Forgotten Gem: Mi Familia (*****) is where my heart stays

My Family / Mi Familia – 1995

Director Gregory Nava
Screenplay Nava and Anna Thomas
Starring Esai Morales, Jimmy Smits, Edward James Olmos, Constance Marie, Elpidia Carrillo, Enrique Castillo, Scott Bakula, Jenny Gago, Jennifer Lopez, Eduardo Lopez Rojas, Jacob Vargas, León Singer

The depth of feeling and wisdom inherent in Gregory Nava’s generation-spanning masterpiece Mi Familia is vast. It’s a linear story, told with a mixture of everything that a family might experience in the span of 50 years. It is a simple tale on its surface. The emotions are complex, however. If one pays attention, they may come to realize the importance of chopping up old and seemingly spent cobs of corn, planting it in the ground and letting it feed all the other corn.

Starting out on foot from Mexico, José Sanchez (Vargas) makes his way to Los Angeles in the depression era, where he meets an uncle who is called El Californio (Singer). Uncle and nephew strike up a friendship and José begins his decades long journey “across the river” to work for the people who have money to pay for manual labor. While there he meets and falls immediately in love with Maria (Lopez). They marry and begin a family, only to have it interrupted with an illegal roundup and deportation of the young mother who has another on the way.

Mother and child begin their own journey back to their home in the United States, meanwhile José and the two older children keep going, not knowing what happened. While crossing a river, Maria and her baby, “Chucho” fall into the water and become separated. They survive, but Maria thinks that the spirit of the river – in the form of an owl – was cheated of one of their lives, and will come back to haunt them one day.

The family is reunited, however, and life is good, even when El Californio passes. The story moves forward 20 years to the wedding of Irene, the eldest daughter. We see Chucho (Morales) grown into a vibrant young man, full of “macho bull shit” as voiced by his older brother Paco (Olmos, in a masterful voice over). Chucho is the leader of a gang, and not at all proud of his humble beginnings. He is idolized by his younger brother, Jimmy. Invariably, he runs afoul of his father (now played by Rojas) and leaves the house. Before long, a clash with a rival gang leader leaves the rival dead and Chucho on the run. The police, seeing a chance for an easy mark, shoot Chucho on sight, killing him in front of his little brother, Jimmy.

Cue Los Lobos and John Hiatt, Down On The Riverbed and one of the iconic movie moments in my life. We see Jimmy (Smits) leaving prison and making his way through the streets of East L.A., where he seems every bit the young lion that his brother Chucho was in his prime. Jimmy is making his way through life, but he isn’t living. He hangs around, watches his parents’ television and fixes stuff around their house. His sister Toni (Marie) is a nun who recently left the order for a priest, Bakula and works with him to help immigrants stay in the states to save their lives (“political bullshit” as stated succinctly once more by Paco). Toni convinces Jimmy to marry Isabel (Carrillo) one of these refugees, and then they go on about life, business as usual. Isabel does not treat the marriage as a technicality, however and insists on staying with Jimmy.

This passage reveals the heart of the story . Jimmy and Isabel find a way into each other’s heart through the sharing of their secret pain. She describes the murder of her father, Jimmy tells her about Chucho. It’s in this sequence where the marriage moves into a real love. It is written, filmed and acted superbly. It brings everything together and makes a bond with the viewer that can not be undone.

Just when you think things couldn’t get better, they get worse for the family once more. Isabel dies during the birth of hers and Jimmy’s son, Carlito. The effect for Jimmy is devastating, and before long he is back in prison.

Carlito is raised by Maria and José, but he’s an incorrigible youngster with a growing anger inside, as he seems to understand his mother is gone, but his father left him. As he tries to merge himself back into Carlito’s life, he is rejected. Jimmy knows the score, though.

You know, I always thought he’d be there for me when I needed him. I never thought about what he needed. I never been there for him, so why should I expect him to be here for me now, huh?

This is where the story gets its grist and this is how it resonates even after all of these years. Jimmy Smits performance feeds off of Morales. He is living the image of the macho bullshit that he so believed made his brother his hero. He’s a good-hearted man but he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a giant wound deep in his heart. It is truly a magnificent balance that Smits pulls off. He is at once approachable and dangerous. For as short a time as she is in the film, Carrillo perfectly matches him. It’s a necessary tragedy that they are not able to share the screen longer.

The key to Smits performance though, is the knowledge that his character is built from observations of his older brother as played by the always remarkable Morales. If many of the other members of the family seem peripheral, it’s only because they are pieces of the puzzle that slowly build into Jimmy and the crux of his story.

Paco is a key performer in this effort. As the narrator, we know that Paco is an author, but Nava and his wife Thomas make the wise choice of making him (Olmos) an observer in the story. He does not have any of the key moments in the film. He makes no momentous decisions. He spends time in the military, comes home to work in his sister’s restaurant and hangs around, eating while watching the family unfold around him. This allows the character to act as a type of essential Greek chorus to the goings on of his brothers. It is this view of a writer that changed my viewpoint of the role that an author should take in his stories: that of an observer.

So when he tells us, after Jimmy’s second stint in prison the function his little brother performs in the family, we believe him. He’s seen it all, and he’s taken it in like a wise person should:

To me, Jimmy carried a lot of shit for the rest of us…all the hate, all the rage and all the injustice…and somehow, if it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t have gone onto do all the things we did…me with my writing and Toni with her politics and most of all Memo, the pride and joy of the family.

If you noticed I had not mentioned Memo to this point, it’s for a reason. Memo is steady, hardworking and he achieves much in his life. And it’s unremarkable. The wisdom of Nava and Thomas is that they look at the parts of the family that aren’t working and show us that it is those parts that are doing the heavy lifting. It’s a romantic view, to be sure. It works for me, though.

The best thing for me, though, is seeing the entire journey of Mi Familia boiling down to a father and his child, trying to connect. We are left there at the start of a road, not the end of one.

Back to José and Maria, hand in hand, we see them revel in the beauty of it all:

Jose: Maria, we’ve had a good life. We’ve been very lucky.

Maria: It would have been even better if…

Jose: No Maria, don’t say it. Don’t even say it. It is wrong to wish for too much in this life. God has been good to us. We’ve been very lucky. And our life have been very, very good.

Maria: You’re right. We’ve had a very, good life

That is Mi Familia, just like every family. It’s a winding journey, fraught with disappointment, heartbreak and despair. It also serves as a shelter in the storm of life, the pieces of corn upon which everyone else is sustained.

(***** out of *****)

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