Reflections On Teaching in East Los Angeles

My student's reactions to the movie Boulevard Nights

By Howard Shorr
Published on LatinoLA: October 27, 2004

Reflections On Teaching in East Los Angeles

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the film ?Boulevard Nights?. In 1979, I was teaching at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights community in East Los Angeles. In this essay, I discuss my student?s reactions to the film, place Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles in a historical context and my teaching methods.

"Boulevard Nights" took place in East Los Angeles. The movie poster had a person dressed in a white shirt and khaki pants with low rider cars. On the poster it read, "Everything happens on the boulevard and the boulevard happens at night." At that time, there were even fewer films with a Latino theme than today. "Boulevard Nights" was made before "Zoot Suit", "La Bamba" or "Stand and Deliver".

The movie was controversial for its stereotypes of Latinos and the community. I wanted to create a project about the movie so my students would be able to use their critical thinking skills to discuss the myth and realities of the movie. It was important for the students to address such topics as: Latinos, East Los Angeles, gender roles and gangs.

I had done this once before during my second year of teaching (1974-1975) at San Gabriel Mission High School. At that time, I was teaching Chicano History and there were many conflicts over the TV show "Chico and the Man" that also took place in East Los Angeles. The show offended some people because the star was the late Freddie Prinze who lived in his van in the garage. He had a Mexican flag on the back of his van and Prinze spoke Puerto Rican Spanish. Also, the title of the show caused concern; as Chico in Spanish slang can mean little boy and the "man" could be defined as the white boss.

My students watched the show every week and critiqued the stereotypes and realities of the show. They were all unhappy how Latinos and East Los Angeles were portrayed on the program. As a teacher, I wanted to take my students to the next level in the learning process. I contacted the producers of the show and asked if we could visit the set and discuss the program with the actors. They agreed and we went to the NBC studios in Burbank.

The actors Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson along with producer Michael Pressman stated that the program was to entertain and didn't present any negative stereotypes. My students strongly disagreed with them and I was proud of their views. The "Chico and the Man" experience taught me that it was not enough to have students angry in class, but they also needed a positive outlet for their frustrations.

So in 1979, my students started going to see the movie ?Boulevard Nights? and were very unhappy with it. They all felt it was a gang film that didn't accurately portray the community. There was no denial that gangs existed there, but they were a minority. They complained in 1979 that there were so few positive Latino role models in films or in any aspect of popular culture.

It is important to put the Roosevelt students in a historical context. They were born in the early 1960's and could remember the Vietnam War, the East Los Angeles "Blowouts" of 1968, and the Chicano Moratorium in 1970. Many of the students also remembered Watergate and the Nixon resignation. The INS raids were also becoming more of a common occurrence in the community.

I decided to be pro-active and to bring people to Roosevelt High School who were involved with the movie. The first person I contacted was Charles Champlin, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. I was a little nervous contacting him and expected to speak to his secretary. Instead, he answered the phone and my heart dropped. I told him about my project and he quickly agreed to speak to my students.

It was important to have one of the actors from the movie speak to my students and I called the Screen Actors Guild for their agents' phone numbers. The only one who would talk to me was the man who represented the female co-star Marta Dubois. I told him about the project and the agent told me that Dubois would not be available. He changed his mind when I told him that she would be on a panel with Champlin.

The last person I called was Desmond Nakano, who wrote the screenplay. He informed me that his father graduated from Roosevelt High School and agreed to speak to my class. The idea was for Champlin and Dubois to speak one day and Nakano the next day. I told my students, and they were excited to address their concerns to the speakers.

I met the film critic and the movie star in front of the school. There was electricity in the classroom as they sat down in front of my students. Marta Dubois spoke first and discussed her character in the movie without addressing the stereotypes. Champlain spoke next and said that ?Boulevard Nights" was a correct portrayal because there are gang members in East Los Angeles.

One of the first students to speak was Norma Acosta who had been very vocal in our discussions about the film. She had never heard of Champlain and told him how he was wrong about the film and East Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times critic seemed surprised by her comments, and I assumed that most people were not so direct with him. He responded to Norma and other students by reaffirming his belief about the themes in the film. During the discourse, Marta Dubois remained quiet. The next day we discussed the speakers, and they were disappointed that an important film critic knew very little about their community.

The last speaker was the screenwriter Desmond Nakano. He began his talk by telling us that his father graduated from the school and spent six months researching the movie by "hanging out" on Whittier Boulevard. He started off by telling the students that Boulevard Nights was a gang film! Nakano told us that if he had written an East Los Angeles love story, the studio would have moved the location to West Los Angeles with white actors.My students were all taken back by his honest comments.

The next day, I asked my students to write about what they had learned from this project. They wrote that they were now more critical of Latino films and of film critics. The students now understood the impact a movie has on people who don't know Latinos and East Los Angeles. I said to my students that the issues of stereotypes of Latinos and East Los Angeles are ongoing problems. They agreed and felt it was important to explain to people the realities of their lives.

Some of the important lessons of the project for me were to channel my student?s frustrations into constructive ways. It is always important to understand these complex issues in political terms. This project allowed my students to reaffirm their pride in their ethnic identity, their community, and create new avenues to be good critical thinkers. So many issues have changed in the last 25 years but it is important to understand and appreciate the recent past.
This essay is dedicated to all my former Roosevelt High School students.

About Howard Shorr:
Howard Shorr taught at Roosevelt High School during the 1970's/1980's. Howard Shorr now teaches at Portland (Oregon) Community College and be reached at:

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