiteness. But initially the exhibition drew silence from the art world. On campus, it became the object of racist graffiti, making visible longstanding anti-Latino discrimination on the campus. The graffiti was followed by silence from the campus administration. In response, Latino and other students took over the president’s office, demanding and eventually receiving an institutional investment in Latinos as part of the university and what it professes, which resulted in new faculty hires, library acquisitions, and a student center. Coming out of this experience, I found it hard to become overly committed to the specificity of the medium, let alone the traditional distinction between art and politics. This reckoning was taking place in film studies among silent film historians who found it necessary to connect the new medium of cinema with other art forms in the late 19th century, but also with how societies grappled with modernity. This reckoning was also a key part of debates over contemporary art. That said, non-white makers and works rarely served as an occasion for re-thinking these fields in total, and instead they were largely consigned to a framework of difference and identity.

I am drawn to artists who work across mediums, or who mix them up, and who do so with a larger conceptual approach that sees material, form, history, and the social as in conversation with each other. Their goal is not to draw clear boundaries, settle scores, or find one of these terms to be dominant, but rather to think through art without the illusion that such thinking is grounded in reason alone. Here it is useful to dwell on the relationship between art (as an expression) and politics (as a mode of decision-making in groups). Mexican-born artist Enrique Chagoya captures this relationship in his oral history at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, “…it would be too pretentious to think that art changes people’s consciousness, but you could arrive to a point where your art is a departure for thinking, and the world changes through other actions.” Tatiana Reinoza, who writes about Chagoya’s work, provides one model for such an approach to art in her forthcoming book on printmaking, Reclaiming the Americas: Latinx Art and the Politics of Territory.

The Chicano films of the 70s/80s really seem to speak to the issues of their specific historical moment. Considering this, how have you seen Chicano cinema’s focuses change over time, if at all?

Unfortunately, I am not sure that enough films have been made to make the case for changes over time. I do think that the category of “Chicano cinema” may be historical at this point—that is, as a label actively used by filmmakers. But their films continue to make a case for the necessity of Chicano-focused narratives that contribute to cinema as a global art form, to national culture, and to a community of origin.

What are some Chicano films everybody should add to their watch list? Some of your personal favorites?

Why not all of them? There are only about 30 features. This count does not include the numerous straight-to-DVD Chicano gangster films. Director-writer-actor Damian Chapa alone has made over a dozen. But maybe it should include these—there’s no doubt a good dissertation topic here. This type of a la brava production is where Chicano cinema started with the films of Efraín Gutíerrez.

Rather than personal favorites, here’s a starter dozen focused on the first 50 years. Hopefully it leads viewers to other works, including the much larger and older body of documentary and experimental work.

Please, Don't Bury Me Alive! (1976, 1h 21m) Dir. Efrain Gutierrez

Raices de Sangre (1978, 1h 34m, Mexico) Dir. Jesús Salvador Treviño

Zoot Suit (1981, 1h 43m) Dir. Luis Valdez

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982, 1h 45m) Dir. Robert M. Young

El Norte (1983, 2h 21m) Dir. Gregory Nava – Preserved by the Academy

Born in East L.A. (1987, 1h 25m), Dir. Cheech Marin

...and the Earth Did Not Swallow Him (1994, 1h 39m) Dir. Severo Perez

Staccato Purr of the Exhaust (1996, 1h 32m) Dir. Luis M. Meza

Real Women Have Curves (2002, 1h 30m) Dir. Patricia Cardoso

Speeder Kills (2003, 1h 24m) Dir. Jim Mendiola

Sleep Dealer (2008, 1h 30m), Dir. Alex Rivera

Mosquito y Mari (2012, 1h 25m) Dir. Aurora Guerrero


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