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One month anniversary: how have things changed?

Beat Memo





Once typecast as greasers, Latinos are now winning Academy Awards and appearing in Hollywood blockbusters. The Fifth Annual Latino Film Festival celebrates the accomplishments of Latinos in film by offering more than 50 screenings in seven bay area venues.

The festival opened on October 18 and runs through November 10. A special opening night screening of the documentary "The Bronze Screen: 100 years of Latino Images in Cinema" took place at San Jose State University.

Opening celebrations in San Jose were particularly special because this year is the first time that the city has been included in the festival. Several prominent Latino filmmakers had planned on attending opening night, but canceled due to fear of flying after the terrorist attacks. Renowned Latino director Luis Valdez did attend, however. Valdez is best known for the film "Zoot Suit" and is a graduate of San Jose State. To Valdez, San Jose is a key venue for a Latino film festival.

"Two elements converge in San Jose," Valdez said. "New film making is linked to digital technology, and there is the presence of a diversified community which includes a large Latino population."

Carmen Sigler, dean of humanities at San Jose State University, played a major role in expanding the festival to San Jose.

"It makes the Hispanic community feel valuable, and the mainstream community can learn about their achievements and accomplishments," Sigler said.

Sylvia Perel, creator of the Latino Film Festival, sees a San Jose venue as the conclusion of her dream. She started the festival from her Marin County home five years ago.

"The absence of Latino images is huge," Perel said. "This is giving people stories that they need to know about. 'The Bronze Screen' should be seen by everybody.'"

"The Bronze Screen" was viewed by an at-capacity crowd at San Jose State University last Thursday. The documentary traced Latinos in film back 100 years.

In the early days, Latinos were called "greasers" because many worked around tallow in the boat loading industry. The greaser was inevitably the bad guy in films, lurking on city streets and causing trouble. So negative were Latino roles, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Hollywood to "please be a little kinder to the Mexicans."

Many Latinos hid their ethnicity to gain better roles. Rita Hayworth, for instance, dropped her Spanish name and accent and dyed her hair blonde. Not all actors were successful in adopting an American way of speaking, though, and when silent films were replaced by talking, many Latinos found their careers ruined.

As a way to preserve jobs, Latino film makers began shooting low budget movies with all-Spanish casts. The casts could use studio space only after the English speakers were done for the day, so shooting usually began at around 8 p.m.

By the 1950s, Latinos were in demand again - this time as sex symbols. The Latin lover became an on-screen favorite.

"Latin American became this exotic playground," actor Cheech Marin said in an on-screen interview.

In the 60s, Hollywood revived the Western, and by this time, the civil rights movement had made it more complicated to show disparaging images of blacks. Latinos took their place.

"We've been shortchanged for the most part," actor John Leguizamo said in an on-screen interview. "We always had to play the drug dealers, murderers and illegal aliens."

Films in recent years have shown Latinos in a more positive light - "El Norte," "Stand and Deliver," and "My Family" are a few. Last year, Benicio del Toro won an Academy Award for his work as a Mexican cop in "Traffic." Valdez acknowledges that Latinos have made great strides in Hollywood, but points out that a piece of the puzzle is still missing.

"You see more performers and cinematographers, but we need to make major advances in the producing end," Valdez said. "There aren't enough executives, period.

Valdez believes that the studios lose by excluding Latinos from high positions. He feels that a Latino executive could connect with the growing Latino market.

Latinos will have a chance to shine for the next few weeks as films are shown at San Jose State, Sonoma State, Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley, Dominican University in San Rafael and the University of San Francisco. Films are in both Spanish, with English subtitles, and English, with Spanish subtitles. For a full schedule of films and to purchase tickets, go to www.latinofilmfestival.org.