Hispanic Heritage Month is coming to an end, and Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (might) have given us something to celebrate.
Or something to cry about.
The two teamed up to executive produce the Focus Features film Sin Nombre, a powerful drama about Central Americans emigrating to the U.S. via Mexico. And according to Sin Nombre, the name of the Diaspora is called miseria: misery.
For those of us concerned with cultural memory, what does this mean for what the word “Latino” means in the U.S.?
In Sin Nombre, to be Latino is to be displaced; an identity of never quite getting it right; of an identity of struggle. But there is a swagger in attempt; a glamour in trying. Sin Nombre narrates a land where Kool Aid, caló, and cochinita pibil mix under a relentless sun. Sin Nombre (which means ‘nameless’) is a chronicle to the millions of people that leave the lands where NAFTA has destroyed the remnants of what global capitalism called an economy, and come risk their lives on the top of trains bound for Texas, Arizona, and California. This journey is plagued by gangs – Mara Salvatrucha, specifically - from start to finish.
In real life, Gael and Diego - the stars of Rudo y Cursi - are neither rude, nor cheesy. They are urban intellectuals. Their fan base is, as well; their fans are folks that spend their days devising solutions to immigration as a transnational policy problem, not a personal one. Dressing up as poor rancheros and actually being poor rancheros are two different things entirely; so what does solidarity mean, both on and off film?
Gang life as a Latino cultural legacy is a tricky one indeed. ‘Mi Vida Loca’ has been made into a cottage industry of Homey dolls and maroon-colored tee-shirts for Hispanic America. And while ‘homey’ is a cute term of endearment and white tank tops are good ways to show off nice biceps, gangs themselves are uh …not good things.
In my family, self-identifying as a Latino was to self-associate with gangs. In the cusp creole land that is east Los Angeles County (Whittier), the dividing line between white and Latino had to do with gangs. My mother, Maria Delsoccorro, with her almond eyes and long black hair, didn’t want to call herself Latina. She liked books, not fights.
“Why would I want to do that?,” she asked. “The Latinas carried knives in their hair.”
Caló (Chicano Spanglish) even carried itself into the land where carne asada is called steak. “Oh yeah, the huisa girls,” my Irish-American father remembers. Huisa, which means girl, was thought to mean chola, or the word for female gangster. Chicanas were huisas, and huisas were cholas. Semantics = sociology= Chicana girls were gangbangers.
Times change; after age 20 or so, I decided that I, as a bookish woman, would self-integrate into Latino circles. The Latino world I rotate in out here on the East Coast is filled with talk of community mobilization, and security studies, and cluster development. The guero (light) Latinos, the ones I fit in around, talk about getting a Masters vs. a Ph.D; we listen to Jorge Drexler. Sometimes people throw up a “w” hand sign for West Coast, but it is, at the end of the day, a joke.
History aside, Sin Nombre reminds us that that la vida loca really is loca – and moreover, is horrifying.
Filled with brutal murders and a stomach-churning feeling that wherever you go, you won’t be wanted, Sin Nombre reminds us just how frightening, and confounding, the dividing really line is.
The subjects of this film feel that they don’t belong anywhere – and not like postmodern, Cultural Studies whining – but economically and socially feel homeless in their own Hemisphere. It is the fear that the world has locked you out, completely.
After surviving an attempted rape at the hands of the MS-13 gang lord with the letters ‘m’ and ‘s’ tattooed on either side of his face, the co-star’s greatest joy is to take a cold shower with her clothes on.
Pride aside, name-calling aside, these films make you wonder, does to be Latino mean to be always not-quite-there-yet? Is this what we are? And if so, why does it have to be like this?
Why is misery such an everyday part of (inter) American life?
Los Angeles Times writer Sonia Nazario stumbled upon the subject of Honduran immigration through Mexico by finding her Honduran maid crying in her kitchen one day, mumbling about trains. Sin Nombre is written in impeccable Spanish by hapa director Cary Fukunaga from the East Bay. More people need to create work about this subject, and give Latino life a wider range of names.