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Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection – Caroline Frick

Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection
Antonio Rodríguez Fuentes, 14 reels, 9.5mm, 1920s and 1930s
Preserved by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and the Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Added to National Film Registry: 2017

Essay by Caroline Frick

Named to the National Film Registry in 2017, the Fuentes family collection well illustrates the multifaceted, contradictory values embedded in home movies. On a basic level, the collection content appears common and even banal:  Adorable toddlers learning new skills, grandparents waving to the camera, and footage of local parades.  Closer examination of the film artifact, however, reveals that these seemingly ubiquitous images turn a brief spotlight on a particularly unique place in the United States:  South Texas and the Texas-Mexico border region.  La Frontera, the borderlands, has been documented in mainstream journalism and Hollywood media throughout the last 120 years primarily, if not solely, as a site of violence, drug cartels, poverty, and ongoing socio-political crisis.  Indigenous media of the area, amateur video, local television, and home movies, like the Fuentes family collection, help complicate this problematic national narrative and offer insight into a location very much its own.

Born and raised on his family’s ranch in Montemorelos, Nuevo León, Antonio Rodríguez Fuentes (1895-1988) moved to the US-Mexico border community of Laredo, Texas in the early twentieth century.  Fuentes traveled to the South Texas port city of Corpus Christi in the 1910s and, according to his family, decided to settle in Corpus due to its geographic beauty.  Indeed, the area’s proximity to beautiful beaches, one section of which would later be established as the Padre Island National Seashore, ample fishing, and its temperate climate had long served as an attractive location for human habitation including the Karankawa tribe, early Spanish colonialists, and the American military.  The advent of the moving image in the late nineteenth century, concomitant with the growth of modern advertising, played an important role in the further development of South Texas.  Commercially shot short subjects promoted the work of real estate and industrial entrepreneurs who aspired to make the borderlands the next boomtown. According to one orphaned promotional film:

The Lure of the Rio Grande Valley (1927)

“Like Ponce de Leon and La Salle of old, like Jason and the Golden Fleece – Mankind still takes the trail to find the Rainbow’s End and the Land of the Ideal.  Just now, thousands of winter-weary northerners – and Chicagoans in particular, are hiring entrance to the new Mecca of the Southland, the extreme southern tip of the United States where Uncle Sam meets Mexico – The Valley of the Rio Grande.”[1]

Antonio Fuentes migrated to South Texas during a time in which the region would move from its largely rural and remote past to this increasingly commodified, modern, and connected era.  In Corpus, Antonio worked at the local Mexican consulate and was introduced to Josefina Barrera (1898-1993).  Josefina, the daughter of two prominent members of the Mexican American community in the city, and Antonio wed in 1918.  As reflected in their home movie collection, the Fuentes family grew over the years with the birth of five children:  Ruben, Ophelia, Mercedes, Antonio, and Carmen.  Many, if not all, of the children appear in one of the earliest of the Fuentes films.

If American home movies of the early to mid-twentieth century had a canonical list of chronicled events, Christmas morning – starring bedraggled parents, over-excited children, laconic, and eye-rolling teenagers – would be one.  Unlike many of these Christmas morning home movies, shot in low-level lighting with blurry, unsteady footage capturing the chaos of a family living room, the Fuentes collection showcases its frenzied holiday outside in the strong Texas sun.  Under a festively decorated tree, the older children glance up to the camera holding new toys while the younger ones sit idly by seemingly content on the small exterior porch.

Was this an annual family tradition, to enjoy Christmas morning outside?  Perhaps.  But more likely, Antonio strove to avoid one of the well-known pitfalls of amateur movie-making – low-level lighting – and carefully planned to not waste any of the footage, capturing fleeting moments of Christmas joy.  Like most amateur filmmakers, however, not much is known about Antonio’s likely self-taught introduction to making movies.  His children later noted that he had been a passionate hobbyist, but relatively few films appear to have been retained over time and the number of films he made remains unknown.  The extant material produced by Antonio Fuentes in the 1920 and 1930s, and donated to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in 1992, however, prove valuable both in form and content.

Fuentes shot his films on a Pathe Baby 9.5mm camera, a format far more popularly used in France and England than in North America.  Due to Edison’s virtual monopoly within the United States, Fuentes’ use of the French system offers evidence to the borderlands’ unique positioning – both geographically and culturally.  Over the last forty years, significant research into amateur movie-making has occurred in Europe, the British Commonwealth, and the U.S.  More recently, scholars, archivists, and independent filmmakers have begun piecing together a non-theatrical history for Mexico and other Spanish-speaking nations in the Americas.  As more research is produced in this area going forward, the Fuentes collection will prove an interesting contribution to the discussion of global formats and aesthetics.

The family, like most border denizens, fluidly moved back and forth between the two countries and the collection illustrates life on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border in the twentieth century’s inter-war era.  In addition, Antonio and Josefina, like her parents before them, became actively involved in the Mexican American sociedades mutualistas, or “mutual aid” societies.  Such organizations offered vital assistance to new immigrants to the United States and began to fight for labor rights and against racial discrimination towards Mexican Americans.  Antonio became an important member of mutual aid societies in Corpus Christi, serving on group boards, representing them in national meetings, and even providing insurance for members over time.[2]

In one of his films named to the Registry, a home movie simply labeled as “Mexican American Community in Corpus Christi (1920s),” Antonio filmed a march (or simple parade?) by the mutual aid society Obreros y Obreras.  Although the exact date of the film cannot be determined, the film offers a remarkable, perhaps unwitting, look at the faces of some of the country’s earliest Mexican American civil rights activists.  Indeed, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Mexican American civil rights organization in the country, was founded at Salón Obreros y Obreras in Corpus in 1929.  Antonio and Josefina were close associates with many of the founding members of LULAC and the family’s collection of documents, photographs, and ledgers related to these organizations – not the films – served as the basis for their donation to an archival repository.

For the purposes of the National Film Registry, the Fuentes family collection offers a reminder that what might appear inherently personal in nature and appeal can capture, even unwittingly, brief moments of significant interest to matters of ongoing public discourse.  Alongside the Zapruder film or images of the Topaz internment camp, the Fuentes collection offers a glimpse into national discourse when it is more local or regional, before issues are deemed more “significant” in scope and understanding by federal legislation or national media outlets.  Fuentes shot local, amateur, or “home movies” of a burgeoning civil rights movement in the Southwest United States, of the immigrant experience, and even border policy through the pleasure of filming his family and life.

Although aesthetically simple, the Fuentes family films employed specific technology that offers insight into the intersections of global commerce, art, and industry.  Perhaps most importantly, the Fuentes collection illustrates how home movies both demand – and help create – a revitalized, ever-changing history of the United States.  This small Tejano collection, in total only about fifteen minutes worth of fragmented memory and imagery, embody and evoke our society’s complicated understandings of locality, place, and identity.

[1] https://texasarchive.org/2009_02291

[2] For more information on these organizations, see: https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/vna02


Caroline Frick is the founder of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and a professor of media history at the University of Texas at Austin.