Latino Movies: 20 Essential Films Since 2000

Hollywood still doesn’t get it.

Latinos are not a monolith. The context, details and nuances that go into telling the story of a family in Mexico City won’t be the same for the story of a family in Los Angeles, which would in turn differ for one in Miami. American-born or -raised Latinos have unique life experiences, straddling the line between assimilation and pride in their heritage, which the big studios frequently fail to acknowledge. Such movies do exist, though often on the periphery. And they’re worth seeking out to help foster conversations about the intricacies of Latinidad. That’s why, as we observe National Hispanic Heritage Month, I’ve put together a list of must-watch films centered on American Latino protagonists.

Why is such a specific list necessary?

Largely untold in mass media or classrooms, the history of Latinos in the United States is long, winding and impossible to dissect in simple terms. Shaped by arbitrary borders in the aftermath of wars, colonization and waves of migration from nearly two dozen nations across the Americas, our presence is intrinsic to this country. Yet, American Latinos remain mostly invisible in our collective narrative, a narrative that very much includes the images we consume.

We do get plenty of movies about Latino experiences, just not American ones. Every year festivals and theaters screen numerous films from Mexico and South America. Then there’s the work of the Three Amigos, the gifted Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, who tell lavish stories with great universality that we can all enjoy. The same can be said of Pixar’s “Coco,” the 2017 hit set in a small Mexico town with Mexican characters. American Latinos can see themselves and their families in it because of our inherent connections, of course.

But border-crossing stories or those set in Latin America don’t fill the void created by the lack of American Latino narratives. They don’t reflect the lives of, say, Chicanos in California, Tejanos in rural Texas or Nuyoricans in the Bronx — specific identities that have faced oppression in the United States. Instead, the entertainment industry desperately tries to fit all Latinos under one label, devoid of nuance, often erasing Afro-Latinos and Indigenous peoples.

Ideally more movies would address the breadth of Latino experience, whether immigrant or born and raised here, Spanish speaker or English only. It’s not the Three Amigos’ personal responsibility to tap into those narratives, but the deserved success of Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro hasn’t translated into more access for American Latinos.

Not only are roles and productions centered on American Latinos scarce, but those that do exist rarely receive proper recognition. The last American Latino star to be nominated for an Academy Award was Benicio Del Toro for “21 Grams” (2003). No American Latinos have ever been nominated for best director. The Criterion Collection, the curated Blu-ray/DVD archive of acclaimed films, features only one with an American Latino protagonist (“The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” by Robert M. Young). The sole American Latino filmmaker included, Gregory Nava, made it in for a film about Guatemalan migrants (“El Norte”).

There are, of course, landmark cultural artifacts that have afforded American Latinos a few opportunities to see themselves onscreen, even if some of these movies are not included in the mainstream canon: seminal works by Nava (“Selena,” “My Family”) and Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba”), or those starring the likes of Edward James Olmos (“Stand and Deliver”) or Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”).

Thankfully, over the last two decades, a new generation of storytellers and actors has emerged and added contributions to this alternative canon.

The list below is not comprehensive but a primer, a collection of some of the most artistically remarkable or culturally significant stories centered on American Latino protagonists to hit screens since the year 2000, whether directed by Latinos or non-Latinos.

As a Latino film critic in a field that is largely white, I put this list together with the goal of presenting a mosaic of realities. I sought out films that represented the American Latino experience with complexity rather than stereotypes, that provided a deeper understanding. The vast majority of these choices had a prominent festival presence and received great critical reception. Yes, it’s still rare to see such stories at major film festivals, and so titles that managed that feat — like the Sundance selection “The Infiltrators,” a formally inventive indie that highlights young undocumented people for whom this country is the only home they’ve ever known — stood out.

There were other considerations. In some cases, as with “Spy Kids,” they are rare examples of box-office success and recognition among mainstream audiences. I also took into account that when we talk about American Latinos, Mexican-American stories dominate, so I tried to include movies from other points of views. And a handful of these choices deal with the intersection of Latino and LGBTQ identities, which I believe is also very important. (The ability to watch these films now was also crucial, and several standout titles, like the indie drama “Manito,” weren’t available to stream. That must change.)

Many documentaries made the list — a mode that has been especially accessible for American Latino directors over the years. Three are portraits of emblematic figures, some examine how the justice system fails marginalized individuals, and one takes on the intricacies of Puerto Rican perspectives. A handful are intergenerational stories about the clash between old conventions and modern points of view, others speak to the relationship between immigrant parents and their American-born children.

What all the movies on this list share on an ideological level is a focus on identity that’s not Latin American but neither conventionally American as defined by Hollywood. That they are truly American stories — accentuated by the beauty and in many cases the trauma of our ancestry — makes them invaluable.


