Friday, September 10, 2010

I Love MACHETE, I Hate The Discourse

cross posted from my media justice column


The new film by Robert Rodriguez, MACHETE, is a story about an undocumented Mexican immigrant who becomes a vigilante fighting for social justice and revenge against the Mexican drug lord who killed his family. To the surprise of no one I was too excited to see the film. Not only do I adore character actors because they usually make films bearable, but I also wanted to see a Latino film that has national distribution and marketing support. Danny Trejo, one of the most popular Latino character actor next to Luis Guzman, plays the lead and he is joined by an all star cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Lindsay Lohan and Cheech Marin. Over the first weekend of its national release, MACHETE has made millions of dollars.

Numerous communities have received the film in a multitude of ways and there are a few trends that I’m getting tired of reading about. This is a critique on the conversations that are occurring, not so much a review of the film, which I did write and you can read here. I’ll share my bias up front, I do love this film. I see it as a cultural artifact of which I must own when it is available on DVD. I’m also a fan of Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jeff Fahey, and the three of them in a film together that centers Latino struggles in the US is going to win me over. There is also recognition of complementary healing practices in the film, which also wins me over every time!

My homegirl and doula mentor, Sparkle, often shares this quote that I find appropriate to begin this discussion: “I carry a machete in the folds of my skirt.” Sparkle shares this as one facet of the Orisha (a spiritual deity in many belief and spiritual systems) Yemaya, an Orisha of water, protection, and motherhood. I find it extremely fitting for this discussion as it gives power to women, it’s a recognition of the work we do, honors the many ways we may express our gender identity, and embraces the African and indigenous aspects of our communities and cultures.

First thing I’m tired of reading: that many of the lead characters and the director don’t speak Spanish. This critique and conversation is drenched in the idea that there is only a handful of ways to demonstrate that someone is a “True Latino®” or a “Real Latino®.” Yes, I am being flip in copywriting those two terms, but that is the direction such thought processes will lead us towards. This argument is ridiculous for numerous reasons that I hopefully don’t have to spell out for too many readers. If we allow ourselves to get hung up on what is “True” or “Real,” that perpetuates a dichotomy of the Truth and the Untruth (I purposely avoided choosing a term that is antonymous to “Truth”). The opportunity for us to value subjectivity and recognize that many of us have different realities we may all learn from is thus lost in this idea.

We are not only a language; a language that many of our ancestors and us were forced by overseers to learn, a language that was an attempt to replace the rites of passages we attempted to protect. Language is not the only thing that unites us, it is also one of the many things that also can divide us, as this example provides. If one is going to argue that someone is not Latin@ enough because they don’t speak Spanish, not too far behind is the “you are too Black to be Latin@” and hopefully everyone knows how I feel about that already.

Another aspect that is connected to language is the use of language in writing a review or discussing the film. There has been an abundance of writers using terms such as “illegal” (and not in quotes) to discuss characters and the lived reality of many people living in the US. The term “undocumented” is my preferred term and yes I do understand folks who choose to use a term who are coming from a criminology standpoint. At the same time, I can’t comfortably use the term “illegal” to assign to a person. Especially when we live in a world where many illegal activities are validated, affirmed, unquestioned, and supported when targeting particular groups, especially those people who are racialized in a particular way. Same gender marriage is not the only thing President Obama has not followed through on. Immigration reform is also on that list,immigration reform also affects queer and transgender communities, and that is often not included in the discussion as it must be! Language affects us all, and this choice in language affects more people than many may be comfortable comprehending.

When will people realize how language can, and does hurt? Language is also, as my homegirl cripchick says: “youth of color hardly have any (institutional) power. taking away our language is taking away one of the few things we have control over.” So there is control over language, and using a term that is based in oppression and institutional violence, and violence in general, is something folks really need to consider, especially with word choice.

Speaking of violence, there’s also a discussion of too much violence represented in the film. I want to be more specific with this: there is too much violence against racially White people living in the US who are US citizens. I’ve read some articles that discuss the film as perpetuating, inspiring and instigating a “race war.” Now, I wonder if folks really know what a race war is, because the last race war I recall following was France 2005 among immigrant Muslim youth. MACHETE, the film, is NOT, I repeat it is NOT a race war. It’s a film. Now you want to consider how some White supremacists are planning protests to boycott the film and they want to bring their machetes as a “race war?” You’ll first have to realize how this has already happened in this country to various degrees. We already know this would happen, we are just interested in how the film MACHETE is the trigger.

The fear and ideas about the violence toward racially White characters who have US citizenship means a race war is going to occur miss the point. Interestingly, it is the non-White writers who do “get it” and don’t “miss the point.” Or maybe the point that is feared is that we know that when oppressed communities share a common goal of ending that collective oppression, it can end. Now, what I do not hear being discussed is how the violence represented by those of the racially White characters is actually what occurs today. It is the reality for many. We see Don Johnson’s character, Lieutenant Stillman, shamelessly shoot and murder a Mexican immigrant. We watch as he supports and encourages Robert De Niro’s character, Senator McLaughlin, in shooting and murdering a pregnant Mexican woman. The violence that we see Latin@ characters engage in, the set-up of murdering Senator McLaughlin (which doesn’t occur), the self-defense and the I’ve-got-to-murder-you-before-you-murder-me by Machete is pretty fantastic and something that we all know cannot be humanly possible; hence the Latino super hero storyline.

