By Bel Hernandez
Film festivals are an amazing place to discover films and filmmakers who you instinctively know you want to see more of. Recently at the Mexican American Film & Television Festival, there were several short films that fit the description. One that caught our attention, and an audience favorite, was The First Cowboy, written, executive produced, and co-directed by Dr. Jose-Luis Ruiz and produced by Johnny Murillo.
The First Cowboy recounts the powerful and engaging story of how Mexicans, the original inhabitants of the Southwest, and Americans co-existed before the human cost of the ultimate US conquest of Texas. The story is told through the eyes of two families, the gentile Southerner Palmers, and the educated, progressive land owners, la familia Velascos.
The film is both a love story and an epic human story that depicts the initial mistrust between the Protestant Palmers and the Catholic Velascos. The friendship begins with the slow and reluctant interaction which blossoms into affection and pacts made between them, and then the eventual betrayal, followed by dehumanizing domination.
In 2018 Dr. Ruiz formed a non-profit organization, the Mexican American Cultural Education Foundation (MACEF) with the goal to spotlight the endless contributions the Mexican-American people (Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, or 1st generation immigrant) and their rich culture have given to America.
To that end, in 2022 MACEF launched the first ever Mexican American Film & TV Festival. This year the film festival grew exponentially with over 100 projects submitted this year, and where trailblazers like pioneering writer/director Luis Valdez (La Bamba, Zoot Zuit, The Cisco Kid) are honored with the Illustrious Award for their contributions to the world of cinema.
But why is a festival dedicated to Mexican Americans? Simply put, he reminds us that Mexicans-Americans are the largest percentage of the U.S.Latino population.
There are 63 million Latinos in the U.S. Mexicans who can trace their ancestors to Mexico, make up 21% of the U.S. population, a group that contribute the largest portion of the $1.7 trillion annual GDP Latinos are noted for to the U.S. economy, yet Mexicans are the most vilified and not given the credit they deserve, according to Dr. Ruiz.
The mission of MACEF is “To change the narrative by educating the community about the endless positive contributions the Mexican-American people, (Chicano, Chicanx, Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, or 1st generation immigrant), and their rich culture have given to America, which is often unrecognized. This is to be achieved by promoting unity, education, pride, and progress.”
The First Cowboy is based on a novel by the same name written by Dr. Ruiz. It delves into the tradition of the American cowboy, the subject matter of countless Hollywood movies. But those movies have never dealt with the true origin of the Mexican “vaquero” whose traditions were adapted to create the iconic American “Cowboy”, which was truly a Mexican tradition.
Dr. Ruiz has long been studying the history of the Mexican Vaquero and now has produced and co-directed the film that tells the story, The First Cowboy.
I sat down with Dr. Ruiz to delve into the story, his book the film is based on and the reason this story is important.
Q: Dr. Ruiz, congratulations on your film The First Cowboy, and the great response you had at the festival. I love the subject matter, and I had heard that the American cowboy learned from the Mexican Vaqueros but did not know all of the story. Why did you feel the need to write about it and then take the next step and make a short film?
DR. RUIZ: This is a crucial part of the history of Mexicans in American history that the history books have never told correctly. Before writing my fiction novel The First Cowboy, The Collision of Two Great Cultures, I did extensive research and hired a historian to dig out information about the lives of the people who lived at this time. This film is an adaptation of the novel.
Q: One thing we enjoyed and the audience seemed to enjoy as well as the references to the Mexican vaqueros teaching Americans the Mexican vaquero culture, why do you think this is so well received by the audience?
DR. RUIZ: If you read the news and see Hollywood films, you would have to assume Mexicans are newcomers to America, and who barely contribute to this country. Few Americans understand that Mexicans have been part of America for almost 200 years and have contributed in endless ways to make America what it is today, but have never been credited for it. What is more American than the cowboy? Well, the fact is that the vaqueros are the original American Cowboys, almost a carbon copy of the Mexican vaquero and that is a thing of great pride for Mexicans and Latinos, and to see it on the screen makes all of us very proud.
Q: We know that while you are an award-winning novelist, this is in fact your first film. What made you confident that you could make such an impactful short?
DR. RUIZ: I feel very fortunate to have found such a great producer in Johnny Murillo within his production company Chicano Hollywood. He and his production team are very talented and who worked tirelessly to make my story come true on the screen.
I am a creative, and I have a vision and I guarded this vision throughout the casting, production, and post-production, to closely adhere to the novel. I feel so proud of the truly remarkable actors who turned in stellar performances like Fernanda Kelly, Mauricio Mendoza, Ryon Thomas, Bree Segars, and Glen Baggerly.
Q: The audience loved the film and expressed their desire to see the whole story in a feature film. What are your plans in that regard?
DR. RUIZ: I am excited to tell you that I am also working on the full feature, and I am currently shopping the film for major studios and using the short as a proof-of-concept. I am confident soon everyone will be able to see the full-feature film on the big screen.
Q: When can people see the film?
DR. RUIZ: Currently, the full 20-minute short film can only be seen at film festivals. But in the meantime, everyone can see the trailer on my website.
The talented cast of The First Cowboy includes the leads Mauricio Mendoza as Don Ignacio Velasco and Fernanda Kelly as his wife Maria. Ryon Thomas and Bre Segars play the Palmers with Emma Elle Bird as the Young wife.
This story first appeared on LatinHeat.com.