Olmos Famous

Before he was Don Johnson's brooding boss on Miami Vice, before he was Jennifer Lopez's domineering dad in Selena, and before he became the elder statesman of Latino culture, Edward James Olmos was a bit player looking for his first film role. Robert M. Young gave him a break in 1977's Alambrista!, which opens the second annual Latin American Film Festival.

The story follows Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), a Mexican immigrant who comes to the United States to find work but encounters exploitation and suffering instead. Alambrista!, which won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has been reworked a bit for the director's cut that's making its Houston debut; improved subtitles, a fresh soundtrack with digitally remastered music and new scenes have all been added. The film was just the first of Young's many collaborations with Olmos, including American Me, Caught and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, which also will be screened. And Young is one of several filmmakers making appearances at the festival, where he'll answer questions and share a behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking.

Young's 1982 Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is the true story of a man who -- thanks to sloppily translated questioning by a deputy who speaks "Mexican" -- is mistakenly accused of stealing a horse. Unable to defend himself and unwilling to hang for a crime he didn't commit, Cortez flees. He manages to avoid capture for several weeks despite a huge manhunt, and the legend of the chase became a popular corrido, or folk song. Ballad is a natural choice for the festival, not only because it's an excellent film but because Houston is home to dozens of Cortez's descendants.

Coyotes, by Raul Gonzales, also has a Houston connection. The 2001 Bravo Productions film marks the Houstonian's debut as a director, and it was shot and produced here. Gonzales also wrote the screenplay and stars as the leader of a crime organization that smuggles undocumented workers into the States.

The festival includes new releases and classics from Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, Italy, Panama and the United States as well. English subtitles help out those folks who aren't fluent in Spanish or Quechua (spoken by indigenous Bolivians in Jorge Sanjinés's Courage of the People).

If you're wondering why films by the U.S.-based Young, Jan Egleson and Josh Taylor qualify as Latin American films, catch a screening of Olmos's Americanos. The documentary, a joint production between Olmos and the Smithsonian, accompanies the "Americanos: Latino Life in the United States" exhibit on view at the Museum of Fine Arts. Much to the dismay of immigration officials and English-only proponents, it explains why Latinos can rightfully call the entire western hemisphere, including the United States and Canada, their native homeland and that Hispanics come in every race and color. That's true for the movies as well.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez