The three best known Latin-American filmmakers worldwide, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro, are the surviving core of the greatest American film tradition, alongside Paul Thomas Anderson. At the apex of their careers, at least Oscar-wise, these immigrants add up 10 Academy awards — 13 if one takes into account the ones won by cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, the fourth major Mexican figure in Hollywood. They represent the proverbial the tip of the iceberg of what might be the most successful “ethnicity” within Hollywood. I am interested in a set of paradoxes, the first one being already mentioned and widely discussed: these Mexicans carry the torch of American cinematic tradition.1
In the last decade these directors known collectively as “The Three Amigos”2 delivered at least one relevant piece belonging to an American genre, but with an auteur twist: Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) is a western of sorts, Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) fits in the sci-fi spectrum, Del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) re-enacts the horror films of the 1950s. There are a multitude of “buts”, however, when we try to corral these films in terms of genre. In The Revenant, Lubezki’s cinematography uses natural light and has a Tarkovskyan allure; Gravity features one of the most dazzling tracking shots of recent cinema, also choreographed by “El Chivo” (when Dr. Stone spins round her own axis as she is propelled into space); and, well, The Shape of Water has the unique imprint and sensitivity of a cult creator who is widely loved. This fluctuation from the rules of genre into the pursuit of a personal style can be found in a good amount of the properly American filmmakers appearing in the pages of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls3 — and in the abovementioned P. T. Anderson.
One might wonder how a fistful of Mexicans managed to “fill” this place. The answer is more straightforward than one might think. First of all, Hollywood’s imaginary is everyone’s tradition. Then, the “Three Amigos” grew in wealthy families, and very many wealthy Mexican families not only love the United States but appropriate some of its cultural traits, often travel North for holidays, summer camps and even minute weekend shopping, and usually speak English with near-perfect accents.
But things are far more complex than a class feature: Mexico, even with its strong cultural identity, is completely soaked in the culture of its neighbour, to such an extent that one of our funniest and most poignant cultural critics, the late Carlos Monsiváis, famously stated back in 1971 that the youth of the time was the “first generation of Mexican born gringos”.4 Of course, his generation —the same as Donald Trump’s, by the way— tends to think of Nation as a perfectly defined concept, when in fact the major trait of Mexican culture, as of all American cultures,5 is mixture, biological (mestizaje) and cultural (hybridization).6
Alongside our malleable culture and bodies, for generations Mexicans have seen the States as a living utopia, and a gate to a better life, which it actually is for a lot of people. One dimension of this utopia belongs to the field of the arts and implies a feeling of provinciality or isolation that can be transcended only when a creator in accepted in the United States or in Europe. Therefore, as large amounts of people searching for a better life in the form of a decent income, artists migrate searching for better creative infrastructures, which in the case of our trio means the healthy budgets that allowed them to film projects that were inconceivable within the Mexican film industry. The result, at least in the last decade, is a remarkable set of films, and the recognition of the local Academy.
And they have used their prominence to make political statements: speaking even a small amount of Spanish in an Oscar gala is a political act, especially during Trump’s regime —I first revised this text within hours of the El Paso shooting. In Mexico, the “Three Amigos” would be labelled “güeros”, a term used to emphasize the (white) appearance of the dominating class, but in the United States they become just “Mexicans”, side by side with our regular mestizos, and our first peoples. This re-labelling is the reason why I use “ethnicity” between quotation marks. The trio of filmmakers know they somehow are representatives of the whole Mexican community, but also of all Latinos. Remember Guatemalan Oscar Isaac shouting “¡Viva Latinoamérica!” during the Oscars in 2018? Well, to a certain extent all Latinos are placed into the same basket in the United States —ironically this mirrors Spanish speaking Latin American history: we might be a single thing.
Iñárritu, Cuarón and Del Toro’s awareness of this transnational duplicity represents another paradox. They needed the recognition of the North to be recognized in the South —I am indulging in the inconvenient “Global North/Global South” Anglo dichotomy for the sake of my argument. This has been happening for over a century now, and can be traced back as far as the first edition of the extraordinary novel The Underdogs (1920) by Mariano Azuela, whose exceptionality was fully recognized in Mexico only after it was praised in the United States and Europe. Now recognized by Mexicans as part of the canon of great artists, these three directors take profit of their prominence to make politics in Mexico as well. Iñárritu and Cuarón were notoriously vocal against some questionable policies during Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency (2012-2018), and at present Guillermo del Toro’s moral stature has grown immensely by aiding several people (sports and math athletes, for example) who lost support due to budget cuts imposed by our new government. There is more to it: Del Toro announced the creation of an International Center for Animation in his hometown, Guadalajara, which in a centralized country, where everything happens in the capital, Mexico City, is paramount.
