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SUBJECTS — U.S. 1929 - 1991; Hispanic & California;

Age: 13+; MPAA Rating R for strong language, some graphic violence and a scene of sexuality ; Drama; 1995, 128 minutes; Color. Available from

Description: This is the story of Jose, Maria, and their children — two generations of an American family of Mexican descent who live in Los Angeles. "This is the great American story, told again and again, of how our families came to this land and tried to make it better for their children." Rogert Ebert.

Rationale for Using the Movie: My Family/Mi Familia touches upon many of the important points in the history of Mexican immigration to the U.S. during the 20th Century.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will have a greater understanding of the Mexican-American experience.

Possible Problems: There is one tender love scene with nothing graphic and two violent deaths.



Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast
Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
The Mexican Repatriation Program

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.

Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM's guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.

Helpful Background: The Mexican Repatriation Program — 1929 - 1936
Note to teachers: Students may disagree with the position taken in the first five paragraphs. If they do, have a discussion about those disagreements.
The United States has operated on the "melting pot" model, in which immigrants and, particularly, the children of immigrants assimilate into mainstream American culture. This began with the 13 colonies and continues to this day. By the second or third generation, families of immigrants abandon the culture of the country of their family's origin. Limited aspects of the old cultures persist, particularly in music, food, celebration of holidays, and, most importantly, in religion. However, in most cases little else of the old ways survive. The children of immigrants intermarry with the ancestors of other immigrants and fully participate in mainstream American society.

Even in religion, which is perhaps the most persistent hold-over from the old countries, beliefs are affected by American culture. For example, while there is still some debate, same-sex marriage is accepted by most Americans. The U.S. Episcopalian Church, a branch of the world-wide Anglican Communion (formerly the Church of England), is at odds with other Anglican churches in its endorsement of same-sex marriage. In January 2016, the Episcopalian church in America was officially suspended from the Anglican Communion because of this position.

There is also a parallel process in which some aspects of ethnic cultures are adopted by the mainstream. A good example is food. Almost all Americans love spaghetti, pizza, tacos, burritos, Chinese food, etc.

Racism and prejudice against certain ethnic minorities has skewed the process of assimilation, but it still strongly affects these groups. African-Americans were not voluntary immigrants, and their original African cultures were suppressed by the slaveholder. The African heritage of black Americans has been almost completely lost. The main exception is music, some of which survived and has strongly influenced mainstream culture. Some would argue that in the past, a subculture of black Americans existed, due to economic oppression and racial exclusion. But that subculture itself is distinctly and uniquely American; it is certainly not the result of any African heritage. While some discrimination against African-Americans persists, assimilation has reached the point where the culture of black Americans is usually the same as that of other Americans of the same economic class.

Hispanics and immigrants of Asian descent also suffered from discrimination but, as shown in the film My Family/Mi Familia, the children of Hispanic immigrants have largely become assimilated. The same is true of Americans from families that came from Asia. Each of these groups have been subjected to discriminatory practices, for example, during WWII Americans of Japanese descent who lived on the West Coast were sent to internment camps. However, discrimination and the efforts of misguided and prejudiced people to exclude them from American society may delay assimilation, but the process continues.

The most extreme example of discrimination against Hispanic Americans is the "Mexican Repatriation Program," 1929 - 1936. As the country veered into the Great Depression, U.S. government authorities throughout the United States, and particularly in Texas, California, and Colorado undertook an aggressive program to forcibly remove persons of Mexican ancestry. In California alone, approximately 400,000 American citizens and legal residents of Mexican ancestry were forced to go to Mexico. In total, it is estimated that two million people of Mexican ancestry were forcibly relocated to Mexico. Approximately 60% or 1.2 million had been born in the United States and were thus U.S. citizens. On occasion massive raids were conducted on Mexican-American communities, resulting in the clandestine removal of thousands of people, many of whom were never able to return to the United States. These raids also had the effect of coercing thousands of people to leave the country in the face of threats and acts of violence.

