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Archive for the ‘Issue 4.1’ Category

Romantic Love in Mexico and Latin America: An Interview with Enrique Serna
by Michael K. Schuessler

Enrique Serna (Mexico City, 1959) is one of Mexico’s most celebrated living writers. Although he is best known for his novels of historical fiction, for example, El seductor de la patria (1999) and Ángeles del abismo (2004), Serna’s literary career began in 1987 with the publication of Señorita México, a crude portrait of an erstwhile beauty queen whose life as told to a reporter is a pretext for much deeper (and biting) social criticism. This inclination flowers most brilliantly in El miedo a los animales (1995), a piercing satire inspired by the author’s own experiences within the perplexing mafia of Mexico’s intellectual and political underworld. Not only a novelist, Serna is also one of Latin America’s most talented short story writers, and his first collection, entitled Amores de segunda mano (1991), foresaw the publication of El orgasmógrafo (2001) and his most recent book, entitled La ternura caníbal (2013).  In 2002, the literary review Nexos included Serna in a list of the top ten Mexican short story writers of the last twenty-five years. Given his enormous success in Mexico, it is at once surprising and discouraging to consider that of his twelve works, only one of them (Fear of Animals [Aflame Books, U.K. 2008]) has been translated into English. In this interview, Serna discusses his ideas regarding romantic love in Latin America, an underlying theme to be found in many of his literary creations, where the sheer tawdriness (and cheesiness) of many intimate relationships experienced by his literary characters is imbued with the saccharine verses of Mexico’s romantic ballads, soap operas, films, and other manifestations of popular culture. [End Page 1] 

Michael K. SchuesslerEnrique, I’d like to talk with you about the concept of romantic love in the literature and culture of Mexico and Latin America. I have assembled some questions and I would like to start with this: In what ways has romantic love been portrayed in cinema, literature, television, and popular music in Mexico and in Latin America, now and in the past?

Enrique Serna: In my opinion, the 1930s were the golden age of Mexican popular culture. This period came before the intensification of mass popular culture, with its wide range of marketing strategies, all designed to evaluate the reaction of the consumer… that is to say, to prevent the reaction of the consumer. This was the era of XEW radio broadcasting, and the owners of the station believed that by hiring the best composers and singers, they would corner top ratings. So, it was understood that the owners would allow free artistic license, which was necessary, of course, and they gave us the works of Agustin Lara, for example…

Starting in the 1920s, Lara began to frequent the brothels of Mexico City, and, in fact, most of his songs were composed based on his experiences there. It is curious how music composed in bordellos became the popular music of the day, listened to by housewives, whose fantasy was to be treated like “adventuresses” or “loose women” invoked in his songs.

MKS And I believe that this phenomenon also occurred in Mexican cinema of the period. The 1932 film Santa, for example… Does this movie have anything to do with what you are describing?

ES Of course it did. First there was the silent version and then the “talkie” version that included a soundtrack and Lara’s song (of the same name). It was perfect for the movie. The song is about a prostitute, and it is likely that Lara got his inspiration from the special type of love he came to know in the brothels.

There is a difference between this type of ballad and that of the Yucatecan trova, the songs composed by such artists as Guty Cárdenas, whose style has been kept alive by artists such as Armando Manzanero. The trova-type ballad is more in keeping with conventional morality. These kinds of songs can be sung to your girlfriend and her parents can enjoy them, too. There’s no strong erotic content, as in the compositions of Lara and later in the works of another famous songwriter: Roberto Cantoral. He was the author of Reloj and other songs like Soy lo prohibido. In this era, we also have Ranchera music. This type of music is more dramatic and exalts lost love. In this sense it is similar to the music of other countries, like the Blues of the US or the Argentine tango. These genres also elevate failure as an emotion: it hurts, but it gives you pleasure.

MKS Might one affirm, then, that Mexican popular music begins with the compositions of Agustin Lara in the 1920s, and that subsequently what was originally conceived as a literary manifestation enters the world of cinema, as well as a music that modifies the way love and suffering are portrayed?

ES Not precisely. Lara had literary abilities; as a youth he studied in the French Lycée. He had read the works of Baudelaire, for example. He created sumptuous metaphors inspired by the modernistas, that is, the Latin American symbolists. These metaphors were complex: “eyes made drunk by the sun”… they were not common clichés. What he did was to mix [End Page 2] these metaphors with lines that were more easily understood. And in this way he kept the public from being frightened away (or confused) by these unusual images.

MKS How do you compare these romantic composers, along with parallel representations in cinema and literature, with others presented to the general public? How have they been used to serve the aims of national, state, and regional political figures of the time, and how did they affect political change?

ES Well, for Ranchera music, the center of action was the Mexican state of Jalisco. In fact, it was the image of the “charros cantores – singing cowboys” that Mexico first exported to the world. The first hit was Allá en el Rancho Grande, and the second was ¡Ay Jalisco no te Rajes! As a result, this style becomes known as the epitome of Mexican music. The original mariachis were poor Indian farmers who wore plain cotton clothing, while the charro costume of the time was worn by the hacienda owners. Consequently, the mariachi groups settled on outfits that were considered elegant apparel of the time. In turn, the musical groups that traveled to Mexico City to play at elegant parties also wore this signature outfit.

There are old photographs where the mariachis appear in plain clothing, but then stars such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante came onto the scene wearing the elegant traje de mariachi costume. As I have said, without doubt they became symbolic of Mexican music and were warmly embraced by the population at large. The songs are representative of an age; they also clearly were identified with the criollo (white) hacienda owners. In all honesty, this is the music that really touched the Mexican soul. Ranchero music is similar to styles such as Flamenco – it is a plaintive music very similar to cante jondo (of Andalucía). This is one of the reasons that Mexican mariachi music was so well accepted in Spain. The mariachi are heroes there. Their music can be heard everywhere.

MKS And does this concept of romantic love–painful and cruel–make Mexican romantic music stand apart from the romantic music of other countries?

ES I don’t think there’s much difference. After all, the Blues, the Tango, the Ballenato from Columbia, and the Cante jondo of Spain all generally speak to failure in love. I think it’s a universal tendency. But in Mexico, the particular mournful style has enriched the genre worldwide. But what has made the huge negative difference and degraded Mexico’s image is mass-marketing. It has tried to take the musical artists away from the people. It has attempted to dictate and manipulate their tastes while seemingly giving the public what it wants. That is not to say that since the 60s, everything produced has been garbage, but I venture to say that we have moved away from the excellence of the earlier times.

MKS  And how do you relate these concepts to romanticism in literature, for example, in that of Mexico. This Romanticism, is it too related with romantic love? Is there continuity from the 19th to the 20th century?

ES Well, I don’t know if the Bolero is very faithful to the concept of romantic love without analyzing romanticism in literature of the 18th and 19th centuries: the German school or that of French Romanticism. It is more of a sentimental type of music than a melodramatic one. It has been called Romanticism, but this is an oversimplification. This music has, of course, had a great impact on Mexican literature during the second half of the 20th Century. Titles such as “Arráncame la Vida” by Ángeles Mastretta come to mind, and the Bolero is [End Page 3] still the fountain of inspiration. This is logical because many of us were educated listening to music. In my case, this was the music my parents listened to, and I liked it. I continued listening to it, and I think this is the characteristic of Mexican popular music: its longevity. And we can see that now, the music of Agustín Lara has outlasted the music of the 70s, for example, which has been more or less forgotten.

MKS How are such stereotypes as that of the Latin Lover developed in countries like the US?

ES Well, I think this is a stereotype promoted by people from the United States. There they see the Latin Lover as someone exotic and attractive. Probably they see this figure as someone like Rudolph Valentino. In the US, the figure of the Latin Lover was converted into that of a sex symbol, whereas in Mexico it is the reverse. Here the sex symbol is the blond – we Mexicans have always found them attractive. Moreover, the blonde gringas are seen as the ultimate sexual conquest. And we see this a lot in the novels of José Agustín, Ricardo Garibay, a little in those of Carlos Fuentes, such as Frontera de Cristal, in which bedding a gringa is the maximum sexual conquest that a Mexican macho can aspire to. I think this comes from the way many gringas come to have sexual flings with the beach boys in Acapulco. And of course, the gringos do the same…

MKS Are there expressions of love, of romantic love, in Mexico’s gay culture, as well? Is there transference or a rejection of these heteronormative phenomena?

ES Actually, these are not gay songs, but the gay community has appropriated them. There are legends, and you probably have heard them; for example, there is the story that the song “Usted es la culpable de todas mi angustias,” written by Gabriel Ruiz Galindo, was originally entitled “Daniel” and written for a man by a man. The song’s author apparently sold the rights to the person who is now credited as being the composer, a composer from Chiapas, I believe, but I forget his name. And then in the 70s, things started to become much more liberal. There are strong insinuations in the songs. For example, the one by José José that says: “I have rolled around from here to there, everything within reason… with this one (éste y aquel) and that one (ésta y aquella) with everything (con esto y aquello).” It’s a great song!

MKS Now, to finish up, I’d like to know if you think there’s an enormous difference between “high culture” and “popular culture” in Latin America, and if this distinction is gradually becoming blurred?

ES There is a difference in the different countries of Latin America. I think that in countries where a cultural elite exists, you will find a distinction between “high culture” and “popular culture,” and for this reason, the “higher class” rejects “the popular class.” However, this has been changing. For example, the national writers’ guild contains in its roster many composers of Boleros: they include Lara, Álvaro Carrillo, Luis Alcaraz, and others. This indicates to me that this music is considered among the best in Mexico. And I think this trend will continue. But still there is a tendency to maintain separate worlds. There are other countries where great poets also write music. In Brazil, for example, there is Vinicius de Moraes, a member of the country’s avant-garde, as well as Chico Boarque. Both were great poets and composers. In these cases we have no distinction. And then we have the tangos… [End Page 4] 

MKS And what to say about the television genre that Americans see as wholly Latin American – the telenovela? How do you relate the telenovela with this concept of romantic love?

ES The telenovela is a form of entertainment that has borrowed much from the Bolero – in fact, many telenovelas are named after songs. I remember in the 1960s there was a telenovela called Fallaste Corazon, just like the famous song by Cuco Sánchez. And so we can see that the songs have outlived the telenovelas. This phenomenon began towards the end of the 1950s. The first telenovela was Sendas Perdidas, written by Fernanda Villeli.

MKS These were women scriptwriters? Did they write to express their point of view, their personal experiences?  How do you see this?

ES Well, I think it was always a purely commercial enterprise. I don’t think anybody has written a telenovela as a means of expressing themselves. That didn’t exist before, and I don’t think it exists now. But now there is more creative freedom. There was not in the beginning. Early scriptwriters like Caridad Bravo Adams lived these dramas authentically; they believed in the drama and they transmitted it to the public. For this reason, they were so effective. Normally these dramas were based upon the story of Cinderella. That’s why there have been hundreds and hundreds of telenovelas about the poor girl who overcomes bad treatment by her employer and ends up marrying the son or the boss and consequently has the last laugh. In the end, the producers want to exploit the same successful formula, over and over, until they “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

MKS It certainly is a theme that is repeated time and again in the telenovelas of Latin America in general and those of Mexico in particular.

ES Well. It’s the same every time because in Mexico and Latin America you can’t have love without passion. And this love includes ardent sexual desire. So I think in the most representative Mexican popular songs we find this fervent, blood-boiling passion of Latin America that is identified with the region, thus it is seen by the world as a characteristic of Latin America, for better or worse. [End Page 5] 


Outing Javier Fuentes-León’s Contracorriente and the case for a New Queer Cinema in Latin America
by Vinodh Venkatesh

Javier Fuentes-León’s directorial debut, Contracorriente (2009), has garnered both critical interest and success, winning rave reviews from respected international print and web outlets and coveted Audience Awards at Sundance, Chicago, Miami, and Cartagena. The film recounts the archetypal love triangle of gay man (Santiago)-closeted man (Miguel)- [End Page 1] unsuspecting wife (Mariela) in a quiet fishing village somewhere in Latin America, exploring issues such as religion, death, and homophobia, all within a magical ghost story. It comes as no surprise, then, that some reviews call Contracorriente Brokeback Mountain meets Ghost” (Rose), tacking Fuentes-León’s film onto a growing corpus of mass-market homosexual-themed cinema that shares the populist project of raising awareness of homosexuality. What interests me as a critic, however, in reading and, to some extent, feeling Contracorriente, is its placement within a critical Latin American cannon of gay cinema, which has been found lacking as a negotiating agent in global discussions of a Queer cinema. I am referring to B. Ruby Rich’s notion of a New Queer Cinema in the 1990s and the assertion of a poetics and politics of the moving image that radicalizes depictions of the Queer. Therein lies the first motive behind these pages, as I propose to contextualize Contracorriente within its cinematic antecedents, thereby permitting a global dialogue with Queer cinema. The second purpose of these pages, albeit tangential to the first, is to explore the affective and aesthetic qualities of Fuentes-León’s film, as I suggest that Contracorriente is more problematic than a feel-good film about homosexual awareness and is instead a paradoxical project that underlines the tensions of (gender, spatial, aesthetic, political) difference within heteronormative systems. In this second vein, I focus on the film’s haptic qualities and its affective potential in guiding the viewer into the intricacies of Latin American sexuality.

The film’s production and popularity comes at a time when Peruvian cinema is undergoing a modest boom in filming and global reception. While Latin American cinephiles may be familiar with the work of Francisco Lombardi and Enrique Carreras, newer auteurs such as Ricardo de Montreuil and Claudia Llosa have blazed trails on the local and global stage. This movement is thematically characteristic and fundamental in understanding recent Latin American cinema, as it illustrates the tensile globalizing forces of cultural homogeneity and heterogeneity (Appadurai 25), or in spatial terms that are correlated but not necessarily mutually exclusive, of territorialization and deterritorialization. The former dyad (homogeneity/territorialization) can be understood in Llosa’s films that are ardently localized (Madeinusa, La teta asustada), whereas the latter (heterogeneity/deterritorialization) is evident in de Montreuil’s globalized narratives that resist local identifiers (La mujer de mi hermano, Máncora). This trend is unsurprising if we consider the ontoformative relationship between cinema and the written word in Latin America, as contemporary narrative represents a similar schizophrenic identity that in some regards is a development of the Crack and McOndo movements of the 1990s.

Even within the second dyad, however, we can find details of localization, as de Montreuil’s adaptation of Jaime Bayly’s novel of the same name is subtle in locating the diegesis in Mexico City, though Bayly is careful to never specify the geographic referents of his narrative. Máncora, furthermore, never allows the viewer to forget that we are in the posh coastal region of Peru, though a casual viewer may not necessarily know this detail given the multitude of accents and national origins depicted in the film. There is a critical difference in these films in opposition to their parallel literary movement, as they emphasize the non-territorial and heterogeneous as being within the imaginary borders of Latin America and not a nameless, geographic modernity. Keeping these two movements in mind, we can easily locate Fuentes-León’s film within the second dyad of heterogeneity (in terms of language, action, culture, etc.) and deterritorialization, as the visual topographies and topologies do not necessarily articulate the film within a Peruvian landscape, opting [End Page 2] instead for the broader categorization of Latin American cinema. The director is quick to stress this facet of the film:

My intention was not to talk about the political context of Cabo Blanco, of a man in this particular town in Peru that deals with being gay or with a homosexual relationship. I don’t even mention that it’s Cabo Blanco — you see it on a few boats, some of them say Cabo Blanco, but I don’t even say it’s Peru. There was even a line that was taken out that talked about Lima, because I wanted it to be an archetype of a town, more than the political and social context of a specific town and country. (Fuentes-León)

The film can, therefore, be contextualized within a trajectory of Latin American cinema that breaks with national cinema models. Working on the politics of affect and emotion in contemporary Latin American cinema, Laura Podalsky affirms that “by situating themselves globally and deemphasizing national commitments, these filmmakers contribute to the characterization of contemporary Latin American cinemas as a willing participant in the depoliticized, pro-market atmosphere that emerged in the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s as neoliberal administrations took power throughout the region” (3). We can, therefore, situate Contracorriente not only within a genealogy of Peruvian cinema, but perhaps more appropriately in a lineage of Latin American films.

