There is no doubt that Americans of Mexican descent have achieved mainstream status and even political dominance in 21st century California. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times about the rise of Mexican-American politicians and the appointment of Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of San Antonio as the new Archbishop of Los Angeles, only confirms what native Californians have always known: Mexicans were here before there was a California, will be here in the future, and continue to contribute significantly to our State.
And not just the straight ones!
On March 2, openly gay John Perez was sworn in as Speaker of the California Assembly. (Just for the record, this was followed two days later when legal, same-sex marriages began taking place in Mexico City. Coincidentally, Washington, D.C. legalized same-sex marriage at the same time as Mexico’s capitol! Perhaps good omens for the future of California’s same-sex couples.)
Mexico and the Mexican-American community are on the move!
And further, a glimpse into the highly structured Mexican-American working-man’s society is now on view at local movie houses.
Not to be missed is Peter Bratt’s “La Mission,” a film brimming with street and domestic violence, and laced with homophobia, search for ethnic identity and machismo. Starring the talented Benjamin Bratt, Peter’s younger brother, “La Mission” refers to the Mission District in San Francisco, the real-life, growing-up family neighborhood of the Bratt brothers. As Reed Johnson of the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “…named for the Spanish colonial Mission Dolores, it was a neighborhood of lowriders, Peruvian flute players, Native American and Latino activists, omnipresent street theater and vibrant murals that related the local history like ‘Aztec glyphs.’”
The movie, populated by a host of well-drawn characters, revolves around Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt), a hard-working, ultra-proud Mexican, San Francisco bus driver. He’s also an ex-con, a one-day-at-a-time-alcoholic, and an artist at restoring old cars. However, Che’s world is changing. At home, Elena (Erika Alexander) a self-assured single black woman, has moved into an upstairs vacant apartment. Her very presence and demeanor challenges Che’s macho world. His violent and exacting nature always just beneath the surface, ready to erupt. Che is more and more uncomfortable as he watches old ways die and the neighborhood gentrifying.
The real convulsion starts when Che discovers photos of his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), a handsome high school senior, kissing a boy. Che, who is a single-father, is rightly proud of his son’s accomplishments which have been topped-off by his receiving a scholarship to attend UCLA. Earlier we’ve been shown family pictures depicting the two of them with Jesse being groomed as mini-Che.
Religious/spiritual activities and symbols permeate the film. Che is depicted clinging to the spiritual demands of Alcoholics Anonymous, his Catholic upbringing and ancient Aztec rituals.
However, in spite of all of this, Che finds it impossible to accept his gay son. He first tries to beat the gayness out of him. When that doesn’t work, he banishes him from the house. They reconcile, but only if the son doesn’t show any signs of gayness, i.e., Jesse is to stay at home and run with his father and his homies. And, despite Che’s budding personal and physical relationship with Elena, who is supportive of Jesse, his violent nature quashes it. Mounting street tensions over homophobia spawns more violence when Mexican street thugs “shoot the faggot.” At the hospital, with a recovering Jesse on life supports, Che threatens to kill his son’s gay boyfriend.
Che’s world has crumbled.
Strong performances and an unflinching story line makes “La Mission” an extraordinary film. And, while it is remarkable for showing the historic societal changes engulfing Mexican communities, it’ strongest message is that, in the end, a loving family trumps religious dogma and social prejudices.