by Jennifer Wing Atencio
It was Lent 2016, and I was sitting in the office of Edward James Olmos at Olmos Productions on the Disney Studios lot. After other meeting participants left, I shared a few moments alone with the legendary actor/producer, and the following conversation:
“Edward, I want to tell you something personal” I began. “Now don’t take this in a bad way because it’s a good thing, but I have been watching your movies for Lent,” I said with a tentative smile. Fortunately by this time Edward already considered me a friend and knew my intentions are good, so he chuckled. “Oh, really?,” smiling he questioned, “Why’s that?”
“Well, I really need to understand the culture better.” Edward already knew that this blonde-haired blue-eyed, non-Spanish speaking gringa is married to the Mexican-American family in more ways than one.
“So tell me which ones you have watched so far?” he asked me.
“I started with My Family-Mi Familia (1995) and it was just so moving I cried.
“Ah yes, that’s a good one!” his face lit up with humble pride like a doting papa.
“That scene at the end of the film when Karen Gillespie (Dedee Pfeiffer) brings her parents to meet fiance Memo’s family (Enrique Castillo), I saw my own life in that scene a bit, and oh my goodness… it was brilliant!” We laughed together recalling its comedic genius, and then I continued,” I don’t know if I am a Karen Gillespie exactly, but that scene sure reminded me of my husband and I – so much humor and love. You guys nailed it!” I exclaimed recalling the storytelling moment when two cultures collide for a darling and hilarious introduction.
Edward laughed some more as I told him we watched (his Oscar nominated performance) in Stand and Deliver (1988) with our kids, and that my 6-year-old son now goes around saying “¡ÓRALE!” in his imitation.
Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante and cast in Stand and Deliver
He looked pleased.
“I’m still watching, Edward,” I said thoughtfully, “and, I am not done, because there are many more to watch, but I am learning. Thank you.”
“Jennifer,” Edward said, “I am so glad you told me this. I want you to know that I gave up many big money-making opportunities to instead make what you are watching the focus of my life’s work – to raise awareness of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Mexican-American culture.”
“You know, this is my family too, Edward,” I shared. “My aunt-by-marriage is from Mexico, her family and also my cousin, whom I have grown up with here in Southern California, but I haven’t taken the time until now to really think about her journey. I just took it for granted as part of my family history. I thought very much about my aunt and extended family while watching,” I shared.
One year later on the first Thursday of Lent 2017 with an Ash Wednesday bulletin still sitting on the passenger seat next to me, there I was in my car in tears, transporting my cousin’s ashes from my aunt’s house as reverently as I could, with their 16-year-old giant bear of a dog “Buddy” in my back seat. Tragically, my cousin – an only child – passed away just four months before my aunt, his mother, passed on. Two weeks following her departure from this earth, I was determined to carry out her wishes for her son’s Catholic burial.
‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust’ … were the words repeating in my mind.
I was feeling the sadness of their loss, and regret for time I wish I had spent with them, but also relief for the intimate conversations of faith I had shared with her just a couple of short months before her passing, in the weeks following my cousin’s memorial Mass which took place on my birthday in October. This included a pilgrimage for all three of them (my uncle passed on in 2003) on the last weekend of the Year of Mercy. Because I am a reunified Catholic, from Protestant-Evangelical Christianity, I am their only close, living Catholic family member.
In the days prior to this moment, I had the privilege of viewing the story of my aunt’s life in pictures and mementos aside close, family friend Elizabeth. Our mutual connection to the woman we both call “Tia Rosa” comforted each other as we unfolded the record of her life: which included her marriage to my uncle in 1959; the birth of their only child my cousin Eric in 1962, and her life’s journey from the Mexican stage to her family life in California. The photos she kept recorded her ambitions in show-biz, as a dancer and the only daughter of Mexican singer Esperanza Arellano, also as young wife of a Hollywood, California native.
“I remember her on the stage as a small girl with her mother in Mexico. She would frequently come out from behind the curtain to make an appearance, in beautiful pink dresses sewn by Esperanza,” remarked friend Eva Lopez.
“In her storage, we found all these love letters between she and (husband) France that chronicled their relationship from the beginning to the end, …from deep romance even all the way to their later separation”, remarked Elizabeth Fraines, close friend and spiritual daughter of Rosa.