A sub-genealogy, furthermore, can be elaborated around the notion of homosexual-themed cinema in the continent. David William Foster’s excellent study, Queer Issues in Contemporary Latin American Cinema, provides both a needed chronology of gay-themed contemporary cinema and an answer to Ramiro Cristobal’s ethical interrogation of if it is “lícito hablar de cine homosexual” (7). Cristobal problematizes the notion of gay cinema when he circumscribes the difference between a homosexual and a queer cinema (13-29), posing that what we see produced in the contemporary Peninsular context is more aligned with Anglo notions of queerness, which can be understood as:

todo aquello que instaura una postura desafiante a la heteronormatividad patriarcal. Puede ceñirse, primordialmente, a la legitimación del deseo homoerótico -mujeres que desean mujeres, hombres a hombres – pero no se limita solamente a esta cuestión, sino que lo queer  puede representar la legitimación de la promiscuidad, la prostitución en todas sus manifestaciones, el matrimonio que se niega a procrear, la pasión de la tercera edad y toda una gama de prácticas del amor entre seres humanos que no cumplen con los preceptos de la Iglesia y sus proyecciones en las leyes y los códigos del estado laico. (Foster, Ensayos 197)

The inference I am making here is that the bulk of homosexual-themed Latin American cinema is not really queer, but instead maricón cinema that does nothing to queer traditional heteronormative gender and sexual politics and subjectivities. Caution, however, must be exercised in making such broad affirmations, as a more holistic approximation to homosexual-themed cinema in Latin America can divide films into two subsets: queer-themed films that actively undertake an Anglo problematization of gender and queerness through an inclusion of a Northern politics of identity (most notably in [End Page 3] independent Mexican arthouse films from the 1980s, and contemporary cinema from Brazil); and maricón cinema that does not substantially insert itself within the global sexual politics of emancipation and destabilization, choosing instead to focus on the representation in the public sphere of homosexual characters, stereotypes, and issues. This vein of cinema often solely mocks, parodies, and delegitimizes male homosexual characters in contraposition to their heteronormative counterparts. When not the object of ridicule, gay characters are often the subjects of both violent and subtle homophobia, as the viewer is subject to identify what constitutes separating the gay subject from the broader social matrix. At no moment are we given the visual and haptic cues to identify with and, therefore, problematize the matrices of heterosexuality, or to envision any real, intimate exploration of the sexual continuum in Latin America. Maricón cinema solely engages the viewer in identifying and placing the gay male character in a diegetic social structure, where what is often valued and emphasized is the vantage of patriarchy. The latter can be traced from Jaime Humberto Hermosillo’s Doña Herlinda y su hijo (1985) to Lombardi’s No se lo digas a nadie (1998). In these films, homosexuality and homoeroticism “never exist in any other space than the dark side of compulsory heterosexuality in the bleak terrain created by hypocrisy” (Foster, Queer 109). These films expose and let live the homosexual subject without necessarily questioning structural and epistemological facets of heteronormativity, lending the maricón instead the position of object within an understanding of homophobia (as a system of repression in relation to societal uniformity). I will return to this point later when dealing with the problematic of homosexuality in Contracorriente, as the film does not, at first glance, queer the heteronormative familial and sexual practices of the fishing village. This divide is further noticed in critical approximations to the region’s cinema: the Latin American section of Thomas Waugh’s comprehensive study of global queer cinema, for example, is unsurprisingly titled “The Kiss of the Maricon,” albeit without an accent (173).

This distinction between queer and maricón cinema is further exemplified by the exclusion of Latin American films from any critical discussion of New Queer Cinema, a descriptive label for gay-themed films that push forth aesthetics and politics of “defiance,” beginning in the 1990s  (Aaron 3). This subgenre focuses on minority groups within the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community, eschews positive imagery, defies the sanctity of the (homophobic) past, questions the fatality of death–particularly in relation to the AIDS disease–and defies cinematic convention in terms of form, content, and genre (Aaron 4-5). In a sense, these films normalize the queer by not explicitly devoting an entire plotline to its existence, but by instead viewing sexual otherness and marginality as axiomatic. Most importantly, queer bodies are not treated as solely (positive or negative) stereotypes, but are radicalized as non-conforming gender expressions. The absence of Latin American cinema in Michele Aaron’s anthology on New Queer Cinema and its legacy in the twenty-first century is thought provoking, especially since the region has not been a stranger to homosexual-themed films. The absence is further felt in New Queer Cinema-inspired projects such as Leandro Palencia’s La pantalla visible: El cine queer en 33 películas, where only three out of thirty-three movies are in Spanish. None of these, as expected, come from Latin America. This disconnect, on the one hand, may be explained by New Queer Cinema’s lack of concern with people of color or other cultures, as they tend to be added on haphazardly as token others.[1] On the other hand, we can further the [End Page 4] argument that Latin American gay-themed cinema is less queer and more maricón, as the bulk of films do not effectively and affectively queer anything.

It is worthwhile at this juncture to return to Foster’s genealogy of homosexual-themed or maricón cinema in Latin America, as a thematic trend can be gleaned from his critical queer reading of each film. It is important to note that the critic does not insert these themes in a global Queer movement, but rather provides a queer hermeneutic to understand maricón films. In establishing a corpus, Foster encounters films that superficially portray homosexual subjects and relationships without explicitly interrogating or minting them for their queer potential (25) and more complex films that problematize gender, but usually within a broader study of power systems. This latter group includes La virgen de los sicarios (2000, the globalized drug trade), En el paraiso no existe el dolor (1997, border studies), Cuban films on homosexuality during Castro’s government, and No se lo digas a nadie (globalization and urbanity). Even Hermosillo’s Doña Herlinda can be read through the optics of nation building and the role of popular culture in imagining the nation (Schulz-Cruz 21-8). There is a critical disconnect in talking about a queer Latin American cinema, as what is often represented, studied, and problematized is a gay cinema. Bernard Schulz-Cruz, for example, uses the word queer interchangeably with “gay, homosexual, joto, loca” (18). This is a dangerous practice, as criticism is confusing the queer (as a decentering position, practice, and epistemology) with the homosexual (which does not necessarily question heteronormative systems and structures).

Within this theorization of a distinct maricón cinema in juxtaposition to a global Queer movement is a succinct understanding of the role of space in Latin American culture and, by extension, film. A perusal of contemporary novels provides a strong textual basis for affirming that spatiality is intrinsic to gender subjectivities. The urban, public, and central is the site of heteronormativity, where hegemonic masculinity (Connell 81) reigns over feminine and queer positions. Recent texts such as Ana Clavel’s Cuerpo náufrago (2005), Alberto Fuguet’s Mala onda (1991), and Bayly’s La mujer de mi hermano (2002) can be read in a long sequence of narratives that gender the center as urban, dating back to colonial- and independence-era literature. In fact, we can consider Luis Zapata’s El vampiro de la colonia Roma (1978) to be most innovative not necessarily due to the writing of a queer figure, but because it queers the praxis of the masculine homosocial in the urban space. The films Foster establishes in a Latin American (maricón) filmic canon similarly follow a spatial mapping of the subject vis-à-vis gendered topologies, as sexuality is negotiated within the urban, and, microstructurally, within the domestic. Orlando Rojas’s Las noches de Constantinopla (2002), for example, clearly illustrates the spatiality of the domestic in maintaining and perpetuating heteronormative systems (Lewis 90).

Returning to Contracorriente, I want to argue that Fuentes-León’s love triangle at the idyllic shores of a fishing village breaks from the tradition of maricón cinema, and can instead be read as New Maricón Cinema, in dialogue with, yet not as a direct subset of, Rich’s New Queer Cinema, as the film presents instead a paradox of competing positions and postulates on gender that problematize its inclusion within Rich’s and Foster’s respective genealogies. It can be considered a “New” iteration of films by Hermosillo and Lombardi as it undertakes a queering, on several levels, of the representation of homosexuality in Latin America. [End Page 5]

In the most obvious sense, Contracorriente relocates the homosexual problematic to the non-urban and non-territorialized seaside space, breaking with previous films that always maintain the urban as a topologic referent. There is a spatial queering in the geographic sense of the homosexual subject away from the masculine/feminine space of the public/private extant in urban settings. He is, instead, relocated and renegotiated in a non-traditional geography that lays a foundation for more substantial cognitive and haptic approximations to the subject. By doing so, gender and sexuality are treated outside contextualized sociopolitical systems of oppression that are characteristic of Latin American gay cinema. In effect, we can argue that Contracorriente succeeds in outing Latin American cinema from the domestic/urban space. An earlier sample of this shift is signaled in Eduardo Nabal Aragón’s study of Y tu mamá también (2001), as he argues that Alfonso Cuarón’s film only manages to delve into the homoerotics of a very homosocial relationship through the spatial displacement away from the city and towards the rural beachside (176). A similar structure can be observed in Julian Schnabel’s Antes que anochezca (2000, based on the novel by Reinaldo Arenas), as the film queers the macho sex symbol (Javier Bardem) in the homoerotic and liminal geography of the coast.

There is a narratological queering of the maricón genre, as Fuentes-León employs and, to an extent, problematizes the magical realist aesthetic that is, in itself, polemic in contemporary cultural production from the region. Unlike previous films that have tended to spoon on a healthy dose of reality to the urban chronicles of sexual exploration, Contracorriente engages a magical break, explaining, in part, the critical comparison to Ghost. The final, and perhaps most interesting, queering can be deemed affective, as the film decenters stereotypes such as the closeted male, cheated spouse, and scandalized village through a carefully framed tactile and aural experience of heterosexual norms. There is a recalibration of the stereotype, which, as understood by Rey Chow, is an “objective, normative practice that is regularly adopted for collective purposes of control and management” (54). This latter process, however, is intrinsically spatial, as Fuentes-León frames and deframes homosocial relations relative to what Waugh terms the private/public function of space (183-4), as Contracorriente plays with the scopophilic and the haptic in creating a more nuanced and emotionally intense relation between the viewer and the onscreen image.

The film is acutely aware of the role of space as genderized and genderizing, and pays particular attention to its role in the poetic characterization of the homosexual. The film begins with a tight close shot of Mariela’s very pregnant stomach. The rhythmic rising and falling, which induces a maternal/paternal emotion in the viewer, is interrupted by a cross dangling from Miguel’s neck, underlining the triangle between sexuality, organized religion, and procreation. There is, in effect, a stark visual representation of heteronormative systems and structures that Queer theory aims to dislocate. The two characters play up this representation as Miguel playfully questions the gender of the baby, leading Mariela to chastise him for possibly “confusing” the child. From the onset of the film, heteronormativity is placed in a dialect with non-conforming subject positions.

Certain succinct and repeated spaces in the film are further ascribed to being representative of heteronormativity. The bar where Miguel, Héctor, and the rest of the village’s male population go to drink and play cards is a poignant example. The blonde, scantily clad pinup reminds the viewer that this is a distinctively masculine space, unwelcoming of Santiago as he invites the men to several bottles of beer to honor the [End Page 6] passing of Héctor’s brother and Miguel’s cousin, Carlos. The men initially reject the offer, but acquiesce to the gesture upon Miguel taking a swig from a bottle, foreshadowing his clandestine relationship with Santiago. Miguel and Mariela’s house, furthermore, illustrates the domesticity of heteronormativity through the carefully placed marriage portrait of the two next to the door, in addition to several Catholic-themed prints. The viewer is constantly reminded of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage upon the diegetic entering of characters into the house through these visual aids, emphasizing the importance of the localized space and the scopic in characterizing the subject.

The bar, the house, and the church in the small fishing village are reference points in establishing a topography of gender in Contracorriente, as the first shot of the diegetic village is a long shot split between the ocean and the desert, which are two oppositional spaces constructed by their differences. If one is colorful, dynamic, and full of life, the other is somber, dreary, and dead. The gendered spaces of the village exist in between the binary geographies. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Miguel and Santiago can only express their homoerotic desire when spatially separated from the restrictive and restricted topography of heteronormativity. Their first embrace is captured in an empty and incomplete house in the desert, separated from the village by a steep hill that Miguel quietly climbs. It is poignant that the images only show him negotiating this spatial shift, as he, unlike Santiago, must function within the norms of heterosexuality demanded by the house/bar/church. By climbing the hill and coming out on the other side, Miguel effectively leaves behind his heteronormative shell and can fully express his homoerotic desire for Santiago. He goes from room to room in the empty incomplete house, perhaps a metaphor for a Latin American political project of homosexual emancipation that is structurally in place, but which requires consistent and substantial edification. Graffiti on one of the walls fuels this reading, as it states “se prohibe hacer caca en esta casa,” underlying the biopolitical sanctity of the queered domestic space. Though not adhering to the heteronormative principles of the village house, the desert/homosexual space demands its own sense of domesticity, as it is a living space for the homosexual couple.

The film, furthermore, queries other heteronormative spaces such as the fishing boat, the site of homosocial work. Its genderizing potential is established early in the film as Miguel and the other men salute the priest on the beach as they haul in a catch. The gesture of acknowledgement establishes a symbolic union between the masculine cultural space of work and the hierarchy and organization espoused by the Catholic Church, elaborated later when the fishermen partake in church activities. The second homoerotic encounter, unsurprisingly, occurs in a similarly queered boat, as Miguel and Santiago meet in the empty, land-ridden carcass of a ship. It is located away from the heteronormative space of the village and the metonymic entity of the fishing boat, akin to their first encounter in the desert house. In this scene, Miguel reveals to Santiago that Mariela will be having a boy. The film encourages a scopic viewing through the frames of the ship’s scaffolding within the frames of the multi-angled medium and close shots that capture the interchange. The images invite us to look in on this private moment of homoerotic relations, as though the men have been painted as a couple within a wooden frame, not quite unlike the framed marriage portrait at the entrance of the village house. There is, furthermore, a paradox of being vis-à-vis spatiality, as the film plays with the concepts of being in/invisible and out/visible, as though homosexuality exists within closed spaces in the film. It is visual and scopophilic, as the viewer is permitted and encouraged to witness [End Page 7] Santiago and Miguel through the opened walls of the incomplete house and the empty frames of the fishing boat.

The juxtaposition of heteronormative and queer spaces, in addition to the paradox of being that the boat and house posit, provides the underlying substrate for the theorization of gendered spaces and spaces of acceptability within the diegesis. The film highlights the notion of a spatial contract of and for heteronormativity in Latin American film, returning to Waugh and Foster’s ruminations on the role of the private and public. Miguel and Santiago’s inability to express their emotions within heteronormative geographies points to the existence of a spatial contract of acceptability, where gendered bodies must act out certain gender roles within culturally specific loci of heterosexism. These loci can further be defined as semantic, physical assemblages of the lines and structures of power that keep patriarchy functioning. A brief list of such spaces may include a church, a school, a single-family home, and even the neighborhood bar. Miguel, for example, must be manly, powerful, and domineering within the household (the spatial nucleus of heteronormativity), which partially explains Mariela making him watch soccer instead of the afternoon soap opera when she first hears of his relationship with Santiago.

A further example of the contract can be evidenced in the first love scene between the two men. Panning long shots from right to left capture them making their way to a secluded beach cave that cannot be accessed during high tide. The dry desert that backgrounds Santiago’s journey is contrasted with the vivacious vibrancy of Miguel’s boat ride. A further contrast can be found in the framing of these shots, as while the desert is opened and uninhibited by diegetic framing devices, the ocean is at times framed and closed in by rocky outcroppings. The diegetic framing of Miguel’s moving shots in contrast with the fluid ocean can be interpreted as a simple metaphor for him being closed or closeted in his sexuality, whereas the free and unrestricted angles of Santiago reflect his self-acceptance of desire. They meet in a cave, another substitute for the house that Miguel shares with Mariela, and engage in a sensual and erotic episode that is emotively jarring in its subtle compliance with the coital aesthetics of heteronormativity.

The film frames their lovemaking through a stylized sequence of close and unsteady shots that capture semantic parts of the homosexual subject without necessarily portraying the whole. Shots focus on the hands, the back, the buttocks, and the hair, so much so that the viewer at times forgets that they are watching two men engage in homoerotic sex.

The scene begins with Santiago on top of Miguel, a configuration that is quickly flipped as Miguel adopts the missionary position on top of Santiago, effectively queering any notions of Latin American homosexuality being a binary of a decidedly macho top and an effeminate, taken bottom. In fact, Contracorriente completely resists identifying either man as the penetrator, as Miguel and Santiago interchange subservient and ‘feminine’ roles throughout the film. This is perhaps most poignantly observed in a post-coital shot, where Miguel rests his head on Santiago’s naked and hairy chest, adopting a traditionally female position. The composition of the two leading men adds to this observation, as neither is aesthetically feminine or sissified, evoking a further break from maricón cinema, which is quick to visually and epistemologically characterize the penetrated male (de la Mora 113): Santiago and Miguel are hairy, virile, and masculine for all intents and purposes, except for the fact that they are in love with a member of the same sex.