The raids targeted persons of Mexican ancestry, with authorities and others indiscriminately characterizing these persons as "illegal aliens" even when they were United States citizens or permanent legal residents. Authorities in California and other states instituted programs to wrongfully remove persons of Mexican ancestry and secure transportation arrangements with railroads, automobiles, ships, and airlines to effectuate the wholesale removal of people out of the United States to Mexico. As a result of these illegal activities, families were forced to abandon or were defrauded of personal and real property, which often was sold by local authorities as "payment" for the transportation expenses incurred in their removal from the United States to Mexico. As a further result of these illegal activities, United States citizens and legal residents were separated from their families and country and were deprived of their livelihood and United States constitutional rights. The U.S. citizens were deprived of the right to participate in the political process guaranteed to all citizens, thereby resulting in the tragic denial of due process and equal protection of the laws. [Primary Source for the last two paragraphs: California Government Code §§ 8721 & 8722, The Mexican Repatriation Apology Act.]

California State Senator Joe Dunn, interviewed on Remembering California's 'Repatriation Program' by NPR, January 2, 2006, said,
The phrase that the Hoover administration used was "American jobs for real Americans." Well, if you were born and raised right here in the United States but just happened to be of Mexican descent, in the Hoover administration's eyes, you were not a, quote, "real American," But that was the designed purposed of the program, to create jobs due to the rising number of unemployment at that time.

Unfortunately, most of the individuals that were forcibly deported literally were done under armed guard and lock and key. There was a raid in a park in Los Angeles in February of 1931 in which they literally rounded up all the folk in that park who appeared to be of Mexican descent, put them on flatbed trucks under armed guard to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, on a train that was under lock and key and literally forced them on and--onto the train, and the train took them to the interior of Mexico. Most of the deportations were done by force. . . [M]ost of the deportees in 1930s that were shipped to Mexico did not speak the language. And they were not only thrown out of their country of birth, the United States, they were foreigners in the new land that they were shipped to, that being Mexico.

Almost two million individuals [from throughout the U.S.] were illegally deported to Mexico, and it's estimated that almost 60 percent or more of those two million were actually United States citizens born right here in the United States.



The film needs no introduction. After showing the film, provide students with the information on the Mexican Repatriation, 1929- 1936, set out above. Another way of providing students with this information is to print out The California Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program, Cal. Government Code §§ 8721 & 8722 and have students read it. Supplement the information in the statute by telling students that states all over the country participated in the program with particularly large deportations in California, Colorado, and Texas. An estimated two million people were deported to Mexico, 60% of them U.S. citizens.

The early scenes of the film contain some Spanish dialogue that is translated with titles on the screen. However, there are well over a hundred instances in which Spanish is spoken and no translation is provided. The writing and direction ensure that these do not detract from the story, but knowing the meaning of these expressions further enriches the film. TWM has provided translations for most of these expressions. See Spanish Expressions in My Family/Mi Familia.


Discussion Questions:

After showing the film and introducing the information in the Helpful Background section, engage the class in a discussion about the movie. The first seven questions relate to assimilation of immigrants into U.S. culture.

1.   What is the best balance in determining how to deal with ethnic and religious differences in a society? Suggested Response: Here's the Golden Rule that has made the U.S. a great nation: celebrate each ethnicity as a unique and beautiful expression of humanity, but cultural identity must be expressed an inclusive way, and any activities that are antithetical to the basic values of the society are abandoned. There are many examples of this. The early Mormons practiced polygamy, but the society required that this practice be abandoned. In Scotland, society was organized by clans, which were basically tribes of related people. There were the Elliotts, the Douglases, the Armstrongs, the MaGregors, etc. In the U.S. people who trace their lineage to Scottland have "gatherings" where they eat, drink, and listen to Bagpipe bands. At some there are competitions of old Scottish sports. Each clan has a tent with information about the clan. For several years in many gatherings in California, one of the hosts at the Elliott Clan tent was a Japanese-American who had no connection with Scottland other than the fact that he had fallen in love with the Elliott clan. He was fully accepted by the people who traced their heritage to the Elliott clan. That is American ethnicity at its best. Contrast this to the Middle East in which the Shiites and Sunnis kill each other, the "Troubles" or Northern Ireland, or Rwanda in which the Hutus murdered almost a million Tutsis in the 1994 genocide. And, of course, there is the Holocaust, the attempted extinction of European Jews by the Nazis. There are, unfortunately, many examples of societies in which religious and ethnic tensions have led to chaos and death.

