Tortilla Soup Savors Latino Culture

Aaahhh...Tortilla Soup.

I say that not only because I love the dish, which I do, but because there's something very gratifying about a new feature film of the same name.

Tortilla Soup, the movie, is about the love of food, the love of family and, well, the love of love. More specifically, it's about an aging chef who finds that he's starting to lose control of his life and, in particular, his three daughters.

Because I'm not a food or film critic, this commentary isn't so much about the movie's culinary or artistic merits -- though I'd recommend the film to anyone. Instead, I'm hoping that moviegoers will take note of the groundbreaking aspects of the picture, which opens this week in New York.

Tortilla Soup breaks new ground by providing non-Hispanics with a new perspective on American Latino culture. The film depicts a typical middle-class Latino family coping with the normal crises of life. Growing up. Getting old. Breaking up. Moving on.

If you haven't heard of the film, Tortilla Soup is an adaptation of the Ang Lee movie, Eat Drink Man Woman, and it stars Emmy winner Hector Elizondo and a predominantly Latino cast, including Paul Rodriguez, Elizabeth Peña and Raquel Welch. (Yes, Raquel Welch is half-Latina. Her mother was Irish and her father Bolivian.)

What Tortilla Soup does is provide Elizondo and Peña something easier to swallow than the usual roles offered to Latino actors. You know the type: Drug dealer. Horse thieves. Landscaper. Maid. Still, Elizondo has built a great career in Hollywood by being able to avoid such roles.

It is true that if you visit the barrios of most major cities in the U.S., you'll find impoverished neighborhoods and evidence of gang activity. But those aren't the only stories to be told or the only neighborhoods where Latinos live.

The Latino community is as full of life's dramatic and comic flair as any other in America. And despite the usual images that Hollywood and the news media offer up to the public via the small and big screens, most of us spend our everyday lives, not shooting each other in the streets over drug deals gone bad, but simply raising our families, working, paying taxes and putting food on the table.

The reason negative depictions of the Latino community permeate mainstream news and entertainment media is because we're not telling the stories and playing the parts.

According to a recent report by the Screen Actors Guild, there was more ethnic diversity in American TV and film roles last year than ever before. But the business is still overwhelmingly dominated by white actors, who get more than three out of every four TV and film roles. Last year, Latino actors were picked for just under 5 percent of the roles, even though Hispanics are now 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

Those numbers are unacceptable. And it's the dearth of Latino film roles that makes Tortilla Soup so unique. While the story it tells is universal -- remember it originally was based on a script about a Chinese family -- it's also an authentic slice of Latino life.

Go see Tortilla Soup. Savor my cultura. Then tell Hollywood you're hungry for more.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of politicomagazine.com.

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