The aesthetics of the sex scene and the affective intensity it generates of calculatedly not producing discomfort in the viewer can be attributed to the camera’s focusing on [End Page 8] Miguel’s buttocks during the missionary position. Their rhythmic rising and falling, returning to Mariela’s pregnant belly in the first shot of the film, can be read within the aesthetics of heteronormative sex, not unlike a latter scene where Miguel penetrates his wife. In fact, we can, for a second, completely forget that Miguel is having sex with a man, regimenting the viewer to perceive the sexual act as conforming to Joseph Kupfer’s notion of sexual ethics at the cinema (249-51), a problematic position as the critic foregrounds an orthodox reading of gender relations. The men’s penises, furthermore, are never captured in the same detail and setting as the buttocks, and are instead relegated to long, grainy shots that reveal their nudity without exactly portraying the (unwatchable) penis. The director addresses this disconnect by emphasizing the affective potential of the moving image in relation to its reception by Latin American audiences: “I made this film for as many people as can get to see it, but I had the Latin American audience in mind, and I wanted to highlight the romance and the love between the two men, and be a little bit careful about how much to push that envelope. I didn’t want to lose [the audience], especially because [scenes with Miguel and Santiago] come early in the movie” (Fuentes-León). The coital aesthetic of heterosexuality that the film seizes to frame homosexual sex is fundamental to the notion of not making the film “unwatchable” to unconditioned Latin American viewers.[2]

What I am getting to is the critical shift towards affect that Contracorriente necessitates in contrast to earlier maricón cinema, as “the material presence of the image competes with, and often supersedes, its representational power” (Beugnet 68). The geography of the film, in combination with alternating long and close scenic shots, emphasizes the haptic in inviting the reader to touch and feel the spaces of the village, namely the desert’s grainy sand in contrast to the warm, wet, and bustling ocean. Working with the axiom that the filmic image is not only visual but also tactile, Asbjørn Grønstad theorizes the existence of the “unwatchable” as “not just […] graphic violence” but “virtually anything in the image that may insult our sensibilities, that makes us want to avert our eyes, or that forces us to reconsider our investments, be they visual/aesthetic or political/moral” (15). The unwatchable, more importantly, is “a means to an epistemological-ethical end” (15), leading us, in turn, to consider what is the ethical drive behind resemanticizing the homosexual along an aesthetics of heterosexual sex. The buttocks, that corporal and epistemological site of male homosexual desire, is recalibrated along heteronormative visuals to not be a site of penetration, but rather the corporal motor behind the penetrating phallus, allowing a sensitive audience to not feel displeasure in watching its rise and fall, later played out in the sex scene between Miguel and Mariela when the husband must prove his virility to the suspecting wife.

While Contracorriente avoids being unwatchable, it can, however, be approached through the notion of Grønstad’s “inwatchable” cinema, as “it contains elements that actively try to withstand the endemic reduction of all experience and epistemology to the totalizing work of the visual” (85). There is, as I cite above, a narratological queering, as the filmic narrative forces the viewer to peel away the façade of the visual and to consider the textual, cultural, and literary layers behind Fuentes-León’s film. That is, there is a clear and visible appropriation of the magical realist aesthetic. Inwatchable films invite the viewer to peel “away […] the visual layer of the image to reveal the tactile substance underneath it, thus exposing itself to the haptic” (97). An inwatchable film, furthermore, “defuses the sway of the image by displacing aesthetic pleasure from the domain of the visual to that of [End Page 9] the tactile. Granted, the film is not an object to be touched, but that does not mean that it cannot itself enact tactility in the form of visual (and sometimes aural) gestures” (97). We can effectively “touch” the image in Contracorriente through the film’s literary use of the magical realist aesthetic, almost as if we were reading Fuentes-León’s images on a page written chronicling Macondo Latin America.

Homoerotic sex is, as a result, haptic in the film, as the scenes of coitus are displaced from the scopophilic settings of the bedroom, the cinema, or the back alley (all spaces that invite a gaze and which are prevalent in maricón cinema) and are, instead, re-ascribed onto the tactile spaces of the beach, the sand, and the ocean. Close and tightly composed portrait shots of Santiago and Miguel after making love invite the reader to feel the textures and sounds that exist under the visual layer. In a close shot where Santiago lays naked as a wave washes over and caresses his post-orgasmic face, the viewer is treated to the cold and smooth textures of water running over the grainy sand, evocative of the macro-geography of queerness that exists right outside the heteronormative village, that is, in the desert space or in the sea.

The magical realist aesthetic, which successfully makes the film inwatchable, is nothing new in cinema coming from or about Latin America. What is original, however, is its use to discuss and problematize queer identities, as Fuentes-León’s film effectively queers the narrative mode. We can view magical realism as an “aesthetic mode” (Pérez Melgosa 106), though Contracorriente may better be termed a post-magical film, as it both acknowledges a cultural and historical connection to magical realism and puts forth a path to transcend it. This transcendence is made possible by decentering the aesthetic mode from traditional narratives to an uncomfortable zone that forces the viewer to reconsider preconceived judgments and perceptions. Unlike Patrick Swayze in Ghost, we are not only asked to reorient our epistemologies of viewing to accommodate the spectral, but are also asked to consider the homosexual experience within a patriarchal system of homophobia. The aesthetic mode, as Adrián Pérez Melgosa argues, “frequently attempt[s] to bring comfort from the cultural anxieties insistently brought about by [the] constant realization of the gap existing between languages that evolved in a different history and continent” (109). The film queers this notion of magical realism through a semantic substitution of “language,” as it reframes a narrative mode often used to negotiate parallel yet exclusive cultural paradigms to analogically parallel gender expressions of difference. The director can be congratulated for this narratological innovation, as the magical in Contracorriente seemingly alleviates the anxiety of the other, the maricón who threatens heteronormativity.

Language and its enunciation, however, is intrinsic to the construct of the homosexual male, as the film captures the typical silence over the queer as something that cannot be named yet which always exists, veiled in a hypocritical secrecy. The rumors that mull around the homosexual/artist/foreigner/other emphasize Chris Straayer’s notion of homosexuality often being an open secret, where “the act of coming out often exposes an elaborate structure of unknowing, a deliberate ignorance induced by a fear of continuity” (163). Miguel’s unknowing, for example, is so ingrained that he cannot see the penis in an ultrasound of their baby. Borrowing from Eve Sedgwick’s theorizations of the closet, Straayer furthers the notion that homosexual relations are kept secret, as “by maintaining the secret, one hopes to contain homosexuality in the bodies of others” (164). When it is enunciated, as when Héctor confronts Miguel about the nude paintings of his body found in [End Page 10] the now-deceased painter’s home and calls him a maricón, violence is the only answer, as language cannot acknowledge the other, since by doing so implies contagion.

A further post-magical characteristic can be evidenced in the queering of space, or the breach of the spatial contract of heteronormativity, as like other cinematic narratives that espouse a post or anti-magical stance, Contracorriente “depict[s] geography as an imaginary category in order to reject any ontological link between culture and territory” (109). It is clear even within the narratological queering of the genre that spatiality is fundamental in understanding how Contracorriente brings something “New” to the aesthetics and politics of maricón cinema. The film posits a symbolic lattice that emphasizes the geographic/imaginary contract of heteronormativity, away from traditional signifiers of gender in the urban. This shift is evidenced by the death of Santiago after the two men fight about Miguel’s inability to break the spatial contract and to openly affirm his relationship with the painter. Santiago dies off screen, explicated posthumously by the magical-realist spectral figure that recounts how the waves crashed his body onto the rocks before dragging it below in the undertow. The title of the film originates from the elimination of the queer male (as he aims to decenter heteronormativity, unlike Miguel), stressing the processes of his demise in the plot. He is killed by and in the symbolic spaces of queerness in the film, as the fluid and haptic ocean sacrifices his body to the arid and grainy coast, emphasizing the intrinsic connection between body and space. The shots immediately following their fight are underwater and devoid of sound, focusing on subtle yet distinctive rays of light that break the waves and invite the viewer to look downwards. A similar directionality is evoked in the next sequence as the camera focuses on sand being blown across the beach, again in a downward motion to the static camera. The quietness of the marine is contrasted with the aurally uncomfortable wind that evokes the haptic in that the viewer can not only visualize the wind and the coast, but also feel the grains of sand rush against the body, akin to the tight, close shot of a post-coital Santiago gazing lovingly at Miguel/the audience. The movement downwards and the unforgiving nature of the windstorm foreshadow the metaphysical being/not being that Santiago experiences as a magical-realist ghost that comes back to haunt Miguel, as the audience can infer through a literary imagination that he has descended to a spiritual purgatory.

The abrupt, yet to some extent foreshadowed, switch to the magical-realist aesthetic mode highlights the larger part of Contracorriente’s relatively short 100-minute running time. The switch in narrative mode can be read as what Mary Louise Pratt calls a “contact zone,” or geographically delimited “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (4). The spectral mode in the film represents one such zone, where the queer male can come into visual contact with the spaces and systems of homophobia previously deemed off-limits by the spatial contract of heteronormativity. The film emphasizes the linkage between aesthetic mode and contact zone through Miguel’s panic at seeing Santiago inside the village house. The first contact with magical realism is decentered by quick-moving shots of the three characters in the living room, of Miguel alone, and of Santiago and Mariela, as if the camera refuses to allow the viewer to completely identify the visual telos with the magical realist tradition. We are instead invited to situate the magical within the epistemology of the real in the film through the carefully constructed shots that emphasize that not all points of view share an experience of the contact zone. The aesthetic mode is unpacked by Miguel’s initial incredulity of the spectral presence, quite unlike traditional [End Page 11] magical realism that normalizes the supernatural. In Contracorriente, instead, the two male protagonists struggle with the magical, refusing at first to acknowledge its existence, pushing the film further into inwatchability, as the viewer and the diegetic characters must negotiate a position in relation to the contact zone between the magical and the real.

Their perspective, however, evolves when they realize that the spectral permits a violation of the spatial contract, as Santiago openly interacts with Miguel within his house. It is within this aesthetic mode of contact that we can unearth an epistemological and ethical theorization of the queer in the film, permitting a “New” reading that actively juxtaposes systems and beliefs of difference with heteronormativity. The film moves the breach to other gendered spaces such as the church and the bar. Miguel is at first uncomfortable with the spectral presence of Santiago during Sunday service, but the film effectively uses aural strategies such as the meshing of the reading of non-homophobic scripture with full-body shots of Santiago standing amongst seated parishioners. The spatial framing of this scene emphasizes the queer body’s non-belonging to patriarchal religious systems, yet at the same time invites the reader to unpack the visual structure through the aural cue of non-prejudice, followed by Santiago sitting next to Miguel in a pew. The film effectively portrays the possibility of a non-heteronormative space, albeit through the non-realist trope, through a self-consciousness of the magical. In one of many nightly encounters in Miguel’s living room, Santiago expresses that he cannot stand being alone and that it is horrible to not exist. The paradox here, of course, is that Santiago has never not been alone in the village, as the villagers have always viewed him with suspicion. What Fuentes-León succeeds in posing is that it may be better to be an ostracized homosexual seeking acceptance within a spatially coded society than to simply not exist. There is an implicit call to make the queer visible and spoken in opposition to a culture of aural and visual silence.

Miguel’s anxiety of seeing Santiago in the public/out space is gradually alleviated as the two men reacclimatize themselves in an unfinished house at the periphery of the village. They accept the magical-realist aesthetic, creating a contact zone that permits an exploration of the spatiality of gender. Santiago proceeds to leave the confines of the open/closed space and invites Miguel to follow suit. He beckons him to come out, and when Miguel asks where, replies almost casually: “fuera pues.” The shot that captures this exchange is backgrounded by the fluid, haptic space of the ocean (as signifier of the queer), with Miguel located between the viewer and Santiago. The scopophilic gaze is directed towards the haptic water, asking both Miguel and the viewer to step out and to break the spatial contract of heteronormativity. There are frames within frames in this shot, akin to the earlier boat scenes, as the filmic image emphasizes a metanarrative of coming out from multiple spatial closets, resisting simplified Anglo-centric narratives of leaving the figurative closet. Even in a later scene when Mariela confronts Miguel about the paintings found in Santiago’s house, he asks her: “¿qué cuadro?,” evoking the multiple frames that Fuentes-León’s composition elicits in the viewer in understanding the matrix of Miguel’s gendered struggle with subjectivity. The framing of the coming-out experience in Contracorriente, instead, posits that the Latin American closet is a very different space, and as such, any epistemology of it or phenomenology of leaving it must be socioculturally sensitive.

The subsequent shot is of Miguel peering out from behind an unfinished wall, alternating with a medium shot of Santiago inviting him out, even going so far as to talk to [End Page 12] people who cannot see him. He exists on the outside of the metonymic house, though not really in a corporal sense, reflective of a broader cognitive dissonance between gay rights and homosexual movements in Latin America, both in relation to traditional structures of patriarchy and to Anglo-movements inspired by a greater visibility and “watchability.” Santiago, in fact, can only be seen in a spatial sense when he affirms that: “nadie me ve, huevón,” evocative of the homosexual’s absence within the heteronormative aesthetics of coitus evidenced in the homoerotic lovemaking scene, as homosexuality can only be seen, spoken, and worked through by the film and the audience within the magical mode of narrative. Santiago seems to affirm this disconnect when he affirms: “mejor así…afuera,” as soon as Miguel steps outside. The camera invites us to see the homosexual in a public space, but also asks us to feel the breach of the spatial contract through the haptic reading of magical realism as an unpacking agent of the visual image. The audience must therefore not take the men walking hand-in-hand through the village as a simple representation of how much easier and normalized an acceptance of homosexuality can be, but instead as a polysemantic exploration of systems and spaces of narration that permit such representation, exemplified by Santiago repeatedly stating: “nadie me ve.”

With that being said, however, it is equally fundamental to acknowledge that Contracorriente does not affirm a queering of all norms of patriarchy, as what is representative of acceptance is the ability to hold hands in public, just like all the other heterosexual couples. There is a subtle critique of the gay movement’s drive to share straight rights, as by doing so there is no real epistemological challenging of extant systems. There is, furthermore, no real queering of the norms of heterosexual structures, as the two men experience an intense emotive reaction at the birth of Miguel and Mariela’s son, reaffirming the value placed on procreation vis-à-vis sexuality as depicted in the opening shot of Mariela’s rising and falling belly. The resistance to completely do away with the aesthetics and structures of heternormativity in the film may return to the director’s need to make a watchable film for the Latin American audience, though it remains highly inwatchable to the informed viewer who must unpack the magical-realist aesthetic mode behind the visual image.

The spatial and epistemological coming out of Miguel (from the closeted unfinished house) and Santiago (as a seen and unseen specter within the spaces of heterosexuality) allows the film to enter, albeit ephemerally, into a lighter tone, as the two men engage in the type of hijinks permitted when one is invisible. Even during these lighthearted scenes, Fuentes-León does not allow the viewer to completely disassociate the magical-realist aesthetic from an ethical exploration of the contact zone between queerness and heterosexuality. The film, for example, uses the typical caper of the invisible subject reading the cards of the other players during a poker game. This light-hearted moment, however, is subtly placed within a power system of contention, as Miguel wins a hand of poker against a bluffing member of the homophobic homosocial with a pair of queens. The simplicity of this detail is counteracted by the affective potential of the two queens as being capable of overpowering the homophobic within a previously outlined space of heteronormativity, albeit through the paradoxical visible/invisible narrative mode. The poker hand, furthermore, foreshadows Miguel’s coming out to the community, as he agrees to offer Santiago’s cadaver to the ocean, thereby allowing him to rest in peace.

The public offering of the body as a rite of passage from the living underlines the film’s espousal of magical realism as a way of narrating, as it emphasizes the mythopoetic [End Page 13] cultural exoticism of meshing indigenous and European belief systems. The director acknowledges this in the first offering made by Miguel of Carlos’s body. The boat that takes him out to sea is adorned with purple flags, evocative of the North American symbol of the funerary service and not local ceremonies. Adrián Pérez Melgosa touches upon this facet of cinematic magical realism when he affirms that “all post-magical critiques share a tacit acknowledgement that the cosmopolitan gaze of magical realism can only function if, in the dynamic of looking and being looked at, there exists a certain degree of complicity from its object” (127-8). The film acknowledges an Anglo audience that associates the affective intensity of the color purple with the systemic death-rites of heteronormative religion, thereby underlining the complicity between Latin American and Anglo-centric gazes in undertaking an interrogation of the maricón in Contracorriente.

Miguel symbolically comes out to the village by offering Santiago, highlighting on the one hand the importance of the aesthetic mode and the disconnect between local and foreign epistemologies of the closet. On the other, he tells Mariela of his plans and she leaves him and their home, which loses its affective sense of place within the spatial contract of heterosexuality. The coming-out scene is not only visual, in the sense that the narrative is located in the scopophilic frame of the kitchen, but also haptic, as the audio repeats the rhythmic and tactile sound of waves, reminiscent of the close shot of a post-orgasmic Santiago in the beach. By collocating this aural cue with a framed visual of coming out, Fuentes-León invites the viewer to also feel the conflicting politics of Miguel’s identity. He subsequently leaves the domestic space as the camera lingers over the doorframe, emphasizing his outing and also reminding the viewer of the power of spatiality vis-à-vis gender through the wedding portrait that hangs next to the door. The portrait is framed in an earlier scene as a fundamental referent in determining Miguel’s sexual politics, as it hangs in the background behind a standing Miguel who is framed by a door. The shot invites the viewer to see him in a frame within frames, as he affirms to his suspecting wife that: “yo no soy así, te lo juro.”

