Film noir depicts a slice of American life, with an emphasis on the slice.
Chicano noir depicts a slice of American life, with an emphasis on American.
That was the idea that animated a screening of John Salcedo’s short film “Racial Idiocracy” and the panel discussion that followed on Oct. 22, 2022, at Loyola Marymount University’s Playa Vista Campus. The topic, “Chicano Noir? Is There Room for a New Sub-Genre?” led to a dynamic dialogue touching on history, culture, and storytelling.
“I often think Chicanos live in the noir,” said panelist Armando Durón ’76, an avid Chicano art collector and founding president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “We live in the shadows, in the background, in the gritty corners of this megalopolis, as both victims and perpetrators, as observers and the observed, seen but not heard, heard but not seen. We are all potential characters in a classic noir film. Since the days of the Zoot suits, some among us manage to do it with class.”
Durón summed it up: “Chicano noir is a natural way to tell our story.”
The event was moderated by Michael Daley, professor and graduate director of writing and producing for television at LMU, and executive producer for the film. John Salcedo wrote, directed, and edited “Racial Idiocracy,” which is a Chicano noir film that flips the script when Diego Santiago, a Mexican American U.S. Border Patrol Agent, is evicted from Chavez Ravine by eminent domain for the construction of the Los Angeles Dodgers Baseball Stadium. The story takes place on May 8, 1959, the day of the evictions. April Greene, the femme fatale, seduces and recruits Diego to deport her older brother Andy Greene, who runs the Housing Authority that executed the evictions. April has discovered a Mexican birth certificate revealing Andy is an illegal alien living a fraudulent identity in America. While he’s taken into custody, Andy spitefully reveals to Diego the house has a racial covenant. “This house was built for whites only.” Diego can’t live there with April due to housing segregation laws. Diego confronts April about the covenant, but she thinks it’s no big deal and tells Diego, “It’s okay … You don’t act Mexican.” Diego is wounded to his core and finally sees the world for what it really is.
Joining Salcedo and Durón on the panel were: Bonifacio “Bonny” Garcia ’78, attorney and president of the board of directors of the Latino Film Institute; Joel M. Gonzales, president of Nosotros, the oldest Latino arts advocacy, founded by Ricardo Montalbán in 1970, which has been working to enhance the image of Latinos in Hollywood; Mario Pacheco Székely, a Mexican American film and TV journalist, a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, writer and film professor; Dr. Jose Luis Ruiz, dentist, professor, author, producer and activist who founded the Mexican American Cultural Education Foundation; and Jeff Harris, who is on the HFPA board of directors, overseeing diversity, equity, and inclusion, and an accomplished nonprofit executive who is passionate about programs that serve youth, promote academic achievement, increase civic engagement and fight for racial justice and equality.
“One wonders why no one had thought of noir before as a vehicle for expressing the Chicano experience,” said Durón. “After all, some of the elements of noir are found in the popular Mexican novelas many of us grew up seeing alongside our parents.”
Gonzales somewhat agreed. “This is an art, I get it, and we’re at a film school, but it’s also a business,” he said. “On the question of Chicano noir, I’m on the fence about it. This is my personal belief: I don’t like the stereotypes. I don’t call myself a Latino filmmaker; I am a filmmaker. I let my work speak for itself. Our stories do need to be told, but they need to be told in a way that reach a general audience.”
Székely, joined in. “I interviewed a Latino with a lot of experience, and I asked him why there aren’t more Latino characters. He said, ‘Because we are not part of the American family.’ … we have different Latino experiences in the U.S.” which makes it harder to find an audience.
Ruiz said, “We at the foundation are focused on changing the negative narrative about Mexican Americans, and I think you’re doing wonderful work with your film.” He said that the foundation is giving five $10,000 grants to young Mexican American filmmakers so they can make their stories, building a stronger Mexican American film community. “We’re Americans, but when we make movies, we isolate ourselves. For 150 years, Mexican Americans were forced to be segregated. That damage is in our heads. We’re committed to see this change.”
Salcedo said he wanted to dig into his own roots and growing up as an undocumented person until he became a naturalized citizen at age 16; he joined the U.S. Army at age 22. He found his way into the film industry through consulting on counterterrorism issues and realized he had something to offer. The journey to “Racial Idiocracy” was somewhat difficult, but he realized that there was something important to say with the label Chicano noir.
Garcia related his association with Edward James Olmos and the ability through star power to control the story and how it’s written, underscoring the point that who controls the narrative is the one who’s in charge. He said his organization is working with middle school and high school students through the Latino Youth Cinema Project to help them gain the skills and experience to take the next step.
“We believe there’s an untapped potential to use forgotten Mexican American history for modern stories,” said Daley. “Similar to what Jordan Peele is doing with African American history and issues, where he infuses them into entertaining films, John’s hoping Chicano noir could be a new exciting sub-genre.”
“Racial Idiocracy” will have its world premiere at the Warner Grand Theater as an official selection for the San Pedro International Film Festival, which runs from Feb. 2 – 5, 2023. The film was sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press.