'Chulas Fronteras': Film Review

Courtesy of Argot Pictures/Les Blank Films
Indispensable, then and now.
6/28/2019

Les Blank's transporting 1976 portrait of life on the Mexico/Texas border finally gets a proper theatrical release.

Documentarian Les Blank left an irreplaceable filmography when he died in 2013 — from interviews with bluesmen and celebrations of working-class cuisine to the immortal Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. But few of his docs are as obviously ripe for rediscovery as 1976's Chulas Fronteras, a chronicle of Mex-Tex culture that reminds one of a time when it was possible to think of the Mexican border without wanting to punch many of your fellow Americans in the face.

Drawing connections between music, cooking and daily life in Blank's signature fashion, the film is warm-hearted without ignoring the troubles immigrants have always endured. Finally getting its first New York theatrical booking after a lovely 4K restoration (other cities will see it soon), the featurette is paired with Del Mero Corazon, a complementary mini-doc co-directed by Blank's longtime collaborator Maureen Gosling.

Those hoping for a scholarly tour guide should look elsewhere — perhaps to the rich liner notes of compilations on Arhoolie Records, whose founder Chris Strachwitz, another crucial roots-music preservationist, is this film's producer. (The reissue's credits call this a "Les Blank film," but list Strachwitz as a co-director.) As usual, Blank prefers to hang out and observe, letting subjects speak for themselves.

So as, say, the late guitarist/singer Lydia Mendoza recalls the start of her career (in the 1920s, singing with her mother), we watch her in the kitchen, elbow-deep in a pot of chopped meat. The film enjoys seeing how Mendoza's tamales get made as much as it appreciates the efficiency with which farmworkers snip the roots off onions, or — in a scene to make today's vinyl fetishists swoon — observes how a San Antonio entrepreneur presses his own LPs in a garage-sized record plant.

In interviews and/or performance clips shot at small gatherings, we hang out with Tex-Mex and Norteno musicians both known to English speakers (Flaco Jimenez) and not (Ramiro Cavazos of El Conjunto Tamaulipas). In cases like that of Narciso Martinez, the accordionist known as the "Hurricane of the Valley," it's likely that English-speaking viewers will only have heard of him thanks to Blank's and Strachwitz's championing of his music. (Arhoolie reissued his early recordings decades ago; thanks to a deal with Smithsonian Folkways, the music remains available digitally today.)

Martinez also made Cajun and polka records during his career; though it doesn't point this out, the doc doesn't try to hide the way genres overlap in places where different immigrant populations mix. One interviewee admits of the polkas beloved along the Texas/Mexico border, "really they are German polkas." "But we give it a little different taste," he adds — a defense that won't be necessary for most viewers here.

In a string of transporting performances, always with lyrics translated in the subtitles, we hear polkas, ballads and love songs that cover the range of this community's experience. A woman angrily calls out the "mal hombre" who took her innocence; a truck driver boasts of women in every pit-stop town; the witness to "a bloody event" in 1967 recalls how farmworkers were "brutally beaten by murderous Rangers" sent by Texas Gov. John Connally.

Though the film's overall tone is strongly upbeat, generally focusing on the hope and prosperity represented by the border, it contains moments of defiance: Singers praise Cesar Chavez, assert their Chicano pride, or speak of their hybrid identity in songs one wishes could be piped into the halls of the White House and Fox News. "Mexican by ancestry / American by destiny / I am of the golden people," sing Los Pinguinos Del Norte. "Yo soy mexicoamericano."

While Blank focuses on individual faces of young people around them, the men sing of the uncommon gift of having two languages, two countries, two cultures, and conclude, "I am proud because that is how God wants it."

Production companies: Brazos Films, Les Blank Films
Distributor: Argot Pictures
Director-director of photography-editor: Les Blank
Producer/co-director: Chris Strachwitz
Executive producer: Harrod Blank

In English, Spanish
59 minutes