By leaving behind their marriage, Miguel is also severing himself as a subject from the topology of heteronormativity. The uncloseted man’s decision to publicly acknowledge a relationship with Santiago is moreover problematized as he can only come out to his community in the symbolic liminality of death and within the spatial liminality of the ocean as he takes Santiago’s body into deep water. It is interesting to note that they are never caught in fraganti, as the villagers only label Miguel as a homosexual after seeing the painted nude portrait, which, in turn, emphasizes the haptic process behind peeling away Santiago’s thick and expressive brushstrokes to unearth sexual practices that are never seen by the audience and the diegetic characters. Reading Miguel’s homosexuality in Contracorriente is really about touching the semantic and tactile bonds of desire that the painting evokes. The film ends with Santiago’s body being offered to the sea, a final kiss between the two men, and Santiago’s specter disappearing from the film, bringing full circle the narratological and spatial queering that Contracorriente embarks upon. The viewer is left with a dose of uncertainty and is asked to ponder whether it is the magic of the offering that liberates Santiago’s ghost, or if it is the act of coming out by Miguel that liberates his own conscience, as prior to offering Santiago, Miguel has to first come out to his lover. He tells Santiago that he had found his body but had decided to leave it tied to a rock, as he enjoyed their magical-realist relationship that allowed him to be out while really being in. The film, therefore, does not suggest a clear path out of the Latin American [End Page 14] closet, but does succeed in problematizing its space and posing an alternate epistemology that underlines the sociocultural matrix that differentiates global gender expressions from a seemingly uniform norm.

The film’s cover and poster material also deserve some final consideration, as Fuentes-León evokes the archetypical love triangle of maricón cinema that is perhaps best captured by Lombardi’s No se lo digas a nadie. The interpretation of Bayly’s novel ends with the homosexual members of the triangle agreeing to live a silenced relationship without public acknowledgement. Contracorriente, however, reframes this triangle, as Miguel actively comes out to Mariela, severing the visible and invisible lines that hold together the geometric shape in favor of a spatially undifferentiated paradigm, suggesting that the film, at least, queers this archetype. The cover shows Miguel, Mariela, and Santiago seated on the living room sofa, which has cleverly been relocated to the beach. The image is jarring in its juxtaposition of the domestic with the public, the inside with the outside, and the symbolic space of heteronormativity with the haptic symbolic space of queerness.

While Contracorriente cannot categorically be dialogued with New Queer Cinema, it does break with maricón representations of homosexuality in Latin America through the systemic queering of spaces and narrative modes. The film, however, does not exist in an aesthetic or political vacuum, and can be placed in a current trajectory inspired by Lucía Puenzo’s XXY (2007) and El niño pez (2009) and Julia Solomonoff’s El último verano de Boyita (2009). It is unsurprising that these films come from Argentine directors, as the country has produced some of the more progressive cinema from the region, and that there is a heavy non-Latin American production influence. Solomonoff’s film, for example, is co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo, which has been an active player in Spanish-language Queer cinema from the 1980s onwards, whereas Contracorriente sources pan-European funding.

There are several points of contact within this corpus, including: the use of studied and static underwater shots that create a spatial and affective epistemology of otherness, and the movement away from urban centers (El último verano de Boyita takes place in the countryside, and Puenzo’s films are in the Argentine periphery of Paraguay and Uruguay). Puenzo’s El niño pez demonstrates an acute awareness of geography, as the two lesbian lovers kiss on top of a map depicting the border between Argentina and Paraguay. They seek to elope, away from the heteronormativity of Buenos Aires to the rural outside of Paraguay. The film, furthermore, intertwines the magical-realist paradigm through the spectral figure of a baby that swims in an underwater lake, queering the aesthetic mode, as bodies of water (which include the domestic bathtub) represent and situate the homoerotic scenes in the film. XXY places a similar symbolic charge in the fluidity of water (the sea, the lake, the rain) to spatially and affectively contextualize the intersexed subject, which also makes an appearance in Solomonoff’s film. The former, however, centers the haptic intensity of the ocean as the aural cues of crashing waves permeate homoerotic scenes between two teenage subjects who resist gender identification, as Puenzo, like Fuentes-León, problematizes the notion of a top and bottom, decentering traditional maricón narratives. The film, furthermore, accentuates the spatial contract of heteronormativity through the juxtaposition of the ocean/coast with the domestic space, centering the subjects’ queering in the non-urban and non-domestic, or as José Amicola affirms, in “esa tierra de nadie que parece ser un leitmotiv de la construcción.” Perhaps the most important detail we can glean from these three other films is the scopic focus on [End Page 15] minority homosexual groups, leading to what can more accurately be described as maricón(a) films.[3] What these films succeed in posing to Fuentes-León’s “Latin American audience” is the notion that gender is more about nature and less about nurture, thereby questioning socioculturally extant conceptions of Queerness. It is important to consider that a critical effect of the production of New Queer Cinema and its reception is the normalizing of queer subjectivities, bodies, practices, and epistemologies. That being said, we can begin to plant the seeds of a true dialogic corpus sourced from Latin America, which I tentatively name New Maricón(a) Cinema, as it underlines a series of films that illustrate an aesthetic and political outing of Latin American cinema onto the global stage with the hope of one day normalizing Queerness in a continent that has historically resisted the gendered other.

[1] Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990), however, is a strong exception to this affirmation.

[2] We can intimate, here, a connection to Foster’s reading of Marcelo Piñeyro’s Plata quemada, where the only instances of male frontal nudity occur when El Nene makes love to Giselle, as the film “satisfies amply the conventions of heterosexist coupling” (137).

[3] We can contrast these films with what Foster argues is the lack of a queer focus in lesbian-themed Latin American films, as what Puenzo and Solomonoff succeed in doing is going beyond the simple depiction of lesbian lifestyles. [End Page 16]

Works Cited

Aaron, Michele. “New Queer Cinema: An Introduction.” New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. Ed. Michele Aaron. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Amicola, José. “Las huellas del presente y el mundo queer de XXY.” Lectures du Genre: … dans la Production Culturelle Espagnole et Hispano-Américaine 6 (2009). Web.

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Eth(n)ic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.

Connell, Raewyn. Masculinities. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. Print.

Cristobal, Ramiro. La homosexualidad en el cine. Madrid: Ediciones Irreverentes, 2010. Print.

Contracorriente. Dir. Javier Fuentes-León. Elcalvo Films, Dynamo Producciones, Dynamo, La Cinéfacture, Neue Cameo Film, 2009. Film.

De la Mora, Sergio. Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 2006. Print.

Doña Herlinda y su hijo. Dir. Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. Clasa Films Mundiales, 1985. Film.

El niño pez. Dir. Lucía Puenzo. Historias Cinematográficas Cinemania, Wanda Visión, MK2, 2009. Film.

El último verano de la Boyita. Dir. Julia Solomonoff. Travesia Productions, Domenica Films, El Deseo, Epicentre Films, 2009. Film.

En el paraíso no existe el dolor. Dir. Víctor Saca. Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía, 1995. Film.

Foster, David William. Ensayos sobre culturas homoeróticas latinoamericanas. Ciudad Juárez, México: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, 2009. Print.

—. Queer Issues in Contemporary Latin American Cinema. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Print.

Fuentes-León, Javier. “Interview with Javier Fuentes-León, Director of Contracorriente.” Latin America News Dispatch. Latin America News Dispatch: 8 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Sep. 2012.

Grønstad, Asbjørn. Screening the Unwatchable. Spaces of Negation in Post-Millennial Art Cinema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Kupfer, Joseph. “Dangerous Liaisons: Love, Letters, and Lessons in Sexual Ethics.” Ethics at the Cinema. Eds. Ward E. Jones and Samantha Vice. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 248-66. Print.

La mujer de mi hermano. Dir. Ricardo de Montreuil. Cinefarm, Panamax Films, Pen, Shallow Entertainment, Well Done Ventures, 2005. Film.

La teta asustada. Dir. Claudia Llosa. Oberón Cinematográfica, Vela Producciones, Wanda Visión, 2009. Film.

La Virgen de los Sicarios. Dir. Barbet Schroeder. Les Films du Losange, 2000. Film.

Las noches de Constantinopla. Dir. Orlando Rojas. El Paso Producciones, 2002. Film.

Lewis, Vek. Crossing Sex and Gender in Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.    Print.

Madeinusa. Dir. Claudia Llosa. Oberón Cinematográfica, Vela Producciones, Wanda Visión, 2006. Film.

Máncora. Dir. Ricardo de Montreuil. Hispafilms, Napoli Pictures, 2008. Film. [End Page 17]

Nabal Aragón, Eduardo. El marica, la bruja y el armario. Misoginia gay y homofobia femenina en el cine. Barcelona/Madrid: Editorial Egales, 2007. Print.

No se lo digas a nadie. Dir. Francisco J. Lombardi. Lola Films, 1998. Film.

Palencia, Leandro. La pantalla visible. El cine queer en 33 películas. Madrid: Editorial Popular, 2011. Print.

Pérez Melgosa, Adrián. Cinema and Inter-American Relations: Tracking Transnational Affect. New York: Routledge, 2012.  Print.

Plata quemada. Dir. Marcelo Piñeyro. Lider Films, 2000. Film.

Podalsky, Laura. The Politics of Affect and Emotion in Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Schulz-Cruz, Bernard. Imágenes gay en el cine mexicano: tres décadas de joterio 1970-1999. Mexico: Fontamara, 2008. Print.

Straayer, Chris. Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.

Waugh, Thomas. The Fruit Machine. Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.  Print.

XXY. Dir. Lucía Puenzo. Historias Cinematográficas Cinemania, Wanda Visión, Pyramide Films, 2007. Film.

Y tu Mamá También. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Anhelo Producciones, Bésame Mucho Pictures, 2001. Film. [End Page 18]


Sara García: Sapphic Romance in Mexican Golden Age Filmmaking
by Ileana Baeza Lope

I SANG to women gathered round;
Forth from my own heart-springs
Welled out the passion; of the pain
I sang if the beloved in vain
Is sighed for—when
They stood untouched, as at the sound
Of unfamiliar things,
Oh, then my heart turned cold, and then
I dropt my wings.

Long Ago Michael Field

1917 represented an important breakthrough in Mexican culture. This is the year when the Political Constitution that officially ended the Mexican Revolution was signed; this is also the year when the film industry took off after its precarious beginning in the middle of the civil war and this is also the year when a young actress by the name of Sara García (1895-1980) appeared on screen for the first time. From that moment on, García’s name would be forever bounded with Mexican Golden Age Cinema. In the beginning, she became the most sublime representation of motherhood. However, as time passed by, her quintessential character evolved into a bold grandmother who signaled queer cracks within the official post-revolutionary discourse of national reconstruction that naturalized heterosexuality as the base for social stability.

The beginning of the twentieth century in Mexico proved to be a conflictive time. The civil war from 1910 inaugurated a new era with the promise of freeing the country from the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship[1] that had lasted a little over thirty years.  Under the command of Díaz, underprivileged groups, which in fact represented the majority of the Mexican population, had to pay in the form of semi-slavery the ideals of orden y progreso [order and growth] abstracted from the European positivist approach. Thus, order was kept through totalitarianism and the systematic exploitation of indigenous groups built the infrastructure of the country.

These groups of farmers and former slaves comprised the Mexican Revolution under the command of Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata, revolutionary leaders from the north and south rebel troops, and they integrated the poorly organized ranks of what was called la bola, fighting squads in which there was little concern for perpetuating intact the binary of gender construction or sexuality regulations.  The exigencies of survival left little room for social restrictions that also recalled the memories of injustice during the dictatorship.

The Revolution was thus a time for experimentation with non-heteronormative ways to rethink gender and sexual identity. Such queering of the oftentimes misunderstood macho[2] Revolution has been an unavoidable topic for both fiction, based upon commonly known facts, and historiographical archives. Pedro Zamora’s Por debajo del agua[3] (2002) explores the transvestism in the battlefield. In this novel, Hugo Estrada cross-dresses as a soldadera[4] in order to follow his lover Pablo Aguirre even into battle. Hugo falls in love with Pablo when they are both teenagers, and then decides to become the “woman” that Pablo had always wanted, after a sexual encounter with a young prostitute named Isabel, just like Hugo’s late twin sister. This is how Hugo/Isabel embodies the sexual awakening [End Page 2] that his twin sister was never able to experience, because she is thought to have been killed at a young age. At the same time, Hugo challenges the naturalization of a binary to define gender because “Hugo e Isabel se conocieron en un orgasmo [Hugo and Isabel met during an orgasm]” (90); hence embodying a sexual expression not limited to identities or sexual restrictions.

In Por debajo del agua, Zamora portrays a cross-dressing case that would have gone unnoticed in the middle of a chaotic situation. Nonetheless, he also depicts the general state of political turmoil, outside the battlefield, that allows sexual freedom to overpower social convention and economic control in order to outstrip aristocratic honor. Hugo/Isabel belonged to a conservative family. However, when the patriarch of his family had to be saved from bankruptcy, the fact that it was a former prostitute by the name of Marga who came up with the money had to be overlooked. Several years his senior, Marga was Hugo’s elder brother Carlos’s lover. This situation crystalizes the general state of a nation where the desire to keep up appearances is surpassed by the need to survive.

On the other hand, Marga’s power is also an example of the achievement of women in the Revolution. This was the period in Mexican history when freedom became a reality for women from marginal groups because freedom of speech had previously only been the privilege of middle-class intellectuals or artists. However, the liberties obtained by women came at a high price. Julia Tuñón explains that “Daily life was precarious for women, and abduction and rape were commonplace. Consequently, many women, especially the well-off, fled the country” (86).the ones who stayed could avoid the Revolution. In every possible way, the chaotic times forced women to leave their private place in society. Tuñón lists several positions held by women regardless of their political views. “Women took part as couriers, spies, employees, arms and munitions runners, uniform and flag seamstresses, secretaries, journalists, nurses–all decision-making roles” (90-1).

The traditional role of women had changed and no other function than the soldadera reflected more graphically such a change. Out of their own volition or by force, soldaderas became the full support of the entire movement (they were present on both sides of the conflict). Their tasks extended from feeding their families to engaging in battle. In addition, the heterosexual oppression forced upon their bodies as receptacles for men’s pleasure and bearers of the offspring was finally shattered. Soldaderas could exchange partners at will, use sexual favors as currency, or dispense altogether with the presence of men. “[T]he war forced women to work together with others, which, among some sectors, was quite unusual… the ideal model of family privacy was broken” (88). Actually, it was the whole structure of the heteronormative family that had been shaken to its core in public. There were mothers joined with others in order to keep their children alive, and cross-dressing fighters holding key position with all the privileges dispensed to men, including a soldadera to satisfy their sexual desires.

In Las soldaderas (1999), Elena Poniatowska lists some cases of women dressed up as men, who made a name for themselves because of their courage and tenacity in battle. According to Poniatowska, Carmen Amelia Robles took advantage of an androgynous body in order to cross-dress as a male soldier and became a coronel, holding a gun in one hand and a cigar in the other. Encarnación Mares (Chonita) would tame wild horses, and even deepen her voice to ditch feminine conventions. Petra Ruiz was known for her volatile temper and exceptional aim, hence gaining the nickname of echa balas[5]. One outstanding [End Page 3] aspect of “Pedro Ruiz,” her alias, was the fact that she used her reputation as a prodigious shooter in order to rescue a damsel in distress and claim her for herself.

These are only a few of countless examples of women challenging the invisibility of the lesbian experience at the beginning of the twentieth century in Mexican society. However, after the civil war ended, sexual dissidence went back to the private domain. Post-revolutionary discourse emphasized the reconstruction of the country through the reinterpretation of nationalism and the naturalization of heterosexuality as the only means to achieve social stability. While the purpose of the official discourse was to eradicate the barbaric image of Mexico in the international scene, the Revolution was transformed into a domesticated narrative that would be used as a point of convergence for antagonistic political fractions. At the same time, revolutionary public sexual liberties were ostracized once more by moral conduct codes inherited from the Porfiriato. Consequently, this was a rather contradictory time in Mexican history. On one hand the political, economical, and cultural factions sought to leave the barbaric revolutionary phase behind in aims to reach out for modernity, but on the other, obsolete norms meant to naturalize heterosexuality were reclaimed from the previous period of tyrannical oppression.

The post-revolutionary discourse was spread through several cultural products. In literature it was present in the writing of Mariano Azuela (1873-1952), Martín Luis Guzmán (1887-1976), Rafael F. Muñoz (1899-1972) and Francisco L. Urquizo (1891-1969), the writers of the novel of the Revolution, who wrote graphic descriptions of the barbaric revolutionary chaos, which even when wrapped up in romantic nationalism, reflected indeed their own experiences as children. What’s more, the narratives of national unity were the main topic found in the work of Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), the great Mexican muralists, whose sense of nationalism remained untouched even when the artists were influenced by European aesthetic trends. However, the most effective resource at the service of the official discourse was the promising film industry. In fact it was through films that audiences finally learned what it meant to be Mexican.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the film industry in Mexico was mainly committed to disseminating official ideologies. Firstly, it was Porfirio Díaz who used films as a way to keep himself current in the eyes of the whole country. Secondly, cinema would become the best resource to register and manipulate events according to political agendas. And finally, once the Revolution ended, films became the symbolic representation of the narratives that the post-revolutionary discourse fed on: modernity, nationalism, and heteronormativity. The development of motion pictures per se represented the ideal of modernity lacking in Mexican society, and the themes chosen by the producers and film directors addressed nationalism and heteronormativity by depicting the heterosexual family as the only source of stability, progress, and Mexicanidad, as well as a metaphor of national unity.

