‘Bordertown’ to ‘Bordertown, ‘ this Mexican writer’s journey by means of Hollywood


Display screen misrepresentation of Mexicans isn’t just a longstanding wrong; it’s an original sin. And it has an unsurprising Adam: D. T. Griffith.

He’s most infamous regarding reawakening the Ku Klux Klan with his 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation. ” Far less analyzed is how Griffith’s first works also helped provide American filmmakers a language with which to typecast Mexicans.

Two associated with his first six movies were so-called “greaser” movies, one-reelers where Mexican Us citizens were racialized as inherently criminal and played simply by white people (a third flick replaced Mexican bandits with Spanish ones). Their 1908 effort “The Greaser’s Gauntlet” is the earliest film to use the slur in the title. Griffith filmed at least eight greaser movies for the East Coast before going to Southern California in early 1910 for better weather.

The new setting permitted Griffith to double upon his Mexican obsession. He or she used the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano tasks as backdrops for melodramas embossed with the Spanish Imagination Heritage, the white Ca myth that romanticized the state’s Mexican past even as it discriminated against the Mexicans of the present.


In films such as his 1910 shorts “The Thread of Destiny, ” “In Old California” (the first movie shot in what would become Hollywood) plus “The Two Brothers, ” Griffith codified cinematic Mexican characters and themes that will persist. The reprobate father. The saintly mother. The particular wayward son. The idea that Mexicans are forever doomed since they’re, well, Mexicans.

Griffith based his plots not on how modern-day Mexicans actually lived, but instead on how white people thought they did. This presumption nearly earned Griffith the beating from angry Latinos.

As explained in Robert M. Henderson’s 1970 book “D. W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph, ” the movie director was staging a spiritual procession in San Juan Capistrano for “The Two Brothers” when a large audience “suddenly broke and hurried the actors” because they was feeling the scene mocked them. The company rushed to their hotel where the townspeople waited outside for hours. Only the intercession from the Spanish-speaking hotel owner ended a certain riot. It was perhaps the earliest Latino protest against negative depictions of them at the big screen.

However the threat of angry Mexicans didn’t kill greaser movies. Griffith showed the box-office potential of the genre, and many American cinematic pioneers dabbled in them. Thomas Edison’s company shot some, as did its biggest rival, Vitagraph Studios. So did Shared Film, an early home for the purpose of Charlie Chaplin. Horror story Lon Chaney played the greaser. The first western superstar, Broncho Billy Anderson , made a profession out of besting them.

These films had been so noxious that the Philippine government in 1922 prohibited studios that produced all of them from the country until they “retired… denigrating films through worldwide circulation, ” according to a letter that Philippine President Álvaro Obregón had written to his Secretariat associated with External Relations. The gambit worked: the greaser films ended. Screenwriters instead reimagined Mexicans as Latin fans, Mexican spitfires, buffoons, peons, mere bandits and other poor stereotypes.

That’s why “Bordertown” surprised me personally when I finally saw it. The Warner Bros. film, starring Paul Muni as an Eastside lawyer named Ashton Ramirez and Bette Davis as the temptress whom he spurns, was popular when released. Today, it’s nearly impossible to see outside of a hard-to-find DVD and an occasional Muni marathon on Turner Traditional Movies.

Based on a novel of the same name, it’s not the racist travesty many Chicano film scholars have made it out to be. Yes, Muni was obviously a non-Mexican playing a Mexican. Johnny Ramirez had a fiery temper, a bad accent plus repeatedly called his mom (played by Spanish actress Soledad Jiminez ) “mamacita, ” who in turn phone calls him “Juanito. ” The infamous, incredulous ending offers Ramirez suddenly realizing the particular vacuity of his fast, fun life and time for the Eastside “back exactly where I belong… with my own people. ” And the film’s poster features a bug-eyed, sombrero-wearing Muni pawing an attractive Davis, even though Ramirez never made a move on Davis’ character or wore a sombrero.

These and other faux pas (like Ramirez’s friends singing “La Cucaracha” at a party) discompose from a movie that did not try to mask the splendour Mexicans faced in 1930s Los Angeles. Ramirez can’t find justice for his neighbors, who lost his create truck after a drunk socialite on her way back from supper at Las Golondrinas on Olvera Street smashed into it. That very socialite, whom Ramirez goes on to date (don’t ask), repeatedly calls him “Savage” as a term of endearment. When Ramirez auto tires of American bigotry plus announces he’s moving south of the border to run a casino, a priest in brownface asks him to stay.

“For exactly what? ” Ramirez replies. “So those white little mugs who call themselves guys and aristocrats can make a mislead out of me? ”

“Bordertown” sprung up from Warner Bros. ’ Depression-era roster of social-problem films that served being a rough-edged alternative to the fantasy offered by MGM, Disney and Paramount. But its makers dedicated the same error Griffith do: They fell back on tropes instead of talking to Mexicans right in front of them that might offer a better story.


Simply take the first shot of “Bordertown, ” the one I accidentally recreated on my television shoot.

Under a title that reads “Los Angeles … the Mexican Quarter, ” viewers see Olvera Street’s plaza emptier than it should be. That’s mainly because just four years earlier, immigration officials rounded up hundreds of people at that very place . The move has been part of a repatriation effort by the American government that saw them boot in regards to a million Mexicans — citizens and not — from the United States during the 1930s.

Following that opening chance is a brief glimpse of a theater marquee that advertises a Mexican music trio called Los Madrugadores (“The Early Risers”). They were the most famous Spanish-language group in The southern area of California at the time, singing traditional corridos but also ballads about the struggles Mexicans faced in the United States. Lead singer Pedro J. González hosted a popular AM radio morning show heard as far away as Tx that mixed music plus denunciations against racism.

By the time “Bordertown” was released in 1935, Gonzalez was in San Quentin, jailed by a false accusation of statutory rape pursued by an T. A. district attorney’s office happy to lock up a critic. He was freed inside 1940 after the alleged sufferer recanted her confession, after that summarily deported to Tijuana, where Gonzalez continued his career before returning to California in the 1970s.

Doesn’t Gonzalez and his occasions make a better movie than “Bordertown”? Warner Bros. could have offered a bold corrective to the image of Mexican Us citizens if they had just paid attention to their own footage! Instead, Gonzalez’s saga wouldn’t be told on film until a 1984 documentary and 1988 drama .

Both were photo in San Diego. Both received only limited screenings on theaters across the American South west and an airing in PBS before going on video. No streamer carries this.