The Triumph of Gregory Nava

An exclusive interview with the creator of American Family

By Mark Sotelo
Published on LatinoLA: April 15, 2004

The Triumph of Gregory Nava

Few directors or screenwriters have touched on Latino themes with as much insight, poetry reverence for the culture as Gregory Nava. Nava, a native San Diegan, attended UCLA film school in the 70?s where he met his wife and frequent collaborator Ann Thomas. After impressing with a student film and making a splash with his feature, a medieval film called Confessions of Amans (1976) he gained greater notice with El Norte (1984) a story about a story about two Guatemalan Mayan Indians and their harrowing journey to and in America. It was noted for it?s uncompromising storytelling and realism. El Norte was nominated for an Academy Award in 1985 for best original screen play and other films followed including the lyrical and emotional My Family (1995) and the bittersweet biography pic Selena (1997) that gave rise to the career of Jennifer Lopez. He also helped pen 2002?s Frida starring Selma Hayek.

Nava's crowning work may be American Family an increasingly rich and complex mini-series airing Sundays at 7 on PBS that looks at the life of a Mexican American family living in East Los Angeles. Blessed with what I joked to him was the New York Yankees of Latino Actors, it stars Edward James Olmos as Jess Gonzalez, the patriarch and a hardnosed conservative always at odd with his liberal daughter Nina (Constance Marie) whose future as a lawyer seems on hold as she looks after her father following the passing of her mother Berta, played sporadically in flashbacks by Sonia Braga.

Former gang member Esteban, played by the always-excellent Esai Morales, has rebuilt his life and has recently married. At the wedding, Jess learns from his son Conrado (Kingpin?s Yancy Arias), a military doctor, will ship out soon to Iraq. This sets off a firestorm within the family and viperous arguments between Jess and Nina that artfully mirrors the increasingly bitter divide that American feel towards the U.S. occupation. Olmos gives a furious and impassioned performance that is not easily forgotten and worthy of the best conservative radio war hawk.

This season is subtitled the Journey of Dreams and also features the telling of the Gonzales family saga during the Mexican Revolution where Jess grandmother Adela, played by Patricia Velasquez, walks desperately with her hungry children through a haunted, violent no -mans land to search for the American border and the land of flowers, food and no sorrows, her son tells her.

Despite the degree of difficulty Nava, succeeds in telling important stories in several different eras because the ghost of memory is one that never rests until it has told what it knows, and it seems to have much to say these characters and the audience watching them.

Mr. Nava graciously granted me an interview in which we explored some of the themes of American Family as well as Latinos in Hollywood.

Mark Sotelo : As with My Family you are again approaching storytelling through a multigenerational arc. What made you decide to implement this direction in season two?

Gregory Nava: What I wanted to do was tell a real story of a real family in America right now and have it reflect what families are going through. When we started working on the show 9/11 hit and I thought, hey, I?ve got to deal with this, so we did a big 9/11 show and Conrado, the oldest son in the family joins the army as a doctor and I thought well, he would have gone to Iraq and you can?t deal with the Iraq war in one episode, so the story changed as the family changed because I was really trying to reflect the family as opposed to trying to find a formula to pad things out. I took an organic approach to let the family live and grow so I thought this would be incredible to make a whole mini-series around Iraq, show how it?s dividing the nation, dividing the family to show what the experience of being a doctor would be like and explore all the contradictions about what being there would look like. Then I thought about the parallels of the Mexican revolution, how the same issues of occupation and borders persist regardless of when they take place. The parallel of Conrado and Adela approaching their borders is very relevant today and that?s what I want the show to reflect, what is going on right now.

MS : American Family was originally slated to air as a pilot on CBS several years ago and it never happened, despite large critical praise from critics who saw it. What were the reasons you were given for the pass?

GN: I don?t know about their reasons but the fact of the matter is that this happens to some of the best shows on TV. I am thinking of the Sopranos as an example, which was passed on by a network. They could never have done what they did with that show on network TV, and we couldn?t do the same kind of show either. Sometimes a network owns a show?s pilot and it gets bought by someone else; it?s not uncommon and really, being on PBS is the best thing that could have happened to us.

MS: Is it still difficult to get films about Latinos made?

GN: It?s harder to get it done because big stars drive these movies getting made and we don?t have as many because we haven?t had the opportunity, not because we don?t have the talent. You have to be very dedicated to make things happen. My father could have never aspired to become a film director in Hollywood. Now I can do those things but in doing them you reach a higher level Where it?s hard to get Latino images up there?s and there?s lots of very ingrained notions and ideas that you have to fight and deal with. It?s a glass ceiling that was much higher then in the days of my dad.

MS: I know you attended UCLA film school in the 70?s. Have you been back and what is the current state of young Latino filmmakers?

GN: I don?t know, there seems to be more at UCLA but at the same token, there was quite a number there when I was there and from many parts of Latin America.

MS: The character Memo Sanchez in My Family was accused by his family of trying to act white and Memo himself expressed some discomfort of coming from immigrant parents. In American Family the family Patriarch Jess Gonzales is very conservative, anti-immigration and considers himself a Spaniard. To what extent has Anglo representations of Mexican Americans contributed to the attitudes and beliefs of these characters?