In order to achieve these goals the creators opted for romance instead of force. By moving away from the Porfiriato oppression and the violence of the Revolution, film directors and producer adopted the nineteenth-century Latin American novel structure that illustrates romance and heterosexual love as a metaphor for the consolidation of a discourse of national identity that would [End Page 4]

locate an erotics of politics, to show how a variety of novel national ideas are ostensibly grounded in “natural” heterosexual love and in the marriages that provided a figure for apparently nonviolent consolidation during internecine conflicts […] It will be evident that many romances strive toward socially convenient marriages and that, despite their variety, the ideal states their project are rather hierarchical. (Sommer 6)

Thus, the artificial romance created on screen was materialized by a select group of actors and actresses who, at first, became iconographic figures, and who in time evolved into legends that at once adopted and contextualized the Hollywood star system. Those who played the roles that supported the romantic notion of Mexicanidad emerged as the mimetic representation of the social sectors that deserve to be part of the national heteronormative family under the law and protection of the father/president. On the contrary, “less deserving” marginal groups were depicted as pathetic warnings towards transgression to the patriarchal order and were interpreted by well-known actors lacking stardom status. Thus, the image of Pedro Infante (1917-57) represented the ideal of the Mexican macho who perpetuates the patriarchal hierarchy, Dolores del Río (1905-83) was the loving wife/slave that calmed all anxieties generated from the State’s necessity of reproduction and renovation after the civil war, and Sara García became the bearer of tradition and convention and was forever known as “the granny,” or a woman of a certain age who apparently contributes to maintaining the narrative of heterosexual social order.

However, Sara García’s acting created a space for the performativity of non-conventional representations of gender that challenged the naturalization of the construction of an exclusive binary of gender and the existence of a legitimate heterosexual identity.  The ambiguity of her image –a distinguished lady dressed in Victorian fashion with a handgun in one hand and a cigar in the other– exemplifies that a simple gender division of masculine and feminine with an exclusive heterosexual identity proves to be inadequate to categorize every single character, hence acknowledging the continuum of diverse gender and sexual identities even in the realm of utopic film representations of Mexican heteronormative society. Moreover, García’s queer representation of deliberate heterosexual characters disarticulated the discourse that she was supposed to perpetuate, yet still kept her status as a movie star and national icon.

Sara García was not the only actress who challenged the heteronormative construction of gender by means of a transgressive performativity within her acting work, but she was the only one who did it without causing unease or suspicion. García’s queer performativity was rooted in an industry where different archetypes of female performance were clearly tailored. For example, there was María Félix (1914-2002), the man eater; Ninón Sevilla (1921), the tragic sensual exotic dancer cold-shouldered by society; or Sasha Montenegro (1945), the cheerful, prostitute who lived in the vicious night scene of Mexico City of her own volition, and then, a somewhat peculiar granny.

García challenged heteronormativity within and outside the screen. Even though she is better known for her films, she also worked in theater, television, radio, and graphic novels. In theater she became part of the powerful group of women who built a flourishing thespian industry during the first decades of the twentieth century in Mexico. García was given the opportunity to ripen her unique acting skills uncensored in companies owned and directed by divas who reshaped the cultural scene in public, such as Virginia Fábregas [End Page 5] (1871-1950), Prudencia Grifell (1879-1970), María Navarro, María Tubau (1854-1914), and the sisters Isabelita Blanch (1906-85) and Anita Blanch (1910-83). In television, she was the hostess of the variety show Media hora con la abuela (1952) for the XEW-TV network, during a time when only men had that privilege. In radio she was able to ensure her stardom through a sagacious mind for business that enabled her to capitalize on her already iconographic granny role. Finally in the 60s, García appeared in a fotonovela series entitled Doña Sara García, la mera mera,in which she became the solo narrator of the adventures of Chucho el Roto and Ojo de Vidrio. García looked like her usual butch granny self, in control of two popular Robin Hood-like male power symbols.

Even when her characters were those of mothers and grandmothers, her performances and character choices were atypical. For example, when she started to interpret mothers she was young enough to pursue starring roles as a leading lady. However, she felt very comfortable altering her appearance to look the part even to the point of sacrificing fourteen healthy teeth in order to age her still youthful features. When she was 39 years old she did the casting for the role of the grandmother in Luis de Vargas’s play Mi Abuelita la Pobre (1934). The producers and directors of the play didn’t want to hire her as the main lead because she was still very young for the part. However, after her audacious actions and accurate characterization of a granny, fellow actors, producers and audience acknowledged her professionalism and tenacity, thus earning her respect and recognition as a zealous actress.

Making herself look older than she actually was would have been considered to be professional suicide, since the 30s was a key decade for the development of the film star industry in Mexico. But in the end, her roles as older women helped her establish a name for herself in a yet unstable industry, even outshining young actresses with leading parts. It was in 1932 when Antonio Moreno’s Santa had amazed the audiences, who were able to listen to the actors’ voices in perfect tune with the images for the first time. Consequently, the industry required native actors with native accents in order to keep captivating the audience. This new twist represented an opportunity for a mainly Spanish-speaking industry. However, it was imperative to continue to incorporate technical and aesthetic schemes from Hollywood, the closest and most influential cinematic reference. Among these loans of ideas from North American cinema was the adoption of the Star System, and with it the same attitude towards aging: desexualization and invisibility, especially for women.

It could be speculated that García would have had a preference for roles of mothers and grandmothers because they represented a guaranteed source of income. Either in theatre or in film, Mexican melodrama is constructed around the suffering mother. Just as it is necessary to have a leading lady and a leading man to reaffirm the naturalization of heteronormativity, it is imperative to have a motherly figure in Golden Age Cinema. Yet, while representing elder characters, García was able to challenge the understanding of motherhood as the exclusive right of heterosexual women, border the limits of heterosexuality, and above all evade gender restrictions.

In films such as Los tres García (1947), its sequel Vuelven los García (1947), and Dicen que soy mujeriego (1948), Sara García portrays a butch grandmother who happens to be a queer matriarch. The queerization of her character results from the inconsistency in the performativity of female gender. Her characterization of the quintessential motherly figure is that of a distinguished lady of a certain age in Victorian fashion who smokes cigars, [End Page 6] shoots guns, curses, and competes with her grandsons even at objectifying the same women who legitimized the boys’ heterosexual identity, thus revealing her lesbian desire. Mothers like García

threaten the traditional structure of the family as the male role is deleted and childbearing  [or child upbringing in this case] becomes the result of a purely female choice. Including lesbian experiences expands the meaning of motherhood and challenges the assumption that a woman’s biology predetermines her subordinate role in the traditional family and in society generally. Lesbian motherhood exposes the social creation of gender; it illustrated the possibility of self-definition and of organizing alternative family structures that are removed from traditional one-mother/one-father model. (qtd. in Hequembourg[6] 156)

As a butch granny it is understood that she might have had a husband; it is for sure that she bore offspring, because even at an elder age she is still in charge of her grandsons’ education; yet any indication of the father becomes a ghostly presence. Nevertheless, she continues to fulfill the role of mother, guide, and protector to her grandsons, surpassing the ever-missing mother/father family model while keeping the peace in her microcosmos, oftentimes materialized at the hacienda.

This kind of transgression, in a time when mothers were only meant to suffer and perpetuate heteronormative moral values in Mexican Golden Age Cinema, was by far an outstanding occurrence, especially because her character also romanticized her butch performativity as a strong tempered woman with a “hidden” tender heart that suited Mexican sentimentalism. This is how her butch representation on screen became her most memorable role, even when she queered her own interpretation of the revolutionary process, because she demystified the Porfiriato and the macho Mexican Revolution by portraying a Victorian soldadera. Neither conditions ever acknowledged women exercising their sexuality and constructing their own gender identity independently from the official discourse of heteronormativity.

Just as the representation of the soldadera became a romantic synonym of female self-sacrifice in favor of the national traditional family model continuity, Victorian depiction became the paramount of decency and heterosexuality in Mexican Golden Age Cinema. However, both conceptions could not be further from reality. As previously mentioned in this essay, soldaderas enjoyed sexual and social agency, reconfiguring traditional family roles, and Porfiriato or Victorian times did not represent an interruption in the existence of sexual diversity in Mexico. Indeed, there was a well-known incident that took place during the Porfiriato that has become the point of departure for gay genealogy studies. It was the incident of the 41s.

On  November 18th, 1901, police burst onto a private residence located down Paz Street in Mexico City. There were presumably 42 men, half of them cross-dressing in woman’s clothes. Forty-one out of the 42 were arrested and humiliated for their behavior, while the infamous 42nd attendee is thought to have been excluded because he was Porfirio Díaz’s own son-in-law. Even when Salvador Novo’s La estatua de sal (1945) traces a genealogy of the gay experience in Mexico, it is only after this scandal that is possible to talk about a gay culture in Mexico. Before that, [End Page 7]

La primera concepción moderna sobre la homosexualidad masculina en México se debe al prototipo del dandi europeo, que es similar a la loca Mexicana –afeminado, endeble, apático: monóculo, guantes, bastón y un anillo llamativo en cada uno de sus delicados dedos–.

[The first modern conception of male homosexuality in Mexico was the image of the European Dandy, which is similar to the Mexican queen –effeminate, unstable, disinterested: monocle, gloves, baton and a flashy ring for each one of his delicate fingers] (Schuessler 155)

Another paramount episode in gay genealogy was a group of artists and intellectuals, who were particularly active during the 20s, 30s, and 40s, publishing their own work and other kindred artists’ in a magazine called Contemporáneos (1928-31). The “Contemporaries”[7] challenged official narratives of sexual identity and gender while experimenting with the modern artistic approaches flowing between Latin America and Europe. Even when Salvador Novo (1904-74), Xavier Villaurutia (1903-50), and Carlos Pellicer (1897-1977) made no effort to conceal their gay identity and the rest of the group defended the individual freedom by embracing the philosophical works of André Guide (Martínez 61), they still had to comply with a heteronormative society. In “Los 41 y la gran redada” Monsiváis asserts that

Los gays de sociedad o del sector cultural guardan las apariencias, suelen casarse y tener hijos. Un soltero no únicamente levanta sospechas: también traiciona a la Naturaleza, que es toda fertilidad, y de allí que al célibe se le exija la virginidad profesional o la monomanía prostibularia.

[Gays in high society or from cultural sectors keep up appearances. They marry and have children. A single man not only raises suspicions: he also betrays Nature, which is nothing but fertility, hence it is demanded from bachelors either professional virginity or a single pathological need for the brothel.] (23)

On the other hand, women enjoyed a certain freedom to explore lesbian relationships, since Victorian codes of conduct would not punish intimacy between female friends. In Between Women (1966) Sharon Marcus states that either married or single, “[t]he Victorian gender system, however strict its constraints, provided women latitude through female friendships, giving them room to roam without radically changing the normative rules governing gender.” (27) In other words, the incapacity to conceive an intimate relationship in any other terms than genitality, submission, and reproduction opened a space for women to build an intimate and secret community outside the restrictions of men, yet still within heteronormative society.

This indulgent approach in society translates as a patronizing attitude on screen. Golden Age Cinema in Mexico depicted nothing but Victorian models of conduct inasmuch that the existence of these communities of women portray the desirable behavior for women and were also thought to be a strategy to prevent heterosexual acts of [End Page 8] transgression. This is how female boarding schools, convents, and spinster cohabitation households became the representation of the insurance of virginity and purity in movies, overlooking the existence of transgressive female marriages even on screen. In fact, Marcus insists on the fact that not even heteronormative marriage could get in the way of female marriage, since the latter could be practiced in public. Unlike men, who had to marry and keep their homoerotic live private, married women were encourage to have friends who would be able to satisfy the intimate needs that husbands couldn’t or wouldn’t even care to attend to. Necessities that in Golden Age Cinema were referred to as cosas de mujeres [women’s issues] were not to be understood by male supremacy. Hence, women “could indulge the opportunity to display affection and experience pleasurable physical contact outside marriage without any loss of respectability.” (57) That is why this license shared by single women could in time develop into an unrestricted romantic lesbian bond materialized in

[F]emale marriages [which] created relationships that, like legal marriage, did the work assigned to sexuality in the nineteenth century: the management of shared households, the transmission of property, the expression of emotional and religious affect, and the development and care of the self. (Marcus 194)

There is no better example of this kind of public, unnoticed transgression than Sara García’s performance as a distinguished Victorian single lady in Las señoritas Vivanco (1959), its sequel El proceso de las señoritas Vivanco (1961), La tercera palabra (1956), and La casa del farol rojo(1971). In the first movie Sara García and Prudencia Grifell portray two cunning ladies of a certain age who take turns to pull all kinds of frauds in order to keep up their status and foster their orphan niece. Hortencia (García) and Teresa (Grifell) Vicanco’s representation of Victorian decency and wealth is nothing but decadence. In times when society bets for modernity, deception is the only option they find to catch up with the new times as an allegory for their own queer relationship. Now, there are several aspects in the relationship between the sisters that depict what Marcus refers to as a female marriage.

For starters, they equally support the needs of the household and raise their late skirt-chaser brother’s abandoned daughter. When the movie begins it is stated that the mischievous behavior of their only brother has led them to bankruptcy, to the point that they are putting their majestic residence up for rent in order to support their aristocratic social status. However, in spite of their financial predicament they make exorbitant demands on the prospective English tenants, thus embodying post-revolutionary antagonistic position in regards to the empowerment of foreign bourgeoisie and new European current of thoughts, both represented by the English couple. The sisters are sure that the couple will agree to all their requests, and wait for an answer. However, instead of any news from any future tenant, they make a dramatic discovery of an abandoned baby at the entrance of their house, with a note from a mother pleading for their decency and good-hearted nature to look after the child.

Suddenly they become the penniless, same-sex parents of a little girl, who will ever since call them mamá Hortencia and mamá Teresa [mother Hortencia and mother Teresa]. In order to provide for her family, Hortencia comes up with a plan to “retrieve” the Vivanco [End Page 9] family jewels, lost to the satisfaction of their late bother’s sexual needs by his lover, a cabaret singer. García as Hortencia takes a job as an assistant to the singer and steals her family jewels back. When she returns to her home she makes up a story about a lost nephew, “Albertito,” who has come up with the money to save the house, rescue their beloved things, and support the child. When they run out of money, it is Teresa’s turn to “go see Albertito,” which became a code for go steal some money. Taking advantage of her aristocratic upbringing, Teresa takes a job as a French-speaking governess of a nouveau riche couple’s children, and ends up stealing an significant amount of money from the couple’s house.

In the sequel, El proceso de las señoritas Vivanco, the sisters are caught and sent to prison. However, not only do they manage to leave the prison at their will, and accidentally grow marihuana, but also they construct a community of women who handle life away from any male influence. Actually, the whole female population doing time in jail becomes part of a microcosm where the Vivanco ladies are the axles for the social dynamics. Somewhat, this female marriage reinstates the sense of stability lost by prisoners when sentenced to spend time separately from heteronormative society.

In La tercera palabra,[8] García and Grifell also interpret a female marriage, only instead of raising a daughter together, they became the parents of a savage-like boy who grows into a wild man, tamed only by a female teacher personally chosen by Matilde (García) and Angelina (Grifell). In this story their relationship is slightly less balanced than in their characterization of the Vivanco ladies because Matilde is more rational than the daydreamer Angelina. However, they equally share the responsibility to provide for their nephew’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

The roles represented in these three movies coincide in several points that challenge the carefully selected heterosexual stories in Golden Age Cinema. Firstly there is no conventional family; instead, there is a female marriage nurturing a child. In all three films the image of the heteronormative mother is absent, as is the agency of any male figure. The Vivanco ladies make up a phantasmagoric nephew who proves to be irrelevant for the course of their actions and the resting male characters are easily manipulated by the ingenious couple. In addition in La tercera palabra, the male protagonist is the one embodying nature as pure feeling. Rationality comes from either García’s and Grifell’s characters or from the young female teacher, who in time will become the sensible head of this already atypical family.

Furthermore, there is another remarkable trait that sets these characters apart from any other aunts, grandmothers or mothers sharing the camera frame:   the sisters wear identical outfits. Even when this part of the characterization could be understood as a romantic recall of a childlike attribute, which also indicates that their bodies have reminded untouched by men, identical outfits also suggest mirroring feelings or love between equals, regardless of their kinship. In fact,

Smith-Rosenberg implied that before the advent of sexual orientations, no lines were drawn separating friends, lovers, and family members. To prove the existence of a homogeneous “Female world and ritual,” Smith-Rosenberg indiscriminately cited letters exchanged between sisters, cousins, mothers, daughters, sisters-in-law, married and single women, women of the same age and women of very different ages, lovers, friendly ex-lovers, distraught ex- [End Page 10] lovers, and friends with reciprocal and nonreciprocal crushes who never became lovers. (Marcus 31)

Later on, García filmed La casa del farol rojo[9] (1971). In this film, lesbian relationships between the actresses, even when still not declared, were portrayed in a less elusive manner. Unlike in previous films, Doña Sara, García’s character, lives in a female marriage with her housekeeper; there is no longer space for ambiguity. As the solo provider, Doña Sara depends economically on a kitchen garden that grows on a piece of land inherited from her late husband. To her detriment, the government has forced her to give up that piece of land because it blocks the planned extension of a road. Once again, García portrays a woman who decides to rent what is left of her majestic mansion in order to make ends meet and provide for her family.