2.    Each of the children of Maria and Jose assimilated into the American "melting pot" and adopted the values of American society to a different extent. Describe the assimilation of each. Suggested Response: Memo fully assimilated. He became a lawyer, moved across the bridges to the West side of Los Angeles, and married a non-Hispanic American girl. For Memo, his Mexican heritage was almost an embarrassment. Chucho, like modern-day gang members, got stuck in a nether world in which he rejected the culture of his father in which hard work was a sign of dignity. His world was that of the "pachuco" which rejected much of mainstream American values, but adopted others. Irene is more assimilated, starting a Mexican restaurant with her husband. She is fully integrated into the American economic system, but she is also tied strongly to her parents' Mexican culture. Toni started out fully in line with the Mexican culture by becoming a nun. While some mainstream American Catholics also became nuns, by the time Toni leaves the Church and marries a non-Mexican, she is fully assimilated. Paco, too assimilates. He joins the Navy and becomes a writer, in English, not in Spanish. Jimmy also seems to assimilate very well, but his story is focused on how he deals with his own psychological wounds resulting from the death of Chucho and his wife.

3.   What is the significance of the fact that after Chucho is kicked out of the house, he and his friends (and his enemies) are next shown dancing to non-Hispanic popular music. Include in your response a reason why the filmmakers showed the audience the murals on the walls of the dance hall? Suggested Response: The location is a building that honors the Hispanic heritage of the community, but the music is mainstream popular American music. This shows the distance between Chucho and his friends - and enemies - from their Hispanic roots, and also their ties to their community of people of Mexican origin.

4.   There are two instances of very popular television programs shown in the movie. What are the filmmakers trying to tell us with these scenes? Suggested Response: "I Love Lucy" was a popular show. Most people in the U.S. loved it and watched it every week. People still watch re-runs of the old programs. "I Love Lucy" was an agent of assimilation in that it was an experience that most Americans of all ethnic backgrounds shared. The values that the program embraced (and all media has a value set) were likely to be shared by all of its viewers. Also, Lucy was mainstream white, while her husband was Hispanic. In another scene, Maria is watching a telenovela in Spanish. While Maria and Jose have integrated into American economic life and assimilated many American values, they have also retained much of their Mexican culture. This is shown by Maria's interest in the telenovela.

5.   Identify the cultural values that are evidence of assimilation into American culture? These values are not necessarily antithetical to the values of the cultures from which the emigrants come. For example, the dignity of work is a traditional value of the culture which most Mexican and Central American immigrants bring when they come to the U.S. It is also a classic American value. (Unfortunately, some Americans have lost this value.) Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to this question. While there are many aspects of different cultures that give variety to life that can be retained, such as different ways of celebrating holidays, family customs, language spoken in the home, food, etc. there are certain core values of the majority culture. TWM has identified the following, there are probably more. Not all Americans agree to these values, but most do:

  1. the belief that all people "are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness;"
  2. the belief in the importance of due process of law and adherence to the rule of law;
  3. tolerance of and equal treatment for people despite differences in race, religion, national origin, gender, and, most recently, sexual orientation;
  4. the majority rules but cannot transgress upon the rights of individuals or minorities set out in the Bill of Rights;
  5. a respect for freedom of speech and of association;
  6. that people who work hard and play by the rules should be rewarded; and
  7. admiration for the entrepeneurial spirit;
  8. respect for innovation and a high tolerance for change.
The basic values of U.S. Culture change over time. For example, tolerance and equal treatment for LBGT people is relatively new in the last twenty years, and it is not accepted by many Americans. [It would be a good exercise for the class to list those values which are core American values and those which are not.]

