#320) Chulas Fronteras (1976)
OR “Walk the Line”
Directed by Les Blank
Class of 1993
The Plot: Documentarian Les Blank uses his cross-section style of filmmaking (and his eclectic love of music) to highlight the norteño and conjunto music of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Highlights include the “Tex-Mex” (Texans of Mexican descent) community, how music helped aid the migrant farmers and their attempts to unionize, the racism towards Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) from Texans, and the performers whose music has defined the political and cultural climate for generations of Mexicans.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief overview and calls the film “complex” and “insightful”. There’s also an informative essay by film expert Dr. David Wilt.
But Does It Really?: If you read my post about Les Blank’s other NFR entry, “Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers”, you know that I’m not sure about Les having two films on the list. Having now seen both films, I still feel that way. If forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice” (which isn’t on the list yet, BTW), I’d keep “Chulas” and toss “Garlic”. No knock against “Garlic”, it’s just too similar to “Chulas” in terms of style and presentation. “Chulas” is spared thanks to its preservation of two similar cultures separated by an invisible line. And as always with Les Blank’s films, the movie has a great soundtrack. I’m glad Les Blank is represented on the National Film Registry, but one is enough, don’t you think?
Everybody Gets One: A quick word about Les Blank; an English lit major from Phillips Academy Andover (with an MFA in theater), Les got his start making industrial films he would later describe as “insipid”. Once he made enough money from the industrials, Blank founded Flower Films and was able to stay an independent filmmaker for the rest of his life. A meeting with Airhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, led to Les documenting norteño performers (a favorite of Strachwitz’s) for “Chulas Fronteras”. Strachwitz serves as the film’s producer.
Wow, That’s Dated: The fashion, that’s your giveaway. Only in the ‘70s did we think that plaid pants looked good outside of a golf course.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Best Documentary nomination for “Chulas”. The winner for 1976 was fellow NFR entry “Harlan County U.S.A.”
- For the record, “Chulas Fronteras” roughly translates to “Beautiful Borders”. The film begins with a car being moved across the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. And crossing the border was never that easy ever again.
- I did not realize that accordions made it to Mexico because of German settlers in Texas in the late 1800s. Didn’t see that coming.
- Tex-Mex performer Lydia Mendoza is highlighted in the film, as is her recording of “Mal Hombre” (translated here as “Cold-Hearted Man”). Pay attention to those lyrics; what an intense, socially advance song that is. She tells a man how horrible he is because he “treated me like all men who are like you treat women.” It’s a surprisingly frank song.
- Another song featured is “Los Rinches De Texas” (“The Texas Rangers”) as performed by Dueto Reynosa. It’s a fun upbeat number, until you realize that it’s a song about Texas rangers beating up members of the United Farm Workers who were attempting to unionize. Then-Governor of Texas John Connally is mentioned in the song as “an evil ruler who hates the Mexican and scorns human pain.” That must have done wonders to his approval rating.
- The song “El Corrido de César Chávez” is a hymn to the civil rights leader. Coincidentally, my hometown of Stockton, California gets a shoutout. Like many before and after, the people in the song are just passing through Stockton to get to Sacramento.
- The montage in which the actual making of a record was shown fascinated me. No wonder those things are so easy to break.
- Wow, a lot of these upbeat songs are about institutional racism. That one’s on us.
- Most of the final part of the movie is devoted to Flaco Jiménez, legendary norteño performer and second-generation accordion player. We see his son learning to play near the end. Flaco is still with us, and still performing at the age of 80!
- Cacti growing among the barbed wired fence on the border: if that’s not this movie’s theme in a nutshell I don’t know what is.
- Despite the recurring theme of oppression highlighted in many of the featured songs, Blank does attempt to end the film on a positive note, with a performance of “Mexico Americano” by Los Pinguinos Del Norte. At the end of the day, you have to accept where you come from and embrace it.
Legacy/Further Viewing/Listening: Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz made another documentary about Tex-Mex music, 1979’s “Del mero corazón”. A soundtrack comprised of music from both films was released in the mid-90s.
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