In an unexpected turn of events, the tenants are prostitutes who organize parties and, as the camera frames indicate, who a voyeuristic lesbian pleasure in watching each other perform for male clients. Moreover, Doña Sara makes revealing remarks when she welcomes some of the female guests as she states the fact that in the parties held at her house there is the possibility to satisfy either heterosexual or lesbian desire. Supposedly, Doña Sara didn’t know about her tenants’ profession. However, this assumption is questioned throughout the film because it is impossible to overlook the camaraderie, love and complicity between Doña Sara, her housekeeper and both veteran and young prostitutes.

García’s most noticeable roles are those of a butch, ill-tempered grandmother. Nevertheless, she also portrayed tearjerker representations of a suffering mother and managed to imprint her own queerness into the performativity of conventional female gender characters shaped by the post-revolutionary narratives in over 150 films. In fact, however queer, García managed to romanticize her roles calling upon the sensitivity of the audience. The Vivanco sisters embody the brilliance of an untouched Sappho; in La tercera palabra Matilde and Angelina are a couple of nymphs whose kindness touches upon the sublime, and in La casa del farol rojo the strong bond between all the women becomes an imaginary island of Lesbos.

García’s subliminal cinematic rush with Sappho, nymphs and Lesbos echoed her personal life. Just like in most of her most unforgettable characterizations, she raised her only child by herself in a shared household with her Rosario:the woman who was her companion, accomplice, housekeeper, financial adviser and, of course, her beloved. Sara and Rosario González Cuenca seem to have been destined to share their lives since they were newborns. Fernando Muñoz details that Sara’s and Rosario’s parents, all of them Spanish immigrants, were travelling from Cuba to Mexico with their respective newborn daughters when unfortunate circumstances forced them to become acquainted. Sara’s mother was in no condition to look after her baby because

[e]l viaje y el miedo de perder a la bebé han trastornado el organismo de Felipa, quien no puede amantar a su hija. Lo hace en su lugar Francisca Cuenca de González, sellando sin saberlo una hermandad entre las pequeñas Rosario y Sara que se mantendría hasta el final de sus vidas.  [End Page 11]

[the journey and fear to lose her baby had affected Felipa’s health, who is incapable to breastfeed her daughter. Francisca Cuenca de Gonzalez (Rosario’s mother) steps up to the task, unaware that her actions marked the beginning of a sisterhood bound between Sara and Rosario that would last for the rest of their lives.] (12)

After this incident, they went on to live separate lives. Sara became an orphan at a very young age and was left under the care of the nuns from El Colegio de San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcaínas. She grew up at this institution and became a drawing instructor. However, after she took up acting she had to quit her position because the profession of an actress was not suitable for an institution where only young ladies of unquestionable lineage were accepted. Once Sara left the school she pursued a full time acting career mainly combining theatre and films. In fact, it was while she was working for the María Navarro theatre company that she married Fernando Ibáñez, with whom she gave birth to her only daughter Fernanda. However, three years after, Sara filed for divorce, an audacious action at that time, and became a single mother. But not for long:

Un día Sara entró a la corsetería La Europea, en la calle Uruguay, y se sorprendió al ser atendida por su amiga de la infancia, Rosario González Cuenca. Rosario se acababa de divorciar, y al enterarse de la situación de su amiga le ofreció su casa –ahora ubicada en la calle de Mesones–, donde vivía con su madre, su hermana Blanca y su cuñado. Así, Sara ingresó al seno de la familia González Cuenca. Rosario y Sara realizaron un pacto de honor, amor, fraternidad y hermandad indisoluble.

[One day Sara entered La Europea corsetry garments shop down Uruguay Street and was amazed to have been helped by her childhood friend Rosario Gonzalez Cuenca. Rosario has just divorced and when she learnt about Sara’s situation she offered Sara her home to stay –currently located on Mesones Street– where she lived with her mother, her sister Blanca and her brother in law. This is how Sara became part of the Gonzalez Cuenca family. Rosario and Sara made a binding pack of honor, love, solidarity and sisterhood] (25)

“Sister,” “friend,” and “personal assistant” were some of the euphemisms used for Rosario’s actual role in Sara’s life. Indeed Rosario was all that for Sara, but she was also her life partner, and they were engaged in a female marriage. In fact,

the essential question is not whether these women had genital contact and can therefore be defined as heterosexuality or homosexual. The twentieth century tendency to view human love and sexuality within a dichotomized universe of deviance and normality, genitality and platonic love, […] fundamentally distorts the nature of these women’s emotional interaction. (Smith-Rosenberg 8)  [End Page 12]

The essential matter is that Sara and Rosario’s lesbian relationship continues to be an example of Mexican society’s denial even when confronted with an irrefutable situation. This is because the very existence of the lesbian experience challenges the core of a female national identity molded after the Virgin of Guadalupe’s asexual virtue. Hence, “Lesbians are elsewhere” because they contest “culturally dominant understandings of gender and sexuality.” (Jagose 1). This is the reason why, even after Golden Age Cinema is long gone, there is no publication about the life Sara García that touches upon the subject without resorting to understatements or ambiguity.

Besides narrating the incident from the ship that united Rosario and Sara’s lives since the earliest possible age, Fernando Muñoz includes a section in his biographic study of García about Rosario in terms of La amiga fiel [the loyal friend]. In this section Muñoz talks about “La extraña relación en que Rosario aparecía como su víctima y ella como el verdugo, juego en el que Sara conseguía ser el centro constante de atracción” [the odd relationship in which Rosario seemed to be the victim and Sara her tormentor as part of a game where Sara would manage to become the center of attention] (70) Muñoz equates their relationship to that of an abusive heterosexual couple. However, in the next section, when he includes information about the actress’ death, he cites Rosario, who reflects the actual nature of their relationship: “Fue más que una hermana, fue madre, amiga, compañera… fue todo.” [She was my sister, my mother, my friend, my partner… my everything] (72).

In 1999 Juan Antonio de la Riva made the documentary Sara García: La abuelita del cine nacional. The emphasis of this work is the characterization of motherly figures and how such figures contributed to building the national identity in Mexico. Rosario is only mentioned as García´s best friend and companion. In 2000, Somos, an entertainment magazine, devoted a special edition to Sara García. This issue was the result of collaborative efforts, and in the section entitled “Una Mirada a la intimidad de Sara” [A glance into Sara’s intimacy], Héctor Argente publishes a previous interview with the actress in which he carefully includes the description of an intimate moment between the couple. Right in the middle of an answer,

Rosario (a quien ha presentado como hermana, pero sabemos que las une larga, fraterna e íntima amistad), se acerca y, con amorosa prontitud, le acomoda el chal, le pone una cobija sobre las piernas, la abriga, la mima. Doña Sara no se queda atrás: Chayito, Chiquita, no camines tanto, descansa….

[Rosario (whom Sara has introduced as her sister, but we know that they are bounded by a long, fraternal and intimate friendship), approaches and with loving watchfulness fixes her shawl, lays a blanket over her legs, wraps her up, pampers her. Doña Sara doesn’t fall short: Chayito, baby, don’t walk so much, rest…] (83)

This description contradicts Muñoz’s initial approach in regards to the relationship. However, Muñoz’s inability to understand Sara’s lesbian relationship with Rosario apart from heteronormative patterns is shared by Rafael Aviña, who in 2004 simplified García’s quintessential character as a machorra[10] in terms of “la imposibilidad femenina de llegar a ser hombre ‘de verdad’” [the female impossibility to be a ‘real’ man] (155). Finally in  [End Page 13] 2010, TV Azteca aired an episode of the series La historia detrás del mito about Sara García. This documentary was announced as a space for controversies surrounding the life and career of Sara García. However, when the time came to talk about her relationship with Rosario, the same heteronormative concerns for denial continued to be the majority of the interviewees’ declarations.

In the end, García’s lesbian experience as a national icon on the screen or as a woman sharing her life with Rosario was part of what Carlos Monsiváis calls the lesbian ghetto of dissimulation “que comienza a integrarse en los años treinta con profesionistas, actrices, profesoras, funcionarias. […] El gueto es un mundo diminuto, cerrado que en ocasiones gira en torno a una celebridad” [that began to form in the 30s between professionals, actresses, teachers and public servants. (…) The ghetto is a tiny close world that revolves around a celebrity] (Que se abra esa puerta). Just as the fact that García was surrounded by an influential group of atypical women Mimí Derba (1888-1953), founder of Azteca Films; Emma Roldán (1893-1978), García´s buddy, mostly remembered for her interpretation of a butch mother in Los hijos de María Morales (1952) or Dolores del Río (1905-83), with whom García had a close friendship and shared philanthropic, artistic and social events. Whether García´s lesbianism is acknowledged or not is not as relevant as the fact that she was able to follow the path of Sappho by challenging heterosexuality on screen and lesbian invisibility in society, yet remaining untouchable as the romantic embodiment of motherhood and national identity in the times when Mexicans’ dreams were shaped by the silver screen.

[1] Also known as Porfiriato, this was the Victorian Era in Mexico, during a period of time that started in 1876 and ended in 1911.

[2] This term is being used in this essay in the same fashion that Carlos Monsiváis would understand it in Salvador Novo: lo marginal al centro (2004) [Salvador Novo: the marginal at the center]:

Si la Revolución crea espacios de desarrollo de una sensibilidad distinta, también los revolucionarios se jactan de un machismo rampante. (No uso homofobia, por ser un término no correspondiente a la época que ya califica negativamente el odio irracional al homosexual. Antes, cuando todos la comparte, no tiene caso especificar) Los climas de guerra demandan valentía, suprimen el respeto a los derechos humanos (por demás casi inexistente) y mantiene una tesis: un maricón ofende a la hombría, a México, a la Revolución.

[In as much as the Revolution opens spaces to develop a different awareness, the freedom fighters boast about and exaggerated machismo. (I do not use homophobia, for the term does not correspond to the times, when it already describes the irrational hatred for homosexuals. Long ago, when all share it, there is no need to specify) the times of war demand bravery, they suppress observance of human rights (by far inexistent) and perpetuate a thesis: a fag offends manhood, Mexico, the Revolution.] (41)

[3] Por debajo del Agua is considered to be a novel from the Revolution in the same fashion as Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo (1916); Martín Luis Guzmán’s El águila y la serpiente (1928) and La sombra del caudillo (1929); Francisco Luis Urquizo’s Tropa Vieja or Rafael F. Muñoz’ ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1931). In spite of the fact that there are decades between Zamora’s novel and the other writers’ Por debajo del Agua also has the civil war as its main theme.  [End Page 14]

[4] According to Elena Poniatowska, “during every war or invasions, soldados (soldiers) would use their ‘soldada’ (feminine form of the word soldado) to hire as their server. The woman would go to the headquarters to collect her sueldo (wage) or soldada (word derived from salario [salary] y sueldo). Hence the term soldadera.” (20)

[5] Literary, the one that shoots bullets indiscriminately because of a volatile temper.

[6] Quoted from Jenny Wald in “Outlaw Mothers” (1997).

[7] Jorge Cuesta (1903-42), José Gorostiza (1901-73), Roberto Montenegro (1887-1968), Salvador Novo (1904-74), Bernardo Ortiz Montellano (1899-1949), Gilberto Owen (1904-52), Carlos Pellicer (1897-1977), Antonieta Rivas Mercado (1900-31), Manuel Rodríguez Lozano (1896-1971), Jaime Torres Bodet (1902-74) and Xavier Villaurrutia (1903-50).

[8] God being the first, death the second, and love the third. This film is an adaptation by Luis Alcoriza from Alejandro Casola’s play La tercera palabra.

[9] Even when this movie was filmed in 1971 and Mexican Golden Age Cinema has the end of the 50s or beginning of the 60s as its culmination date, La casa del farol rojo still follows the tragic melodramatic aesthetics set up by Santa in 1932.

[10] In Mexican jargon a Machorra is a pejorative term to describe a woman who challenges female gender construction to its core because her incapacity to perpetuate the species and heteronormative discourse is an eminent treat.  [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Argente, Héctor. “Una mirada a la intimidad de Sara.” Somos. 01 0ct 2000: 82-3. Print.

Aviña, Rafael. Una mirada insólita: temas y géneros del cine mexicano. 1st ed. México, D.F.: Océano, 2004. Print.

Azuela, Mariano. Los de abajo. 2nd ed. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1960. Print.

Field, Michael. Long Ago. London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd, 1889. Print.

Hequembourg, Amy L. “Becoming Lesbian Mothers.” Journal of Homosexuality. 53.3 (2007): 153-180. Print.

Guzmán, Martín Luis. El aguila y la serpiente. 2nd ed. Madrid: Compañía Iberoamericana de Publicaciones, 1928. Print.

—–. La sombra del caudillo. Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 2002. Print.

Jagose, Annamarie. Lesbian Utopics. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

Monsiváis, Carlos. “Los 41 y la gran redada.” Letras Libres. 40 (2002): 22. Print.

—–. Que se abra esa puerta: crónicas y ensayos sobre la diversidad sexual. México D.F.: Editorial Paidós Mexicana, 2010. EBook.

—–. Salvador Novo: Lo marginal al centro. México D.F.: Era, 2004. Print.

Mi abuelita la pobre. Dir. Luis Vargas. 1934. Performance.

Muñoz, Fernando. Sara García. 1st ed. México, D.F.: Editorial Clío, 1998. Print.

Muñoz, Rafael Felipe. ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! Madrid: Espasa-Calpe S.A., 1931. Print.

Novo, Salvador. La estatua de sal. Mexico D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2008. Print.

Poniatowska, Elena. Las soldaderas. México D.F.: Conaculta, 1999. Print.

“Sara García.” La historia detrás del mito. Tv Azteca: 06 Mar 2010. Television.

Schuessler, Michael K., and Miguel Capistrán. México se escribe con J. México D.F.: Temas De Hoy, 2011. Print.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 1.1 (1975): 1. Print.

Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Print.

Tuñon, Julia. Women in Mexico: A Past Unveiled. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Print.

Urquizo, Francisco Luis. Tropa Vieja. Populibros “La prensa”, 1955. Print.

Wald, Jenny. “Outlaw Mother.” Hasting Women’s Law Journal. 8.1 (1997): 169-193. Print.

Zamora, Fernando. Por debajo del agua. Plaza & Janés Editories, S.A., 2002. EBook.


Dicen que soy mujeriego. Dir. Roberto Rodríguez. Producciones Hermanos Rodríguez, 1949. Film.

El proceso de las señoritas Vivanco. Dir. Mauricio de la Serna. Cinematográfica Gravas, 1959. Film.  [End Page 16]

La casa del farol rojo. Dir. Agustín P. Delgado. Producciones AGSA, 1971. Film.

La tercera palabra. Dir. Julián Soler. Cinematográfica Filmex S.A., 1956. Film.

Las señoritas Vivanco. Dir. Mauricio de la Serna. Cinematográfica Gravas, 1954. Film.

Los tres García. Dir. Ismael Rodríguez. Producciones Rodríguez Hermanos, 1947. Film.

Los hijos de María Morales. Dir. Fernando de Fuentes. Diana S.A., 1952. Film.

Sara García: La abuelita del cine nacional. Dir. Juan Antonio de la Riva. Editorial Clío. Serie “México Siglo XX: El espectáculo,” 1999. Film.

Santa. Dir. Antonio Moreno. Compañía nacional productora de películas, 1932. Film.

¡Vuelven los García!. Dir. Ismael Rodríguez. Producciones Rodriguez Hermanos, 1947. Film.  [End Page 17]


From Latin to Latino Lover: Hispanicity and Female Desire in Popular Culture
by Nadia Lie

According to Richard Rodriguez, we owe the invention of the Hispanic to Richard Nixon, whose administration introduced this category in 1973 in the classification system of United States citizens (15). Until then, demographic censuses had been based upon categories such as White and Black, Asian and Native American. Though inconsistent with this racial classification, the term Hispanic is embraced by Rodriguez to designate a new kind of Hispanic: US based and more open to US culture in general. In fact, by a kind of [End Page 1] discursive contamination, the category of the Hispanic starts to represent another racial color: “brown.” Suggesting the combination of two opposed colors – black and white – this word then acquires a subversive function with respect to the clear-cut distinctions of the other categories. Brown stands for the combination of what seemed to be incompatible, for its mutual attraction. It rejects dichotomic thinking, celebrates impurity and is connected to concepts such as “irony, paradox, pleasure” (xi) and “eroticism” (xv). The term “browning” is used by Rodriguez to refer to the increased importance of the Hispanics in US society, a phenomenon which he considers to be a great opportunity for mutual exchange between Anglo-Saxon values – such as (in his opinion) freedom- and Latin American ones – such as (racial and cultural) impurity.

