The story is narrated by the family's oldest son, Paco (Edward James Olmos). The film begins with the father of the family, José Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), making a journey that lasts one year on foot from Mexico to Los Angeles. He travels to Los Angeles to meet a distant relative known as El Californio, who was born in the city when it was still part of Mexico. They become fast friends and grew a corn farm together. However, after several years, El Californio nears death. Shortly before dying, El Californio says he wants the following written on his tombstone:
When I was born here, this was Mexico, and where I die, this is still Mexico.
José meets and marries the love of his life, María (Jennifer Lopez), an American citizen. After María is illegally deported to Mexico by the U.S. federal government in a mass roundup, she makes it back to Los Angeles via a long and arduous trip two years later, where she returns home with their new son Chucho.
Twenty years later in 1958 or 1959, eldest daughter Irene (first played by Maria Canals, later by Lupe Ontiveros) is getting married. Chucho (Esai Morales) and Paco (Benito Martinez) have grown up. New additions to the family include Toni (Constance Marie), Guillermo "Memo" (played by Greg Albert as a child, and by Enrique Castillo as an adult), and brother Jimmy (Jonathan Hernandez as a child, Jimmy Smits as an adult).
The film begins to gain momentum after the wedding, when a series of events seal Chucho's fate. One night at a dance hall, Chucho is dancing with his girlfriend, when his rival Butch Mejia (Michael DeLorenzo) starts to bother him. This results in a bloody knife fight between the two, and Chucho accidentally kills him. After this event, Chucho becomes a fugitive of the police. One night when Jimmy is playing ball with his friends, Chucho is shot dead by the LAPD right in front of Jimmy. Other members of the family learn of Chucho's death when they hear gunshots and rush to a nearby street. As an ambulance arrives to take Chucho's lifeless body away, we hear Paco narrate how Chucho's whole life had been on borrowed time.
The third generation, which takes place another twenty years later in the 1970s, faces situations such as acculturation, assimilation, and past problems of the family.
Jimmy (now played by Jimmy Smits) completes a stint in jail and returns home. It is revealed that after Chucho's death 20 years back, Jimmy became an angry man following in his footsteps becoming a fugitive like him. One day, Toni visits the Sanchez home and stuns her parents with the news that she is no longer a nun and has married a priest named David Ronconi (Scott Bakula). Toni and David become involved in helping political refugees. When they find out that a Salvadoran refugee, Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo), becomes a target for murder and is being held for deportation back to El Salvador, Toni convinces Jimmy to marry her so that she is able to stay in the U.S.
Jimmy is resistant to the idea of being a married man; however, Isabel slowly makes herself at home and Jimmy has no choice but to let her stay with him. As Jimmy works on his car listening to "I'm Your Puppet", Isabel comes up to him and changes the music in the cassette-player. She tries to get him to dance with her on the street. At first he doesn't want to, but she finally succeeds in teaching him some steps. He asks her at the end of the song, "Will you teach me how to salsa?" It is here that Jimmy finally lets Isabel into his heart and where they both understand that although other people don't understand them, they know now who they really are together.
Isabel becomes pregnant, but unfortunately dies after giving birth to their son, Carlitos. Enraged, Jimmy attacks the doctor who he blames for her death, burglarizes a store, and is jailed, leaving his son to be raised by his parents. When Jimmy gets out of prison, he initially doesn't want anything to do with his son who is a spirited, but trouble-making child. When Jimmy finally sees his son, he is filled with joy and immediately wants to care for him. However, his son hates him, who thinks his real father is a cattle rancher that lives in Texas. After Jimmy decides to change his life around for the good of his son, Carlitos accepts him and moves with him to Texas.
The film concludes with Jose and Maria reminiscing about their past as Jose says "God has been good to us, we've been very lucky, and our life it has been very...very good" and the camera pans to a shot of Los Angeles.
While the film was distributed by New Line Cinema, many production companies were involved in the making of the film, including: American Playhouse, Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope, Majestic Films International, and Newcomb Productions. Gregory Nava has stated that the film has autobiographic overtones, but the film was more inspirational rather than specific. Nava says, "A lot of the specifics came from other families when I was doing research for the film in East Los Angeles." The final scene is duplicated shot-for-shot from the final scene of Satyajit Ray's 1959 film The World of Apu.
Filming began in 1994. The film was filmed in both California and Mexico. In California locations include: Agoura Hills and Los Angeles, California. In Mexico locations include: Ocumicho, Patamba, and Pátzcuaro, all in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.
Reviews were generally positive. The film has an 83% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on ten reviews from professional critics, with an average rating of 7.3/10.
Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, liked the direction of the film, and wrote, "Their story is told in images of startling beauty and great overflowing energy; it is rare to hear so much laughter from an audience that is also sometimes moved to tears. Few movies like this get made because few filmmakers have the ambition to open their arms wide and embrace so much life."
Film critics Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, who write for the web based Spirituality and Practice, liked the film, the acting and the direction of the film. They wrote, "My Family is a touching and often mystical portrait of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in East Los Angeles...Director Gregory Nava (El Norte) does a fine job orchestrating the many events in this emotionally resonant drama."
But not all were so kind. Caryn James, in a film review in The New York Times wrote the film was "wildly uneven" and "offers a trite, overblown narration by Edward James Olmos and an often flagging sense of drama." She was also not happy with Nava's direction and wrote, "[Nava] seems so enamored of the texture of Mexican-American life that he glides past any sense of character." Yet, she was very complimentary of Jimmy Smits' performance.
WinsNCLR Bravo Award: NCLR Bravo Award; Outstanding Feature Film; 1995.
Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival: OCIC Award, Gregory Nava; 1995.
Young Artist Awards: Young Artist Award; Best Young Supporting Actor - Feature Film, Jonathan Hernandez; 1996.
NominatedCasting Society of America: Artios Award; Best Casting for Feature Film, Best Casting for Drama Feature Film, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson, and Roger Mussenden; 1995.
Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival: Golden Seashell; Gregory Nava; 1995.
Academy Awards: Oscar; Best Make-Up, Best Makeup, Ken Diaz and Mark Sanchez; 1996.
Independent Spirit Awards: Independent Spirit Award; Best Male Lead, Jimmy Smits; Best Supporting Female, Jennifer Lopez; 1996.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
My Family opened in the United States in wide release on May 3, 1995. In the United Kingdom it opened on October 6, 1995. The film was screened at a few film festivals including the Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival, Spain. Sales at the box-office were lackluster. The first week's gross was $2,164,840 and the total receipts for the run were $11,079,373. The budget of the film is estimated at $5,500,000.
A video was released April 8, 1997 and a DVD version was released on June 9, 2004 by New Line Home Video. A Spanish version video was also released.
For the original motion picture soundtrack the producers include a cross section of Latino music, including a merengue and a mambo. The song "Angel Baby" by Rosie and the Originals, is included as well, sung by Exposé vocalist Jeanette Jurado. In the movie, Jurado made a cameo appearance as Rosie Hamlin performing the song.
A CD was released on April 25, 1995 on the Nonesuch Records label. The CD contains fourteen tracks including the main title theme written by Mark McKenzie and Pepe Avila. Gregory Nava wrote the liner notes for the CD. Composer Mark McKenzie also released Con Passione (2001), a CD that contains various music he has written for films including seven tracks for My Family.