And there is even more: Del Toro accepted his Walk of Fame star with a double symbolic gesture: on the one hand he kneeled over his star while kissing a Mexican flag, showing the deepest respect to his origins, and on the other, he unambiguously spoke for immigrants: “I can tell to all of you, all immigrants from every nation, that you should believe in the possibilities and not the obstacles. Do not believe the lies they tell about us. Believe in the stories you have inside and believe that we all can make a difference and we all have stories to tell and we all can contribute to the art and the craft and the world in any way we see fit.” One could read Del Toro’s action as a reflection on career as a path, but also on path as a common experience. There is something very Mexican —and even something particularly Jalisciense7— in Del Toro’s reverence for the Mexican banner while there is something strongly American, a hint to the American dream, in his speech. He is truly a man of two worlds, two worlds that are only one, both flexible and continuous.
There is a clear link between Del Toro’s public persona and Iñárritu’s 360° virtual reality installation Carne y arena (2017). The piece positions the viewer in the context of the trauma of crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. However spectacular it might be, Carne y arena seeks to produce a vivid experience of the despair of confronting the desert searching for a better life, which in too many cases, as in the current Central American migrant crisis, means being a refugee that is not recognized as such, and in many occasions not even as an equal human being.
While Iñárritu’s piece follows the traditional, and vibrant, Latin American protest tradition, Cuarón’s widely commented Roma (2018), his return to Mexican themes, belongs to a more contemporary Latin American phenomenon. Roma needs to be read from its final sequence backwards. When Sofi says to Cleo that she loves her and then asks (commands) her to prepare her a licuado (milkshake), a whole structure of racial and class power dynamics becomes visible. This structure with güeros on top and first peoples at the bottom is quite complex. Everything fits there: resentment and true love, superiority and compassion, machismo and sorority, filiation towards Western culture and admiration for the dazzling cultures of the first peoples. By making visible those intricacies in a single dialogue, Cuarón, might be stating a mea culpa while questioning both the unitarian Latin American constructs of Nationalism and Third-World squalor.
And in this sense the non-Hollywood Cuarón is actually adhering to the most exciting Latin American cinema of the present, which is trying to come to terms with the complexities of belonging to a cultural area where, since the arrival of the Europeans, who by bringing both enslaved and free Africans and opening the way for Asians to settle, while trying to control and convert the Indigenous population, set the stage for all peoples and cultures to mix within a Western framework. Our shared history started with clash and pain, but filmmakers are only now daring to confront it. Films such as Ciro Guerra’s The Embrace of the Serpent (2015), where the Amazonian and the European visions collide, Óscar Catacora’s Wiñaypacha (2018), where we are confronted with the Aymara cosmovision and our distance towards it, or Tatiana Huezo’s El lugar más pequeño (2011), dealing with the memories of the inhabitants of the little town of Cinquera still haunted by the Salvadoran Civil War in the ‘80s, opened a wider, more profound comprehension of a region torn by history, and deeply linked by mixture. We didn’t choose this setting. Maybe looking bravely back we can understand us, and filmmakers are the vanguard of this process.
- See, for example, Ioan Grillo, “How Mexican Directors Conquered Hollywood,” The New York Times (3 March 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/03/opinion/sunday/oscars-academy-awards-guillermo-del-toro-mexico.html?ref=nyt-es&mcid=nyt-es&subid=article ↩
- The label might be the popularization of a book title, Deborah Shaw’s The three amigos: The transnational filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón (Manchester University Press, 2015). ↩
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). ↩
- Carlos Monsiváis, “La dicha de ser marqués de Comillas”, Excélsior (21 September 1971). ↩
- In Spanish it is perfectly normal to use the word American to refer to any person born anywhere from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, as I am stressing here. In fact, the way in which people from the United States use the word American feels both as pillaging and an invalidation of the American experience and identity of everybody else. ↩
- See Néstor García-Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). ↩
- The people from the State of Jalisco, Del Toro’s turf, are amongst the proudest Mexican nationals. ↩