Though the creation of the Hispanic in North American politics is presented as a relatively recent fact, the author of Brown points at a forerunner. “Before there were Hispanics in America, there was another fictitious, inclusive genus: the Latin Lover” (R. Rodriguez  107). Set against the background of a sexually repressive society, the Latin Lover derived his appeal from the taboo of racial transgression (107). But if this is true, how can the persistent and even increased success of the Latin Lover in our days, in which America is “browning,” be explained? What exactly is a Latin Lover anyway? And how can its relationship with Hispanic identity be described? In what follows, I propose to take a closer look at this notion by studying its first incarnation in the movie The Sheik. The prototypical features will then be confronted with what I consider to be one of the most popular icons of Hispanicity in popular mass culture: Zorro.[1]

Defining the Latin Lover: Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921)

In Latin Lover: The Passionate South – one of the rare studies extensively dedicated to the subject— Gianni Malossi refers to a dictionary[2] in order to define the phenomenon of the Latin Lover: “passionate, but romantic, lover; it is believed, above all in Northern European countries, that they are men from Latin countries; heartbreaker, seducer” (Malossi  18-19). To provide a more elaborate, coherent definition of the phenomenon seems almost impossible as characteristics ascribed to the Latin Lover vary from his being “mute” (R. Rodriguez  107) to his ability to “use a lot of words” ( Malossi 30), from “a tendency to be short” ( Malossi  66) to his being “tall” (Limón 137), from his incarnation as “phantom, sheik or matador” (R. Rodriguez 107) to his fixed association with the cravat (Malossi  35) and the costume (Reich  35).

Opinions on the origins of the icon differ as well: whereas some consider the Latin Lover to be an archetypal figure (Thomas, 9) ranging back to Zeus (Malossi  64), Jacqueline Reich points at his historical and anthropological roots in Renaissance and Mediterranean culture (Reich  2-3). Others, such as Ramírez Berg (4), insist on his genesis in Northern conceptions of Latin otherness, which suggests an affinity with 19th-century debates on the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Latin “races” (Litvak). The one point all studies dealing with the Latin Lover have in common, however, is their abundant use of photographic materials, thereby revealing what goes almost unnoticed in the definitions: the profoundly visual nature of the stereotype. And though the pictures included show a certain disparity, limiting themselves either to actors performing roles connected to the [End Page 2] Latin Lover or expanding the notion to real-life examples such as Onassis (and even Che Guevara, to some), no disagreement exists regarding the name of the very first incarnation of the icon: Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926).[3]

This Italian immigrant to the United States, born under the name Rodolpho Guglielmi, first earned a living in the United States as a gigolo – a male dancing partner for wealthy women. However, he soon made his way to the hearts of millions of women by his dashing appearance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), where he performed a seductive dance as an Argentinian tango-dancer.[4] The association between Latin Lovers and dance will become a fixed one in the following decades. It was The Sheik (1921) in which “he began to define a new kind of screen lover and an Other way of making screen love” (Ramírez Berg 115). In spite of the paradigmatic nature of this film, books on the Latin Lover limit themselves to brief mentions of its plot and instant success. The way in which the two terms united in the expression “Latin Lover” is inscribed in this movie has not yet been the object of more extensive commentary. This is all the more striking since, according to Ramírez Berg, this movie launched “the Latin Lover [as a] remarkably consistent screen figure, played by a number of Latin actors (…), all maintaining the erotic combination of characteristics instituted by Valentino” (115).[5]

When we take a look at this famous film, we notice that nothing in the movie – at least at first sight – sustains Rodriguez’s close association of Hispanicity and Latin Lovers: an Italian actor plays the role of the Arab sheik Ahmed (Rudolph Valentino) who falls in love with the British lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). However, the term “Latin” was used in those days in a broad sense, including all those who spoke a language derived from Latin (so also the French) and sometimes even the Greeks and all of the Mediterranean people (so also inhabitants of Arab countries).[6] In The Sheik, this broad sense of Latinness is defined by a first, major oppositional figure that establishes a difference between Northern and Southern countries as visually expressed by the two main characters: the fair-haired Anglo-Saxon young lady with the pale hands stands in opposition to the Arab sheik Ahmed with the very dark eyes. Besides this sharp contrast between North and South, there is a second one that concerns not racial features, but cultural values. On the one hand, Ahmed represents premodern patriarchal Arab values when he captures Diana during her trip through the desert in order to take her to his tent. As he explains to a friend: “When an Arab likes a woman he sees, he takes her.” On the other hand, there is a certain reticence in him because he refrains from taking Diana by force when he notices her despair at the situation she finds herself in: he has received part of his education in France and it is this European aspect in his upbringing which seems to account for a softer approach to the woman.[7] There is in fact a range of cultural differences varying from the complete Anglo-Saxon Northern values over the more mitigated European Latinity to the complete otherness of Arab Latinity. It is this “range” which grants the Sheik his erotically productive ambiguity, evoking both “suavity and sensuality, tenderness and sexual danger” (Ramírez Berg 115). In this combination, suavity and tenderness are evoked by European Latinity (France and Italy), whereas sensuality and sexual danger are projected onto the Arab world.[8]

If the tension between European and non-European Latinness, tenderness and sexual danger, is what grants the Sheik his erotic appeal throughout the movie, the film surprisingly resolves the antinomy between these opposed values in the end. The happy ending is indeed provided by a revelation concerning Ahmed’s true background: he was the [End Page 3] orphan of an English father and a Spanish mother found in the desert, after which he was adopted by an Arab sheik. This ending is doubly productive: it sanctifies the union between Ahmed and Diana as a repetition of a previous relationship between partners from the North and the South of Europe, and it clearly places Ahmed on the European side. To put it even more strongly, one could argue that Ahmed’s very ability to learn the European lessons in education and human rights is explicable by his innate European blood.[9] In a way, Ahmed is a true European, dressed up as an Arab. His clothing as a sheik is his costume. His Arab identity, his mask.

As a lover, Ahmed combines features of both forms of Latinity: he serenades Diana secretly below her window while she sleeps in the town of Biskra but he also abducts her against her will in order to possess her. He connotes softness and strength. This strength is what turns him into a dangerous man, who is able to frighten Diana and make her obey. On the other hand, it is also this capacity which turns him into her savior when she tries to escape through a desert storm, or falls into the hands of the Arab bandit Omair. Here, the sheik turns into the hero who saves the damsel in distress by plucking her from the ground and riding off with her on his horse in order to protect her.

Ahmed’s moral and physical strength functions as a token of his sexual superiority with respect to Diana as a woman. At the same time, it singles him out as “the other man” from a double perspective. First, his strength distinguishes him from the men in Diana’s own society, who appear to be too weak to control her strong character (e.g., she laughs at her brother when he tries to talk her out of her plan to travel to the desert). Second, as an Arab, he is not to be confused with other Arab men either, because he does not resort to clear violence against women, unlike the desert bandit Omair. The fact that he is neither identical with the British men – who all wear moustaches – nor the other Arabs – who all wear beards – is visually expressed by the many close-ups of his hairless face, accentuated by his turban.

Finally, the two terms under scrutiny – Latin and Lover – are of course intimately connected. What Diana is attracted by in Ahmed from the start is not only his strength, it is also his belonging to another culture: exoticism and eroticism go hand in hand. There is immediate attraction from the first time they see each other, in the town of Biskra, before Diana leaves for the desert. And when she is denied access to the Arab casino, she boldly decides to dress up as an Arab dancer, after having watched the sensuous moves of this Arab woman with fascination. She even insists on borrowing exactly the same clothes this dancer was wearing, thereby suggesting a desire to experience the Arab sensuality in person. As Said has explained, the Orient not only symbolized sexuality as such, but very often also the promise of a different kind of sexuality, generally projected onto the female body (Said 180). In The Sheik, this kind of sensuality is appropriated by Diana as she cross-dresses culturally and feels her senses aroused by the dancer. At the same time the movie performs a twist on the Orientalist discourse of its time by turning the male partner into an object of desire.

In all, the first Latin Lover can be described as a highly ambivalent figure who, in the end, reconciles the opposition between the North and the South by inscribing it into a shared feeling of Europeanness. Hispanicity here performs a syntactical gesture between North and South. In the words of Clara Rodríguez commenting upon Valentino and his imitators, “All of these stars conformed to European prototypes – perhaps to southern and eastern European prototypes, but clearly in the evolving fold of what it meant to be ‘white’ [End Page 4] (and upper class) in the United States at the time.” (C. Rodríguez 28) Latinness is therefore on the one hand the suggestion of Otherness, but at the same time based on the reassuring recognition that this Otherness is within the limits of the own identity.

Valentino’s appearances in movies such as The Sheik set in motion the so-called “Latin craze” (C. Rodríguez 28) that flourished in the Roaring Twenties. This period was characterized by major social changes brought about by World War I and the Russian Revolution, and economically beneficial to the United States until the Depression broke out. The social changes altered the position of woman and to some also implied “libertad en el amor” (Belluscio 13). Belluscio considers the Latin Lover as an expression of modernity as it manifested itself around 1900: “En esa zona del planeta [USA], los hábitos se modificaban con el automóvil, la radio en casa, la publicidad impresa, y las salas de cine simbolizaban el nuevo urbanismo yanqui. La difusión e influencia del séptimo arte creó una idolatría sin fronteras, engendrando psicosis colectivas (…) En ese momento singular, que ambulaba entre la añoranza y el futuro, el ‘latin lover’, macerado como una burbuja, surgía excitante, digno de la ostentación, el lujo y el donaire del ‘American way of life’” (13-14). At the same time, both Ahmed and Diana belong to the upper classes of their society, which might reflect the nostalgia for a vanishing aristocracy in that same period (13). This is also why other authors connect the Latin Lover to the expression of anti-modern values (Malossi 24; Reich 26). In a sense, he is both a symptom of modernity and a reaction to it. Once again, he turns out to be an ambivalent sign.

Zorro or purity

Zorro’s birth is almost contemporaneous to the rise of the Latin Lover icon: the original stories appeared in 1919 and were followed in 1920 by the first Zorro movie, The Mask of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks in the role of Don Diego de la Vega.[10] The fact that the leading part was given to an Anglo-Saxon actor shows that the Latin craze had not really started yet,[11] but the overall setting of the stories and the success of the movie[12] directly inspired by them are indicative of the “diffuse hispanophile sentiment” which Clara Rodríguez sees emerging in the same period (26). Contrary to The Sheik, which shows a diffuse concept of Latin identity, the Zorro stories foreground Hispanicity in an unmistakable way. The names of the main characters –Diego de la Vega, Zorro and Lolita Pulido – and the use of Spanish words in the English text (the “comandante,” the “señorita”)— refer to Hispanic identity as perceived from a North American perspective. Similarly to The Sheik, there is the nostalgic evocation of aristocratic values, here attached to the class of the “caballeros” of “blue blood” and merged with a hispanist discourse of clearly conservative and antimodern brand. Zorro’s defence of the weak is in line with the tradition of Spanish caballeros, and the evildoers are people of “ill blood” (McCulley 91), such as Captain Ramón, who try to take in the positions legitimately held by the aristocratic families to which Zorro and his friends belong. Though he also avenges natives and “mongrel” people when they are treated unjustly, it is clear from the book that they belong to another kind of “race” and are unable to perform the noble deeds that Zorro accomplishes. Rather, Zorro is an example to the youngsters of his own generation, whom he summons to follow his example: “Take your swords in hand and attack oppression! Live [End Page 5] up to your noble names and your blue blood, señores! Drive the thieving politicians from the land! Protect the frailes whose work gave us these broad acres! Be men, not drunken fashion-plates” (McCulley 167). The full restoration of their class, in power and in spirit, is what he aims at.

McCulley’s Zorro is part of the “cult of Spanish California” that characterized California, where the stories are set, towards the end of the 19th century (Lie, “Free Trade in Images”).[13] David Weber has explained the phenomenon as a critical reaction to the accelerated modernization in the United States: “As the nation became more urbanized and industrialized in the late nineteenth century, many Americans recoiled from what they saw as excessive commercialism, materialism, vulgarity and rootlessness and longed for pastoral values that they imagined had existed in a simpler agrarian America” (Weber 342).

In this context, Zorro shares with the Latin Lover a nostalgic return to premodern values, projected onto the Hispanic past of California. He, however, connotates more clearly than the Latin Lover the idea of purity. If the Latinness of the Latin Lover was marked by its opposition to Anglo-Saxon society, in the Zorro stories, the concept of Hispanicity is offset against the “ill blood” of other people speaking Spanish, especially the politicians and the military. Blood is also what distinguishes the noble class from the “natives” and the “mongrel people.”

The motif of “blood,” as indicative of noble upbringing, also lies at the heart of the second story-line in the Zorro episodes. Don Diego de la Vega is urged by his father to find himself a proper bride in order to prevent the family from extinction: he is the only son and heir to his father. If most of us know Zorro as the defender of the weak, this second theme is very striking in the original stories and turns Zorro not only into a model of Hispanic purity, but also of masculinity. Though Don Diego de la Vega is considered “a good catch” because of his wealth and influence in the region, he is not “a man” (McCulley 128) and in the Zorro movie, Lolita Pulido (actress Noah Beery) even cries out that he is “a fish.” Lolita Pulido, the girl whom he tries to convince to marry him, cannot give him her love because he is incapable of arousing romantic feelings in her. The key words in this respect are “courting” and “wooing,” terms by which  are referred to as the ability to speak to the señorita in low and rich tones, to look at her with desire, to bring her serenades (McCulley 175). All of this is considered unnecessary by Don Diego: “I trust there will be no undue nonsense. Either the lady wants me and will have me, or she will not. Will I change her mind if I play a guitar beneath her window, or hold her hand when I may, or put my hand over my heart and sigh? I want her for wife, else I would not have ridden here to ask her father for her” (McCulley 37).

This constantly fatigued, yawning aristocrat corresponds to the popular stereotype of the indolent don in those times (Foster 27) and provides a sharp contrast with the vigorous highwayman Zorro! After Don Diego has made his first – and very unsuccessful – attempt to win Lolita’s heart, the next chapter confronts her with Zorro under the title “A different sort of man.” This is how Zorro makes his acquaintance with Lolita Pulido: “And suddenly she was awakened by a touch on her arm, and sat up quickly, and then would have screamed except that a hand was crushed against her lips to prevent her. Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes. She had heard Señor Zorro, the highwayman, described, and she guessed that this was he, and her heart almost ceased to beat, she was so afraid. ‘Silence, and no harm comes to you, [End Page 6] señorita,’ the man whispered hoarsely” (McCulley 45). Zorro, then, symbolizes strength in the same way the Sheik did: the strength to overwhelm her (she feels frightened the first time she sees him), but also the strength to protect her: he saves Lolita and her family from prison and takes her – on his horseback – to a secure destiny. When he speaks to her, he immediately sings her beauty and asks to kiss her hand twice, so it is a small wonder that he quickly gains access to Lolita’s heart.

The exoticism of The Sheik finds an equivalent here in the anonymity – and therefore mysterious character – of the hero. Likewise, his being an outlaw situates him outside conventional – routine – society. As was the case in The Sheik, the stress is on the eyes and the clothing, which function as a costume of a false identity: in the same way that Ahmed was a European dressed up as an Arab, Zorro is a caballero dressed up as a highwayman.

The opposition between the vigorous Zorro and the fatigued Don Diego de la Vega reflects the dichotomy between one variant of the Latin Lover and what may be considered its opposite: the inetto. “The inetto articulates the traditional binary opposite of the masculine, as it is constructed in Italian culture and society, and as it relates to sexuality: the cuckold, the impotent and feminized man. Rather than active, the inetto is passive; rather than brave, he is cowardly, rather than sexually potent, he is either physically or emotionally impotent (…)” (Reich 9). In the Zorro stories and especially in the first Zorro movie, this passive side is expressed by Don Diego’s constant yawning, whereas Zorro, as a full time fighter for justice, enhances the “active” side of the Latin Lover. From a gendered perspective, he symbolizes “performative masculinity,” considered by Jacqueline Reich to be an essential component of the Latin Lover: “Along these lines, the Latin Lover literally puts on a carefully staged show for his admiring public, be it at the beach, which Latin Lovers were known to frequent, or in the mass-produced fantasies for and by Anglo-Saxon women” (Reich 27). True, Zorro does not fight oppression to impress señorita Pulido, but –together with his courting style – this is an important reason why she falls in love with him.

What is lacking from the Zorro stories, however, is the hidden sexuality and open eroticism of The Sheik, which was connected there with the non-European form of Latin identity: the Arab nature. The love between Zorro and Lolita Pulido rather seems to justify the natural appeal between people of the same blood and evokes the pureness of love against the more pragmatic concerns for marriage. Precisely the fact that Lolita Pulido loves Zorro in spite of his anonymity is considered by Don Diego to be a sign of her true love. In this respect, the weak aristocrat he had pretended to be as Don Diego de la Vega was nothing but another mask that he used not only to deceive the authorities, but also to test the true feelings of his future bride. In Don Diego’s final words: “She turned from the wealth of Don Diego de la Vega to the man she loved, though she deemed him, then, an outcast and outlaw. She has shown me her true heart, and I am rejoiced at it. Your excellency, this señorita is to become my wife” (265). The concept of “pure Hispanicity and pure blood” is thus complemented by the concept of “pure love.”

