Paco (Edward James Olmos) begins to tell us the story of his family from the time when his father Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) still lived in a remote village in Mexico. Mixing a little urban folklore with some exaggerated tales, Paco narrates some key events in the lives of his mostly dysfunctional relatives. His story encompasses six decades of his family’s struggles and hopes living as immigrants in Los Angeles, California, a place they still considered as part of Mexico.
His father, a modest young man, works mowing lawns in the most affluent parts of town. In one of those houses, he meets a child caretaker named Maria (Jennifer Lopez) and eventually marries her. They have two kids: Paco and Irene. It’s 1933. Maria is expecting her third child. One day at the market, the Border Patrol detains her and deports her without any questions. They don’t notify Jose who doesn’t hear from her for the next two years.
Maria gives birth in Mexico and calls the boy Jesus, later known as Chucho (Esai Morales). After his second birthday, Maria takes the risk to cross the border in what almost becomes a fatal journey to reunite with a still discouraged Jose.
Paco resumes the story in 1958 when the now larger family is enjoying the American dream. Gathering for Irene’s wedding, the family is introduced to us with their particular characteristics: Paco himself has enrolled in the Navy, in uniform, he makes his father proud; Chucho, a cocky young man, dresses to kill and loves mambo. Toni, Memo, and Jimmy look up to their older siblings and enjoy their now promising lives.
All of that changes when fate seems to catch up with Chucho and his temperament. Tragedy strikes and its consequences affect everyone’s lives, but mostly Jimmy (Jimmy Smits), the youngest. After twenty years pass, when all the children have left home, Maria and Jose sit quietly, gratefully drinking coffee in spite of all their lives’ sorrows and challenges.
This is a 1995 film about life’s turns; a reminder that sometimes, painful and unfair, life also offers us love and close bonds that help us survive it all. Director Gregory Nava, writer Anna Thomas, and the whole cast put a magnifying glass on the lives of this Mexican-American family that resemble many of us.