#585) I Am Joaquín (1969)

#585) I Am Joaquin (1969)

Directed by Luis Valdez

Based on the poem “Yo Soy Joaquín” by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

Class of 2010 

Ah, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, yet another topic that my severe Whiteness is under qualified to discuss with any level of expertise. I’ll do my best regarding the elements specifically covered in “I Am Joaquin”, but please continue to explore the incredible piece of history beyond its reference here. And forgive me as I also continue to educate myself.

The Plot: Luiz Valdez takes the Rodolfo Gonzales epic poem and translates it into a film collage of hope, resistance, and Mexican pride in “I Am Joaquín”. As a Chicano “lost in a world of confusion”, our narrator (Valdez) highlights the often-contradictory feeling of being Mexican in a “anglo society”, tracing his lineage from the Aztec reign of Cuauhtémoc to the revolution led by Miguel Hidalgo to the modern age of the Chicano Revolution . In the end, Joaquín represents the “nature and brotherhood” that happens when Mexicans from all walks of life come together and support each other.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “important to the history and culture of Chicanos in America” and gives a rundown of Luis Valdez’s career.

But Does It Really?: When we as Americans talk about civil/human rights in this country, we usually focus on those rights as they pertain to our Black population, which regrettably sidelines other non-White nationalities, including Mexican-Americans. The movement depicted in “I Am Joaquín” is an important reminder of what our fellow citizens and their ancestors fought and died for, often at the hand of White oppressors. “I Am Joaquín” represents not only the first cinematic endeavor of an important artist, but also perfectly encapsulates a specific time and place in Mexican and Mexican-American history. I’m thrilled the NFR has found a place for “I Am Joaquín”.

Everybody Gets One: Rodolfo Gonzales grew up in the “Eastside Barrio” of Denver, Colorado during the Great Depression. His tendency to “pop off like a cork” earned him the nickname Corky, which stuck all his life. During a successful stint as a boxer, Gonzales saw firsthand the kind of injustice faced by Mexican-Americans throughout the country, and turned to political activism, eventually becoming one of the leaders of the Chicano Movement. In 1967 Gonzales wrote “Yo soy Joaquín“, in which he encouraged his fellow Chicano to embrace the often contradictory identities of being Mexican or Mexican-American. The poem gained traction quickly, with Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino turning it into a one-act play, and later this short film.

Wow, That’s Dated: In all-too brief: The Chicano Movement was a political movement in the 1960s not dissimilar to the Black Power Movement going on at the same time. The movement encouraged Mexican and Mexican-Americans to embrace their heritage and reject assimilation. Most Americans (especially those of us from California) are most aware of one of the movement’s leaders: César Chávez. The word “Chicano” was originally a derogatory term aimed at the lower classes, but was reclaimed by the likes of Rodolfo Gonzales as a unified term for Mexicans.

Seriously, Oscars?: I’m not quite sure if “I Am Joaquin” ever played an Oscar qualifying run, but for the record: 1969’s Live Action Short Subject winner was “The Magic Machines“, Bob Curtis’ film about artist Robert Gilbert. None of Valdez’s films have received any Oscar recognition, though the Golden Globes have been a bit more accepting over the years.

Other notes 

  • Luis Valdez sounds a little like George Takai. There’s a certain inflection they both share. There’s also a little bit of Tony Randall there. It’s a very authoritative voice.
  • Shoutout to Luis Valdez’s brother Daniel, who composed the film’s score.
  • I appreciate that the narrator is willing to acknowledge all of his history, knowing that he is descended from the oppressors as well as the oppressed. It’s an acknowledgment you definitely don’t see in White American culture these days. Or ever.
  • When the narrator gets to the part where he “rejects my father and my mother, and dissolves into the melting pot”, the song playing is “Wooly Bully”, which is filled with cultural appropriation in its presentation, including counting off the rhythm in Spanish.
  • Most of my notes on “Joaquín” were just names and terminology I wasn’t familiar with before this viewing. Some names I know only in passing (Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata), but most were entirely new to me. Researching this post was definitely an eye-opener, and I reminder of things I was taught in high school but had definitely forgotten.
  • While the name Joaquin is used metaphorically, there is mention of Joaquin Murrieta, an outlaw circa the 1840s that has so many myths around him that his very existence has been called into question. Regardless, Murrieta is ostensibly the inspiration for another famous outlaw: Zorro.
  • I would have loved to have seen what Valdez’s production of “I Am Joaquín” looked like on stage.

Legacy 

  • Rodolfo Gonzales spent the rest of his life advocating for Chicano rights, and inspired generations of Chicano to become activists and/or run for local office. Gonzales died in 2005 at the age of 76.
  • The Chicano Movement of this film more or less dissolved by the 1970s. Like the Black Power movement, many of the Chicano organizations were infiltrated by the U.S. government and shut down from the inside. Another major concern was the movement’s marginalization of female and queer Chicanos.
  • Luis Valdez stuck mostly to his theater work after “I Am Joaquin”, but two of his four subsequent movies have also been added to the NFR: 1981’s “Zoot Suit” (another film based on one of his plays), and 1987’s “La Bamba”.
  • Valdez continues to act as well as direct, recently voicing two characters in Pixar’s “Coco”.
  • As previously mentioned on this blog, Texas congressman/”Selena” NFR endorser Joaquin Castro is named after “Yo Soy Joaquin”. True to this poem’s message, Congressman Castro has been representing the people of San Antonio for almost 20 years.

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