The Return of Chicano Film Pioneer Efrain Gutierrez
In 1978, 32-year-old Efrain Gutierrez found himself locked up in a Bexar County jail cell on trumped-up drug conspiracy charges. The Vietnam War had sent many of his friends home in coffins draped with U.S. flags. Another war—the war on drugs—was just getting started in his West San Antonio barrio. Gutierrez watched as friends and family members were shipped off to Huntsville or Leavenworth for 10-year stretches. Over the previous five years he’d recorded it all on his 16mm film camera: the pain, the struggle and the injustice of life in the barrio. And against all odds, he’d become a sensation for making gritty feature-length films that defied Hollywood stereotypes.
Now the FBI was trying to scare him. “When they found out who I was, they wanted to make an example out of me,” says Gutierrez, now 67, smiling at the memory in his San Antonio art studio. A look of sadness suddenly ripples across his face.
“My brother had 2 ounces of cocaine in his car and was on his way to Houston, and I asked him for a ride to Seguin. That’s how we got busted. They sent him to prison. They were trying to get me on a conspiracy charge and they almost did it,” he says, “but after 30 days everything was dismissed, because I had nothing to do with it.”
A lifelong political activist, director and actor in theater and film, Gutierrez made his name living on the edge, producing his low-budget movies with sheer willpower, hustle and charisma. During the 1970s he made three feature-length films: Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive!/¡Por Favor, No Me Entierren Vivo!, Amor Chicano es Para Siempre/Chicano Love is Forever and Run, Tecato, Run. He made the last film after his experience in the Bexar County jail. “Most of the guys were in there on drug charges,” he says. “At that time in San Antonio heroin was everywhere. Junkies were called ‘Tecatos.’ I started talking to them, taking notes. That’s where I got the idea for the film.”
Gutierrez shot his movies on a 16mm film camera because it was all he could afford, then had them enlarged into 35mm. He employed friends and family as actors. In every one of his movies he played the lead role. “We couldn’t afford the actors we wanted,” he says. The sound wasn’t always great, sometimes the camera swayed, the dialogue was wooden and occasionally sexist and racist, but his vision was bold and authentic. “My target audience was never the English-language market or the Spanish-language market. It was the Chicano market, and it was about problems that were happening in my community. My audience was limited,
but I didn’t care.”
His audience spoke its own patois of English and Spanish and embraced the term “Chicano” as a badge of honor that signified their political awakening, which had been spurred on by the civil rights movement.
Gutierrez says his goal was to give an unvarnished portrayal of his community, breaking through Hollywood’s simplistic stereotypes of the servile Mexican or the Latin lover. His characters were working-class Mexican-Americans struggling with complicated issues: poverty, racism, broken love affairs and drug addiction.
In Run, Tecato, Run, Gutierrez plays an addict who neglects his family and robs his neighbors to get high. The movie opens with a long tracking shot of Gutierrez running through his gritty West Side neighborhood while a funky Curtis Mayfield-inspired title song by accordion legend Esteban “Steve” Jordan throbs in the background. Ten minutes into the movie, Gutierrez’s character scores and shoots up in an empty room. It looks real because Gutierrez really did shoot heroin in the scene to get the character right. “I spoke with a lot of junkies before playing my character. I wasn’t really a method actor, but they told me I’d never understand unless I tried it myself,” Gutierrez says. “I think I did it three times in total. It just made me want to throw up then zone out,” he laughs.
Run, Tecato, Run was a harsh look at the emptiness of an addict’s life and the hurt it generates among family, friends and neighbors. The film showed in first-run theaters across the Southwest in 1979 and experienced some success, but it was Gutierrez’s first film, Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive!/¡Por Favor, No Me Entierren Vivo!, that forged his reputation as a trailblazer in Latino and independent cinema.
In 1974, Gutierrez and his friend Sabino Garza, a poet and writer, decided to make movies. “We didn’t have any equipment, no money,” Gutierrez says. Neither had any idea how to make a movie, either. Gutierrez went to the Trinity University film department to ask for help. “Bill Hayes was running the film department at that time,” Gutierrez says. “I told him I wanted to make a feature-length movie. He asked me how much money I had, and I said, ‘Well what will it cost?’” Gutierrez was deflated when Hayes told him $24,000, but he was determined to forge ahead.