The institutionalized violence is also something that is presented and yet not questioned. The “let’s set up a undocumented Mexican immigrant for killing or harming someone to perpetuate and invoke fear into a community” is still very much present in our reality. The idea that even when attempting to recover in a hospital room after a crime has been committed against someone who is undocumented, they can still be arrested, abused, not given medical treatment, and their attackers can find them, is real. The fact that many governments, even those that many immigrants are trying to seek refuge from, have chosen to make the lives of the people they are supposed to represent miserable, and the US has supported such misery, is historical and current fact (go check out that civil war in El Salvador link I have below, or look into the politics of what occurred in Nicaragua, Chile, and Puerto Rico to name a few).

Limited conversations about how women utilize and claim violence is also not discussed. I’ll be honest, that I’m not one of those people who will ever really say and believe that violence is unnecessary. I find that for many oppressed communities, and for many women, claiming violence and being violent is a form of survival. I’m not going to say I validate all forms of violence, because I do not. Don’t get this twisted. I’m saying that for many women to use violence to survive is a form of power. It is power that we rarely see. When was the last time you saw a female solider from outside the US or Israel? When was the last time you saw a woman fight back her abuser/attacker/rapist/etc.? We often don’t always see these representations, and when we do there is often the narrative of “temporary insanity” and mental health issues. I do not believe that Michelle Rodriguez’s character, She, is mentally ill. Yet, I can see how many may see her as such because why would any woman want to get into heavy artillery, hide it, create a covert operation of The Network to help undocumented people become contributing members of their new society and then fight in a war in that same country they risked their lives to get into? Yet, will people question Jessica Alba’s character, an ICE agent, who openly walks around with a weapon, uses her heels as a weapon, and expects nothing less because she is a government employee? They both claim a level of violence and being violent, yet one form is validated. Do we not see the paradox?

“I carry a machete in the folds of my skirt.”

Finally, when was the last time you saw a film that centered liberation theology? For me, quite honestly, it was when Raul Julia was Archbishop ├ôscar Romero in El Salvador during one of their civil wars in the film Romero. For those of you who are unaware of what liberation theology is about, let me give you a real life example: I am employed in the Sociology department at a private Catholic college in the Bronx and they love me. Now when folks try to understand how a “heathen” like me who is a sexologist, a person of Color, a non-Catholic, a queer-identified femme who helps her students examine ways to destroy and deconstruct the Ivory Tower, it is because the school centers liberation theology. They center social justice, a focus on poverty and how it disproportionately affects specific communities, and understand how all forms of oppression are wrong. And for those of you who don’t know there are many liberation theologist’s who are pro-choice, Catholic, and STILL remain active in their vows as Monks and Sisters!

What I find fascinating is that in all the reviews and issues of the film that I’ve read, not one has discussed liberation theology. Yes, this includes my own review as well, and honestly there is no good reason for that omission, it got to the point where my review was four pages long (much like this article) and I knew I had to wrap it up! As I was talking to my homeboy Hugo about the film, you remember him, he made an interesting connection to some of the imagery, especially the role of Lindsey Lohan. Hugo writes:

I REALLLY liked the Lindsay Lohan character, it[‘s] weird thinking about it...At first, she is this gringa sexualized being. then after daddy got capped she dons a religious uniform and starts blasting on a rebirthed sense of higher justice, order, and vengeance. the juxtapositions. but when she was highly sexualized, she carried herself with a sense of innocence about her website and the images. sexual/innocent - pissed/religious, but the whole image of 'purity' is thrown in an inside out thing. reverse malinche?

I’d also argue, that Lohan’s character also represents how in our US society racially White women are more easily redeemable than any other women. The character of Cheech Marin is also a priest who is Machete’s brother. He embodies an interesting representation of some aspects of liberation theology: the church being armed, protecting their space, encouraging community members to do the same. Now, there are some aspects about Marin’s character that are presented that do not overlap with liberation theology and I hope for viewers those are clear.

Of all the atrocities that have occurred surrounding this film, the tired arguments on Latinidad, the hatred and xenophobia projected onto the film by hate groups, and the uncritical eye to what can be pulled out of the film, I’m happy there is conversation. Starting a conversation is fabulous, yet having a critical and thoughtful one is imperative. There is so much to build upon from this film, I just don’t see it moving forward in any new ways just yet. That’s what I’m hoping those of you who have seen the film will attempt to do. Yet, I do have to say, in comparison to the tired discussions, I’m more offended that the Macarena is being revived by these White actors wearing their Snuggies in this Snuggie® commercial:

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