Paul Espinosa, an Emmy Award-winning Independent Filmmaker and Professor Emeritus of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, explains that he was “looking for a nontraditional way of combining anthropology and media” while pursuing a PhD in anthropology at Stanford University in the 1970s. This training in cultural analysis helped Espinosa look for the traces of little known and little documented histories that would become the hallmark of his award-winning films.
His first California Humanities-sponsored project, The Trail North (1983), documented the journeys from Mexico to the United States by the family of his collaborator, Robert Alvarez, across several generations. Through the experience of one family, a larger story of the Mexican and Mexican American experience in the United States emerged. Espinosa explains, “there was a deep relationship between Mexico and the United States that went back a century and a half, at least, if not more, and to understand it, you had to understand how and why families move over time. That was part of the whole idea behind that film.”
In the course of his research, Espinosa discovered that some of the families who had migrated from Baja California along with the Alvarez family had been involved in the nation’s first successful legal challenge to school segregation. His 1986 documentary, The Lemon Grove Incident, brought to light the largely unknown story of the Mexican Americans in a San Diego suburb who successfully sued the local School Board. Nearly 25 years before Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Lemon Grove case redefines what Espinosa calls the “battle for educational equity” as an ongoing multi-ethnic struggle that began with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
The Lemon Grove Incident was an innovative film, especially at the time of its making, because it mixed traditional documentary methods with historical re-enactment. The aesthetic choice, Espinosa says, was “born out of necessity” as when he began researching the story, he found only two short articles about the case in San Diego newspapers. The invisibility of Mexican Americans was made clear to him through a visit to a local archive that contained less than five images documenting Mexican American life in San Diego before World War II.
The award-winning film has been widely recognized for its exceptional story and experimental form, securing, among other awards, three Emmys and the 1986 CINE Golden Eagle. But its lasting legacy will be the part it has played in revealing the important contributions Mexican Americans played in the history of the civil rights movement and the part California played in this national story.