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Chon A. Noriega, ed. Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992): 218-240.
Story Structure in Latino Feature Films
Mario Barrera
Story structure is an essential but relatively underemphasized aspect
of film analysis. Story structure as used here refers to the various ele-
ments that go into a film's plot, and the ways in which these elements
are interrelated. Analyzing structure puts the emphasis on film as
drama. Once we see how the various dramatic elements are related we
gain insights into why the story proceeds as it does.
Much too often films are analyzed as if they were simply social or
political tracts, intended to reinforce or challenge some aspect of soci-
ety. Although serious filmmakers do have social themes in mind, the
first consideration of a successful screenwriter is whether the story
"works" in dramatic terms. If the story does not work dramatically,
the film will be a flop, and any social or political themes will not be
effectively conveyed.
A great deal of academic film criticism also focuses on the visual
aspects of film, understandably so given the nature of the medium. As
a result, there is a great deal of discussion of directors, who are
responsible for translating the story into visual terms. Within the film
industry, however, there is a much greater appreciation of the role of
the screenwriter, who initially creates the story. Indeed, it is axiomatic
that without a good script there can be no good film.
In recent years a practitioner-oriented literature has developed
aimed at teaching how to write good screenplays.1 The script analysts
who have written these works generally proceed by examining suc-
Mario Barrera
cessful, "classic" films in order to identify the essential elements that
go into making good stories. Different analysts rely on different films,
but certain ones come up again and again. Among the most common-
ly cited American films are Casablanca, Chinatown, Witness, The
Godfather, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Kramer vs. Kramer,
Midnight Cowboy, Annie Hall, Ordinary People, Rain Man, and Tootsie.
The films chosen for study are not necessarily the biggest box-
office blockbusters. Rather, they are films that have been commercially
successful and that are also successful at evoking strong
responses from their audiences. In addition, they are thought of as
classics or as likely to become classics, films that will be viewed
repeatedly over time.
In identifying a classic story structure, the various analysts have
not claimed that all successful films adhere to a single general para-
digm. They do claim, however, that the overwhelming majority of
successful films do so, and that the exceptions are usually self-con-
scious deviations by experienced filmmakers.
The advantage of relying on this practitioner-oriented literature in
analyzing story structure is that it provides much more of an "insider"
perspective than most film theory. The terms and concepts used here
are those used by working screenwriters, so that the analytic approach
is grounded in the actual creative process.
The procedure I will follow will be to identify key elements that
are referred to in the major works. These are elements on which there
is a relative consensus, although all writers do not use the exact same
terminology. After identifying the key concepts and their interrela-
tionships, I will illustrate their use by referring to seven films about
Latinos in the United States. Some of thes'e films are by Latino
filmmakers and others are not, but all have been widely discussed in
Latino academic circles, and are frequently shown in college class-
rooms. These seven films have been selected to illustrate variations in
the use of classic story structure.
The Elements of Story Structure
The discussion of story structure usually begins with the concept of
the protagonist, the central character of the story. He or she must have
a clearly identified motivation, or desire. In order to achieve that desire,
the protagonist struggles to overcome a series of obstacles. The drive
by the protagonist to achieve the desire against mountingobstacles
providestheplot orspine ofthestory.
Generallyit is obviouswhotheprotagonistis. Infilms like Sparta-
cus or Ferris Bueller's Day Off the protagonist is identifiedinthetitle.
Onthe otherhand,the protagonistin Rain Man is notRaymond,but
hisbrother,Charlie.Theprotagonistis notnecessarilythebiggeststar
or thecharacterwhois themostsympathetic-itis thepersonwhose
desire drives the plot. Will the protagonistachieve his orher desire?
This question, sometimes called the central or seat belt question, is
designed to providethe maindramatictensioninthestory.It issup-
posed to keep the membersof the audiencegluedto theirseats until
the answer is known. Even if wealready know the answer, as in all
Columbo episodes, westick around to see how the protagonist suc-
A subplot is a second story line thatunfolds alongside the main
plot. It alwaysexistsinrelationto theplot,andcanfulfill anumberof
functions.It canadvancethemainstoryline,oritcanadddepthtothe
protagonist or other major characters. The protagonist canbe and
LindaSegarrefersto themainplotasPlotA. Thefirst subplotshe
calls PlotB, andnotesthatitoftencarriesaromanticorotherrelation-
shipstory.Subsequentsubplots,if any,arelabeledPlot PlotD, and
so on. J In La Bamba, discussed below, four distinct subplots can be
that motivationcanbe internal or external. A protagonist'sexternal
desire, for example,maybeto wina race. Theinner motivation maybe
to gain a greater sense of self-worth. Outer motivation is always
known in a successful film. Inner motivation mayormay notbe
explored. It is also the case that a protagoniSt's external desire may
ulated unconscious desire underlying the conscious motivation. In
Casablanca, for example, Rick's conscious motivation is to bea tough
guy,have power,andmake money. Butas welearnlater, his uncon-
Films that explore inner motivation are generally considered
MarioBarrera 221
"deeper" andmore worthy ofserious critical consideration. Of the
films reviewed in this article, Zoot Suit is theone thatgoes into most
Althoughfilms donothavethecleardemarcationsthatstageplays
achieve bybringingdown the curtain, most films are considered to
have a three-act structure. Roughly speaking, this corresponds to the
called plot points, butare more commonly referred to as turning
The first act ofa feature-length film lasts approximately a half
hour. Aboutmidwaythroughthefirst act,whatisknownas theincit-
ing incident, orcatalyst, occurs. Theincitingincident essentially poses
thecentralorseatbeltquestion.It hastheeffectofupsettingtheequi-
librium ofthe protagonist's world, ofsettingherin motionand get-
tingthe storyunderway. InChinatown, for example, the inciting inci-
dentcomes when the detectiveJake Gittes is hired bya fake Mrs.
