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Break of Dawn a serious treatment of problems of Hispanics


Directed by Isaac Artenstein.

Starring Oscar Chavez, Maria Rojo,

Tony Plana, and Pepe Serna.

At the Museum of Fine Arts,

October 5 at 8 pm.


BREAK OF DAWN is an independent film by writer-director Isaac Artenstein about the conditions in which Hispanics in the United States live and the choices they are forced to make. Set in Los Angeles of 1920s and 1930s, the film is the true story of Pedro J. Gonzales, the first Spanish-language radio and recording star in the United States, who was sent to San Quentin prison in 1934 on trumped-up charges.

A former telegraph operator for Pancho Villa, Gonzales comes with his wife to the United States to escape the political turmoil and economic hardships of life in Mexico. He manages to get a job reading commercials in Spanish on radio station KMPC, after convincing the manager that broadcasting in Spanish (a feat never before attempted) would not be catastrophic. After a while, Gonzales starts his own radio program, "Los Madrogadores," which is broadcast from 4-6 am daily. Gonzalez' ballads become widely popular since they reach the Hispanic working class before they go to work each day.

It is not long before the corrupt district attorney, in his bid for re-election, buys radio time on Gonzalez show. The Spanish advertisements, read by the now-famous Gonzalez, turn out to be instrumental in mobilizing the Hispanic vote and ensuring the re-election of the district attorney. However, as the depression sinks in, the Hispanic community becomes an easy scapegoat for the right wing. Over half a million Hispanic workers, whose presence had been crucial in building the Californian economy, are deported. Gonzalez starts attending rallies and using his radio show to protest the treatment of Hispanics. Suddenly, he is viewed as a threat by the establishment, which decides to silence him. Finally, he is framed on a phony rape charge through the contrivance of the DA and the Los Angeles police chief.

Break of Dawn is in many ways a bi-national film. The cast is led by Mexico's popular actor and singer Oscar Chavez (Pedro J. Gonzalez) and Maria Rojo (Pedro's wife Maria). The script is bilingual, and the dialogue for the Spanish actors flows in and out of both languages fluidly while Spanish words appear comically in the speeches of the English-speaking actors. (It is interesting to note that Oscar Chavez, whose presence brings a quiet dignity to the film, learned his English dialogue phonetically.) Director Artenstein and producer Jude Eberhard take a substantial risk in dividing their movie between English and Spanish, but the foreign language lends a ring of authenticity to the story.

So does the historical footage deftly threaded throughout the movie. Considering that the film was made on a budget of less than a million dollars (extremely low by Hollywood standards) and that sections of San Diego had to be converted to Los Angeles of 1930s, requiring period pieces such as cars and costumes, the film is a remarkable achievement.

Oscar Chavez' acting is subtle and dignified. Rather than portraying Gonzalez simply as a heroic character in the traditional fashion, the script makes allowances for his fallacies, including his fling with an attractive tango singer. The audience forgives Gonzalez' mistakes since he is sincere in his repentance and is an honest man. Oscar Chavez wisely chooses not to overplay his part. Chavez' beautiful, deep voice and the songs chosen, a couple of which were written by Gonzalez himself, are some of the strongest assets of the film.

Maria Rojo is convincing as the devoted wife. Tony Plana is excellent as Gene Rodriguez, the right-hand man of the district attorney, who does not hesitate to persecute his fellow Hispanics in his quest to become politically powerful. Break of Dawn is interesting in its calm and direct presentation of problems associated with racism. Despite its technical limitations, this film deserves to be seen.