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Arts and Culture:
Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Gregory Nava
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Gregory Nava

BILL MOYERS: The kind of political oppression we just saw in Justice in the Generals and chronic poverty have swelled the ranks of immigrants in this country.

Latinos are now the fastest-growing population in the nation. And in just four years they will surpass blacks as the largest minority.

And yet Latinos and their culture remain all but invisible in the popular media — except for the extraordinary efforts of filmmakers like Gregory Nava.

He's best known for the classic film EL NORTE, a movie that told the story of a brother and sister struggling to make it to California from Central America.

Mr. Nava has made a career of ground-breaking Latino films. In 1996 he directed SELENA, based on the Latino pop star and starring Jennifer Lopez.

Now he's making a bid to bring Latino culture further into the mainstream with his new TV series AMERICAN FAMILY — the first ever to feature an all-Latino cast. And it's here on PBS.

Thank you very much for coming all the way across the country for this conversation.

GREGORY NAVA: Bill, it's a real pleasure to be here.

MOYERS: When you look at prime time America and see so few if any Latinos, does it make you angry? They're invisible.

NAVA: Well, you know, it is...obviously I think we're reaching a point right now where Latinos are moving from the fringes into the mainstream of American life.

And our time has come right now for us to make our contribution to this country. That's what groups always do when they come here, it's what keeps this country ever young and ever fresh.

So it doesn't make me angry; I just see it as a challenge. And I think that as a population and as a community we have to rise to that challenge.

MOYERS: But in city after city where...where Latinos now make up the dominant plurality...

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: ...they surface largely in regard to this whole issue of illegal immigration.

I mean, what do you think about that?

NAVA: Well, I mean, the United States is a country that has a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, you know. Those crops keep coming up and somebody has to pick them, you know. And the people who do it are workers from Mexico and Central America, and unfortunately, you know, this whole system has developed of illegal labor that needs to be done.

You know, so it's a tragic situation. You know, some people call it a modern form of slavery. I think it's probably the biggest social issue that this country needs to deal with, and yet strangely in our media it's the source of tremendous drama and incredible stories, yet it does get largely ignored. And I think that that's an important thing that we do need to address.

MOYERS: Prime time America was virtually white until ROOTS came along, and millions of people watched ROOTS, the story of slavery and a family's escape from slavery.

Blacks had to fight a civil rights revolution before they could get equal time...

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: prime time.

Are Latinos going to have to do the same thing?

NAVA: But television was kind of born on a Latino show, I always say, because...

MOYERS: What do you mean?

NAVA: Well, if you were doing a show right now about a Latino married to a non-Latino and had a cross-cultural relationship it would be big news, oh, my gosh, you know.

But that's I LOVE LUCY. I mean, Desi Arnaz...

MOYERS: Touché. I'd forgotten all about that.

NAVA: You know, he invented the three-camera sitcom format.

So Latinos have been on TV before...

MOYERS: Well, when I look at AMERICAN FAMILY, I think hey, that could be the Moyers family. That could be my family...growing up on Long Island except that I liked bacon and eggs and Jess Gonzalez likes tortillas for breakfast.

Let's take a look at an excerpt.


NAVA: Basically I think that the human experience is universal. And as a filmmaker that's what I' EL NORTE, MI FAMILIA, SELENA, and now with AMERICAN FAMILY that's what I've always put in the front seat, is the universality of the human experience. You know, I'm just trying to tell stories. I see myself as a storyteller.

MOYERS: You're not preaching.

NAVA: No! You know, all that stuff needs to go in the back seat. And the humanity needs to be in the front seat. That's really what it's all about.

MOYERS: His daughters...their daughters...

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: They like cappuccino, he likes his tortillas for breakfast.

Are Latinos making that fast a transition, from tortillas in the morning to cappuccino in the afternoon?

NAVA: Well, the thing about the Latino culture is that we assimilate very, very quickly.

I mean, we're here for a reason: people want to assimilate into the United States. American popular culture is extremely seductive. And so...

MOYERS: How so?

NAVA: Well, I mean, everywhere you go in the world people are wearing jeans. You know, when I go to Italy, you know, you see kids with, you know, United States Air Force on their bookbags.

I mean, our culture is very, very pervasive all over the world.

MOYERS: We absorb everything, don't we?

NAVA: Yes, we absorb everything...and that's one of the strengths of American pop culture.

