Filming Pro-Patria: On the road from Los Angeles to Mexico City

By Jessica Kim, California State University Northridge

Jessica Kim is an assistant professor in the Department of History at California State University Northridge. The following post is drawn from research the author conducted for her forthcoming book, Made in Mexico: Los Angeles and Empire, 1865-1941, which is currently under review.  Part of the subject of this post, a highway built between Los Angeles and Mexico City, is also the focus of an article by the author, “Destiny of the West: The International Pacific Highway and the Pacific Borderlands, 1929-1957” which appeared in the Western Historical Quarterly in the autumn of 2015. For more information, visit Dr. Kim’s faculty page.

Borderlands are populated by brokers—the cultural, financial, and legal figures who mediate between states, communities, and institutions on two sides of a boundary.  In the 1930s, one of the more prominent of these cultural brokers was Mexican American actor and director Guillermo Calles, who directed and produced an early travelogue documenting his road trip from Los Angeles to Mexico City along the International Pacific Highway (IPH), a much-heralded transnational highway.  His film, Pro-Patria, documented Calles’ 1932 drive in his white Cadillac with his wife, Angelita, and his best friend and cinematographer.  Through the documentary, Calles hoped to introduce an Anglo American audience to his “beloved” Mexico.

Calles was part of a fascinating set of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who helped build a dense network of financial and cultural links between Los Angeles and Mexico in the first decades of the twentieth century.  They included lawyers, local policymakers, diplomats and their staff, translators, ranch managers, and other Mexican professionals who negotiated relationships between Americans and Mexicans in Los Angeles and Mexico.  In particular, they served as the intermediaries between Los Angeles-based investors, landowners, and policymakers, and Mexicans and the Mexican state, before, during and after the Mexican Revolution. Brokers also included cultural agents like Calles who sought to create a stronger and more egalitarian relationship between Angelenos, Mexicans, Americans, and the two neighboring nations.[1]

Calles was a true borderlander and quintessential Angeleno.  Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1890s, he spent most of his childhood in the mining towns of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands.  Like thousands of others, he felt the draw of Hollywood and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in the 1910s.  He landed parts in English-language films, generally playing the role of an American Indian, and used his initial success as an actor to propel himself into film production and directing.  By the 1920s, he was one of the leading Mexican Americans in Los Angeles’ thriving film industry and worked in both Spanish and English language films. [2]

In the early 1930s, Calles read press coverage of the highly publicized IPH, a thoroughfare connecting Los Angeles and Mexico City along the Pacific coastline.  A cohort of Los Angeles businessmen and Mexican policymakers launched the construction of the highway in 1929 to draw American tourists to Los Angeles and then to the Pacific coast of Mexico.  IPH promoters in Los Angeles hoped to capitalize on the tourist draw of their Spanish fantasy past as well as their proximity to the “real thing” in Mexico through the highway.  South of the border, Mexican governors recognized that Los Angeles’ love of the Spanish fantasy past intersected with a growing national attention to Mexico’s pre-Spanish roots and identity, or mexicanidad.  They hoped to use both to draw American tourists south of the border.[3]

Excited about this piece of transnational infrastructure and the opportunity to introduce an American audience to the beauty of Mexico, Calles decided to make a travel documentary about the highway project.  Like the many Mexican officials who supported the highway, Calles believed that the IPH could capitalize on Anglo Angelenos’ interest in Mexico to the benefit of the Mexican economy.  More specifically, he wanted to publicize the IPH in the hopes that it could draw tourist travel from Los Angeles into Mexico while also developing a greater American appreciation of their cross-border neighbors.  In a letter to the Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper, La Opinión, Calles reflected on these hopes: “I emphasized that my plan had been to present a film that could provide the best depiction of the highway, the building of which has been done with so much enthusiasm.  The film would show the lifestyle and customs of the regions that it crosses, together with relevant aspects of the economic and natural resources of the West Coast.”[4]  With more emotion he noted that he hoped the film would “reveal to the outside world the many beautiful aspects of our Mexico.”[5]  Calles was also likely responding to the xenophobic calls for the repatriation of Mexican nationals and the forced deportation of over one million Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in the 1930s.  His adopted hometown of Los Angeles was the epicenter of calls for deportation.