Mulwray to spy onherhusband. InKramer vs. Kramer, it happens
whenDustin Hoffman's wifeleaves and he must learn how to take
Thefirst turning point follows a short time later and marks the
transition to act 2. LindaSegarsummarizes the natureof a turning
It turnstheactionaroundinanewdirection.
It raises the central question again, and makes us wonder about the
It raisesthestakes.
It pushesthestoryintothenextact.
It takesusintoanewarenaandgivesusasenseofadifferentfocusfor
In Chinatown, the first turning pointcomes whenJake Gittes is con-
frontedbytherealMrs. Mulwray,andfinds outthatsomeonehasset
Thesecondactofthescreenplayis almostalwaysthelongest,tak-
inguproughlyhalfofthestorytime. Duringthesecondactthestory
line is developed, and the protagonist is confronted witha series of
obstaclesto overcome.If it is a goodscreenplay,thedramatictension
rises as theobstaclesbecomeprogressivelymoredifficultandtheout-
comeof the centralquestionis throwninto doubt. Oftena crisis con-
fronts the protagonist, and a choice thatreveals something about his
charactermustbemade.Theendof thesecond act is signaledbythe
second turning point, which provides a fresh twist to the storyline
Thethirdactisgenerallyaboutahalfhourlong,althoughit canbe
tensioncomesto aheadandwefindtheanswertothequestionposed
in the inciting incident. Because the incitingincident and the climax
obligatory scene. Afterthe climax there is usually a brief resolution
(denouement),wherelooseendsare tiedupandthestoryisbrought
Withineachof thethreeacts thestructureisfurtherbrokendown
ular time andlocation. Thescenes oftenoccurininterrelated clusters
film storyisintegrallyrelated tothenatureoftheprotagonistandhis
motivation. Inaddition,it istiedtoaparticulartheme thewriterhasin
mind. The theme is also referred to as the premise orcontrolling idea.
MichaelHaugedescribes themeinthefollowing passage,differentiat-
By theme in ascreenplay, Imean the universal statement the screen-
playmakesaboutthehumancondition.Thisis alevelofmeaningthat
goes beyond the plot of the film and applies to life in general. The
theme is an idea that any member of the audience can apply to her
own liie, whether or not she'sbeen in asimilar situation. The theme
Themeis not the sameas the "message" of a movie. Themessage is a
obvious appHcation to the average person's own actions. Themes,
then, arecommonly found infilms, andare almostalwayspresentin
films that are considered classic. Messages are more uncommon
becausethey do not strike the same sort of universal resonance in
audiences.Still, many classic films embody strongmessages, suchas
Silkwood,Missing,andTheChina Syndrome. Haugegoesontonote:
MarioBarrera 223
There can also be deeper levels ofmeaning beyond the theme and
messageofascreenplay: myth,symbol,allegory,andarchetype. Stand
by Me ...develops athemeofrecognizingone'sowngifts and pur-
suing them regardless of others' opinions or approval. But beneath
that, it explores the terrifying butnecessary deathof one's childhood
in orderto realize one'sowngifts. And beneaththatallegorical level,
the film is aquest story, aHoly Grail myth portraying the journey
from childhood tomaturity,power,andindividuation.
AmongU.s. Latinofilmmakers, Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit) andGregory
Nava(1 Norte) havesoughttocombinetheme,message,andmythin
Themesare related to storystructurethroughthe protagonistand
other major characters. Screenwriters,will set forth their themes
through their choice of protagonists' motivations and choices. The
internal dynamics ofthecharacters aregenerallyclosely tied inwith
thecentral theme, and whetherornot the protagonist achieves her
goal will generally depend onthe particular thematic point that the
writerwishes tomake.Allofthiswillbeillustratedthroughthefilms
StraightforwardStoryStructure: StandandDeliver
Stand and Deliver (1988; directed byRamon Menendez; written by
ofmath teacherJaime Escalante at Garfield HighSchool in Los
Angeles. Escalante, playedby EdwardJames,Olmos, quits his job in
inginitialresistanceinthisbarrio setting,hewinstheconfidenceofthe
students throughhis dynamic teaching methods. Despiteskepticism
from his fellow teachers, he inaugurates a calculus class designed to
preparestudentsfor theAdvancedPlacementtestthatwillgivethem
college credit. Eighteenstudentssurvivethe rigorous trainingsched-
ule and successfullypass the test, only to come undersuspicion of
cheatingfrom theEducationalTestingServiceexaminerswhoadmin-
ister the exam. The students agree to retake the test, and all pass
again, vindicatingEscalante and themselves. They havestood and
Thisfilm is agoodonetostartwithbecauseitis anuncomplicated
example of the classic paradigm. There is oneclearly identified p r ~
tagonist, Escalante,andhehasa straightforwarddesire, whichdrives
thestory:thatofmakingadifferencethroughteachingbarrio students.
The inciting incident comes early, when he starts to teach and is
directed to a mathclass, although his initial assignment had been to
teach computerscience. Thefirst turningpointcomes when heinau-
ic parents, and Escalante's heartattack. The second turning point
comes when the studentspass the initial examand are accused of
cheating. Fora while it looksasifthe protagonisthasfailed to attain
their confidence in him. The climax comes when they take the exam
again, triumphing against all odds. In thebriefresolution, statistics
Theprotagonist'sinnermotivationisnotexploredinthefilm, and
hedoes notundergoa transformation duringthe course ofthe story.
