Learning about Latinx culture, experiences through film

“We’re all connected in so many different ways,” says UC Berkeley lecturer Raymond Telles. “And film is a wonderful way of bringing together those connections.”

Telles is a documentary filmmaker and an adjunct professor in Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies. He teaches a series of three courses that explore the Latinx/Chicanx experience in the United States and in Latin America through narrative and documentary film.

This semester, he’s teaching the course, Latino Narrative Film Since 1990. In the class, students watch a variety of works that were produced in the U.S. and in Latin America, from independent films, like Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) and Raising Victor Vargas, to Hollywood movies, like Once Upon A Time In Mexico and Frida.

“I’m trying to expose students to not only films, but the context in which these films were made — the influences that shaped the views reflected in the works,” Telles says. “Many of these films that were made years ago have themes that still resonate.”

Berkeley News spoke with Telles, who prefers to use the terms Latino and Chicano, about why he thinks it’s important to learn about Latin America through film and how he hopes his students come away inspired to further explore Latin American art and culture.

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Raymond Telles, a lecturer at UC Berkeley, teaches a series of three courses on Latinx film. (BAMPFA photo)

Berkeley News: What film courses do you teach at Berkeley?

I teach a series of three courses on Latino film — 135A, B and C — that I developed with Alex Saragoza, a professor emeritus of Chicano and Latino studies, about 20 years ago. In 135A, I show narrative films made from the 1950s to the ’90s that are about or made by U.S. Latinos — so Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans. In 135B, which I’m teaching this semester, we look at films from 1990 to the present, and 135C focuses on documentaries. I also teach an American cultures course that examines race and ethnicity in contemporary American films.

What are some of the films your class will watch this semester? What themes and representations of Latin American people and cultures do they address?

We’ll watch the 1994 Oscar-nominated Fresa y Chocolate, set in Havana, Cuba, in 1979. It’s about a young gay intellectual who forms an unlikely and deep friendship with a conservative college student. Although same-sex relationships became legal that year in Cuba, being openly gay remained highly taboo in the country. It’s really a coming-of-age story, but it’s also a film about a country of great contradictions and about coming to an awareness of what it was like to be gay in Cuba at that time. It’s really a lovely story.

I’ll show a film called The Motorcycle Diaries, which is a portrayal of young Che Guevara before he was a revolutionary. It’s a journey throughout Latin America. It’s beautifully shot. We’re spending two hours in this dark room on a tour, seeing places in Latin America we wouldn’t normally see. For me, it’s kind of like an escape, where we get to experience this journey with him.

We’ll also watch Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman), which came out in 2017 and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s about a love affair between an upper-class Chilean businessman and a trans woman, who is played by a trans actor. It’s absolutely lovely. I always try to introduce new films with new representation as culture shifts and changes.

One of the films Telles shows in class is Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman), about a love affair between an upper-class Chilean businessman and a trans woman.

Why is it important to you that students learn about Latin America, in general, and also through film?

The United States and Latin America — Central America, especially — have been linked together since the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the late 15th century.

I made a film about 10 years ago called The Storm That Swept Mexico, about the Mexican Revolution. The U.S. had huge investments in Mexico right up until the revolution, and the revolution was basically about returning those natural resources, those investments, back to Mexico. There were a million people crossing the border in 1910 because of that bloody war. The same goes on between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the mass migrations of these folks coming to the U.S. right now are a result of the relations we had with those countries going back 100 years or more.

Telles directed a documentary, The Storm that Swept Mexico, about the Mexican Revolution. “Film is a fascinating way of looking at history and understanding the relationships between the U.S. and countries we take for granted,” he says.

Film is a fascinating way of looking at history and understanding the relationships between the U.S. and countries that we take for granted. I think we need to be well-informed as citizens as to what’s going on with our neighbors. There’s a big gap in the teaching of American history, particularly the history of the Southwest. Until 1848, the Southwest was Mexico. So, I think we can do a little bit to fill that gap through film.

We have a lot of Mexican American and Central American students at Cal, many of whom are citizens and many who are recently arrived immigrants. I think we need to serve them. Plus, our student body has to understand who makes up this country, particularly California.

You show several U.S. films by Mexican filmmakers. What are a few of these films?

There are many Mexican filmmakers who have worked in Hollywood for a long time. They bring a different perspective than a traditional Mexican filmmaker or a traditional American filmmaker. They’re bridging, and they work very fluidly within both countries and cultures.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, for example, has directed a lot of big films — 21 Grams, The Revenant, Birdman. He often deals with themes of alienation and immigration in many of his movies. Babel, written by Guillermo Arriaga Jordán and directed by Iñárritu, takes place in Morocco, the U.S., Japan and Mexico post-9/11. It asks the questions about how America is dealing with terrorism, and what happens in a country where American privilege doesn’t matter anymore.

Do you encourage students to go beyond watching films in class?

Yes. I’m always trying to tie together the films and themes we explore in class to our larger community.

When I last taught this course a few years ago, we watched the 2015 film Ixcanul (Volcano), about a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl who lives on the slopes of an active volcano and whose marriage is arranged by her Kaqchikel parents.

After the class saw the film, I invited two people from the Kaqchikel community in Oakland to speak with the class about the representation of Indigenous communities in Latin American film. Then, I arranged a virtual meeting with an activist in Guatemala, who talked about Indigenous women’s issues in the country.

A few years ago, Telles’s class watched the 2015 film, Ixcanul (Volcano), about a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl who lives on the slopes of an active volcano and whose marriage is arranged by her Kaqchikel parents.

When we watch Frida later this semester, about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, I’ll encourage students to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which holds several works by Kahlo in its collection and is presenting a major retrospective about Mexican painter Diego Rivera, a longtime partner of Kahlo’s. On Thursdays, SFMOMA is free, so they can take the BART to Third Street and see it then.

Film is just an introduction, quite frankly. I hope each student walks away with their interest piqued, wanting to learn more.

What do you hope students take from your class?

I hope it will demystify filmmaking and encourage students, especially those from underrepresented cultures and communities, to tell their own stories. One student I’m working with right now is making a film about her mother, who is an immigrant from Japan and married an African American man from the United States. It’s about her mother’s experience living in San Francisco.

Making films is all about storytelling. I tell students: Sit down and talk to your mother, your father, your grandparents. Get your story out, because no one else is going to do it for you.

Learn more about Telles in a faculty profile by UC Berkeley’s Latinx Research Center.