GN: You have to recall, as was shown in the first season, the tremendous racism that Jess Gonzalez had experienced and that his super-patriotism or Americanism comes out of constantly having to prove that he?s as American as anybody else, so he overcompensates by going too far in the other direction and many people in our community do that. I try to deal with him with compassion as a real character. He is the lead character, his spiritual and emotional journey is a powerful one and you begin to really see where he is coming from, what?s behind what he believes. When you see those scenes of him in the Korean War and that scar he carries on his body, the facade begins to comes off and you understand him better and you also come to understand what Nina is going though and see both sides of the argument they have over the war.

MS: The characters on American Family do seem more well-rounded then is often portrayed in television dramas.

GN : This is what we as writers need to do, create three-dimensional characters. That?s what I hope has been done with the show and the other films I have made. That?s really what the battle is for us in television and in movies. It?s not about whether you?re a doctor or lawyer, it?s about real people, whether your a gang guy or a physician. Esteban in our show was a gang guy but he?s a very well drawn character and you begin to understand why he did what he did and you begin to admire his strength in coming back from it. What I try to do with the characters is show you something that you don?t know, like the Mexican Revolution. Even our young people don?t know our own history, let alone the Anglo Americans who know nothing about it. So it?s like ?My God, these things really happened?? but then we show you things you do know but in a way you have never seen before. For example Conrado is a doctor but not in the clich?d way they are often shown. He is in Iraq and his commanding officer is an African American Woman! That?s what the Army is like right now. So I am constantly trying to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way and show the unfamiliar in a way that makes people identify with it.

MS: Another theme that runs through your films as it does through modern Latino families is the role of women and independence vs. the expectations of culture to always put family ahead of personal gains. Nina feels she must take of her widowed father in the absence of her mother?s death but older sister Vangie tells her she is using that loyalty as an excuse to not develop herself.

GN: That?s a real issue in our families, women?s roles as they are changing and the traditional roles as we see in Berta. It was kind of one of the main themes of the first season and you saw Nina trying to come to grips with her mother?s role as a traditional Mexican woman and her role as trying to be a liberated woman and being ashamed of her mother and the guilt she feels later as a result of that when she realizes how much her mother loved her and how much she did for her. But she took those things for granted. We are in the midst of tremendous social change in our communities and in our families and especially with women?s roles, as we see those roles changing, and a lot of this is, of course, because of life here in the United States and the way it?s lived here as opposed to Mexico or Peru or other countries. These are conflicts and out of these conflicts come drama and story. You look at Nina, who was doing so great last season then she suddenly reaches a higher level of discrimination as a woman and as a Latina in an industry that she had been very successful at. Again, it?s a higher glass ceiling.

MS: There is a strong current of mysticism that?s runs through your films and American Family has it share of ghosts. What is it about spirituality in the Latino culture that is so important even now?

GN: It?s still very important and in the case of the children who encounter the ghost of Adela it is really that soothing presence of our ancient roots that they meet and it?s shocking and surprising and not what you expect to see because it is so powerful, embracing. The past, and not just our past but also the past of our ancestors is really important to us more then we realize. Contemporization of sports shoes and getting a new car and ?will the Lakers win the championship?? is a very thin veneer over a very ancient culture that persists. I think many filmmakers think you can just sweep that past under the rug as if only contemporary American culture matters. I think the power of our culture, our history and our past is much too strong an influence for that. That?s why I like to combine both the present and past in the show.

MS: You have worked several times with Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales and seem to extract outstanding performances from them. What is it they bring to the table that for you as a director is so valuable?

GN: I think they give their heart. They love doing this kind of work when they get the opportunity and they don?t always get the opportunity to do a role like Jess Gonzalez or a role like Esteban that is so complex, that requires all their humanity. They get to weep, they get to cheer, they get to have unbelievable feelings and conflicts and they just love the opportunity to do it. They come to the rehearsals with their heart and soul right out there, ready to do whatever we have to do that day and I can?t thank them enough, and that?s also true for the entire cast of American Family. They are the reason the show is good and I am so blessed to work with such good people.

MS: With this season getting such positive responses from critics and gaining strength, is there a possibility of a third season?

GN: I don?t know because I didn?t know that there was going to be a second season. Like I say it depends on how the story and the family evolves. This show is a mini-series and it has a definite ending and at the end of it everybody in the family changes. If you watch it you will see it?s a big deal what happens at the end of the show, so if there is more, it?s going to be like life, the family will be real different because families don?t stay the same. Right now I am very much involved with this season and I haven?t really thought about another one. In a way though, the Gonzalez family will determine whether or not we do more. It?s taken on a life of it?s own.

American Family airs Sundays at 7pm on PBS 28 in Los Angeles.

About Mark Sotelo:
Mark Sotelo has written film reviews, personal essays, social commentary, interviews and press releases for various organizations and publications and can be reached at mlsotelo2002@yahoo.com

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