Mexican American and Chicano Movies of the 1980s: From “Zoot Suit” to “Stand and Deliver”

Four of the most important and influential Mexican American and Latinx movies came out in the 1980s. The movies “Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba,” “Stand and Deliver,” and “Born in East L.A.” captured life in the San Fernando Valley and the rest of Greater Los Angeles, California.

The 1980s especially witnessed the rise of movies that explored the Mexican American and Latinx experience. And in some cases, they explored what happened in the decades before. 

Currently, three of those four movies are part of the National Film Registry. As of now, the only exception is “Born in East L.A.”

Mexican American movies are also commonly known as Chicano movies. Regardless, the films of the 1980s most adequately captured both Chicanx and Mexican American life in the 1980s and the Pachuco experience during the 1940s.  

“Zoot Suit” (1981)

The first Mexican American movie released in the 1980s was “Zoot Suit.” The musical drama came out in 1981. Luis Valdez wrote and directed “Zoot Suit.” Later in the decade, he also directed another popular Mexican American movie.

Edward James Olmos and Daniel Valdez starred in “Zoot Suit.” In the movie, Olmos plays a pale, frail-looking Pachuco whose name is, quite literally, El Pachuco. Daniel Valdez, who is Luis Valdez’s brother, plays Henry Reyna.

As narrator, Olmos spends the entire movie following the real-life events and people affected by the Sleepy Lagoon murder, the subsequent trial, and the Zoot Suit riots in the early 1940s. 

The musical “Zoot Suit” is set in and around East Los Angeles. Although, it’s curious to look back and think that the first mainstream 1980s movie about Mexican Americans was a musical. But it’s an excellent musical. The soundtrack aids the story. The catchy and emotional songs add to the story’s pathos while avoiding being the primary way the story is told.

More movies made their way into the theaters and drive-ins over the next few years. In between, Olmos appeared in a couple of movies, including “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and “Blade Runner.” Conversely, in comedy, Cheech Marin, who often appeared on screen in Pachuco attire, and Tommy Chong continued to release more classic stoner films.

“La Bamba” and “Born in East L.A.” (1987)

Then, in January 1987, the popularity of Mexican American movies shifted with “La Bamba.” A young up-and-coming Lou Diamond Phillips portrayed Ritchie Valens. In the 2000s, Phillips later appeared in the TV series “Geroge Lopez.”

“La Bamba,” notably, was also directed and written by Luis Valdez. His brother, Daniel Valdez, also appears in the film.

The same year, Marin strayed away from his comedy partnership with Chong. Marin’s own comedy movie, “Born in East L.A.,” departed from the San Fernando Valley featured in “La Bamba” and returned to East Los Angeles.

Marin’s “Born in East L.A.” continued to feature familiar faces, including Alma Martinez, who appeared in “Zoot Suit.” Martinez most recently appeared in Netflix’s “Gentefied.”

After “Born in East L.A.,” Mexican American movies again started moving back to the Mexican American experience in and around East Los Angeles, something that “Zoot Suit” first offered us a heavy and emotional glimpse of in 1981.

While “La Bamba” might have helped garner more attention to Mexican American movies across the US, it was after “Born in East L.A.” that more movies really began to depict a more familiar, true-to-life experience that is still largely relatable. 

But we still get a little bit of an homage to Valens and “La Bamba” in “Born in East L.A.” And naturally, it’s Daniel Valdez who mistakes “Twist & Shout” for “La Bamba” in the movie.

“Stand and Deliver” (1988)

To cap the decade, in 1988, “Stand and Deliver” offered a completely different story than “Zoot Suit,” the Mexican American movie that started off the decade. 

Olmos and Phillips brought their talents and fame together to tell a real-life story about the discrimination and ultimate success of Latin American high school students in East Los Angeles in 1984. 

In “Stand and Deliver,” Olmos plays the real-life, Bolivian-born Garfield High School teacher Jaime Escalante. Phillips takes on a crucial supporting role as Angel Guzman. In addition, Rosanna DeSoto, who portrays Valens’ mother in “La Bamba,” plays Escalante’s wife in “Stand and Deliver.”

During the late 1960s, Garfield High School was one of the schools that Chicanx and Mexican American students walked out from in protest. Olmos later directed the 2006 movie “Walkout” about the East Los Angeles Walkouts.

Recurring Faces and Real Life in Mexican-American Movies of the 1980s

Many of the same actors appear in the four main Mexican American movies of the 1980s. Olmos, Phillips, DeSoto, Martinez, and Daniel Valdez all appeared in at least two of the films. 

But beyond featuring some relatable and recurring faces on camera, three of the movies, “Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba,” and “Stand and Deliver,” all tackle real-life events. They all shed light on and manage to capture the emotion of each real-life situation. 

From the sad tales in “Zoot Suit,” a movie that shows characters suffering the consequences of the perspective white America has of them. To “Stand and Deliver,” a story and film about students getting ahead despite the world being against them. 

And somewhere in the middle, “La Bamba” and “Born in East L.A.” capture the duality of success and failure among Latin Americans in Los Angeles. 

In one case, Valens realizes the American Dream as a famous rock star in the 1950s. In complete contrast, Marin’s character shows the grittier side of life for Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Latin Americans in the US through a story about deportation.