Mexico at the Multiplex
To tell its tale, Traffic needs its trafficker, the narcotraficante, who of course comes in two flavors: Mexican and Colombian. In Traffic's case, NAFTA camaraderie and the kind of script requirements that mandate no long flights, please, just a short hop across the border, dictate that its traffickers be Mexican. Once again, hip style trumps hip content. This time, no inversion of types à la Welles. Not even a trace of The Mexican's parodic voice. We are back in the land of corrupt cops once again, without relief. (Sure, Benicio del Toro is a hero, but not only is he the exception, the actor is actually Puerto Rican! The subtlety is lost on Anglo audiences, for sure, but not on Spanish-speaking viewers, who've been known to guffaw or fume at his accent.)
While the film does well at imagining a world cut loose from moral quadrants, where right and wrong are not clear choices and all decisions seem tainted by compromise, its imagination is confined to a US model. In Mexico, it ignores the very stereotype that The Mexican embraces: that Mexicans care about family, are bound to tradition and are more honorable than Americans even when it comes to crime. In Traffic, Mexico is no longer bound by such rules. We are supposed to take for granted the criminality of daily life in Mexico, especially where the police force is concerned (pace del Toro).
For a different riff on Latino life and how it could be, there is a new film by a Chicano director intent on exploring different, er, motifs, entirely. Robert Rodriguez, a third-generation Tejano, who shot to fame at 23 with El Mariachi and has now returned to fame and fortune with America's No. 1 movie (at this writing), Spy Kids. Of course, its trailers and posters don't lead anyone to expect a Latino film, but that's just what we get.
Rodriguez knows what he's doing and why: Consider right upfront that the name of the Antonio Banderas character is Gregorio Cortez. Huh? The founding film of the Chicano dramatic feature movement, made by the non-Chicano Robert M. Young, was The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring the young Edward James Olmos as the title character. A legendary Robin Hood, Gregorio Cortez was an honorable man forced into crime by a cruel and unjust posse. His fame has endured because of a corrido composed and sung in his honor. (The corrido, or border ballad, is a narrative song that passes on the news and opinions of important events and people, making them legend.)
In many ways, Spy Kids is a Chicano movie writ large, a sort of Trojan horse that smuggles the goods (ethnic pride, family values) into the multiplex disguised as entertainment (spy story, children's movie and supersonically cool paraphernalia, no doubt coming soon to a mall or McDonald's near you). Shot in his own town by a Tejano who's made it big, Spy Kids is no doubt the very film that Rodriguez wishes he could have seen as a kid and that he's now determined to give his own children. In an early scene, the boy Juni complains to Daddy about being bullied at school. "Remember!" admonishes Banderas. "You are a Cortez!" Humph, thinks the kid. "What's so special about being a Cortez?" (Maybe Juni could consult the website that New Line threw up last year for Carlos Avila's mainstream movie Price of Glory, which traces the name back to its Spanish roots--and, more interesting, addresses the curious web surfer as "you" in a tacit recognition of Latinos as the legitimate moviegoing audience and web-page viewers.)
The film is replete with references, and for every one that quotes a spy movie, there's also one that refers to Chicano culture. Carmen and Juni are average kids who turn into superheroes, once their parents are revealed to be famous spies in need of their assistance. Who tells them? Uncle Felix, of course--played by Cheech Marin, Chicano cinema's archangel. With enemies in hot pursuit, they land in "San Diablo," where an errant snapshot leads them, by fairy-tale logic, to their dad's long-lost brother Isidore, code name "Machete," a sci-fi gunrunner with a shop in a seedy part of town. He's got the weathered face and laid-back habits of that staple of Chicano culture, the cholo. And just when the script lands the whole family in trouble, Uncle Izzy saves the day.
Spy Kids is the mirror image of the worlds espoused by the other films, in fact. It shows a Latino family held together by shared moral values, uncorrupted by drugs or even television, united across gender lines and unfettered by underclass woes. (Their house is cool and the kitchen muy mexicano, with tiles and everything, and the women don't even have to stay in it.) A commercial blockbuster that will write Rodriguez's future in any language, Spy Kids still manages to stay true to its own language--as when spy kid Carmen needs to open secret locked doors and has only to pronounce her own full, multiword Spanish name as password. "But I don't use it," she complains. Use it or else, says the script. Uplifting the race doesn't get any clearer. If the film's other message is that such a pretty picture can only take place in a fairy-tale future, far from cops and robbers, limited distribution and injurious stereotypes, well, perhaps its box-office success will prompt a long-overdue change.