To Elizabeth and my children, I narrated what I knew of their family story, my Uncle France (my father’s brother) grew up in Hollywood, and graduated from Hollywood High School. “He graduated along with me in January of 1949, a year and a half later than his class for enlisting in the U.S. Army when he was 16-years-old, with parental permission,” filled in younger brother Sid Wing, my dad.
He attended high school with an assortment of Hollywood High (later) celebs, but most notably with life-long friend, actor James Garner, whom he met as a teen at the Hollywood Boys Club. As a young adult before working in the film industry and as a parimutuel clerk on the Southern California horse-racing circuit, he was a surfer and deep-sea diver hunting for pearls as an abalone fisherman off the California and Mexico shores. At the same time, Rosita was following in her mother’s footsteps on the Mexican stage in the performing arts, as a Spanish Flamenco Dancer.
Rosita and France fell in love on the beaches of Mexico. France came home to California shortly to make a plan for marriage and family, while she planned their wedding in Mexico. After my cousin was born, they all came to California to make a life here, she and cousin Eric were naturalized as U.S. citizens. She worked in the motion picture industry for decades in administration for Health and Wellness, following France into the business. After a stellar amateur baseball career in local leagues, Eric served in the United States Navy, and then also worked in film production and archiving.
Rosa became exceptionally fluent in English, highly self-educated, and well-loved by her working and local community. “She was known for being a woman of great strength and dignity”, noted Elizabeth while reflecting on the character she exhibited as a working mom, and dedicated single mother. Her mother Esperanza and brother later followed her from Mexico to settle in California.
I remember her attending family parties where friends would encircle her chanting ‘Rosi, Rosi’ until she would throw her arms up and begin to dance her Flamenco, stomping in rhythm.” Elizabeth continued, “But, the fiery dancer in her did fade slowly over time with the challenges she faced in life, eventually weighing down her artistic spirit.”
While thinking about their personal stories and struggles, through the high points and the heart breaks, I couldn’t help but think on what I had learned from watching Edward’s stories, even the animated feature El Americano, which is the film that brought me to his personal acquaintance, to be soon released in U.S. theaters. El Americano is an endearing story of a Mexican, boy parrot who believes that the help of his Hollywood hero “El Americano” is just what he needs to save his family and their circus from a threatening rival.
Cuco would rather imitate the crazy stunts of his TV super-parrot hero, El Americano, than help with his chores at the family bird circus. Cuco sets off on a hilarious and perilous journey from Mexico to Hollywood to enlist El Americano in his fight against a bully gang that has taken over his family’s circus by force, only to discover the true hero is within himself. (Wikipedia)
Like Cuco, are not many of us willing to go to any length to help save our family? Cuco’s story, co-produced in Mexico and the U.S, echos the story of many of our families, and especially Southern California-style. I think we all can relate to the quest of Cuco, who musters up a lot of courage and newly found independence to help the people he loves by taking a life-changing journey. It is Cuco’s universal rite of passage; finding that what we learn about ourselves along the way, who we really are and what we love the most, that is the important part, and what resonates with so many Americans – North and South.
Writers, directors and producers took great care in reflecting a respect for legal immigration in the telling of Cuco’s story while also showing the simple humanity of the immigrant in this colorful bird so dedicated to his family, who really could have just flown over the border.
Edward James Olmos executive produced the film and joined his voice talent with Rico Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, Eric Estrada, Lisa Kudrow and many more talented cast members. The story is brought to life on-screen in both English and Spanish by iconic animator Phil Roman (The Grinch who Stole Christmas; The Simpsons); and Mexican director Ricardo Arnaiz.
Film creators have maintained hopes that El Americano will contribute to the ongoing discussion of immigration via it’s light-hearted, family oriented message.
I asked El Americano producer Alex Flores about my idea for sharing this article. “Jennifer”, he said, “we consider you part of the family.” And, that is the whole point of sharing this story, to illustrate that we are a diverse and connected family, as a nation composed mostly of immigrants. However you look at it, all of our families have been on a long journey to where we are today – good and bad, with failures and triumphs, we find here and now in ourselves that we are only one part of a much longer story repeating the resounding message: We Are Family.
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Copyright 2017 Jennifer Wing Atencio, all rights reserved