For as long as cinema has existed, Latinx and Hispanic artists and filmmakers have been part of it. Often regarded as Hollywood's first Latin and Hispanic movie star, Myrtle Gonzalez made a name for herself during the era of silent film, as did actors like Beatriz Michelena, Ramón Novarro, Dolores del Río, and Lupe Velez. In the decades to follow, in front of and behind the camera, Latinx and Hispanic talent fought to overcome stereotypes, to find opportunity, to have their voices heard, their faces seen, and their cinema reflect their truth.
In 1951, José Ferrer, who hails from Puerto Rico, became the first Latino actor to win an Oscar when he won Best Actor for Cyrano de Bergerac. (He'd previously been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 1948's Joan of Arc.) "You must know this means more to me than just the honor accorded to an actor," Ferrer said in his acceptance speech.
In 1962, Rita Moreno made history of her own, winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in West Side Story. "I can't believe it!" she said onstage. Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón became the first to win Best Director with 2013's Gravity, with Alejandro G. Iñárritu winning in both 2014 and 2015 for Birdman and The Revenant, respectively. When Birdman won Best Picture, Iñárritu became the first Latino filmmaker to do so. As far as the Oscars go, milestones have also been made by the likes of Benicio del Toro, Guillermo del Toro, Andy Garcia, Salma Hayek, Edward James Olmos, Anthony Quinn, Ariana DeBose, and more.
Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month, which is celebrated annually from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, spotlights the indelible contributions made by Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Through film, Latinx and Hispanic filmmakers have shone a light on their rich cultures, depicted their distinctive upbringings, taken audiences on unique adventures, and told important stories of love, perseverance and redemption.
Below, A.frame and Academy members from the Latino/a Affinity Group selected a list of essential films to watch to commemorate Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month.
Stand and Deliver
Edward James Olmos shines while giving the performance of a lifetime as high school teacher Jaime Escalante. Directed by Ramón Menéndez, this inspiring true story follows the East Los Angeles math teacher who helps his Latinx students excel in academics by teaching them calculus and numerous life lessons. For his powerful performance, Olmos received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Y tu mamá también
This Mexican drama from four-time Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón stars Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal as teenage best friends who go on a road trip with a woman in her late twenties by the name of Luisa (Maribel Verdú). While traveling, the boys become incredibly attracted to Luisa and each attempt to win her over, changing their friendship forever. Cuarón, who wrote the script with brother Carlos Cuarón, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Salma Hayek stars as iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in this romantic biographical drama. Directed by Julie Taymor, the film showcases the artist, the accident that forever changed her life, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband (Alfred Molina). The film also explores how her views on politics and sex inspired her work. Co-starring Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd, Diego Luna, Geoffrey Rush and Edward Norton, Frida received six nominations at the 75th Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Hayek, and ultimately won two Oscars (Best Original Score and Best Makeup).
Real Women Have Curves
Making her feature film debut, America Ferrera stars as Ana García, an 18-year-old growing up in East Los Angeles. While Ana dreams of going off to college, her mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), wants Ana to work in the family’s textile factory and to help improve their financial situation. Ana is torn between her personal aspirations and her family obligations. George Lopez, Jorge Cervera Jr. and Ingrid Oliu co-star in the Patricia Cardoso-directed drama. In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Directed by Oscar winner Pedro Almodóvar (Hable con ella), the darkly funny melodrama tells the story of three generations of women in Madrid: Raimunda (Oscar winner Penélope Cruz) is a single mother after her 14-year-old daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), kills her no-good father. Meanwhile, Raimunda's mother, Irene (Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura), returns from the dead to resolve some unfinished business. ("Volver" translates as "to return.")
Cruz was Oscar-nominated for her performance, which is widely considered to be one of the best performances of her illustrious career. She became the first Spanish woman ever nominated for Best Actress.
A Better Life
This drama shows what many immigrants will do to give their families a better life. Demián Bichir stars as single father Carlos Galindo, an undocumented emigrant from Mexico living in East L.A. and working as a gardener, doing what he can to keep his son (played by José Julián) away from gangs and immigration agents. When Carlos' truck — and with it, his means of living — is stolen, father and son set out to find it. Oscar nominee Chris Weitz (About a Boy) directs from a screenplay by Eric Eason, with Bichir receiving a Best Actor nomination at the 84th Academy Awards for his heartfelt and heart-wrenching performance.
Instructions Not Included
For his feature directorial debut, Eugenio Derbez also co-wrote, produced, and starred in this dramedy as Valentín Bravo, a bachelor playboy who discovers he is a father when a former fling abandons their daughter on his doorstep. Six years later, he is working as a Hollywood stuntman and writing letters to his daughter, pretending to be her birth mom. But their lives are turned upside down when her mom actually resurfaces. Instructions Not Included made history by becoming the highest-grossing Mexican film of all time.
There's no understating the impact that Mario Moreno, better known by his stage name Cantinflas, had on Mexican cinema and pop culture at large. This biopic looks back on the actor and comedy icon's life, from humble origins to international fame as one of the stars of Around the World in 80 Days, which won Best Picture at the 29th Academy Awards (in addition to winning Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and receiving nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Best Costume Design).
Directed by Sebastián del Amo, Cantinflas stars Óscar Jaenada in the title role, alongside Michael Imperioli as Around the World in 80 Days producer Mike Todd, Pedro De Tavira as Oscar-winning actor David Niven, and Ilse Salas as Moreno's wife, Valentina Ivanova Zuvareff. (Cantinflas was chosen by Mexico as its official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.)
