Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ramond Gutierrez from UCRiverside is in the House

I just finished my visiting professor gig at UCR in Media and Cultural Studies this past Spring quarter--one of my ace students there, Ramond Gutierrez, did a fierce reaction piece to Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel that I want to include here on the Tex[t]-Mex Galleryblog.

Part of the backstory: In class, I had argued that had González Iñárritu REALLY wanted to make a memorable film, he would have set the Gael García Bernal Tecate/Baja/San Diego sequences in Tokyo with a clash between Korean, working class, and Japanese, ruling class fresas, and have set the Japanese tower, high-rise, rico, suicidal, deaf, naked Japanese girl sequence in Mexico City--in a Mexican tower, etc. My rant had to do with expectations and the goals of a director in national cinema, my point being that I had seen drunk, Mexican criminality before, and I did not need to see it again, despite my odd affections for Gael!

In any event, here is the question from the exam and Ramón's magic response--in my view, it is as brave and honest as a post-movimiento Chicano can get:

The question asked to take two films that I haven't dealt with extensively in the previous two questions. Whether this was for the sake of keeping this assignment well rounded and all encompassing or simply out of some perverse desire to create a more challenging assignment I do not know. [the latter! WN]

Nevertheless I am going to focus on one film, which I have dealt with extensively-- Gonzalez Innaritu's Babel. I am not doing this to be some kind of maverick, or because my knowledge of the other films is lacking--I am doing this because I have very strong feelings regarding the way this film depicts life in Mexico in contrast to my own prejudicial and ignorant views of life in the country as an American born citizen of Mexican descent.

I first saw Babel months ago shortly after its initial DVD release. As a film student and a loyal Netflix subscriber I make it a priority to see as much film as possible. I hadn't seen much of Innaritu's work before. I tried to watch 21 Grams but I felt he went overboard with the editing and I wasn't able to gain any appreciation for the characters in the film so I fell asleep and never made a second attempt. Babel felt very familiar--not as jumpy as 21 Grams but keeping the same kind of "everything is everything" vibe that Syriana, and Crash delivered not too long before. As the story unfolded I immediately recognized the relationship between the rich white people and the Mexican housekeeper that I had come to know and love growing up as a poor brown child in Los Angeles.

(Tangent! I have now moved out of my parents house in Highland Park--an area dominated by liquor stores, taco trucks and serenaded by sirens and gunshots. I now live in the nice middle class white city of La Crescenta with two roommates, who are also the spawn of brown folk. We all work in the service industry and go to Universities. We dress nice, pay our bills, go out drinking, and study. We also have a maid who comes to clean our apartment twice a month. She works with her husband, all day long--cleaning the houses of those who are too lazy to clean on their own. She was recently released from the hospital and is now working more than ever to pay off the massive bills related to surgery. She has no health insurance--and I cannot for the life of me remember her name right now. Truthfully I am torn between a sense of pride that I have achieved such financial security that I am able to have a housekeeper whose name I cannot remember. How fabulously white of me! I am torn between that pride and a nagging shame/embarrassment that in a sense I have become what I grew up despising--a pinche gringo. It's a very strange feeling--one that I am probably too young to fully deal with. I forgot to mention that my housekeeper is Mexican--but that was probably considered to be a given.)

It was not until Amelia and Santiago whisked the Angelic little white children off to Mexico that I noticed how prejudicial I am when it comes to the way I think of the homeland of my ancestors. People actually live in Mexico. They go about their daily lives the same way people do in the United States. It was a major revelation for me. Innaritu does something fantastic as he shoots the border crossing--something that is both confoundingly simple and absolutely brilliant--he shoots what he sees. The camera does not lie. Steven Soderburgh is not painting the canvas of Mexico with a piss-yellow paint brush. It hit me like a punch to the stomach.

I realized that I--the son of a woman who crossed the border covered under blankets in the backseat of a station wagon--whose father provided for her by washing dishes until he wound up traveling the world as the owner of his own international business--that I, the son of a man who grew up as a second generation Mexican American in Bakersfield--identified more with the scared little white kids sitting in the backseat of the car than the brown Mexicanos driving it.

[here's the kids talking about their experience filming in Mexico]

I was scared for the kids. I've only been to Tijuana a handful of times and briefly but I can remember that each time I was uncomfortable and frightened. I felt like I did not belong there. "Mexico is dirty and dangerous--take me back to San Diego." So when I saw this scene for the first time it hit my ignorant pocho ass just how ignorant and just how pocho I am.

Growing up in the United States and being subjected to the elitist philosophy--that the rest of the world is comprised of a third world wasteland, has made more of an impact on me than I previously thought.

Going back to the conversation in class the other day about how you thought that it would've been braver for Innaritu to present the Mexican part of Babel with wealthy successful Mexican's rather than bow to the stereotype of Mexico being poor and dirty--I disagree.

As a Mexican it was much braver of Innaritu to show the dirt roads, and the chickens running around with their heads cut off. He wasn't trying to build up Mexican culture for the sake of shock value in the eyes of United States cinema-goers. He pointed the camera and he shot--as if to say "Yeah, people live like this in Mexico, and they on well enough--and fuck you if you don't like it." There was no bias, no hidden agenda--just the truth as seen through the lens.

So now do I understand what its like to live in Mexico?

Hell no. I still haven't the slightest clue of what it is like to be a Mexican in Mexico. My last name is Gutierrez and I have failed every Spanish class I've taken. Every Sunday night after I go out and get drunk with my half-Mexican, one-quarter-black, one-eighth Cherokee Indian, and one-eighth-white roommate (who is 5'7, with white skin, green eyes and long brown hair); we head over to the nearest taco truck. I let her order because her Spanish is better than mine. I am a server at a high end restaurant that just opened up in Glendale called Frida. It specializes in indigenous Mexican cuisine. We serve fifteen dollar tacos. At the end of the night as I'm walking out with two hundred dollars in my pocket, I toss fifty to my busser who has been cleaning my tables throughout the shift. He's about forty something, I don't know. I haven't bothered to learn his name, because the next night it'll be another faceless brown guy that I do a tremendous favor too by tossing him an extra five dollars over the three percent I am required to give him. I am such a great guy. Holding it down for La Raza. Maybe one day Innaritu will make a movie about people like me. Just point the camera and shoot. Now that would be scary.

Ramond Gutierrez,

1 comment:

  1. I commend Mr. Gutierrez for his nakedness in this piece. Gutierrez's response to the director's take on seeing the "real life" of Mexicans coupled with his own reflections of himself as a pocho, exposes how many of us (myself included) find ourselves intoxicated by stereotypical images in media. And although the reality of a Mexican life can be portrayed to us, how we truly cannot empathize without having lived it. Despues de la cruda, identifying this "American experience" is simply the beginning of addressing transnational issues in our country. Inquiring into the names of the brown faceless with genuine interest will hopefully be the next step... :) Felicitationes!