A Film About Mexican-American Heritage from the Archives

Ricardo Montalban in his role as Mr. Roarke on the series Fantasy Island, 1977.

Old educational films can give us a glimpse into how average Americans were being taught about pivotal moments in our nation’s history. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we want to highlight one such educational film from 1971, The Mexican-American: Heritage and DestinyCreated in the midst of the Chicano and Mexican-American Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and 70s (the prominent civil rights organization the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had been founded in 1968, just a few years before), this film emphasizes the proud heritage of Mexican-Americans and their contributions to the United States, beginning before the nation’s formation and continuing to the present day.

The film was produced by the Handel Film Corporation, which produced over 150 educational films, and features narration by the famous Mexican-American actor, Ricardo Montalban, who had only a year before formed his Nosotros Foundation to advocate for the rights of Mexican-Americans in the film and television industry.

Summary of the Film

Although the film is a well-meaning effort to promote Mexican-American heritage in schools, it is a product of its time and does engage in some negative stereotypes in its beginning scene as it follows a Mexican-American student named Roberto on his way home from school. Roberto names several of his friends who have dropped out to either support their families or push drugs, decisions that he suspects might have been influenced by insensitive teachers. He expresses uncertainty about his identity, saying that his grandparents think of him as Mexican, his parents call him Mexican-American, and his friends call him Chicano, but he often just feels like a second-class citizen.

A teaching guide that accompanies the film, The Mexican-American: Heritage and Destiny, 1971.

As Roberto is clearly feeling depressed, an off-screen narrator, voiced by Ricardo Montalban, interrupts his thoughts to tell him about the amazing history of Mexican civilization, including 2,000 year old pyramids, the Mayan numbering system and pictorial written language, and the Aztec calendar. When Roberto protests that he doesn’t know what Mexican history has to do with him as a Mexican-American, the narrator continues to tell him about how the Mexican people cultivated much of the North-American continent before Anglo-Americans ever landed on Plymouth rock. He quickly glosses over the Mexican-American War that made Mexican lands part of America, but emphasizes the continued influence of Mexican culture in America in the pervasiveness of the Spanish language, Mexican cuisine, and Hispanic art, music and architecture in everyday American life. Montalban then tells Ricardo about famous Mexican-Americans in a diversity of fields including medicine, politics, sports, journalism, and entertainment. He also makes special note of social leaders like Caesar Chavez, who was still actively organizing campaigns to protect the rights of Hispanic farm-workers at the time the film was made. The film ends with Roberto looking visibly proud as he continues to walk down the street.

This half-hour movie is only available on film, so if you would like to see it, or any of the other many educational films in our archives, you can make an appointment to view them at the Film and Media Archive on West Campus.


About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.