A title that reflects the close relationship that once existed between American film and the golden era of Mexican cinema is The Pearl, the 1948 masterpiece directed by Mexico’s visionary helmer Emilio Fernández. Based on a novella by John Steinbeck — who also cowrote the screenplay — and starring Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués, the movie boasts stunning black and white camerawork by famed Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The Pearl was shot concurrently in both English and Spanish, a somewhat similar case to the iconic Drácula of 1931.
According to Nava, adding this paradigm of classic filmmaking to the list wasn’t as easy as one would expect.
“I asked them why Lawrence of Arabia was in there, since it’s an English movie, and they told me that it qualified because it was funded by an American studio,” he recalls. “Similarly, The Pearl was bankrolled by RKO Studios, at a time when Rockefeller was pushing for a positive portrayal of Mexico and Latin America in general. Steinbeck wrote The Pearl envisioning Emilio Fernández as the director, so I’m very proud that we got it on the list.”
Many stories to tell
The registry has been diligent about recognizing Nava’s work. Two more of his films, My Family (1995) and Selena (1997), have been nominated for preservation although they have yet to make it on the list. That said, most Latino filmmakers working in the U.S. agree that their work deserves wider exposure.
“When The Devil Never Sleeps came out, I thought it would merely enjoy a certain amount of success among the very people it represents,” explains Portillo. “My work as a filmmaker was always ignored and excluded.”
“We have been painfully overlooked as a community, and it isn’t only the movies,” adds Nava. “I’m talking about education, the literature taught in the school curriculum. There are 60 million Latinos living in the U.S., and our contribution to global culture has been diminished. The time has come for us to fight to have our rightful place.”
The National Film Preservation Board’s Leggett believes that the increased number of Latino works added to the list can help the cause.
“People of color struggled so much to get their films made,” he says. “The fact that they came up with such great work is nothing short of remarkable. We must recognize that.”
“It’s very important that we leave a mark,” emphasizes Portillo. “As a Mexican and a Latina, it makes me very happy to know that mainstream audiences can begin to internalize the experiences of other people. It’s good to know we’re representing ourselves in cinema.”
Like Portillo, Nava is still busy developing several Latino-themed productions. He sees the present as a moment of opportunity.
“We have so many stories to tell,” he says with a smile. “As Latino filmmakers, our mission is to bring the heart and soul of our culture to the audience, so that people can see who we really are. With movies, you can bridge art and commerce. You can make a profit but still change people’s minds.”