West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story is a film that can elicit love/hate feelings from Latinos. On one hand, it’s a movie that touches on the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in a time when Latinos weren’t seen on screen much. On the other hand, the majority of the cast, including the protagonists, were portrayed by non-Latino actors wearing brownface. The shining light of this whole production is Rita Moreno (a real Puerto Rican), who nabbed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Anita.
Boulevard Nights (1979)
Boulevard Nights tells the tale of two brothers in East L.A. living on opposite sides of the law. While Raymond wants to open up a business and get married, his brother Chuco is dedicated to gang life. The film, which features a largely Latino cast, has become a cultural classic. The Library of Congress agreed: Boulevard Nights was added to the National Film Registry.
Scarface is the favorite gangster movie of all time for a lot of people. Instead of an Italian or Italian-American running the show, in this case it was Cubano Tony Montana running Miami. The film has become iconic; I’m sure you know a line or two from it (“Say hello to my little friend!”)
La Bamba (1987)
Films that show Latinos succeeding, that chronicle Latino history, are inspiring and necessary. La Bamba is a biographical movie on the life of Chicano singer Richie Valens (born Richard Valenzuela) and his meteoric rise to the top, and tragic death.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Sometimes, all you need is someone to believe in you. Math teacher Jamie Escalante was just that motivation for students at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Actor (he won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead), among other nominations and awards the film garnered.
Mi Vida Loca (1993)
Sad Girl. Mousie. Whisper. If these names sound familiar, it’s because they are characters in the ’90s chola film Mi Vida Loca. Echo Park, Los Angeles is the scene of the Latino classic, which centers around best friends and gang members Sad Girl and Mousie, life in the barrio, and what happens when a guy gets in between their friendship.
Blood In, Blood Out/Bound by Honor (1993)
My Family/Mi Familia (1995)
Mi Familia/My Family follows three generations of a Chicano family, who come from Mexico and settle in the SoCal region. The film’s cast includes Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, and Esai Morales.
No list on Latino films would be complete without Selena. Not only is it the life story of the legendary Tejana superstar, but it is also the role that made Jennifer Lopez a star. It’s one of those movies that you have seen so many times, you’ve probably lost count. Siempre Selena!