Hebegins idealistic and ends idealistic, havingbeen proved right.
Thereare nosubplots.Weseelittle vignettesaboutvariousstudents'
ify as a subplot. The turning points, climax, and resolution all come
a goodexampleof classic storystructurethatworkswellandresults
This film also illustrates the difference between themeand mes-
sage. The themehas todo withbelievinginyourselfandsucceeding
is that institutionalized racism continues to exist and must be taken
Use of Subplots: TheMilagroBeanfieldWar
InThe Milagro Beanfield War (1987; directedbyRobertRedford;written
JoeMondragonis anintermittentlyemployedworkerandhandyman
in a small northern NewMexico towncalled Milagro. Heis turned
down for work at the Ladd Devine land development company,
the land and water rights that usedto belong to the region's small
farmers. Withoutmeaningto, Joe taps intothe Devinecompanyirri-
togowiththeflow. Wordsoonspreadsthroughoutthearea.Thelocal
sheriff refuses to act for fear ofstirringupthe local people, who are
sympathetic toJoe because ofresentment toward the encroachments
ofthe Devine company. Concern reaches all the way to the New
The second act consists ofa long series of moves and counter-
moves, withJoe andhis town supporters onone side and theLadd
Devinecompany,the governor's office,andtheForestServiceonthe
other. Theoutcomeis still inquestionwhenJoe shootsthepetpigof
his neighborAmaranteCordovaafterfinding thepigeatinghisbean
to shoot himtoo, and then flees to the mountains. Joe eventually
returns,andheandthetownspeopleface downtheforces oflawand
orderand gain a victory. In thepostclimax resolution, Amarante
Cordova,whohassurvivedJoe'sbullet, dies ofoldageandisledoff
by anoldmanspiritfigure whohauntsthetownandthefilm.
This film also follows the classic paradigmin its main plot. The
catalystconsists ofJoe'sstartingto waterhisfield, andthe first turn-
ingpoint comes when the forces ofLadd Devine and the governor
coalesceandcomeafterJoe. Thesecondturningpointisclearly when
Inthisfilm, however,wealsohavetwosubplotstocomplicatethe
story line. One has to do with the relationship between Ruby
Archuleta,a shopowner, andCharlieBloom, a lawyerandpublisher
ofa local newspaper. As shebadgers him into writing aboutJoe
Mondragon's struggleandthen representing him legally, a relation-
shipdevelopsbetweenthem.By theendofthefilm they'reoutirrigat-
A secondsubplotdeals withthefriendship thatdevelopsbetween
AmaranteCordovaandanineptgraduatestudentnamedHerbie. All
truesubplotshavethesameessentialstructureasthemainplot. Here
ented. The first turning pointfinds Herbieinterviewing Amarante
the area. The second turning point is when Amarante is shot, and
Herbieis thrownintocrisis.TheclimaxconsistsofAmaranterecover-
fromthegunshotanddecidingnottoprosecuteJoel andthereso-
lutionhas to dowith Amarante's death. As with the main plotl you
Tlte Sltadow Protagonist: LaBamba
Like Stand and Deliver, La Bamba (1987; written and directed byLuis
Valdez) is based on a true life story. Here the protagonist is Ritchie
Makinga film basedon a realhistoricalcharacterpresentsspecial
problems, particularly if the timeis recent. Most people'slives don't
fit aneatHollywoodscriptformula,andthereis onlysomuchfiction-
alizationonecangetawaywithif thecharacterlsfriendsandrelatives
are still kicking around. Making a film based onRitchie Valens pre-
sented an additional problem in thathis life was very short. Valdez
tureintothefilm. 1havebeenabletoidentifyfourdistinctsubplotsin
La Bamba, twoinvolvingRitchieandtwothatrevolvearoundhisolder
The storybegins withbrother Bob onhisbig motorcycle, riding
other kids are working. Bob offers Connie money to move into the
city. She accepts it reluctantlYI fearing it is drug money. Bob almost
immediately gets it onwith Ritchie's virginal girlfriend, Rosie, who
becomes Bob/s girlfriend whenthey all move to Pacoima, in the San
leygirl,Donna,laterthesubjectofoneof hishitsongs.Theybeginto
date innocentlYI although herracist father disapproves of Ritchie
("What is he-Eyetalian?'/). Already a hot guitarist, Ritchie quickly
music producerl Bob Keene. Keene supervises Ritchie's first record-
ings, andpersuadeshimto Anglicize hisnamel whichwasoriginally
Inthemeantime,Bobis involvedinshadyactivitiesandmakinga
MarioBarrera 227
messofhisrelationshipwithRosie. Sheispregnantandheis running
aroundandgenerally actingirresponsibleina colorful
macho sortof
blyhearsaMexicanband(portrayedbyLosLobos) playingthetradi-
tionalweddingsong liLa Bamba." Ritchiewakesupthenextmorning
intheshackofabrujo (shaman),whomBobintroducesashisMexican
guru. (This is also fictional.) The brujo gives Ritchie a talisman neck-
laceto protecthim.WhentheyreturnhomeRosiehashadababygirl.
off. Before long he's performing on the East Coast, traveling by air-
plane althoughhe's had premonitions ofdyingina planecrash. On
oneofhis visitsbackhome he andBob getinto a fight, andBob rips
off Ritchie's magic necklace. Shortly after thatRitchie is killed inthe
crashofa small airplane in theMidwest. In a shortdenouementwe
see thereactionofConnie,Donna, andBob. Thereis abriefrepeatof
anearly scene, where Ritchie scrambles up a hill withBob running
Luis Valdez is a supreme dramatist, and he apparently realized
premature death. Valens/s success came early and fairly easily, so
with Donna is detailed in a distinct subplot, butapart from her
father'soppositiontherewasn'tmuchthereeither. Valdezsolvedthis
problem byturning to Bob's storYI which is containedinthree sub-
plots. Infact, Bob's story is so important to the movie thatI would
arguethatheconstitutesashadow protagonist.