Against this backdrop of the violent removal of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Calles set out to promote a more positive image of his native country.  En route, Calles encountered many of the Mexican officials and brokers involved with the highway project, including Filiberto Gómez, governor of the State of Mexico.  Calles and Gómez discussed what they hoped the IPH, and Calles’ film, would bring Mexico.  Calles hoped that it would “generate new waves of tourism, awakening the interest of businessmen who want to contribute to the economic progress of Mexico…[and] help thousands who ignore us or have a false opinion of us, to make a better appraisal of the invaluable wealth of the country and of the culture of the Mexican people.”  Gómez replied, “Caramba!  Every so often our minds and souls get tired, but when someone speaks to us with the [sic] enthusiasm and faith as you have done, the spirit reacts and gives energy to our body once again.  Believe me, Calles, I am working tirelessly in order to finish as soon as possible a highway that would connect Los Angeles with Mexico, so that thousands of automobiles can travel with maximum security and comfort between both places.”[6]

After reaching Mexico City and having a meeting with Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio, Calles and his travel companions returned to Los Angeles.  Back in the Eastman studios, Calles edited the footage himself; his first cut was over eight thousand feet long, included some scenes in color, and was one of the first documentaries to feature sound.[7]  La Opinión, which had followed Calles’ trip with interest, continued its support of the film upon his return.  Editors updated readers on Calles’ progress on the film and promoted it when it debuted a Spanish language theater in Los Angeles, Teatro Mexico.  The packed theater held an audience of one thousand people, including Los Angeles Mayor John C. Porter and Mexican Consul Rafael de la Colina.  The paper’s film reviewer, Esteban V. Escalante, wrote that the film wiped out “the impression that other nations have of our ‘Mexican curios,’” and would “foster tourism in that land so full of color that is the West Coast of Mexico.”[8]  La Opinión also reported that Teatro Mexico sold more than five thousand tickets to Pro-Patria in the first week of its release.  As Escalante’s review and the sold-out theater reflected, Mexican Americans challenged Anglo American misconceptions of Mexico while simultaneously hoping that American fascination with Mexican history and culture could benefit contemporary Mexico.

Although Calles’ film generated interest on both sides of the border, from Los Angeles to Mexico City, the Depression limited the film’s release and curtailed Calles’ plan to translate the film’s narration into English.  After its release in Los Angeles in July 1932, Calles took the film to Mexico the following month.  On the way to Mexico City, he stopped in El Paso, Nogales, and Guadalajara, where he showed the film in more than ten borderlands theaters.[9]  Unfortunately, when Calles reached Mexico City, most theater owners were reluctant to exhibit Pro-Patria because it lacked distribution by a major studio.  Despite its limited commercial success, Calles’ efforts to make and distribute the film, as well as its warm reception by Mexican American audiences, reflect Mexican and Mexican American efforts to simultaneously capitalize Anglo American fascination with a romantic “Spanish” past while also reshaping their understandings of Mexico and Mexicans.  Well aware that Angelenos fetishized their region’s Mexican history, Calles hoped that he could exploit that interest to transform Anglo American perceptions of his native country from “curio” to neighbor.

Calles and his film also demonstrate the deep links between Los Angeles and Mexico in the first decades of the twentieth century.  As explored in more depth in my book project, a generation of Los Angeles city builders believed that investment in Mexico would transform their city into a global metropolis, and they partnered with brokers such as Calles to make this happen.  Angeleno and Mexican investors, boosters, diplomats, elected officials, workers, activists, lawyers, and journalists first forged and then negotiated the relationship between an urban core in Southern California and an imagined and real periphery that stretched across the border and deep into Mexico.

[1] In using the term “broker,” I borrow from Mae Ngai’s analysis of a prominent Chinese American family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.  See Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston, 2010).

[2] Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr., Guillermo Calles: A Biography of the Actor and Mexican Cinema Pioneer (Jefferson, NC, 2010).  On the history of film and the borderlands, see Laura Isabel Serna, “Cinema on the U.S.-Mexico Border: American Motion Pictures and Mexican Audiences, 1896-1930,” in Alex McCrossen, ed., Land of Necessity: Consumer Culture in the United States-Mexico Borderlands (Durham, 2009), 144.

[3] On the Spanish fantasy past, see Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City, 1973), William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley, 2004), and Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley, 2006); for more on borderlands tourism, see essays in McCrossen, Land of Necessity.  On mexicanidad and tourism, see Dennis Merrill, Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America (Chapel Hill, 2009) and Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, eds., Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters (Durham, 2010).

[4] Calles recounted the conversation in a subsequent letter to the editor of La OpinionLa Opinion, March 13, 1932, second edition, p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Unfortunately, there is only one known copy of Pro-Patria in existence, and it is held by a private collector and unavailable to scholars.

[8] Esteban V. Escalanate, “Pro-Patria,” La Opinion, July 7, 1932, p. 4.

[9] Agrasánchez, 100.

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