“Hayes saw that I wasn’t going to give up, so he called a grad student named Jack Landman who was teaching film classes at Trinity,” Gutierrez says. “Landman was just the nicest guy. He let me audit his film classes, and Hayes let me borrow equipment as long as a film student was on the crew.” Gutierrez and Garza got to work. Garza wrote the script about Gutierrez’s 21-year-old friend who’d been slapped with a 10-year sentence on drug charges by San Antonio’s U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. “In the barrio we called him Maxi Wood because he always gave the maximum sentence to minorities.” (In 1979, Wood was assassinated by Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson in a contract killing arranged by drug kingpin Jamiel Chagra.) Gutierrez had attended his friend’s trial and became upset after he saw a couple of white guys with similar drug charges get released on probation. “The injustice bothered me,” he says. “I remember getting a letter from my friend, and he’d written, ‘Being in prison is like being buried alive. Everyone forgets you.’ It stuck with me. That’s how we came up with the title of the movie.”
Finding money to buy film and eventually their own camera was Gutierrez’s job. “If I didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen,” he says. Gutierrez cobbled together money from a diverse array of funders, including the American Lutheran Church, and by transporting money for his drug-kingpin cousin. The film took two years to make. Just finishing it was a triumph, but then Gutierrez had to get it shown in theaters, a challenge in a pre-independent era in which Mexico City’s Azteca Films held a monopoly over distribution to the 400 Spanish-language theaters in the United States, and English-language theaters showed only Hollywood movies.
Gutierrez, like many Mexican-Americans, felt firmly rooted in both Spanish and English. “I’d go to see John Wayne at the ‘American’ theater, as we called it, then go with my mom to La Alameda to see the latest Mexican movie with Vicente Fernández or Lucha Villa.” But he’d never seen a film like his that portrayed life in both languages. Many doubted he’d ever get it shown. “A lot of people said, ‘Either shoot it in English or Spanish or no theater will ever show it,’ but I told them, ‘I’ll shoot it the way we are.’”
He approached the owners of local Spanish-language theaters first. Bowing to pressure from their powerful distributor, they refused to show his movie. Then he went to John Santikos, owner of a chain of English-language theaters in San Antonio. “He told me I’d have to rent the theater myself if I wanted to show it,” Gutierrez says. With characteristic bravado, the 30-year-old filmmaker did just that. He rented a 480-seat theater at Santikos’ Century South multiplex for a week. It cost $4,000, plus another $1,000 for advertising—a small fortune at the time. Gutierrez conned radio and TV stations into giving him another $7,000 worth of advertising on credit, then he wrote Santikos a hot check for $4,000 the day before the premiere. “I waited until the last possible minute hoping he wouldn’t cash the check before Monday,” Gutierrez says, smiling. “I had nothing. I was flat broke.”
In another show of nerve, the filmmaker rented a giant spotlight to place in front of the theater for the Thursday premiere of Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive! Then he bought a bottle of scotch. In his best-case scenario he imagined making enough over the weekend to pay back the $12,000 he owed for advertising and rental of the theater. His worst-case scenario was, “On Monday I might as well turn myself in because they’re going to arrest me.”
Gutierrez says he didn’t normally drink, but he took the bottle of scotch home and started taking swigs with breakfast. The phone rang incessantly. “I told my girlfriend, ‘I don’t want to talk to anyone.’” But late in the afternoon, the manager from the theater rang. Gutierrez’s girlfriend, Josie Faz, who also starred in the film, took the call. “She says, ‘It’s the manager at Century South, he says you need to come down there right away. He needs to see you.’”
A somewhat inebriated Gutierrez jumped into his car and headed for the theater, girding himself for disaster, or financial embarrassment at the very least. On his way over he thought about his father, who had recently passed away, his family’s struggle as migrant farmworkers, and how his father had never approved of his identifying as a Chicano. “It seemed like my whole life passed before me driving over there,” he laughs. When he pulled into the parking lot it was packed. The multiplex was showing the blockbusters Jaws and All the President’s Men. “There was a line around the theater and I thought they must be there for these big movies,” Gutierrez says. As he came closer to the entrance he noticed that everyone in line was Chicano. “I thought, ‘Could it be?’” he remembers. “And I started running.”
The manager was waiting for him at the entrance. “I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he just smiled.” The manager walked Gutierrez to the theater he’d rented—nearly every seat was taken for the 6 p.m. show. The people outside were waiting for the next screening, at 8. “The manager told me, ‘You’re going to have a monster hit on your hands,’” Gutierrez says. That first week the film made $29,000. After three weeks it had made $45,000 and outperformed All the President’s Men.
