How Would You like an El Camino? U.S. Perceptions of Mexico in Two Recent Hollywood Films

By Wood, Andrew G. | Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

How Would You like an El Camino? U.S. Perceptions of Mexico in Two Recent Hollywood Films


Wood, Andrew G., Journal of the Southwest


With a hunch that they might find something "newsworthy," North American media giants CNN, ABC News, America Online, and Time magazine (all part of the Time/Warner mega-conglomerate) recently sent reporters to various sites along the nearly two thousand-mile U.S.-Mexico border in search of post-NAFTA frontier features. (1) For its part, the New York Times in recent months has been publishing articles on the Bush administration's possible amnesty for illegal Mexican immigrants, the growing number of North Americans going across the border for lower-cost prescription drugs, and the current debate over whether to allow Mexican long-distance trucking in the United States. (2) Meanwhile, such different high-profile Hollywood films as The Mexican and Traffic--both released in 2000--have added two new representations of Mexico and Mexicans to the American movie-going public. Considering the powerful influence of the entertainment industry on contemporary culture, the following review will offer a critical look at how each of these two films portrays Mexico and her people in the larger historic context of U.S.-Mexican relations.

HISTORIC MISREPRESENTATIONS

For nearly two hundred years, Mexico and the United States have viewed each other with suspicion. Following the Mexican War, gringos were generally thought to be aggressive, land-hungry agents of imperialism. On the other side, many in the United States acted on the belief that that Mexicans were mustachioed machos if not banditos--a people, in other words, not to be trusted. Accordingly, media forces--initially newspapers and now cinema--have generally only added to the bad blood between the two countries through continued stereotypic portrayals and skewed ideological constructs.

From the Mexican perspective, films depicting the life of immigrants to the United States, beginning with the 1922 silent film El hombre sin patria, offered audiences the general message that if you go to the United States, you will experience certain racism and oppression. On the other side, Hollywood films from the 1920s to the early 1980s dealing with Mexicans and Mexican immigration have usually pitted a heroic actor (from Tom Mix to Charles Bronson and Jack Nicholson) against a vaguely defined "gang" of undocumented workers seeking entry to the United States. Saying little about the causes, experiences, and ultimately, contributions of immigrants in the United States, these often low-budget, B movies have reflected past U.S. assumptions, fears, and concerns over "controlling" its southern border rather than relating anything real about Mexico. (3) Yet with the significant rise in the Mexican population in the United States over the past decade, Hollywood has again begun to produce various kinds of cinematic responses to issues related to Mexico and Mexicans living in the United States.

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE AN EL CAMINO?

Taking into account the increasingly close relationship between the United States and Mexico, two recent Hollywood films offer interesting commentaries. The Mexican, starring Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Gene Hackman, is a romantic comedy that playfully combines stereotypes of Old Mexico and the bumbling gringo. In contrast, the Stephen Soderbergh-directed blockbuster Traffic, starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the Academy Award-winning Benicio del Toro, examines the current international drug trade through portrayals on both sides of the border. Although very different films, both offer a curious mix of old stereotypes and new perspectives regarding U.S.-Mexican relations.

In The Mexican, "The Mexican" is a valuable pistol that Jerry (Brad Pitt) is sent to Mexico to find. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Jerry and his girlfriend (Julia Roberts) are a typical crazy gringo couple--she wants stability and marriage and he, being mixed up with the mob, is trying to do right but can't seem to get it all together. …

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