Asshadowprotagonist,Bobhashisownstoryline,whichis notas
ingincidentfor hisstorycomeswhenheisworkingasagarbageman
and finds some discarded animation panels ina movie studio's lot.
Thediscoverystimulateshisalready-existinginterestin drawing.The
first turning pointcomes when heenters anartcontestl and thesec-
ondwhenhewinsit, ataboutthesametimethatRitchiegetshisfirst
recordingcontract. Theclimaxcomeswhenheripsuphis artworkin
disgustafterhefails togetsupportfromRosieandotherfamilymem-
bers, and realizes that he will always play second fiddle to Ritchie.
Ritchierepresentsthespiritofthefifties, thedreamofeverymanbeing
able to cry outfrom hisguts andrise to thetop. His half-brotherBob
wasriddledwithinsecurityandhecouldn'tfree himselftopursuehis
Bobisa moreinterestingdramaticcharacterthanRitchiebecauseheis
moreconflicted.Inadditiontohavinghisownplotline, heisinvolved
in a major subplot depicting his relationship with Ritchie. Valdez
TheproblemisthatRitchiehadbeendeadfor thirtyyears,andhewas
a cherished memory. Nobodywanted to sayanythingbadabouthim
..."Yeah,hewasaniceguy, nicestguywhoeverlived." Ikeptask-
Cmon,didn't he ever do anything wrong, he must have been
human? ...Iwantedtoknow,Didheever laid,didhedodrugs,
howwas he human? r was getting nowhere. It was all nada, until I
talked to his half-brother, Bob. He was reluctant, buthe did tell me
they'd fought, and thatit was Bob's own fault. So I thought, well, at
least there's a foundation, then, a relationshipbetweenbrothers. And
the real-life conflict between them, and Bob's conflict with realizing
that the manwho raised him and Ritchie was not Bob's biological
This subplot begins with Bob's being reunited with the family and
comingintocontactwithRitchie again.Theyhitit offwell atfirst, but
thenBob takes Ritchie'ssort-of-girlfriendaway. Intherestof thefilm
the relationship between the two half-brothers is stormy. Bob both
helps and hurts Ritchie's striving. In the climactic physical fight
betweenthem,he ripsoffRitchie'snecklace, symbolicallykillinghim.
beforethe enditappearsasifthereis tobea reconciliation,but
The remainingsubplot has to do with the relationship between
Bob and Rosie. Briefly, it consists of their meeting and moving in
together, their fighting, Rosie's pregnancy, and the birth oftheir
daughter.AttheveryendBob hasgivenupdrinkingandhasbecome
agoodfather. Interestinglyenough,heis theonewhogoesthrougha
major character transformation, not Ritchie. His feelings ofanger
ow protagonist is that he actually performs many of the dramatic
functions thatarenormallyreserved for theprotagonist.
Dual Protagonists: SaltoftheEarth
Ofthefilms reviewed inthisessay, Salt of the Earth (1954; directed by
message-driven film. That itmanages to convey a complex political
messageandmaintaindramatictensionthroughoutisa tributetothe
This film was madeby a groupofprofessional filmmakers who
had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era. It is
1952 bytheInternational UnionofMine, Mill andSmelterWorkers.9
In the processofwriting thescript, Michael Wilson consulted exten-
Sively with peoplewho had beenactively involved in the strike. A
The point of view that the film reflects is thatofEsperanza
Quintero, wife ofoneofthe Mexican American millers. The film
begins withsomebackground exposition, using her as narrator. The
inciting incident is foreshadowed bya near-accident in the mine
involving Ramon Quinteroand a confrontation between theworkers
and managementoversafety rules. WhenRamonarrives athome he
argues with Esperanza. She is upset that the union is notincluding
issues that the miners' wives considerimportant in the negotiations
thenunderwaywiththemineowners.It isclearthattheirmarriageis
seriously strained. In this and other conversations we learn that the
ers do not, such as indoor plumbingand hot water in theirliving
Themainstoryplotis kicked offwitha mineinjurycausedbyan
explosion. Theminers' unioncalls a strikeoversafetyissues, andthe
local sheriff's office cooperates with the mine Owners to harass the
strikers. The first turning point comes when the companygets an
injunctionagainst the picketing, and theminers' wives takeover the
picket line over the opposition ofa numberoftheminers, including
Ramon. Esperanza graduallybecomes an activist, despite Ramon.
Ramonis left to takeoverEsperanza'schores, includinglookingafter
their new baby. In the process his consciousness about the wives'
After a series ofmovesandcountermovesbythe strikersand the
owners, Esperanza and Ramon have a major fight in which she
Story Stmcture in Latino Feature Films
berates him and the other men for holding the women in a subordi-
nate position: tlHave you learned nothing from this strike? Why are
you afraid to have me at your side? Do you still think you can have
dignity only if I have none?" Ramon and some of the other men take
off on a hunting trip, but Esperanza's words finally get through to
Ramon. He brings the men back just in time for a climactic showdown
when the sheriff's deputies try to evict the miners from the company
housing. The company backs down-"for the present." Esperanza
provides the denouement with a short soliloquy about having won a
victory they would pass on to their children.