One of the reasons that it's so seductive is that you know, it's true that tortillas are a traditional Mexican dish, but now they're becoming all over the United States as well, you know...

NAVA: We love to absorb all of that. So I think that the process of assimilation is kind of a two-way street.

MOYERS: And yet there is a price. There's something ruthless about American society that...that enhances...that makes it a good place for the strong but very difficult on the weak.

NAVA: Yes, the United States can be a very cruel and cold place. And for people from traditional cultures [that's] harsh. You know, people come here in order to survive, to make a living.

And they see, you know, money, as being what they're looking for, but they don't realize the spiritual values or the community values that they may lose when they get here. And a lot of what happens to the immigrants who come to the United States can be very, very heartbreaking and very tragic.

MOYERS: I think the most poignant scene in EL NORTE, the first of your films that I ever saw, and I'm sure the first a lot of people saw, the most poignant scene to me is when Enrique the brother...

NAVA: Yes.

MOYERS: He's told, you can make it here, but you've got to make it on your own. You have to forget your sister.

NAVA: That's right. That's right. The breaking of the family bond.

You know, the rugged individual as opposed to the community. That's what the United States is all about, and that's something that I think cuts at the heart of a lot of people who come here especially from Latin America where family and community is number one.

MOYERS: Well, let's look at this scene and then you tell me what's happening there.


MOYERS: It's kind of Sophie's Choice.

NAVA: Yes. Yes, that's right. It is. It is very, very much so.

MOYERS: Is that reality as emotionally difficult for the individual as you make it on the screen?

NAVA: Yes, definitely. Absolutely.

And I think that's one reason why Latino storytelling is so rich and wonderful right now, because our culture is a culture that is in transition. It's a culture that is volcanic.

And that's when great stories come from, and that's one of the reasons why I think that the AMERICAN FAMILY series, you know, is so exciting, because on one level it's a show that is, you know, about an American family that's like any American family, and yet on another level it is about a culture that is in transition.

And so this very strong and powerful drama that you see in know, in the show as well.

MOYERS: So often you have taken this theme of the pursuit, of the struggle, the journey north, the single individual, brother and sister, trying to get here and make it. What is there about that struggle that you keep...brings you back to it over and over again?

NAVA: Well, you know, I think that.... I like the idea of this tremendous journey that people I think are on, you know, like going from Guatemala to the United States to work.

And in the movie EL NORTE, that becomes a mythic journey. Okay? All of the work that I do, I try to have a strong mythic underpinning to it.

MOYERS: And by mythic you mean...?

NAVA: Yes, we are all on a journey in our life, right? Everybody is looking for the promised land in some way, shape or form.

And that journey takes place in two ways: the outer journey, you know, your journey to try to find a better life, your journey to try to, you know, make a better career. And then the inner spiritual journey mirrors that.

And in pre-Colombian thinking, that is what we see. You know, your life, what you do in your life, you know, I'm very, very big on pre-Colombian mythology and pre Colombian spirituality. And the work that I do, I always try to infuse with that.

And in that world there were no monasteries. They had no retiring from life to find God. To the ancient Toltecs and the ancient Mayans you find God in the work that you do, in what you do in your life.

Work was sacred. And so what you do is your spirituality. And so in a sense I try to always reflect that in the films and stories I tell.

So these journeys that people go on with their life, how they're going to live their life, how they're going to survive, also becomes a spiritual journey of whether or not they're going to be able to find themselves or lose themselves.

MOYERS: We know what happened to pre Colombian culture after Christopher Columbus got here. It was wiped out. And we know what happened to Enrique and Rosa after they got to California from Guatemala. They were disillusioned, disappointed. I mean, I like the fact that you don't romanticize.

NAVA: The experience of EL NORTE, the United States, is a bittersweet experience. You know, it gives us what we want and at the same time it is disappointing and it is a struggle. And so that...that bittersweet emotion is what I'm always trying to achieve in the stories that I tell.

Obviously for Rosa and Enrique in EL NORTE who are new arrivals here it's one thing...for somebody like Jess Gonzalez whose family has been here for a long time and he's been a World War...I mean, excuse me, a Korean war veteran, et cetera, the bittersweetness, you know, plays itself out at a different level.

MOYERS: Were you born here?

NAVA: Yes, I was born in the United States. I was born in San Diego. I was raised at the exact point where these two worlds clash and come into conflict.

