Every so often, Frank Cruz would walk into his spacious garage in Laguna Niguel and contemplate the boxes filled with things old and unused: tax returns, clothes and paperwork from his days as a Chicano studies professor, TV news reporter and anchor, co-founder of the Spanish-language network Telemundo and of a pioneering Latino-owned insurance company. Not to mention notes from the many boards he’s served on, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But there was one particular big blue box — between another containing his now-adult children’s baby teeth and one with a daughter’s wedding dress — that always gnawed at him. Its label read: “Chicano Series.”
Inside were nine 16-millimeter film reels of “Chicano I & II: The Mexican American Heritage Series,” the television show that first aired on KNBC-TV in Los Angeles in July 1971. The series, hosted by Cruz when he was in his early 30s, also played on sister stations in Chicago, New York, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.
For 50 years, the reels remained in his garage, largely untouched.
On a recent August day, Cruz, now 82, thought to himself as he had dozens of times before: “Pendejo, you better do something about those films. It might be too late.”
And he did. His contacts led him to a film archivist at USC who digitized the film and created a website for them. For the first time since they aired and reran in the early 1970s, nine of 20 episodes from the Chicano series are now publicly available on the website for USC’s Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. (No film exists from the “Chicano II” portion of the series, and Episode 6, titled “The War Years,” was missing from Cruz’s first-volume holdings.)
“I was prepared to hear that [Dino Everett, the archivist] wasn’t able to do it because the film was too brittle, that they had broken and that they were no good because the images fade,” says Cruz. But a couple weeks later, “after 10 candles and a prayer to Santo Niño de Atocha, he called me and said, ‘Frank, I’ve been able to transfer them.’”
Cruz was elated. “We’re preserving history.”
“‘Stereotyping in the Mass Media,’ I mean you could write a headline with that today!” Natalia Molina, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC, says about one of the episode’s titles.
The series, she says, was trying to show that “Mexicans aren’t docile, that they’re people. They’re like you and I. They live lives in three dimensions. They have families. They create. They were just trying to bring humanity to what we think of when we think of the Latinx population. And that is still something we’re struggling to do today.
“No one had done anything like it,” she adds. “The series was cutting-edge then and I think, unfortunately, it’s cutting edge now.”
Many of the show’s guests and interviewees spearheaded the issues and topics covered and were among the first in their field, such as Nava or Ricardo “Richard” Romo, an author and urban historian whom Molina, a 2020 MacArthur fellow, credits for laying the groundwork for her research.
“Chicano I & II: The Mexican American Heritage Series” can be viewed on the website of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at: uschefnerarchive.com/chicano.