The theme of this film I would characterize as the idea that the
struggle for equality is indivisible, and extends into our daily lives.
The messages are that the United States is a society characterized by
unequal divisions based on class, gender, and ethnicity. In order to
present these ideas in a dramatic fashion, the writer developed an
intricate structure involving two tightly interlocking plot lines, each
with its own protagonist.
The A plot in this case is that of the workers' struggle with the
mine owners. The events in this plot essentially propel the overall
story forward. The repercussions of those events drive the story line of
the B plot, which is that of the relationship between Esperanza and
Ramon. The protagonist of the A plot is Ramon-he precipitates the
strike and is the strike leader. It is his decision to return from the
hunting trip that leads to the solution presented in the climax.
The protagonist of the B plot is Esperanza. The novelty of this
script is that it makes the point of view of the film that of the B plot's
protagonist, essentially creating two equal protagonists. Each has a
strong motivation: Ramon to win the strike and get greater class/eth-
nic equality; Esperanza to win the strike and in the process gain
greater gender equality. Each goes through a profound personal trans-
formation. Ramon learns that he has been a pigheaded sexist, and
Esperanza learns that she can be a strong leader and activist in her
own right. The use of dual protagonists is unusual and innovative,
although not unique. West Side Story also makes use of this structural
For the sake of clarification, the B plot structure is as follows. The
inciting incident is the initial argument between Ramon and
Esperanza. At the first turning point Esperanza becomes an activist.
She takes over picket duty and Ramon takes over the household
Mario Barrera 231
chores. This, of course, happens as a result of what is taking place in
the A plot. The second turning point comes when Esperanza confronts
Ramon, although it is not immediately clear that it is a turning point.
The climax comes when Ramon gets the message and turns back from
his hunting
This film has at times been criticized for melodramatic scenes and
its use of some nonprofessional actors, but my experience in showing
it in the classroom is that it invariably provokes a strong emotional
response from its viewers. Its success as a film stems in large part
from the writer's successful solution to the structural problems pre-
sented by the complex plot. It was never released commercially in the
United States because of a well-financed red-baiting campaign orga-
nized against it.1O
The Mythic Level: E1 Norte
Unlike most of the other films described here, E1 Norte (1984; written
and directed by Gregory Nava) is not based on specific historical char-
acters or on a preexisting novel or play. It is an original screenplay
that tells the story of a Guatemalan Mayan brother and sister forced to
migrate to the United States by circumstances in their native land.
The story begins in a remote mountain village where the Indian
people are compelled to labor on plantations owned by large corpora-
tions. The two central characters are Enrique and Rosa, young adults
still living at home. Their father is killed by government soldiers while
meeting clandestinely with other campesinos to plot an armed struggle
against their oppressors. Their mother is "disappeared" in the ensuing
crackdown, and it is clear that a similar fate av.:aits Rosa and Enrique.
Enrique decides to migrate north, and Rosa goes with him.
The two travel through Mexico by bus and arrive in Tijuana to
search for a contact who can help them across the border. Before they
find him they have a misadventure with a "coyote" who promises to
get them across the border illegally but tries to rob them instead.
Eventually they make their contact and cross the border through a
long abandoned tunnel that their benefactor knows. From there they
make their way to Los Angeles.
Once in L.A. they are set up in a dilapidated hut by a Chicano
("Don Mocte") who also doubles as a labor agent. Don Mocte gets
Rosa a job in a textile sweatshop. Enrique starts work as a busboy in a
fancy restaurant. Both enroll in English classes. Rosa is forced to
change jobs after a raid by immigration agents (lila migra
) at the
sweatshop. With the aid of a savvyundocumentedMexican immi-
grantwoman named Nacha,Rosa is able to avoid theagents. Nacha
finds thembothjobs as housemaids for a wealthyemployer.
ispromotedto assistantwaiter,sothingsseemtobegoingallrightfor
them, until Enrique is turned in to lila migra" bya disgruntled
Chicanoemployeewho wantshis job. Enriqueevades theagentsbut
At the sametimeRosa comesdownwithaninfectionbrought on
by ratbitessuffered duringtheir tunnelcrossing, andsheishospital-
ized. Enrique is compelled to choose betweenstaying at her side or
toChicagov\l1th anemployerwhohaspromisedhimaforeman
dies. Attheendofthefilm Enriquehasgonetoworkasalaborerona
construction crew, trapped at thebottom of thesocial order as his
El Norte is anunusuallylong film, some two hours and twenty
a hundred minutes. The filmmaker, GregoryNava, conceives of the
structureofthefilm asdividedintofour actsPThefirst sectionisset
offwitha title, "ArturoXuncax," afterthenameofthefather.Thesec-
ond part, labeled "EI Coyote," consists of their journey through
Mexico. The third titled division ofthe film corresponds to Enrique
andRosa's experiencesintheUnited States. Nava considers thatthis
lastsectionactuallyconsists oftwoparts,withthedividingline com-
when Enriqueis turnedinto theINSbyhis coworker.Fromthat
Theauthorof this screenplaythussees thestructureofthefilm as
agreewithhimonthatpoint,arguingthatpart2andthefirst halfof
part3 constituteonedramaticunit, so thatthere really is a three-act
storydoesnotcorrespondto thethreetitleddivisionsofthefilm.