First-person accounts explore the legacy of the Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado.

This documentary features interviews with American Latinos who found a connection to their heritage in Mercado’s ubiquitous presence on Spanish-language television for several decades; at his peak, he had a viewership of more than 120 million. But while the astrologer’s cultural stature was obvious to the directors, Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, persuading non-Latino executives to make the film proved an uphill battle. It wasn’t until Lin-Manuel Miranda came on board for a touching encounter with Mercado featured prominently in the film, that others started to pay attention. At every step of the way, having other Latinos on their side in rooms where decisions were made was crucial. “As U.S. Latinos we are often considered too ‘foreign’ to be American and too American to be truly Latino,” Costantini and Tabsch said by email. “Walter managed to be a cultural bridge by entrancing our Spanish-speaking abuelitas [grandmothers] with words of inspiration while mesmerizing English-dominant millennials with a bold, unapologetic image that defied notions of gender and sexuality.”


Rudy Valdez, director: When I started this film, I have to be honest; I was stuck in the thinking that people from nonwhite backgrounds needed “saving.” I probably thought this way because it was all I had seen in movies and in documentaries growing up. What began as a personal story about my family grew to become much bigger. The critical need for it became clear and I made the exact thing I needed to see when I was a kid. So often other-ized communities like mine are demonized. I wanted to humanize us. People who look like me can be heroes in our own stories, the authors of our own narratives. We are a part of the fabric of this country. People who look like me can be emblematic of what it means to be American.


Raúl Castillo: If I can highlight one theme in “We the Animals” that, to me, embodies Latinos in this country, it would have to be the story of the resilience of the human spirit. We are a resilient people and that shows itself in the family of this film and in the character of Jonah, specifically. How vehemently we have been attacked and vilified in recent years and yet we still rise. That, to me, is the story of the Latino family in this country. Justin Torres gave us a great gift with his story about a young, brown queer boy’s coming-of-age.


Cecilia Aldarondo, director: There are parallels between my own experience and that of my uncle, even though he was raised in Puerto Rico and I was not, because to be Puerto Rican is to exist in a state of tremendous ambivalence vis-à-vis the idea of America. While some Puerto Ricans strongly identify as Americans, there are a lot of us who feel alienated from that category. Our American citizenship was forced upon us by colonialist practices; it’s not a choice. My uncle’s story is a Puerto Rican story that is inflected by American colonialist practices. The first time I ever heard my uncle speak in English was when I was making the film and I found a recording of him. I was so shocked because he had lived his whole life in Puerto Rico, and yet he spoke perfect English. There was a kind of convergence of different identities intersecting.


In San Francisco, a stubborn father struggles to find common ground with his gay son.

Benjamin Bratt, star: The sad reality is that we have largely been exoticized in American films, purposely “othered” as a foreign entity or an encroaching source of menace. Which is bitterly ironic, because in terms of geography and history, our people were here long before the West and Southwest became part of the United States. In the film, we celebrate that history with the recognition of our Indigenous roots; from the Aztec dancers and public murals, to the ceremonies and spiritual iconography that help define who we are. Added to that, the Chicano car culture originated as a uniquely American phenomenon. When white hot-rodders were jacking up their cars to go fast, homeboys were dropping their rides low, and slowing things down — a quintessentially countercultural move if ever there was one. And you can’t cruise without good music, so Motown and other Black American music became the soundtrack of choice. Cars, cruising, and oldies, man: what’s more American than that?


Emily Rios, star: What makes America great is its diversity. Most people are rooted somewhere else, but have their feet planted here. I love that the character I played, Magdalena, was the same. She was born here but still carried on her family’s traditions by celebrating a Quinceañera, as opposed to a Sweet 16. Filming “Quinceañera” was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a family-oriented set. It felt warm and homey. I think a lot of us were grateful that we were showcasing American-born Latinos as just people while tying in our culture and traditions. But really, we were just telling a story about a complicated family. Our heritage was almost incidental, yet valued, because of the lack of representation in the media at that time.


Victor Rasuk, star: When someone says they recognize me from “Raising Victor Vargas” I can tell by the way they react that it meant something more to them than just watching a film — especially for Latinos. What makes it so special is that you rarely see an American story where the leads are all Hispanic. And yet people from any ethnic background can find it relatable, as it hits on important universal themes such as family and love. For me, it was really nice to be able to tell a story about the neighborhood where my friends and I grew up, where we all learned about the world, where we had our first love, our first kiss, our first heartbreak. The film is so close to my heart that it’s sort of bittersweet to watch it now, because there was a sense of innocence in my personal life as well as in my craft; it has some of the purest acting I’ve ever done in my career.


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