And in San Diego in Tijuana there's no river or no mountain no border, it's just a fence and a field. And yet this is the only place in the world where the first and third world meet, is in the border between the United States and Mexico.

And it is a volcanic enormous clash of cultures that is creating culture and creating tremendous change. And ever since I was a child I saw this. I saw the comings and goings of people like Rosa and Enrique, ever since I was a little boy.

MOYERS: So you didn't just make it up.

NAVA: I didn't just make it up, you know. And a young boy, a six year old or seven year old, asks himself, you know, why does this exist? Why do you have this fence and one side of the fence is this squeaky clean Republican city of San Diego, and on the other side of the fence is this tremendous, you know, poverty know, and shantytowns. You know, why is all this, you know, child...

MOYERS: Why is it...what's your answer?

NAVA: Well, my answer, being a poet, you know, and a storyteller, is a human one, you know. I'm interested in all the politics, and I'm interested in all the sociology, and I'm interested in all of...and the history and all of those things.

But to me the most important thing is the humanity that is in the forefront of all of this. I don't think that you can really understand this situation unless you understand the heart and the soul of the people who are going through it.

MOYERS: I go back and forth in my own mind between united we stand...and viva la difference.

MOYERS: You know, I mean, are Latinos going to disappear into the melting pot?

NAVA: Well, I think that Latinos already have. I mean, a lot of them already have disappeared into the melting pot.

MOYERS: I am the melting pot, you could say.

NAVA: Yes, you know.

But in the same way that Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans or any other, you know, Swedish-Americans or any other group have disappeared into the melting pot. You know, we all preserve to a certain extent our cultures.

And as we talked about before, those cultures become part of American pop culture. I mean, my gosh, what would life in the United States be without African-American culture?

This is a slave culture, but think of jazz and all the musical forms and all of the wonderful contributions that African-Americans have made. And we couldn't imagine what life would be here without it. And I think Latinos as well.

So the process of assimilation, that we talked about before, Bill, is a two-way street. And I think that all of these things make the United States a stronger, more wonderful place.

And I might add, a forever young because new groups keep coming here and then new groups keep making their contribution.

MOYERS: At the law school, at the University of California...where you live in Los Angeles, with about 1,000 students, there are separate student associations for Latinos, Blacks and Asians, each with their own law review journal.

Aren't we moving toward a kind of demographic Balkanization in this country where each of us lives our voluntarily segregated lives and we lose what scholar Todd Gitlin calls the common dream. He says we're in the twilight of common dreams because we're retreating into our own chosen segregation.

NAVA: I don't agree with that. I think that the struggle about being an American is that the American ethos and culture and pop culture is so strong, so pervasive, so overwhelming, that these groups are small attempts for people to hang on a little bit to the beautiful traditions from the cultures that they come from because they have been so overwhelmed and so assimilated.

One thing that I've noticed is that the process of assimilation takes place very, very quickly, very fast. People are always talking about how, oh, my gosh, you know, people only speak Spanish, but the truth of the Latino culture in the United States is that families lose Spanish very, very quickly. By the third generation it's gone, and it's very hard to teach your kids Spanish or get them to learn the language.

So I think that these groups grow up because people feel something is being lost too quickly, and as opposed to retreating into Balkanization, I think that we're hurdling toward, you know, a complete assimilation into the mass American culture.

MOYERS: What do you make, Gregory, as an American, in the aftermath of 9/11, what do you make of the fact that to so many people in the world, America is a refuge. And yet around the world America is also hated by others. What do you make of that duality?

NAVA: Well, you know, I think that it is part and parcel of the same thing. The fact that the United States became a refuge for the wretched of the world, you know? All of these people came from all over the world, people that nobody wanted.

And yet the human potential that was in this incredible population was enormous and it created the most powerful society in the world. And any society that is in that position of power is in some ways going to become the policeman of the world and thereby do things that maybe aren't so wonderful and excite a lot of hatred.

So again, it's's this circular process of the position that we're in. As an American there's so know, I love America. And there's so much about this country that I absolutely adore and embrace.

And yet there are also things about this country that I'm quite ashamed of. And yet this society offers us the opportunity to point that out.

As a matter of fact, we must point that out in order for the nation to stay strong. So, all of these things are reasons why, you know, I love this country, and I love telling stories about it.

MOYERS: I really appreciate you being here, and I'll see you next Wednesday night at eight o'clock on AMERICAN FAMILY on PBS. Thank you very much.

NAVA: Thank you so much, Bill.

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