It’s no secret that Hispanic representation in Hollywood continues to elude the big screen and behind the scenes, despite the feel-good diversity talk in recent years. Likewise, nuanced portrayals of Mexican culture and society in Hollywood are few and far between. In honour of Hispanic Heritage Month, we present what’s on our bucket list of films and shows to watch this weekend that tear down stereotypes, illustrating the charming and colourful worlds within the Mexican community. Settle down with your favourite cocktail and get comfy, because there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020)
Set in Los Angeles during the summer of 1938, the spin-off to the dark Victorian fantasy cult television series Penny Dreadful by screenwriter John Logan opens with L.A.’s first Mexican American detective Tiago Vega (played by Daniel Zovatto) and his veteran LAPD partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) investigating a macabre murder that implicates the Chicano community in a time of transnational politics and racial division. Tiago has to reconcile two polarizing identities that often come into conflict: what it means to be a cop who also happens to be Chicano.
What do we love about this one? With the help of Latino writers and directors, the show has taken a lesser-known and often-forgotten piece of Los Angeles’ history in the ‘30s and breathed life into it: immersing viewers in the ways of the Chicano community, pachuco counterculture and offering various authentic perspectives of Mexican American identity through the central Vega family, particularly through the family’s matriarch Maria Vega (played by Academy Award-winning Mexican actress Adriana Barraza). Another noteworthy mention is the show’s use of culturally specific iconography of Santa Muerte and her portrayal as revered folk saint of the newly dead who carries their souls to heaven, without being plagued with stereotypes of drug trafficking. If we had any qualms, it’s that Izzo was definitely under-utilised as Santa Muerte and could have done with more screen time.
Watch the trailer here.
This heartwarming film is an emotional rollercoaster that had us crying happy tears. Directed by longtime Pixar director Lee Unkrich with a star-studded cast of Latin American talent, the film centres on Miguel Rivera, a young, brave and kind-hearted boy with dreams of becoming a famous musician like the legendary crooner Ernesto de la Cruz, much to his family’s disapproval. Upon a chance discovery that de la Cruz is his great-great-grandfather, Miguel visits his mausoleum on Dia de Los Muertos for advice and “borrows” his guitar for a talent show, only to find himself accidentally—or so the film would have us think—transported to the Land of the Dead, for stealing from the dead. He must return to the Land of the Living before sunrise with help from a dead relative with their blessing, and so embarks on a mission to find de la Cruz. As with all Pixar films, the film’s hero undertakes a path of self-discovery on the way to what they were seeking, and ends up finding a treasure far greater than they were expecting.
Much like the strong oral tradition of storytelling in Mexican culture, the plot develops through storytelling and song, establishing themes of family, destiny and the importance of heritage and legacy. It’s not just the film’s ability to skillfully delve into complex issues of identity and death without minimising its significance for the film’s younger audience, but the colourful celebration of and rich, unfiltered insight into Mexican folklore that its audience (and especially non-Hispanic viewers) are given: the detailed explanations behind each Dia de Los Muertos cultural tradition and the film’s incorporation of mythological creatures such as Mama Imelda’s gigantic, winged dragon-jaguar alebrije—spirit guide—whose growl is more ferocious than its bite.
Watch the trailer here.
The Taco Chronicles (2019)
Just when we thought we couldn’t love tacos anymore than we already do, the Taco Chronicles comes along. Food enthusiasts and history buffs will enjoy this educational documentary web television series that delves into the history and culture of tacos, often peppered with little-known facts of the trade and astute insight from taqueria owners, cultural anthropologists and food writers weighing in with iconic quotes like: “Eating tacos is a Mexican sport”.
Indeed, that’s what it is. The distinct stories behind and memories associated with each type of taco are made apparent, as viewers are taken through each step of the preparation process, carried out with the utmost care and precision. In the words of one taqueria chef: “I always prepare tacos with joy and with my heart. I think that’s what flavours the tacos”.
Season 2 of The Taco Chronicles is now available on Netflix. Watch its trailer here.
Los Espookys (2019)
Fans of the late-night comedy sketch television show Saturday Night Live will instantly recognise Fred Armisen’s signature scene-stealing displays of oddball humour in this singularly strange horror-comedy series that follows a band of horror enthusiasts turned professional, staging hilariously low-fi supernatural scenarios for clients in spirited sincerity. Between situations that take on proportions so bizarre, it’s almost surreal and brilliant one-liners delivered deadpan with impeccable precision in true Armisen fashion, the show’s purposefully odd and chaotic cadence crafts a magical realism that simultaneously delights and intrigues.
It’s not just the series of absurdist contradictions and complications that kept us coming back for more, but the exceedingly weird yet inexplicably lovable dynamic between characters of this makeshift family united not by their Hispanic identity, but by their shared passion. That, and the ingenuity of the show’s bilingual comedic genius of flawlessly executing jokes in both Spanish and English, without losing comedic effect. As Armisen puts it, he wanted to write a Spanish language show that “isn’t an explanation of Latino culture, but moves past the foreignness of it”.
Watch the trailer here.
La Bamba (1987)
This biographical film, based on the life of Mexican American singer Ritchie Valens who was best known for his rendition of the Mexican folk song La Bamba, is a bittersweet and sentimental film of a young kid with talented promise who never got to fully realise his dream. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips in the titular role, the film touches on themes of family, identity, socioeconomic class and the struggles of a Mexican American trying to make it in Hollywood and 1950s America, facing the common ‘ni de aquí, ni de allá’ (neither from here nor from there) problem.
Following his death, Valens (whose birth name was Richard Steven Valenzuela) was immortalised as the godfather of the Chicano Rock subgenre, rock and roll pioneer and talented guitarist. The film rolls back on his stage persona and onto the other aspects of Valens: the role of a doting son, loving brother, loyal friend and adoring boyfriend. As the plot progresses, we celebrate the musical milestones Valens achieved in his career—not only as one of the few Latino musicians to successfully sign a major record label at the time, but in creating an enduring legacy during his short lived public career that continues to inspire many today.
Watch the trailer here.
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