Mexican-Americans in the San Antonio area couldn’t get enough of the movie. “We had not seen ourselves on the screen up to that point, especially people from the barrio,” says Gregg Barrios, a San Antonio poet, journalist and playwright, who remembers seeing the film in 1976 at the Century South and being stunned by its harsh reality. “There’s this message that not all of us are going to make it out of the ghetto,” he says. “Some people are born in the barrio and they die there. And they do whatever it takes to withstand their situation.”
Suddenly Gutierrez was being sought out for interviews and wooed by theater owners as far away as Kansas City and Detroit. “It started snowballing and we were hustling to meet the demand,” Gutierrez says. At first the filmmakers had only two prints of the movie. Gutierrez and Garza each took a print on the road, driving from theater to theater. “There was no plan. We just went wherever they asked us,” Gutierrez says. Hype around the movie spread from town to town. Gutierrez and Garza made $300,000 exhibiting the film in just three months. Eventually, Spanish-language theaters called asking to screen the movie, even though Azteca Films had threatened never to send another film to theaters showing Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive! “They broke the monopoly,” Gutierrez says of those theater owners. “No one had dared go up against Azteca before that.”
Gutierrez had become the first Chicano to make a feature-length film, one of the first independent filmmakers to show his films in first-run theaters, and he’d broken Azteca’s monopoly over Spanish-language theaters in the U.S. But with his newfound fame came other challenges. At the peak of the film’s popularity, Gutierrez sold the rights to Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive! to a Mexican producer associated with Azteca Films, with the promise that it would be screened in theaters across the U.S. and in Mexico. Instead, the producer shelved the movie, and it was never seen again. Then Gutierrez sank $35,000 into a failed “Chicano Woodstock” in South San Antonio that drew more police than Chicanos. That misstep was followed by the drug charges, his stint in county jail and, finally, Run, Tecato, Run. In six years he had made three movies. By 1979 he was burned out and disillusioned. So he disappeared.
As the years passed, Gutierrez’s whereabouts became the stuff of legend. Some said he had died, others that he was in jail. Another story had him secluded somewhere in Mexico. Gutierrez’s work was gradually forgotten. Then, in 1985, Gregg Barrios unearthed the filmmaker’s work in an appreciative essay, “A Cinema of Failure, A Cinema of Hunger,” published in the book Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources, and threw the gauntlet down. “It must be pointed out that single-handedly Efrain created the first real Chicano cinema,” Barrios wrote. “… [H]is work has been passed over and ignored while others have given themselves the dubious honor of starting el cine chicano.”
Film scholars began searching for Gutierrez. Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and a film historian, asked for news about the filmmaker every time he went to the CineFestival in San Antonio. “The legend continued to grow, but I could not find the person himself,” he told the Northwest Chicago Film Society during a retrospective of Gutierrez’s work. “Then one day in late 1996, I came home to find a message from Efrain.”
Turns out that on his way to California in 1979, Gutierrez had stopped in Laredo, where Run, Tecato, Run was screening. He’d planned to start a new life in the Golden State with the film’s proceeds, but then he met a pretty 21-year-old named Irma Salinas. Gutierrez never left Laredo. “I was enjoying myself too much,” he says now. The two were married in 1980 and had a son, Efrain Abran, in 1981, and a daughter, Irma Linda, in 1985. “I was just living my life,” he says, having put the highs and lows of filmmaking behind him. Gutierrez worked as a middle school teacher and then as an organizer for the teacher’s union. No one in Laredo, not even his own son, knew he had once been a successful independent filmmaker. “It just never came up,” he says.
Now, with Noriega’s help, Gutierrez’s films are being restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Audiences can once again see his films at festivals around the country. In Austin, Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive!, Amor Chicano es Para Siempre, and Run, Tecato, Run will screen in April at the Cine Las Americas film festival [disclosure: the author’s husband runs Cine Las Americas]. Since coming out of retirement, Gutierrez has made two more films: the comedy A Lowrider Spring Break En San Quilmas (2000) and the family film Barrio Tales: Tops, Kites and Marbles (2008). While Gutierrez’s early work has flaws, it remains an authentic portrait of an era, Barrios says. “He was very brave. He just put it out there. He didn’t try to make things pretty. There were no happy Cinderella endings.”
San Antonio-raised filmmaker Robert Rodriguez became famous in the early 1990s for the low-budget DIY ethic behind his first feature, El Mariachi. Two decades earlier, Efrain Gutierrez had first recorded the pain, pleasures and struggles of San Antonio barrio life with a 16mm film camera, a shoestring budget, and a hunger to make films by any means necessary. “We were making movies for ourselves,” Gutierrez says. “We had no training, no money, and no technique. But we were committed to showing life in the barrio as it was. It was tough. I really didn’t think I would live past 35.”