'Endgame' is inspired by a real-life teacher and chess coach in Brownsville, Texas
Teacher J.J. Guajardo led Latino youths to seven consecutive Texas team championships
Modern Family's Rico Rodriguez leads all-Latino cast
Carmen Marron has been described as “Hollywood’s most improbable auteur,” and as a Latina filmmaker, the description alone certainly qualifies her.
Latinos, after all, make up only 2.3% of directors, 2.7% of producers, 6% of writers and 0% of studio heads, according to a recent Columbia University study of Hollywood movies.
Dare to count women in those categories, and the representation worsens woefully, Marron says.
Now writer-director-producer Marron seeks to leverage Hispanic Heritage Month for her newest film, “Endgame,” with an all-Hispanic cast led by Rico Rodriguez, the teen who plays Manny on the TV comedy “Modern Family.”
“Endgame,” however, is no comedy romp.
It is an inspirational film loosely based on a real story of a Latino schoolteacher in Brownsville, Texas, who uses the game of chess to transform Rodriguez’s character and his Latino classmates into state champions against enormous hardship.
Clarification: Make that Texas state chess champions for seven consecutive years. It’s true.
The film depicts the triumph of teacher and his pupils from impoverished, struggling families on the U.S.-Mexico border, whose image today is a forsaken corner of Earth in the ongoing presidential political rancor about illegal immigration.
Marron, a former school guidance counselor in Phoenix, became intrigued when she heard about the academic achievement of teacher Jose Juan “J.J.” Guajardo.
“When I started researching it, it was, ‘Oh my gosh! This is a modern-day “Stand and Deliver”!’ It’s based on true events on the border,” Marron said.
Marron places “Endgame” in the same genre of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” also about a real high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, and the 1997 film “Selena,” a biopic on the life and death of Tejano-style singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez.
“Right now, I’m feeling there has been such a pride that Latinos have been longing to connect with. For some reason, this movie is connecting with that,” Marron said.
“It’s like a feeling that when I talk to people after the movie, the movie reminds them how proud they are to be Latino. The idiosyncrasies and everything that comes with growing up in a Latino home, it reminds them of that,” the independent filmmaker said.
Marron, whose late father was from Michoacan, Mexico, and late mother from Guerrero, Mexico, is one of 10 children raised in Chicago. Both of her parents were undocumented immigrants who became citizens, and illegal immigration is also a minor theme in the film.
A big, potential audience
Big Media knows well that a lucrative audience exists in the Latino community: They attend more movies and listen to radio more frequently than do any other U.S. racial or ethnic group, according to Columbia University’s “The Latino Media Gap” report.
As a few studios and filmmakers such as Marron try to harness this vast audience, the representation of Latinos in front of and behind the camera hasn’t kept pace with the community’s expansion, said Frances Negron-Muntaner, the study’s chief author and the director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
“There’s still a gap because the population continues to grow but representation, when it grows, keep zigzagging and doesn’t keep pace with the population growth,” Negron-Muntaner said. “We are very far away from closing the gap.”
Then there’s the matter of Hollywood stereotyping Latinos as cops, criminals and maids.
“The issue is not only the measure of proportion as one to think about it, but it’s also about the quality of representation,” Negron-Muntaner.
A filmmaker who does it all
Enter Marron and her new film. Her earlier feature film in 2011, “Go for It!,” became a rags-to-film-festival-success story about the trials of a Latina student who dreams of being a hip hop dancer.
Leading the way in “Endgame” is Rodriguez, now 17, who makes his first foray into feature films after starring in “Modern Family” since 2009.
As it happens, Rodriguez is from College Station, Texas, and Marron met his parents and family before making the film.
“His parents said to me, ‘We love this story because this story represents our family and a lot of family in Texas,’ ” Marron said. “When I was writing the script for the (main) Jose character, Rico came to mind, and I couldn’t get him out of my mind.”
The Rodriguez character is a composite of chess-playing youngsters in Brownsville, but the teacher character is inspired by real-life educator and chess team coach J.J. Guajardo.
“Down in Brownsville, a lot of people knew me as a chess guy. I loved being the chess guy, but I was also a great teacher. At least I felt I was,” said Guajardo.
Guajardo was a consultant to the film and ensured that the chess lingo and student behavior were accurate.
His real-life struggle as the patron of Brownsville’s chess culture was more difficult than portrayed in the movie, he said. Still, the film captures the soul of his trailblazing.
The movie “is very different to what actually really happened” in his coaching of youngsters to chess championship, he said.
“When I began, there was no structure” to any chess teams at Russell Elementary School in Brownsville, Guajardo said.
In fact, he recalled how he had to drive sixth-grade students at midnight across the long distances in Texas so they could all arrive at a tourney by 6:30 a.m. or so, Guajardo said.
He also struggled to find kids to play chess for the second year because the sixth-graders advanced to a middle school.
By the third year, the team consisted of three fifth-graders and his two sons, who were in first and second grades, he said.
“That was the first team that won the first title in 1993” at the Texas Junior Scholastic Championship held in San Antonio, he said. The team even made it to a national chess tournament, but the team tied for one of the lower places, Guajardo said.
By the fourth year, Guajardo had 40 kids waiting to join the chess team, and “I even had kids who transferred from private school to play chess in our program,” Guajardo said.
Guajardo’s elementary school chess teams went on to win seven consecutive Texas chess team titles, from 1993 to 1999, he said.
His son J.J. Jr. was a team member for three years and even tied for the individual Texas state championship in 1995. J.J. Guajardo Jr. now teaches in Louisiana and was also a consultant to Marron’s film.
Brownsville as a U.S. chess capital
After the seventh team championship, Guajardo Sr. left Brownsville for McAllen about 60 miles away and continued teaching there.
“By the time I was gone, everyone was doing chess in Brownsville,” which began holding its own tournaments drawing as many as 500 students, Guajardo said. “I felt like my presence grew chess to a certain point and then stumped it.”
Today, Brownsville is known as a chess capital of the United States, according to Marron and Guajardo.
Children tote their chess sets around town and play the game in shopping malls and parks.
“Chess is really big down there. Really, really big. There are chess stores. It’s like a whole little economy has grown up around it,” Guajardo said.
Coaches now get paid to tutor.
“It’s really cool,” Guajardo said.
The film captures that spirit.
“That’s what I like about it,” Guajardo said. “It shows the impact that chess has. It goes beyond chess and it transcends the pieces on the board. It’s about human nature and seeing good and seeing the lives over the board and to see the truth as it is and work out problems on your own.”
Guajardo, now 59, has retired from teaching after 32 years and is now a wildlife photographer. He is a chess coach at a private parochial school four days a week.
AMC Theatres premieres “Endgame” Friday in Los Angeles and next month in Texas and Chicago, where Marron was born and raised in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood.