Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thoughts on La Mission and the Ongoing Struggle to Broaden Notions of Latino Masculinities

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a screening of Peter Bratt’s La Mission. The screening, which was part of a limited release, was at San Francisco’s Metreon Theaters. My compañero and I, joined by two of our queer sisters of color, were lucky enough to find seats in relative proximity to each other in the sold-out space.

It was a late night screening and the vast majority of folks in the theater were people of color. In fact, I’d say most of the people there were Latina/o, with a nice mix of generations representing. The experience was unforgettable as all four of us, none of which were born and raised in San Francisco, were sitting in what seemed to be an intimate living room screening of La Mission.

We all smiled and were occasionally misty-eyed as people in the crowd, youth and adults, loudly expressed their pride in the various shots of San Francisco portrayed in the film. During the movie, I realized that this was the first time I had ever witnessed the screening of a film that embodied the geographic and cultural identities of the audience. People not only saw themselves on the big screen, they also saw the places that have shaped and witnessed them.

All in all, I found La Mission to be a beautiful film. I’m not a film critic and will leave that to those who know better. Instead, I’ll limit my thoughts on what moved me most about the movie, and those areas I wish it had gone deeper.

The relationship of Benjamin Bratt’s character, Che Rivera, and his son Jesse, played by Jeremy Ray Valdez, was sweet, raw and in many ways reflective of my own experience with my father. I was further moved by the depiction of comunidad and the ways in which we, as a village, honor our shared responsibility and opportunity to support each other and our children. Even as the father struggled with the realization of his son’s sexuality, their community intervened, loved and supported both of them in a way that rings true to my experiences of community engagement in times of family crisis. This particularly resonated with memories of how my family responded to the teenage pregnancies of cousins and to my own coming out. This isn’t to say my family, or our communities are romantic portraits reminiscent of Norman Rockwell. Rather, it is necessary to honor the fact that even in our messiness and pain, we managed to love each other in the only ways we knew how.

A question I had throughout the film was the extent to which audience members knew what the film was actually about. This was somewhat answered by the collective surprise when Jesse first kissed his boyfriend, Jordan. However, after the initial shock, people seemed to settle with the idea, though I wouldn’t suggest this was a celebration or affirmation of queerness; yet another reflection on my coming out experience.

In addition to the possibility that some in the audience were unaware of the gay theme in the story, people were very surprised when Benjamin and Peter Bratt entered the theater. The Q&A with the actor and the director was a bit all over the place. Nonetheless, I was excited to hear Peter Bratt, who was both the writer and director, talk about his process.

Something that resonated with me was Bratt’s reasoning for the gay theme in the film. To paraphrase, the writer wanted to portray Latino masculinity in its most vulnerable state. According to Bratt, the best way to expose ultimate vulnerability in a Latino who is deeply rooted in what some would argue is a stereotypical depiction of Latino maleness (dare I say machismo), would be in the realization of his son being gay. Hearing this evoked the memory of hearing my father crying inconsolably on the phone while he asked if his suspicions of my sexuality were true. The call, which ended with my father saying I was a dried-up branch of his family, exposed the darkest and scariest of both his and my vulnerability as Latino men.

I appreciate Bratt’s analysis and his courage to quite literally breakdown Latino masculinity on the big screen. However, I am saddened by the fact that he only focused on exposing the vulnerability of the father’s masculinity, and in doing so, left a gaping whole in exploring the vulnerability and possibility of the gay Latino son. Instead, the story seemed to use the son and his sexuality as a conduit, rather than truly honoring the experience of gay Latino men and our relationship with our fathers.

I was also concerned with Bratt’s reinforcement of the notion that gayness is a white construct and something that only exists openly in white-defined spaces such as San Francisco’s Castro District. This is not to say that the Castro is not an important space in queer culture and one that many queer men of color, myself included, have traveled through in the formation of our identities and experience. Yet, to continue leaving gayness within the realm of whiteness speaks to our ongoing inability to claim the many facets of Latina/o sexualities and the many ways we express and manifest gender.

Furthermore, leaving gayness to be embodied by the Castro and a white boyfriend also overlooked the rich history of queer Latinidad that has long been an integral part of San Francisco’s Mission District. As a queer brown man, the LGBT Latina/o community of the Mission, including such spaces as Esta Noche, heavily shaped my identity. Horacio Roque Ramírez, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, has done extensive work on the LGBT Latina/o community of La Misión and has done an excellent job in honoring the legacies of organizing and community building that has taken place over several decades.

To be clear, I am not arguing against depictions of the Castro or against mixed-race relationships. Rather, I ask that we think about what continues to stand in our way of fully acknowledging that LGBT Latinidad can and has long existed outside of the confines and direct influence of white LGBTness. Perhaps acknowledging that queerness can be just as inherently Latina/o as it is to white communities is a vulnerability we are not prepared to experience.

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