Josefina López remembers the first question she was asked by students at a prestigious film school in Australia, right after mentioning her hometown.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting shot?,” recalls Boyle Heights native and playwright and co-writer of the movie Real Women Have Curves (2002). After stating that the student asking the question had recently seen the movie Colors (1988), López adds, “what is interesting about that movie is that it is so exploitive. It significantly damaged Boyle Heights because prior to that movie, East LA gangs would utilize knives, but after watching that movie full of violence and guns, gang members were like, ‘Oh, my God! We have to get guns!’”
After noticing the excessive negative aspects of Boyle Heights in popular culture, López was inspired to write Real Women Have Curves. The purpose of the play, which later she co-wrote into a movie, was to portray “the beauty [of Boyle Heights] for people that didn’t grow up here and don’t get to see.”
Boyle Heights has been a popular film location for years, but some of the most popular movies filmed in the neighborhood have mostly been about gangs. Blood In, Blood Out (1993), which is based on a true story, focuses on a pair of half-brothers, Paco and Cruz, and their cousin Miklo””who is half-Caucasian and half-Mexican, but prefers his Mexican side. The movie consists of notorious gang wars and narcotic frenzies throughout the 70s and early 80s.
Similarly, American Me (1992) highlights a teenager named Santana, who forms a gang with two of his closest friends, Mundo and J.D, who coincidentally is of white decent, but considers himself Hispanic. After breaking into a store, Santana is sent to prison where he empowers himself as a gang leader, both inside and outside of prison.
Alice Im, an English teacher and huge movie fan at Roosevelt High School, believes that those violent movies have created and perpetuated negative Latino stereotypes that negatively affect the Latino population not solely in Boyle Heights, but in society. “That’s why stereotypes exist,” says Im, “Somebody writes a story, makes a movie about it and creates an image of something that is not real, real. I believe the media has a lot of power in dictating what reality is.”
Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, believes that Hollywood has not done a good job portraying Latinos in movies. “For the most part, Hollywood ignores Latinos. When you see a number of Latinos in movies, you typically see a gardener, a cholo, or maids. And those stereotypical roles are disrespected.” To accurately portray Latinos, Noriega suggested that Hollywood should employ more Latino writers, directors, and behind-the-camera talent.
However, not all movies shot here are about gangs. “There are also movies filmed in Boyle Heights that have had a positive effect on the community,” says Tom McCluskey, video production teacher at Roosevelt HS and USC School of Cinematic Arts alumni. “There is Under the Same Moon and A Better Life.”
Although Boyle Heights is generally considered at risk, such as: drugs, poverty, gangs, and violence, McCluskey believes that it also has rich, cultural traditions which people take very strong. He then concludes, “There are definitely strong family connections, loyalty, and great cultural history here. And that is what makes Boyle Heights unique.”
Under the Same Moon (2007) tells an immigrant story in which a young nine-year-old Mexican boy, by the name of Carlitos, struggles to reunite with his mother, Rosario, who illegally works in the U.S., after his grandmother passes away.
A Better Life (2011) is also about a Mexican immigrant named Carlos who decides to buy a truck to start his own business and keep his son Luis away from violence and gangs. Unfortunately, the father gets deported and unwillingly leaves his son alone in Boyle Heights. For the role, Mexican actor Demián Bichir earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
The image of Boyle Heights in popular culture is definitely influenced by how the area is portrayed by Hollywood. López believes that the media should use the power for good, not to damage and hurt people, because “mo-vies speak to the unconscious mind.”