El Norte isoneofthosefilms thatisabletooperateatall threelev-
elsoftheme,message,andmyth.Thethemeofthefilm hastodowith
thevalueofmaintainingtheintegrityofone's communal,familyties
in the face of material, individualistic incentives. That is the choice
Enrique confronts at the film's climax. The messagedeals with the
exploitative nature ofcommercial enterprises and their devastating
consequences for authentic communities such as those of theMayan
villages. Indeed,Navawasmotivatedtomakethisfilm afterwitness-
ing firsthand the deplorable conditions ofMayanimmigrantsin the
Whatlifts this film above the ordinaryand gives itits extraordi-
nary lyrical quality, however, is its connection to myth. Thestoryof
aninherently dualistic concept oftheuniverse. Throughoutthe film
there aredreamsand elements ofmagical realism thatare inspired
directlybyMayansymbolism. Even thoughNava realized thatmost
of his audience would notbe familiar withtheMayan texts, he felt
thatdrawing his imagery from them would give the storya mythic
reactions inthefilm's viewers. Frommyexperienceinusingthefilm
TheInner Story: ZootSuit
Ofthefilms reviewed here, Zoot Suit (1982; written and directed by
storyof the protagonist. Indeed, the wholefilm is structured around
Zoot Suit isbasedontwohistoricalincidentsthattookplaceinthe
1940s inLos Angeles. Onewasthe 1942SleepyLagoonmurdercase,
another Chicano. Twelvewere sentenced to life in prison, although
theirconvictionswerelateroverturned. The otherhistorical reference
is to the 1943 "Zoot Suit Riots," inwhich American servicemen
roamed thebarrios ofL.A., beatingupChicanoswhoweredressed in
thestylizedzootsuitstheninfashionamongyoungurbanbarrio men.
Thefilm itselfishighlystylized.Thesettingswereallfilmed inside
a theater,andweevensee the audiencefrom time to time. Thereare
numerousflashbacks andmusicalinterludesduring thecourseofthe
film, andthereis acentralcharacter-ElPachuco--whorepresentsan
aspect oftheprotagonist'Spersonality,andcanonlybeseenbyhim.
234 StoryStmctureinLatinoFeatureFilms
El Pachucocarriesona runningdialoguewiththeprotagonist,Henry
and with the audience. Hedictates the pace of the film by
to scenes.
ofthefilm leaderofthe38thStreet
the navy. Heand hisgirlfriendDella are outcele-
before his induction, but Henry is beaten up by a
rivalgang.Laterthat heandhisganggolookingfor revenge.
Unableto find theothergang, crashapartyintheSleepyLagoon
area.Afight ensues,andaChicanovouthiskilled.Henrvandanum-
Henry is
almost hysterically
makesamockeryofthe incorporatedsectionsof
the court verbatim into the script.) During the
appeal process, Henry becomes romantically attracted to Alice
Bloomfield, aleftistlaboractivist to drumupsupportforhis
cause.She,however,is marriedto herworkandrejectshim.
Duringthis time the ZootSuitRiots breakout,andHenry'sbroth-
eris amongthosebeatenup. Valdezusestheoccasionto pointupthe
cynical, rabble-rousing reporting of the mainstream press, especially
Eventually the murder conviction is overturned, and Henry is
reunitedwithhis girlfriend.Valdez concludesthestorybyofferingus
three resolutions: (1) Henry was later sent back to jail for
anothercrime;(2) HenrywaskilledintheKoreaconflictafterwinning
a medal; or (3) marriedDellaandhad three kids whowent to
Asidefrom thestylizationandmultipleresolutions,themoststrik-
ofthefilm is theuse of the Pachucocharacter,whois inex-
linkedto the goingoninsideHenry'smind.Wegeta
senseofthis inValdez's ownwords, in a lengthy interviewhe
VALDEZ: I call the Pachuco the internal authority. I know he's been
called "conscience," he's been called alter-ego, butheisnotso much
as heissuper-egobecausesuper-egoisyourconsciencethat
is observedbythe Pachucomostofthetime,
but Henry'spoint ofview ofthe Pachuco, and
that's the crux of thestory. It's obviously Henry'sstrugglewithhim-
self ...
. . . as the characterinthefilm, El Pachuco is alwaysgettingin
thewayofthingsthatHenry'stryingtodo: hisrelationshipwithDella
for one, hisrelationshipwithAlice, another,andhisrelationshipwith
hisfamily . . . thePachucoisalsogoadingHenryintoagreaterlevel
ofself-consciousness . . . At the same time thatherepresents those
real-life Pachucos, herepresents the essenceofwhat Pachuquismois
aU about,whichisthisstruggleforidentity ....
hisliberation,ofhiswayout. So longashekeptblamingtheexterior,
thedeeperhewasgoingtobedrivenintohimself ....Onceyouare
leftaloneandyouhavetothinkit through,youareeithergoingtosur-
viveoryou arenot tosurvive ...You haveto havea reason
for findingyourselfina toughsituation. That'sHenry'sproblem,and
INTERVIEWER: Areyou theresolutionwasaninternalone, with
Iwant tofeel thatHankhada greaterdegree
outofprison. The Pachuco is inwhiteand
that Henry sees as well .
threechoices. Allofthis, ofcourse,is UlIplleUj
symbolic,butit'sthere ...>
The internal authoritythat isat workisnecessary inthepl'"rh,,_
logicalprocessofindividuationthatweall undergo. Every one
ashuman aprocesswherebywe
individualsin itaccording toourownpersonalstruggles.
