Hispanidad: Mexico film perspective odd

By GREGORY TEJEDA, United Press International  |  Jan. 7, 2003 at 8:07 AM
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I've always taken pride in being of Mexican descent, but rarely has the country of my family's origin seemed as alien as it does now in the aftermath of two U.S. cinematic attempts to portray Mexico's cultural icons.

Critics in Mexico are blasting the current film "Frida," about the life of renowned painter Frida Kahlo, and an upcoming made-for-cable television film "And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself," because they believe Hollywood is trying to put an "American" spin on Mexican historic figures who openly despised the United States.

Lead actors for both productions also have Mexicans upset.

Antonio Banderas is playing Villa in the HBO production. But he's a Spaniard, not a Mexican. The real Villa had as little use for Spain as he did "los Estados Unidos."

Meanwhile, Salma Hayek (who is Mexican) is being blasted as a traitor to her country because her film was made in English, rather than "en Espanol."

So south of the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, as it's called by Mexicans), the U.S. entertainment industry is perceived as showing gross disrespect to Mexico. But in the United States, people view the industry's efforts as showing a long overdue respect to Mexican culture.

Hollywood historically was a place that viewed Mexico as a whole lot of desert and cactus, with assorted bandits and donkeys thrown into the mix.

Legendary Mexican actress Maria Felix is world renowned except in the United States, because she hated the few cheap, vampish roles Hollywood offered her, and thus never bothered to make movies in English. Meanwhile, an actor like Anthony Quinn had to emphasize his father's Irish side of the family over his mother's Mexican roots in order to get work, and still wound up playing many swarthy character roles throughout the years.

Hollywood produced movies like the 1934 historic abomination "Viva Villa!" starring Wallace Beery as the Mexican Revolution leader, and viewed the 1994 film "The Cisco Kid" as a historically detailed account of Mexico.

It isn't.

Watching Jimmy Smits and "Cheech" Marin save 19th century Mexico from evil French and Confederate renegades is about as accurate as believing that Indiana Jones actually defeated the Nazis and swiped the Ark of the Covenant from the clutches of Adolf Hitler.

So it is progress for anyone in the United States to sympathetically portray Kahlo or Villa -- who are unknowns to the Britney Spears generation that is the target audience for most Hollywood productions these days.

For the record, I believe Hayek's Golden Globe nomination for her work in "Frida" is well-deserved, although the film's use of English as a substitute for Spanish is bizarre.

Aside from a version of the Mexican folk song "La Bruja" (The Witch) that still echoes through my mind, the only Spanish word uttered by Hayek during the film was "ponson" -- Kahlo's pet name for her husband, famed painter Diego Rivera. Considering the term (it means "fat man") could also be applied to myself, it was jarring to hear it over and over, interspersed with dialogue that was otherwise entirely in English.

But seeing Kahlo's memory re-introduced to an Anglo audience is a good thing if it makes people realize that culture (even in the form of some of Kahlo's overly morbid self-portraits) can come from Latin America.

I'm also looking forward to the Villa picture this summer, since I understand it will portray Pancho as viewed by Mexicans -- that of a freedom fighter of sorts during the Mexican Revolution who cut taxes, built schools and fought for the people against corrupt police and soldiers.

I can already hear in my mind the Anglo anger, particularly from the southwestern U.S. border towns where the real-life Villa led raids. They prefer to think of him as just another bandit who terrorized "decent folk" (18 U.S. citizens were killed during one 1916 raid near Columbus, N.M.) and had the audacity to engage U.S. Army troops led by future World War I hero "Black Jack" Pershing.

But that does not make the Mexican reaction any less parochial, although nowhere near as extreme as the way Al Jazeera television network reports on Palestinian "freedom fighters" who struggle to survive against American-backed Israeli killers.

It is crucial to note that Mexican-Americans do not share this view. There has been no outpouring of criticism in the United States from Hispanics, and many enjoy seeing Mexican culture interpreted for a larger audience.

It is not new for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to disagree. Some people in Mexico still cling to the view that their U.S. brethren are disloyal for making a life in another country, rather than their ethnic homeland.

Many Mexican-Americans, citizens and immigrants alike, would respond that one reason greater opportunities exist to succeed in life in the United States is because of the Mexicans who are most critical -- the upper-classes who virtually lock out anyone unlike themselves from being able to succeed.

So what lesson can be learned from the cinematic "split?"

Despite the isolationists who fear the United States is being taken over by foreign cultures, the U.S. "melting pot" that combines people of all ethnicities and races still works. The split is more evidence that Mexican-Americans, like other immigrants, are becoming more of the latter than the former.

(Hispanidad is a weekly column about the culture of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, written by Greg Tejeda, a third-generation Mexican-American. Suggestions for topics can be made to gtejeda@upi.com).

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