While the acclaimed film "My Family" is now more than a quarter century old, the 1995 film remains a timely and especially relevant story during Hispanic Heritage Month. Starring Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Constance Marie, and a young Jennifer Lopez, it's an all-star ensemble. And it tells a specific yet universal tale about three generations of a Mexican American family.
Full of rich characterization and dramatic weight, as well as plenty of heartfelt levity, "My Family" is a triumph for director Gregory Nava and his co-writer Anna Thomas. The indie was a minor financial success, earning $11.1 million on its $3.8 million budget. It also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Make-Up, and Indie Spirit Award nominations for Best Male Lead for Jimmy Smits and Best Supporting Female for J-Lo (despite being uncredited).
While some of the movie is based on Nava's own experiences, he drew much of the inspiration from the stories he heard from families in East Los Angeles.
The story begins with the young Jose Sanchez. He travels by foot from Mexico to Los Angeles in the 1920s - a trip that takes him a year to complete. He visits with an older relative known as El Californio, who's been in Los Angeles since it was a part of Mexico.
By the early '30s, Jose (Jacob Vargas) and his American-born, Hispanic wife Maria (Jennifer Lopez) have started a family of their own. They have two children – Paco and Irene. But the pregnant Maria's rounded up by the authorities and wrongly deported to Mexico. Over the next two years, she struggles to make it back to LA, and does so with their newborn son Chucho.
The film moves forward to the late '50s. By then, three more children – Toni, Memo and Jimmy – are also part of the family. Chucho (Esai Morales) and his older siblings are grown. Chucho lives the street life. Paco becomes a writer. He later narrates the Sanchez family's story. Irene plans her marriage. Toni becomes a nun. And Memo dreams of being a lawyer. Little Jimmy, though, sees his brother Chucho killed by a rival gang, and is haunted by the event.
During the '70s and '80s, the grown-up children have their own children. Jimmy (Jimmy Smits) reluctantly marries El Salvadoran refugee Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo). The couple eventually fall truly in love, and have a son, but Isabel dies during childbirth. Jimmy's subsequent rage leads to criminal acts and another stint in prison. He later seeks forgiveness from his son, but it will take time for healing to happen. And lots of support from the family.
Hispanic Heritage Month Connections
The movie's full of life and emotion and the unique bonds of this particular Hispanic family. Their heritage is everything, and the filmmakers and actors capture it all in an extremely authentic and moving way. Nava and Thomas were previously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for '83's gritty "El Norte," a tale about Mayan immigrants struggling to survive on the streets of LA. "My Family" is equally honest in its script and storytelling. There's a lot to absorb, which makes it a gem worth revisiting.
Why You Should See It
For those unfamiliar with the Hispanic immigrant experience in Southern California, the movie's an enlightening experience that represents cinema at its best – able to shed a light on stories that aren't often told on film. It's also a movie that will remind people of their own families, mirroring things that happen in all our lives. The film fosters empathy for cultures that are entirely unique, and yet not totally dissimilar.
Did You Know
Writer-director Gregory Nava would go on to direct 1997's "Selena," about Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla-Perez, featuring "My Family" stars Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Constance Marie, and Lupe Ontiveros.
May 3, 1995
Chuck is an editor/writer who's worked for NCM, Fandango, Movies.com, MediaTrip, Hollywood.com and Newsweek. His favorite movie is "Jaws." He's definitely a dog guy.