The life of the iconic civil rights activist and labor organizer is portrayed in this eponymous biopic. Michael Peña portrays Cesar Chavez, as he organizes farm workers in California to fight for better working conditions. America Ferrera co-stars as Chavez's wife, Helen, alongside Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Chavez, and Oscar nominee John Malkovich as Bogdanovich Senior, an industrial grape farm owner who opposes Chavez’s efforts. The film hails from Diego Luna, who directs from a script by Oscar-nominated screenwriters Timothy J. Sexton (Children of Men) and Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda).
Set in Havana, Cuba, Viva follows a young hairdresser, Jesus (Héctor Medina), who dreams of being a drag performer. With a bit of help from his drag Mama (Luis Alberto García), he finally takes the stage as Viva. But when his estranged father returns, the two struggle with the expectations that they have of one another, in a feel-good melodrama about gender, identity, and family. Directed by Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach from a screenplay by Irish screenwriter Mark O'Halloran, the Spanish-language drama was selected as Ireland's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) gets Pixar-ified in this animated adventure following one young boy into the Land of the Dead. Despite his family's ban on music, Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), dreams of becoming a great musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). When a mishap with a magical guitar transports him to the afterlife, he teams up with the charming trickster, Héctor (Gael García Bernal), to meet de la Cruz, but instead learns a lesson about the power of family.
From Lee Unkrich, the Oscar-winning directed of Toy Story 3, and co-directed by Adrian Molina, Coco won two Oscars, for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song for Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez's "Remember Me."
Roma is a semi-autobiographical look at filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón's childhood growing up in Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City, in the early '70s. The black-and-white drama centers around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio in her film debut), an indigenous live-in maid for an upper-middle class family who discovers she is pregnant. Marina de Tavira co-stars as Sofía, the matriarch of the family that Cleo works for.
Roma received 10 nominations at the 91st Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress for Aparicio, and Best Supporting Actress for de Tavira. It ultimately won three Oscars, making history as the first Mexican entry to win Best Foreign Language Film, the first Best Director winner to win for a foreign language film, and the first time that a director won Best Cinematography for their own film.
Ya no estoy aquí
Ya no estoy aquí, or I'm No Longer Here, is writer and director Fernando Frías' stylish yet thoughtful take on the immigrant drama, set to a soundtrack of cumbia music. In Monterrey, Mexico, 17-year-old Ulises (Juan Daniel García Treviño) is thriving as the leader of his dance crew, but when a run-in with the local cartel forces him to flee to the States, he faces a new but also hostile environment in Queens, New York City. Frías received a nomination for Outstanding First-Time Feature Film at the Directors Guild of America Awards, and Ya no estoy aquí was shortlisted as Mexico's official Oscars entry.
Walt Disney Animation Studios' Encanto centers around the extraordinary Madrigal family, who live in a magical casita in Colombia and each possess a unique and special power — except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz). But when the Madrigal's magic begins to fade and their home begins to crumble, Mirabel is the only one who can save them all. The Latinx voice cast also includes María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero, Maluma, and John Leguizamo as Bruno.
Encanto features original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, including the chart-topping "We Don't Talk About Bruno" and "Dos Oruguitas," which was nominated for Best Original Song. Encanto received two additional Oscar nominations: Best Original Score and Best Animated Feature Film, ultimately winning the latter.
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg's reimagining of the 1957 stage musical and Oscar-winning 1961 film adaptation returned the saga of the Jets and the Sharks to the big screen. Colombian-American newcomer Rachel Zegler made her film debut as Maria, opposite Ansel Elgort as Tony. Rita Moreno, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Anita in the original film, co-stars in the new version as Valentina, a new spin on the Doc character.
West Side Story received seven nominations at the 94th Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Following in Moreno's footsteps, Ariana DeBose won Best Supporting Actress for her own performance as Anita, becoming the first openly-queer Afro-Latina woman to do so.
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
In Bardo, four-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman and The Revenant) gets contemplative about his own auteurhood. His cinematic stand-in is Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a renowned filmmaker who returns home to Mexico City after winning a prestigious award. As he's rediscovering the country he once called home and being confronted with his own past, he finds himself pushed to his existential limit. The film marked Iñárritu's first film to be shot in Mexico since his feature debut, 2000's Amores perros (which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). Bardo received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography at the 95th Academy Awards.
Jonás Cuarón — who wrote Gravity with his Oscar-winning filmmaker father, Alfonso Cuarón — was inspired by seminal Amblin films of the '80s, including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies, to make Chupa. "When you get to see magic on-screen as a kid, it helps you believe that there's magic out there. But the contexts were rarely my own context," he told A.frame. "In Chupa, it was exciting to be able to do the same but in a Mexican context."
The heartwarming family adventure follows 13-year-old Alex as he travels back to Mexico to reconnect with his extended family, including his retired luchador grandfather (played by Oscar nominee Demián Bichir). There, Alex befriends the mythical Chupacabra living in his abuelo's shed.
Eva Longoria directs the true story — at least, according to Richard Montañez — of how he went from Frito-Lay janitor to the inventor of the titular spicy Cheeto. Scripted by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, Flamin' Hot reveals how Richard (played by Jesse Garcia) revolutionized the snack food industry by embracing his Chicano roots. Annie Gonzalez co-stars as his wife, Judy. The movie premiered at SXSW, where it won the festival's Headliners Audience Award.
"I always set out to do the true story of Richard Montañez, not the history of the Flamin' Hot Cheeto," Longoria told A.frame. "That's why the movie is about his life — about obstacles he's overcome, about his childhood, about his relationship with his dad, about this love story between Richard and Judy."
A.frame is excited to celebrate Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month with curated watchlists, exclusive interviews, and more. To view all of our coverage, visit our Latinx hub.