The Curse of Zapata

His life would make a great movie, if only Hollywood could get over the fact he was Mexican

By Jesse Katz
Published on LatinoLA: November 21, 2002

The Curse of Zapata

The hero of the movie is Mexican. A real Mexican. Not the buffoonish, servile, talk-like-dees invention. Not even the exoticized, rico/suave, bonbon-shaking version. But a righteous and defiant Mexican. A short, brown, Indian-featured, cowboy-attired Mexican. With a paintbrush mustache, and a bullet-laden bandolier, and a thumb half lost to the rodeo. A badass Mexican.

His name is Zapata. He was a revolutionary -- not an intellectual or an ideologue but a horseman, a campesino, a man of the earth -- the first true populist warrior of the 20th century. His fight was over the cornfields of indigenous Mexico: a bloody, quixotic, agrarian revolt. He could not be defeated. He refused to be bought. He toppled a decade?s worth of presidents but wanted only to reclaim the land of his people, not to rule over them. The government finally resorted to betrayal; Zapata was tricked into an ambush.

A century later, Emiliano Zapata shares a pedestal with saints and virgins and plumed Aztec serpents, an almost celestial symbol of pride and resistance. A symbol for Los Angeles. This is, underneath the glitz, a Zapata city. He runs through L.A.?s veins, through its language, its rhythms, its history, its food. He is a validation of everything Mexican here, of a culture overshadowed not just by mainstream America but by sexier and hipper Latin images--the J.Los, the Ricky Martins. With his smoldering eyes and rakish smirk, Zapata is a mural, a shrine, a statue, a T-shirt, and a prison tattoo, the namesake of Mi General Zapata Bakery in East L.A. and the Viva Zapata Lock and Key Service in Pico-Union. His credo is recited like biblical verse: ?It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.?

Now Hollywood is embracing Zapata. He might even become a blockbuster. But only if the Industry can break free of his curse. The dream belongs to Gregory Nava, the torchbearer of Mexican American cinema. He wants to turn his lifelong idol into an action-adventure epic, one so inspiring that crowds from Canoga Park to Abu Dhabi will flock to see it, no matter what they know or care about the subject. Some of America?s finest storytellers have tried to do the same--Steinbeck, Kazan, Brando--only to be humbled by the task. Few stories, in fact, have so haunted Hollywood for so long; time and again Zapata has proved too mythic -- too Mexican --f or a business in which formula and expedience often trump art. Nava is different, a Latino filmmaker, bilingual, bicultural, raised on the border. From his poetic, Oscar-nominated breakout El Norte to his sugarcoated commercial triumph Selena, he has for two decades fought to make Latinos the stars of their own stories. Earlier this year on PBS, he broke new ground with American Family, the first dramatic series on broadcast TV with an all-Latino cast.

Nothing that Nava has done before, however, can compare to his ambitions for Zapata, a movie that he speaks of, in hopeful terms, as ?my masterpiece.? He has trekked to Mexico, to Zapata?s birthplace, to Zapata?s tomb. He has spent weeks, months, years now, trolling for his hero?s spirit. Still, the movie remains just a wish, not yet approved for production -- and indeed, it may never get made; his development deal is with Walt Disney Studios, a company as allergic to risk as any. Just to get in the door Nava needed a star, a leading man with looks and charisma, one bankable enough to guarantee bodies in seats. Before writing his script, before even making his pitch, he had found a name to assuage Disney: Hollywood?s favorite Latin lover, Antonio Banderas.

Banderas is perfect -- handsome, passionate, magnetic, comfortable in his own skin. Except for one thing: Banderas is not Mexican. He is not, for that matter, Latino, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. He is a Spaniard -- from Europe, the Old World, the land of Mexico?s conquerors.

[This excerpt is taken from a 7,000-word article in Los Angeles Magazine that explores both the history of Zapata in Hollywood and the entertainment industry's uncomfortable relationship with Mexico and Mexican culture. For the full text, please see the magazine's December 2002 issue at a newsstand, bookstore, supermarket rack or liquor store near you!]

Image: Alfredo Arregu?n
El Joven Zapata, 1995 (detail)
Oil on canvas, 28" x 22"

About Jesse Katz:
Jesse Katz has been a senior writer at Los Angeles Magazine since 2000. Previously, he spent 15 years at the Los Angeles Times.

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