The wholeSleepy caseis told inZoot Suit intermsoftheper-
sonalstruggleof Reyna. Thereisn'tasinglesocialeventthatin
somewayyou cannotdefineinpersonalterms, in thepersonalterms
oftheindividualinvolved,becausethereis alwaysaninsidepersonal
In the same interview, Valdez puts the Pachuco figure ina mythical
context by presenting him as an archetypal rebel with Native
Iliketousethewordmyth becausemythreferstoanunder- >
lyingstructureofatruththatisjustbelowthesurfaceofreality. . . .
Revolutionaries are very frightening, prophets are frightening,
peoplethathavea certainkind ofhiddenpowerscare otherpeople.
Theyareintimidating;therewasalotofthatinthePachuco. Butthose
Story Structure in Latino Feature Films
in the know cannot fail to him (in the film) as a reincarna-
tion of the ancient god Texcatlipoca. His style, his colors, his powers
are all attributes of ancient wisdom ... EI Paclmco is thus a symbol
of our identity, our total identity, with ancient rootS.14
Luis Valdez has thus created in Zoot Suit an amazingly complex
tapestry that interweaves two historical events, a courtroom drama,
h'Vo love stories, several musical numbers, political messages, multi-
ple resolutions, and myth. But the core of the story, the element that
makes it all hang together, is the inner transformation of the protago-
nist, his journey toward self-awareness.
Structural Problems: Alambrista
So many factors affect the commercial success or failure of a film that
it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty how much
influence anyone of them has. Alambrista (1979; written and directed
by Robert Youngt the first feature film to deal seriously with the
question of undocumented immigration from Mexico, has a number
of excellent qualities. It is well acted, and it captures the gritty "feel"
of the U.s.-Mexico border as perhaps no other film has. There are a
number of memorable scenes, some touching, some funny. Despite
this, the film was not commercially viable, and is now all but
able. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the film did not
have a "name" actor, or that there is extensive use of Spanish,
this was also true of El Norte. It is difficult to escape the con-
clusion, however, that part of the problem had to do with the struc-
ture of the story.
The film in Mexico, where a young farmer named Roberto
Ramirez has just become a new father. Since his now-expanded family
needs the money, he decides to seek work in the north. His mother
urges him not to go, and we learn that Roberto's father went north
many years ago and never returned.
Roberto makes his way to a border town, and crosses over at
with a group that is caught by the border patrol. He escapes
and finds field work in Southern California, but is cheated out of his
wages and moves on. At another job he meets "Joe/' an undocu-
mented Mexican worker who knows his way around (played beauti-
by the late Trinidad Silva, "Don Mocte" in EI Norte). Joe
instructs Roberto in how to act in restaurants, and even how to pick
Mario Barrera 237
up American waitresses. "But I'm married," protests Roberto. So
what, answers Joe--this is the United States. Roberto hooks up with
Joe, and they head farther north, riding the rails. Along the way Joe
disappears, apparently having fallen off the boards they were riding
under the train.
At his next workplace an exhausted Roberto passes out on a side-
and is taken in by a blonde waitress named Karen, who nurses
him back to health. In a great scene he attends a fundamentalist
Protestant church service with her, looking on wide-eyed. Despite the
language barrier between Roberto and Karen, they become romanti-
involved after she invites herself into his bed. Their developing
relationship is cut short when "la migra" raids a dance bar and cap-
tures Roberto.
Back on the Mexican side of the border, Roberto and others are
recruited to cross over again to break a field strike in Colorado.
Exhausted from the arduous journey, Roberto nearly goes berserk
upon arriving. His first day at work another worker dies right in the
fields, and Roberto discovers that it is his father, Alberto Ramirez.
Going through his effects, Roberto finds that his father had another
in the United States. The next day he heads back to Mexico. At
the border station he passes a Mexican woman who has just given
birth on the U.S. side. "Thank God/' she exclaims, "he won't need
papers!" Roberto walks on by to Mexico.
From a structural standpoint, Alambrista starts off conventionally
with a standard setup and inciting incident, and a turning point
when Roberto decides to head north. After that, however, there is a
long second act in which Roberto's difficulties are shown. There is
nothing resembling a second turning point, uflless one wants to think
about his breakdown as such. This comes close to the end of the film,
practically at the same time as the climax, when Roberto's father
The major structural problem, however, is with the subplots.
There appear to be two subplots, one being the relationship between
Roberto and Joe and the other between Roberto and Karen. In each
case interesting characters are introduced and something seems to be
developing, and then there is a sharp truncation before there is any
resolution. In both cases there is a feeling of incompleteness. It may
be that Robert Young was trying by this device to convey a sense of
the unpredictability and lack of control that characterize the life of
238 Story Structure in Latino Feature Films
the undocumented worker, but my own subjective feeling was that
there was something wrong with the story. I half expected Joe and
Karen to reappear somewhere down the line, but they never did.
A third problem has to do with the passivity of the protagonist. It
is generally recognized that in successful films the protagonist must
act and not just react. Roberto is portrayed as sympathetic and
resourceful, but he spends most of his time reacting to his situation.
The sense of a passive protagonist is reinforced by the fact that he has
very little to say throughout the film.
Conclusion: Protagonists, Themes, and Messages
The purpose of this essay has been to show how the concept of story
structure can be used to analyze films about Latinos in the United
States. Although there are still relatively few feature films about
there is a fair amount of structural variation in those films
that do exist. In concluding, I want to make a few observations about
protagonists, themes, and messages.