6.   Do you have to be "assimilated" to be an American Citizen? What must naturalized American citizens agree to do? Suggested Response: The answer to the first question is, "No." The answer to the second is contained in the oath that those seeking to be naturalized citizens must take:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

[An interesting follow-up question is to ask students if there is any part of the oath they would not be willing to agree to and, if so, why?]

7.   What should be the goals of U.S. immigration policy? These goals are not always consistent, and compromises may have to be made between competing values. Suggested Response: There are several, and there is no one correct response to this question. Here are a few suggestions. First, there is the goal of attracting to the U.S. those workers who are skilled and who are motivated to work hard; in other words, those who will contribute to the economy. Second, there are the humanitarian goals of allowing people who are suffering from political persecution or who are at risk of being victims of extreme violence to come to a safe place to live. Another humanitarian goal is to unite families by allowing citizens and legal residents to bring family members to the U.S. A third goal is to limit the number of immigrants so that they can be absorbed without changing the nature of U.S. society. A fourth goal is to keep out terrorists and those who would threaten our security.

8.   Jose and Maria endured many difficulties and tragedies. Do you agree with their sentiments at the end of the film that they have had a good life? [Another way to ask this question is "Would it have been wrong for Jose and Maria to expect more from life, such as better outcomes for some of their children?" Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer. Strong answers will note the separation from Chucho and his death as well as the problems Jimmy had and the fact that Toni left her order (which must have caused Maria much anguish). However, Memo was doing well as was Irene. Toni had a new interesting life, and Jimmy had a purpose in life. They had grandchildren from Irene and Jimmy. They had a good marriage. Also, they had a home, food, and a good standard of living, which Jose would not have had if he had stayed in Mexico.

9.   It has been said that stereotypes are not an error of perception but rather a form of social control. Describe the mechanism of stereotypes as a form of social control Suggested Response: TWM doesn't know the entire answer to this question, but the following is a good beginning that will get students thinking. 1) People who believe in the stereotype will expect the persons stereotyped to act in a certain way and will react to them as if they act in that way. 2) People have a tendency to mold their perceptions to fit their current beliefs.

See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.   Students can be asked to research and write an essay on one of the following topics:

  • The Repatriation of persons of Mexican Descent in during the Great Depression;

  • The differences between immigrants "integrating" into the economic life of a country but retaining their ethnic identity and

  • The different goals of immigration policy in the U.S. and another country that you select. [U.S. emigration policy has been assimilationist, fostering the "melting pot" in which immigrants adapt to the majority and adopt the U.S. way of life, leaving the culture of the old country behind. Other countries encourage immigrants to preserve their ethnic affiliations while integrating into the economic life of the country.]

2.Students can be also be asked to write about assimilation and the retention of the ethnicity of the countries of origin in their own families.

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


For other movies on the Hispanic experience in the U.S., see A Better Life, Stand and Deliver, Spare Parts, Underwater Dreams, McFarland, U.S.A., For Love or Country — The Arturo Sandoval Story, West Side Story and El Norte. For college level classes, check out Lone Star, an excellent film with a unique twist on white-Hispanic relations in a small Texas town.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child and discuss the immigration history of your family or that of a family that you know.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

Bridges to Reading:

Links to the Internet:

Common Core State Standards that can be Served by this Learning Guide
(Anchor Standards only)

Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.") CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors:

Edward James Olmos as Paco; Jenny Gago as Maria; Jennifer Lopez as Young Maria Eduardo López Rojas as Jose; Jacob Vargas as Young Jose; León Singer as El Californio; Esai Morales as Chucho; Jimmy Smits as Jimmy; Jonathan Hernandez Jonathan Hernandez as Young Jimmy; Constance Marie as Toni; Lupe Ontiveros as Irene; Maria Canals-Barrera as Young Irene; Enrique Castillo Enrique Castillo ... Memo 'Bill' Mary Steenburgen Mary Steenburgen ... Gloria Director: Gregory Nava;


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:


Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!

This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and was published on January 27, 2016.

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