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23 Noteworthy Movies About the Hispanic American Experience

These films offer a look at how U.S. culture and history have been enriched

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Every year, the Library of Congress and its National Film Registry select 25 films that showcase the depth and diversity of the American experience. These titles are added to an ever-growing list of films recommended for preservation based on their cultural, aesthetic and historical merits. People are invited to nominate recommended titles, and the final list is curated by the Librarian of Congress. Films released as recently as 2011 are now eligible for inclusion.

Below are the 23 titles in the registry connected to Latino culture, listed by release year. The films — by recognized directors as well as more obscure sources—range from Oscar-nominated titles to documentaries and home movies, in English and in Spanish. The full list of films is available at the National Film Registry website.


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1. The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Only one year after author Johnston McCulley’s Zorro appeared in print for the first time, this rollicking silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks launched one of pop culture’s most enduring franchises. Added to the registry in 2015.


2. Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection (1920-1930s)

Featuring images of parades, family celebrations and daily routines, the home movies collected by the Fuentes family in Corpus Christi capture the life of Texas’ thriving Mexican American community in the 1920s. Added to the registry in 2017.


3. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Featuring a memorable sequence of tango dancing, this adaptation of the best-selling novel by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez cemented Rudolph Valentino’s reputation as a Latin lover. Added to the registry in 1995.


4. The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930)

The legend of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa is celebrated by the Texas-based Padilla family in this unusual film that compiles various scenes from fictional movies about Villa, connected using bilingual title cards. Added to the registry in 2009.


scene from the nineteen thirty one film dracula

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5. Drácula (1931) (Spanish-language version)

Using the same sets as Tod Browning’s horror classic and shot at night once the English production had wrapped for the day, George Melford’s Spanish version boasts intriguing performances by Lupita Tovar and Carlos Villarías as the bloodthirsty count. Added to the registry in 2015.


6. Verbena Trágica (1939)

Helmed by prolific American director Charles Lamont and starring Fernando Soler as a boxer who is released from jail only to find out that his wife is pregnant with another man’s baby, this gritty melodrama, originally a bilingual production, was never made in English due to its controversial subject matter. Added to the registry in 1996. 


promotional poster for the film down argentine way

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7. Down Argentine Way (1940)

A bubbly studio musical starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable, this film set in New York and Argentina boasts actual Buenos Aires footage shot by a second unit, as well as electrifying musical numbers with Brazilian samba queen Carmen Miranda. Added to the registry in 2014.


tyrone power in a fighting scene from the film the mark of zorro

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8. The Mark of Zorro (1940)

One of the most rousing and suspenseful adventure films made during the golden era of Hollywood, this remake of the 1920 film has wonderful action sequences and a charismatic performance by Tyrone Power. Added to the registry in 2009.


poster for the film the pearl with maria elena marques and pedro armendariz

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9. The Pearl (1948)

Boasting textured, gorgeous cinematography by lighting master Gabriel Figueroa and empathetic performances by Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués, this adaptation of a Steinbeck novella showcased the visionary talent of director Emilio Fernández outside of his native Mexico. Added to the registry in 2002.


scene from the film salt of the earth

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10. Salt of the Earth (1954)

Shot on a modest budget by blacklisted director Herbert J. Biberman, this drama about the complications stemming from a lengthy mine strike in New Mexico was influenced by neorealism and employed mostly nonprofessional Latino actors. Largely ignored when released, it is now considered a classic. Added to the registry in 1992.


11. Modesta (1956)

A potent feminist manifesto, this black-and-white short set in Puerto Rico focuses on a peasant who emancipates herself from her husband, forming a Liberated Women League together with members of her community. Added to the the registry in 1998. 


rita moreno in west side story

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12. West Side Story (1961)

Featuring a dazzling score by Leonard Bernstein and transposing Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York City, this groundbreaking musical won Puerto Rican singer and dancer Rita Moreno an Academy Award for best supporting actress in the role of Anita. Added to the registry in 1997.


13. I Am Joaquin (1969)

Based on a poem by social activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, this short film produced with California-based theater company El Teatro Campesino was the first filmmaking effort by Chicano movement pioneer, playwright and director Luis Valdez. Added to the registry in 2010.


14. Chulas Fronteras (1976)

The documentary maestro Les Blank was always drawn to the multicultural sounds of traditional music in the U.S. This film about norteño musicians plying their trade on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border is moving and definitive. Added to the registry in 1993.


15. Please Don’t Bury Me Alive! (1976)

Produced independently over the span of four years, the first-ever Chicano feature film was directed by Efraín Gutiérrez, who also stars in it. Thought for many years to be lost, it was rediscovered and preserved by a UCLA professor. Added to the registry in 2014.


edward james olmos in the film zoot suit

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16. Zoot Suit (1981)

Based on the riveting Luis Valdez play about racial tensions and riots in Los Angeles during the 1940s, the film version combines cinematic conventions with theatrical motifs and stars original actors Daniel Valdez and Edward James Olmos. Added to the registry in 2019.


still from the film el norte

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17. El Norte (1983)

Partially funded by PBS, the Gregory Nava classic shed light on the harrowing struggle of Central American immigrants trying to cross the border in search of a better life. Nominated for an Academy Award in the best original screenplay category. Added to the registry in 1995.


still from the film la bamba

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18. La Bamba (1987)

Directed by Luis Valdez at the absolute peak of his narrative artistry, this zesty biopic about the short but explosive music career of Chicano rock innovator Ritchie Valens turned Los Lobos into mainstream stars. Added to the registry in 2017.


edward james olmos in a scene from the film stand and deliver

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19. Stand and Deliver (1988)

An inspiring film about the power of hope and motivation to overcome racial profiling, this drama stars an unforgettable Edward James Olmos as real-life Bolivian American math teacher Jaime Escalante, who tutors his students in AP Calculus. Added to the registry in 2011.


director robert rodriguez filming el mariachi

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20. El Mariachi (1992)

A fun, playful action romp that never takes itself too seriously, this low-budget indie established Texas-born Robert Rodriguez as one of the most innovative and successful Latino filmmakers in the world. Added to the registry in 2011.


21. The Devil Never Sleeps (1994)

Helmed by veteran indie director Lourdes Portillo, this darkly hued documentary — part crime drama, part visual memoir — investigates the alleged suicide in Mexico of Portillo’s uncle, who may have been murdered. Added to the registry in 2020.


still from the film buena vista social club

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22. Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Lush and infectious, this documentary by celebrated German director Wim Wenders follows the adventures of the title’s musical collective — an orchestra of seasoned musicians who travel the world celebrating the beauty of Cuban tropical music from decades past. Added to the registry in 2020.


scene from the film real women have curves

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23. Real Women Have Curves (2002)

Directed by Patricia Cardoso — one of only two Latina directors in the National Film Registry — this coming-of-age tale marked the film debut of 18-year-old America Ferrera playing Ana Garcia, a Mexican American teen with college aspirations who struggles with the cultural expectations placed on her by her mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros). Added to the registry in 2019.

Ernesto Lechner is a contributing writer who covers music, film, and culture. A frequent contributor to the Latin Grammy Awards, his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone and Billboard, among other major publications.

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