One of the more obvious points is that all of the films described
here have male protagonists. The only one that has a female protago-
nist (Salt of the Earth) also has a male protagonist. Gregory Nava con-
siders that El Norte has dual protagonists in Rosa and Enrique,15 but
my feeling is that Enrique is really the protagonist here. He is the one
who makes the decision to go north, which provides the first turning
for the story. At the climax of the film he is the one who makes
the key decision again, to stay rather than to leave. Rosa is a central
character, but in dramatic terms not a protagonist to the same degree
that Esperanza is in Salt of the Earth.
The overwhelming preponderance of male protagonists is un-
doubtedly tied to the sheer numerical dominance of men among writ-
ers, directors, and producers. All of the stories looked at here were
written and directed by men. The only female producer of any of
these films was Anna Thomas for El Norte.
One of the key aspects involving protagonists is whether their
inner story is developed, and whether they undergo a process of
transformation during the course of the film. Of these seven films, the
ones that focus on the inner story of the protagonist are Zoot Suit
and Salt of the Earth. In La Bamba there is little development of the
Mario Barrera 239
inner story of the protagonist, Ritchie, but there is of the "shadow pro-
tagonist," Bob.
In terms of themes, most of the films touch on the values of
courage and determination in achieving one's goals. A second major
theme has to do with affirming family and communal values (espe-
cially in Alambrista, La Bamba, and The Milagro Beanfield War). Zoot Suit
and El Norte also have a deal to say about the value of defending
and maintaining one's ethnic identity. These seem to be the three
major themes in these films.
As far as political messages are concerned, only Salt of the Earth
focuses on the unequal role of woman in society. A more common
message has to do with the persistence of racist attitudes in American
society (Stand and Deliver, La Bamba, and Zoot Suit). A surprisingly
large proportion of the films include messages about ethnic exploita-
tion specifically tied to economic interests, an uncommon theme in
mainstream American films. This type of message can be clearly seen.
in El Norte, Alambrista, Salt of the Earth, The Milagro Beanfield War, and
Zoot Suit.
1. The most influential book of this type in recent years has been Syd Field's
Screenplay (New York: Dell, 1979). Other important works include Linda Segar, Making a
Good Script Great (Hollywood: Samuel French, 1987); Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays
That Sell (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988); and Viki King, How to Write a Movie in 21 Days
(New York: Harper & Row, 1988). A number of other script analysts do not have books
out, but popularize their concepts through workshops and videotapes (John Truby,
Robert McKee, Tom Schlesinger, Matt Keener and Corey Mandell, Ken Valentine, and
This work in turn is part of an older tradition of,analyzing drama that includes
Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), and
extends all the way back to Aristotle's Poetics. There is also a parallel in this writing to
the classic analysis of folktales in Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1968).
2. Other films often cited in the literature include Citizen Kilne, The African Queen,
Apocalypse Now, High Noon, The Graduate, Body Heat, Bonnie and Clyde, The Deerhunter,
Star Wars, and Three Days of the Condor. Interestingly, there is not a single film with a
nonwhite protagonist included in this list.
3. Linda Segar, Making a Good Script Great, 26ff.
4. Ibid., 16.
5. Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays That Sell, 31.
6. Ibid., 80.
7. Jim Gladstone, ULa Bamba: Valdez, Valens and the American Dream," Calendar
Magazine, August 1987.
8, Ken "LuisValdez:TheInterview,"San Francisco Focus 1987):
9, For a comprehensive discussion ofthe makingofthe film, see MichaelWilson
and DeborahRosenfelt, Salt of the Earth (Old Westbury,N,Y,: FeministPress,1978),See
also Deborah Rosenfelt, "Ideologyand Structure in Salt of the Earth," Jump Cut 12/13
()976): 19-22.
10, ThiscampaignisdescribedindetailinWilsonandRosenfelt'sSalt of the Earth,
Interview GregoryNava,September29,1990,
12. Ibid,
13. Roberta Orona-Cordova, "Zoot Suit and the Pachuco Phenomenon: An
Interview with Luis Valdez," Revista Chicano-Riquena 11 (1983): 98, 100, 101, 102, 107,
14. Ibid" 98, 100.
15, InterviewwithGregoryNava,citedinnote11,
Crossover: Hispanic Specialty Filnls in the
u.S. Movie Marketplace
David Rosen
Introd uction
The1980swill longberememberedas the "goldenage" ofAmerican
filmmaking, particularlyfor "specialty" orartfilms. Not
weremoreindependentfilms producedduringthe decade than
theyhelped launchthecareersofmanyoftoday'smostnoted actors,
directors,producers,andwriters. Suchestablishedtalentsas Edward
JamesOlmos,John Sayles, MoctesumaEsparza,SpikeLee, andSusan
Seidelman,to namebuta few, builttheir professional careers during
tantindependent films ofthedecade: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, El
Norte, andStand and Deliver. Alltheseh v ~ recognizedasinvalu-
able Hispanic films, speakingabout and to a sizableU.S. "minority"
that all too often has gone unrecognized and unappreciatedby the
dominant Hollywood movie studios, But equally important, and
equally unrecognized, each ofthesefilms is a labor oflove, a testa-
mentto thevisionand dedicationofthefilmmakers whomadethem.
Eachfilm is anexampleofhowentrepreneurialcreativity andperse-
verancecombinedinthefilmmaker's marketingefforts to ensurethat
thefilm found a committed audienceandachieved relativecommer-
"Specialty" films-and theyare notmovies,orflicks-are If
likeallmotionpicturesinthattheyare definitionfeaturelenfrth(75