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My Family/Mi Familia
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My Family/Mi Familia

The 1995 film My Family (aka My Family, Mi Familia) tells the sweeping saga of the Mexican-American Sanchez family across three generations with humor and sensitivity. Beginning with patriarch José's year-long journey on foot from Mexico to California and subsequent marriage to local girl Maria, the Sanchez family plants its roots in East Los Angeles during the 1920s. Narrated by their son Paco (Edward James Olmos), an aspiring writer, My Family moves through each decade chronicling the triumphs and tragedies of an immigrant family trying to make it in America.

My Family was written by husband and wife team Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, who received an Oscar® nomination for their highly acclaimed 1983 screenplay collaboration El Norte. Nava, who also directed both films, had always wanted to make a movie that centered on the family. "What I want to tell in the film," said Nava in a 1995 interview, "is the story of a family. I don't think you understand Latino culture unless you understand the family." While Nava drew on his own Mexican heritage and family for the script, he was also influenced by stories of other immigrant families. "The inspiration for the film is obviously based on my family," said Nava, "but I would say that the influence is more inspirational rather than specific. A lot of specifics came from other families when I was doing research for the film in East Los Angeles."

With its many vivid characters, director Gregory Nava had a chance to cast some of the best Latino actors in My Family including Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Constance Marie and Eduardo Lopez Rojas, one of Mexico's most respected actors. Jennifer Lopez, in her first major role in a feature film, also makes a memorable impression as the young matriarch of the family, Maria, who must fight her way back to her family after being illegally deported to Mexico.

Jimmy Smits, who plays troubled son Jimmy, loved making My Family. "From the beginning, My Family was a movie I knew I had to make," said Smits in 1995. "My Family is one of the very few films with an entirely Latino cast and Latino director, and all of us working on it felt it would be a real breakthrough." His attraction to the story had to do with its epic quality. "I like the span of the piece in terms of going from the early times of when California was part of Mexico and really seeing the family go through the 50s and the 80s," he said. "This is a multi-generational piece. In that respect the piece to me is like a jewel."

Co-star Edward James Olmos was also pleased to be a part of My Family. "Each culture has its own definitive understanding of...where they come from, where they evolved from, what their mythology is," said Olmos in 1995. "The core feeling of what this story brings to us as Americans is a look at the backbone of what it is to be a Mexican in America."

One of the challenges some of the actors had to endure due to the scope of the film included extensive aging makeup, which could take many hours. Actress Jenny Gago, who plays the older Maria, had to age 30 years throughout the course of the film. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into," she said. "I knew it would be a challenge. I didn't know that seven and a half hours later I would be ready for camera." Makeup artists Ken Diaz and Mark Sanchez received an Academy Award nomination for their remarkable work in My Family.

Gregory Nava also wanted to visually capture the changing look of the Sanchez family home over the course of multiple decades. Nava was inspired by the vibrant paintings of Chicana artist Patssi Valdez and wanted the interiors of the Sanchez house to reflect a similar warmth and energy that he saw in Valdez's work. Valdez understood what an authentic Mexican-American home should look like and was brought on board to do some of the set design on My Family herself. "My research was just to look inside myself," she said in 1995. "I was born and raised in East L.A. and my paintings tend to be very brilliant and colorful, and Greg thought that really reflected the Chicano spirit. And that's what we captured in the interior of the house I hope."

My Family was released in May 1995 to wide acclaim. The Los Angeles Times said, "Your head may insist you resist the unashamed sentimentality of My Family, but your heart will encourage you to give in, and for once your heart will be right." Roger Ebert in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times said, "Their story is told in images of startling beauty and great overflowing energy; it is rare to hear so much laughter from an audience that is also sometimes moved to tears. Few movies like this get made because few filmmakers have the ambition to open their arms wide and embrace so much life. This is the great American story, told again and again, of how our families came to this land and tried to make it better for their children...Through all the beauty, laughter and tears, the strong heart of the family beats...Rarely have I felt at the movies such a sense of time and history, of stories and lessons passing down the generations, of a family living in its memories."

Reviews particularly singled out Jimmy Smits for his powerful, nuanced performance as the angry and withdrawn Sanchez son, Jimmy. "With a deft touch that lightens the story, and the charismatic presence this film has needed all along, Mr. Smits almost singlehandedly makes My Family more engaging," said the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times said, "...Smits as the smoldering, exasperated loner Jimmy finally gives the kind of movie star performance that has been expected of him for years, personally invigorating the entire second half of the film."

My Family may focus on a Mexican-American family, but its themes are universal. "It's always been my dream to do a big family saga, so I think that My Family will appeal very strongly to Latinos because they all love and relate to their families in a very profound way," said Nava in 1995. "But it's also the greatest crossover point, because everybody comes from a family." My Family is a film that bridges the gap between cultures and can appeal to anyone. "I'm constantly asked, 'Will this change the way Latino films are perceived?'" said Jimmy Smits in a 1995 article he wrote for Entertainment Weekly. "I know this film alone is not going to do it, but I hope that industry people will now see there is a large market for movies that both are true to the Latino experience and use Latino actors. That way maybe an accomplished director like Greg Nava won't have to wait six years before he gets his next picture made. After all, My Family is just the tip of the iceberg of Latino stories that we have to tell."

Gregory Nava sums up this theme of crossing over in the film's use of bridges as a metaphor. "...the film is very much about bridges," he said in 1995, "the bridges that bridge Los Angeles with East Los Angeles. The people from East Los Angeles cross the bridge, but the people on the western side don't cross into East Los Angeles. And the bridges need to be crossed in both directions. But the image of the bridge extends beyond that. It is the bridges that exist between us and our past, as Latinos, our roots, and the bridges that then, understanding that, lead us to our future. The bridges that we have to build between people and members of the family, between fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters, and brothers and sisters."

Producer: Anna Thomas
Director: Gregory Nava
Screenplay: Gregory Nava, Anna Thomas
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Art Direction: Tony Myers; Adam Lustig (co-art director)
Music: Mark McKenzie
Film Editing: Nancy Richardson
Cast: Edward James Olmos (Paco), Rafael Cortes (Roberto), Ivette Reina (Trini), Amelia Zapata (Roberto's girlfriend), Jacob Vargas (Young Jose), Emilio Del Haro (oxcart driver), Abel Woolrich (oxcart driver), Leon Singer (El Californio), Rosalee Mayeux (Maria's employer), Jennifer Lopez (young Maria), Alicia del Lago (Maria's aunt), Thomas Rosales (The Boatman), Esai Morales (Chucho), Constance Marie (Toni).
C-125m. Letterboxed.

by Andrea Passafiume

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