To sum up: there are important parallels between the story of The Sheik and the original stories on Zorro as the motif of the Latin Lover is concerned. Both stories thematize the necessity of love in the relationship between man and woman, as an ingredient not to be confused with (but ideally leading up to) marriage. Love is what women are looking for, even as they reject marriage. But it can only be given by men who are strong enough to control them and protect them at the same time. Eroticism is infused in the relationship by the mysterious side of the male partner, either under the form of exoticism (the Arab) or [End Page 7] social marginality (the masked outlaw). The divergencies between The Sheik and Zorro reside in the way cultural identity, and especially Hispanicity, works. Whereas the Sheik played with different shades of cultural identity, producing an image of ambiguity and ambivalence throughout the movie, Zorro is the quintessential Hispanic and therefore a symbol of purity.  If The Sheik turns out to be a cultural hybrid who spans two opposing cultures (North and South), Zorro is a direct exponent of the Spanish hidalgos and therefore anything but a mestizo. Though he makes women dream, his aim is marriage, not “licentious sex” as Beluscio would have it. Sexuality in the Zorro stories is only there in the theme of procreation and lineage.

From Latin to Latino Lover: Banderas in The Mask of Zorro

In Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood, Clara Rodríguez argues that there are several analogies between the 1920s and the present-day context: the fact that “Latins” are “in” again, the pendulum shift in economy (the Roaring Twenties leading up to the Depression just like the economic boom of the 1980s led to the burst of the 1990s) and the immigration movement at both moments in history accompanied by a certain “concern” about foreigners entering the United States (C. Rodríguez  244-245). There is, then, a new “craze for all things Latino” (214), but this time, the word “Latin” – if still used – tends to be restricted to the Hispanics from Spain and Spanish America only (26). At the same time, we witness a remarkable presence of actors associated with the Latin Lover. One of the most cited examples nowadays is Antonio Banderas, who “fulfills the fantasy of the Latin Lover at his most classic” (Thomas 141) and is described as the “Valentino-Banderas” (Beluscio 77) symbolizing “la resurrección olímpica del ‘Latin Lover’” (Beluscio 51). Even Banderas himself has proclaimed: “I’ll probably be seen as that Latin Lover type forever. Even if I get greasy and fat and lose my hair, they’ll cast me and say, ‘Yes, but he was a Latin Lover!’ It’s funny there’s always been that thing” (quoted in C. Rodriguez 206). But has “that thing” remained the same now that new Hispanic identities see the light?

The 1998 film The Mask of Zorro was directed by Martin Campbell and produced by Steven Spielberg. The second one, The Legend of Zorro, was made by the same team and forms the sequel to the first. In both movies, the role of Zorro is given to Antonio Banderas, and this is presented by the makers as a deliberate option to highlight the Hispanicity of the popular hero. As the publicity campaign recalls: “Zorro was the first Spanish hero invented by Hollywood,” but never before had he been played by an actor of Spanish descent.[14] Hispanicity is at stake, then, and not in a minor way.

One of the most interesting aspects of this movie is the fact that it portrays two forms of Hispanicity by opposing two Zorros: there is the so-called “original” one, Don Diego de la Vega, who is interpreted by Anthony Hopkins; and there is the new one, whose part is given to Antonio Banderas. The old Zorro has come of age and is looking for a successor. He meets with Alejandro Murieta (Antonio Banderas), who plays a grown-up orphan of Mexican descent. In the book accompanying the movie (Luceno 1998), Alejandro Murieta is described as a mestizo, and this is rendered in the movie by a slight darkening of his skin. Banderas is then almost the opposite of the original, “pure” model that Zorro [End Page 8] represented, and the movie displays the contrast between the two forms of Hispanicity – the European one, and the Spanish-American one – through a series of lessons. What old Zorro teaches the younger one is not only how to use his sword in a proper way, but also how to control his anger and put the notion of justice above the one of revenge. In short, he teaches him the values of caballería. At the same time, the fact that these can be learned by someone of different blood is, altogether, a major difference with respect to McCulley’s first stories. What was a vocation inscribed in the blood of caballeros becomes a lesson to be taught to everyone. The psychological growth into maturity of the new Zorro is visualized by his physical change: in the end, it is the handsome Banderas who succeeds in defeating his enemies.

It should be stressed that this new Zorro is not an assimilated Mexican: he represents a hybrid, a combination of the two forms of Hispanicity that merge into a panhispanic form, embracing now, for the first time, Spain and Spanish-America (Mexico). This hybridity also alters Zorro’s relation to justice itself: if McCulley’s Zorro was a restorer of the natural, social order, anything but a revolutionary, Campbell’s Zorro (the old as well as the young one) is identified with the legitimate fight of the Mexican peasants against the Spanish oppression. From a symbol of premodern values, he turns into a defender of modernity. Modernity is also present at a more profound level: the very idea that people from a completely different background, such as Alejandro Murieta, can become Zorro is, of course, a clear departure from the original association between Zorro and Spanish aristocracy. The Zorro vocation is no longer inscribed in the Spanish blood: it can be offered as a programme to anyone.[15] Does this modernity also affect Zorro’s connection to the Latin Lover?

At first sight, the answer is yes, because one of the things old Zorro sees lacking in his disciple is “charm” and so this quality is once again presented as something that can be acquired. The instruction in charm constitutes another departure from the original model: normally, the Latin Lover’s charm has to appear as a natural quality, even though it was acquired artificially. Jacqueline Reich links this to the concept of sprezzatura: “The opposite of affectation, sprezzatura denotes a naturalness in appearance without revealing the effort that went into its preparation. The result is the projection of grace” (Reich 3). We watch Alejandro Murieta being shaved and washed and dressed up as a real aristocrat: an ironic inversion of the original Zorro figure, who was an aristocrat disguised as a bandit. All of this is necessary to gain access to the circles of his true enemies: Rafael Montero and Captain Love. True to these codes, he brings flowers to the lady of the house, and impresses Rafael Montero by his official greeting of the Spanish court. However, Don Alejandro del Castillo y García (as Zorro-Banderas presents himself to his enemies) is really a hybrid, and in his behavior towards women he goes far beyond old Zorro’s imagination. When inviting the beautiful Elena (Catherina Zeta-Jones) to the dance-floor, he chooses a wild dance that is definitely not appropriate for the occasion, but it does reveal his innate “wild” nature to Elena. It also recalls the fact that shortly before he made The Sheik, Valentino conquered women’s hearts with his tango in The Four Horsemen. Later, Banderas confronts Elena as Zorro and leaves her partly undressed by teasingly stripping her clothes off with his sword. Attraction between Elena and Alejandro Murieta is an instant phenomenon and predates the classes he receives in charm: on his way to the town dressed up as a bandit, he crosses the path of Elena. She is slightly frightened, but admits later at confession to have sinned: “I had guilty feelings about a man,” she says, “I think he was a bandit. Something in his eyes [End Page 9] caught me.” Once again, we find the trope of the immediate attraction between the future lovers, only now they belong to different classes and have “different blood.” As representatives of two forms of Hispanicity, their final marriage and first child symbolize, once again, the conversion of the “pure” form of Hispanicity into a broader one.

This amplification of the notion of Hispanicity in a panhispanist sense in a way runs parallel to the original concept of Latinity, which embraced various forms of it. It also accounts for a more sexualized form of Hispanicity, a dimension that is infused by the reference to Spanish-American culture as the Other form of Hispanicity. In a way, Mexican “wildness” equals Arab sensuality. It reinscribes otherness in the pure form of Hispanicity of the original Zorro. In this sense, the merging of the two figures – Latin Lover and Zorro – produces a new species: the Latino Lover. Typical of this Latino Lover is not only the fact that he embraces European and non-European (read Spanish-American) forms of Hispanicity, but also that he establishes a new relationship with modernity.

Mocking the Latino Lover

The departure from the original Zorro acquires parodic dimensions in the 2005 production The Legend of Zorro.[16] Old Zorro has died and new Zorro has won himself a stable and almost accepted position in his society. In fact, his wife Elena believes he is no longer needed: the only person who needs him, in her mind, is Don Diego himself. The rest of the movie will show that this analysis is only partially correct, but it does confront the viewer immediately with a certain mocking of the Zorro icon. Is Zorro really necessary, or is he an excuse to neglect his other duties, regarding his son Joaquín, for instance? The whole dilemma adds a new dimension to the relation between the old Zorro figure and modernity, because it projects the demands of the new fatherhood onto the old aristocrat Zorro. Their argument gets so strong that Don Diego walks out of his house, to be faced some days later with an official demand for divorce by his wife. We then see Zorro losing control of himself, going out until late at night, waking up too drunk to remember where he was, forgetting to pick up his son at school, etc. When Elena reappears with a new lover, the French count Armand, Alejandro creates a scandal at her party. Their dance, interrupted by sneering remarks to each other, is a parody of their wild dance in the first movie and so of Zorro as a Latin Lover altogether. In another scene, Don Alejandro, after a heavy night, is awakened by a room-maid. When he gets up, he discovers he is not wearing any clothes: the image of poor Don Alejandro hiding his sex with his hands in front of a giggling room-maid is symbolic of the overall “undressing” of his Zorro character. Of course, it is not Zorro himself who is mocked, it is Alejandro Murieta, the married man and father of a son.[17]

This parodic element can be related to the comic dimension of the first Zorro movie, where Banderas not only learned how to behave as Zorro, but also made many laughable mistakes. However, it now, more clearly than before, affects his erotic dimension. When he walks out of his house after the argument, Elena shouts at him: “I hope you and Tornado will become very happy” – “We will,” he replies. Later on, while Don Alejandro is sitting drunk on his horse filled with self-pity, even Tornado drops him (literally and symbolically). The weak man that Don Diego de la Vega just pretended to be in the McCulley stories has now become reality. The cause is simple: this Latin Lover has been [End Page 10] abandoned by his wife. Total destruction is the consequence. The fact that he moreover seems to lose Elena to a European-born French count, Armand, functions as an ironic reference to the Latin Lover figure altogether.[18]

Seen from the point of view of the whole Zorro cycle, this movie insists upon Don Alejandro as “inetto,” under the pressures of modern life. Hispanicity is still there, but it becomes part of the ironic distancing of the original hero. Two scenes in which Zorro speaks Spanish are symptomatic in this light: the one in which his horse refuses to follow his instructions because they are uttered in English, and the one in which Zorro uses Spanish to admonish his own son – who has just performed a risky operation and does not know who his father is. Apparently, only Spanish can give Zorro the authority which before he also had in English.

In the animation Shrek 2 (2004), the parody turns to mockery and extends to the figure of Zorro himself (as opposed to Don Diego). In this movie, a new character is introduced: Puss in Boots. Though his name refers to the clever cat of Perrault’s fairy-tale, who helps his poor master marry a princess through his cunning and his eloquence, Puss in Boots is also a parody of Zorro: he is dressed up as the Spanish swordsman, with special emphasis on the boots they have in common; he leaves the first letter of his name in a tree using three strokes of his sword; and –not in the least– he speaks with the voice of Antonio Banderas, who had played the role some years before. Though Puss in Boots does not wear a mask, the stress is on the eyes: we notice this from his first appearance onwards, when darkness prevents us from seeing anything but his eyes, and later we discover his ability to endear his opponents by casting seductive glances. In a way, he shares with Zorro the latter’s double identity, for he misleads his opponents on various occasions, pretending to be a cute, inoffensive little kitten (‘Don Diego’) whereas he is always ready to attack.

These attacks, however, are deprived of their original meaning, since Puss in Boots is not committed to the fight against injustice. Rather, he offers his services to anyone who pays for them, even when murder is involved. His cynicism shows as he turns from the future assassin of Shrek, hired by the evil king, into his friend as soon as he notices the assignment is more difficult than expected. In this context, he appears as “the other friend” of Shrek’s, who is still accompanied by Donkey, his kind-hearted but rather naive buddy from the first movie. Whereas Donkey jealously claims no more friends are needed, Puss in Boots quickly wins Shrek’s heart by flattering him and gazing at him with his cute, deep eyes – an ironic return of the “courting” capacities of Zorro. The fact that Eddy Murphy is Donkey’s voice adds an ethnic flavour to the rivalry. Whereas Donkey speaks with a “black” accent, Banderas turns Puss in Boots into a very Hispanic creature, with his Spanish accent, Spanish words (“señor”) and Spanish style (“it would be my honor”). The contrast with the simple-minded Donkey gives his Hispanicity a sophisticated, but also treacherous, side. It appeals to baroque culture, with its fascination for illusions, costumes, play.[19] Hispanicity finds an ironic equivalent in the notion of “honor” through the various suggestions of the huge ego that Puss in Boots displays – an ego that is so much bigger than his real size. Most importantly, Shrek 2 clearly inscribes the word Latino in the concept of Hispanicity as it relates to music and rhythms: at the end of the movie, it is Puss in Boots who fires the starting gun for the closing party by shouting “fiesta,” after which everybody joins him in a passionate dance to Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la vida loca.” Except for his constant flattering of Shrek and one suggestive pass to Fiona (“I could be Shrek to you, baby”), all that remains of his Latin Lover capacities is this ability on the dance floor. [End Page 11] Hispanicity is thus reduced to a certain temperament and style, a set of costumes and rhythms that suits anyone, even a cat. At the same time, the Shrek story, as a parody of the typical fairy-tale-plots, reverses the traditional beauty norms that also underlie fictions involving Latin Lovers: the evil character of the prince charming Fiona used to dream of as a child contrasts with the good character of the hideous ogre she finally falls in love with. It is as if Zorro, as he removes his mask, turns out to be so very different from what we believed him to be.

But what did we believe he was, after all? Let us give the final word to a woman in this essay on Zorro as a Latin Lover. In 2005, Isabel Allende published a novel at the request of the Zorro Company. She was given complete liberty as an author, except for the fact that Zorro had to be recognizable through his attributes. A full consideration of the adaptation Allende proposes of Zorro would be the subject of another essay. But since her book is part of the official Zorro revival that the Zorro Company set in motion in 1998, her portrayal of Zorro as a Latin Lover deserves some conclusive considerations. One of the most striking features of her book is the introduction of new female characters, which – together with the magical realism – function as sometimes overtly ironic tokens of the Allende idiom entering the McCulley imagination. A first important change is the fact that Zorro obtains a mother and a grandmother (Toypurnia and Lechuza Blanca, respectively), who have a different background and opinion than Don Alejandro de la Vega. Besides rewriting Zorro’s Hispanic background in terms of hybridity – which acquires carnavalesque elements as it mixes with other minority cultures (gypsies, pirates…) – they point at the fact that Zorro was always his father’s son, never his mother’s. According to Annick Houel,[20] the absent mother enhances a quality of the hero of these romantic stories: the fact that they are able to protect and shelter the woman. Secondly, Allende, who writes a prequel to Zorro by describing his years as a child and teenager both in California and in Spain, situates him primarily in between two women of the same family de Romeu: Juliana – whom Zorro falls in love with from the first time he sees her – and Isabel, who is her younger sister and far below Juliana’s beauty. However, Zorro’s love is left unanswered, since he loses Juliana to the pirate Jean Lafitte. Lolita Pulido, his true love in the McCulley stories, then appears as his second best choice, but Allende insists on the fact that Don Diego “debió confesarle la identidad del Zorro antes de ser aceptado” (Allende 381). The most ironic reference to Zorro as a Latin Lover is provided by the anonymous narrator, who turns out to be Isabel. The use of the third person to refer to herself – often in sarcastic ways –functions as a textual mask of her true identity, which is revealed in the epilogue. And a real mask she will wear in the end of the story, when she convinces Zorro to allow him to help her, at the side of Bernardo. Most importantly, she provides what Bernardo (Zorro’s loyal servant in the Disney television series) lacks: a voice to tell Zorro’s stories. By doing so, she not only focuses upon his qualities, but also upon his defects: his big ears that he tries to hide with his mask, a certain vanity before the mirror. She even ends up “psychoanalyzing” Zorro by concluding that he can only truly love unattainable women, such as Juliana (382). This is why Isabel– later in her life – decides not to accept Zorro’s proposal to marry him … yet: “Sé que estaremos juntos cuando él sea un anciano de piernas enclenques y mala cabeza, cuando otros zorros más jóvenes le hayan reemplazado, y en el caso improbable de que alguna dama le abriera su balcón y él no fuera capaz de treparlo” (382). With this last image, of the cripple Zorro who has already turned bald by the end of [End Page 12] the book, Isabel (de Romeu/Allende) concludes her novel: “El Zorro me tiene harta, y creo que ha llegado el momento de ponerle el punto final” (382).


If Clara Rodríguez pointed at several similarities between the 1920s and the current context, all leading up to a “Latin craze,” one has to admit that we have come a long way from the Valentino trope and the original Zorro. The concept of “pure Hispanicity” has been abandoned in favor of a more multicultural definition, which includes Spanish-American and indigenous cultures. Especially in its openness to the “other” form of Hispanicity, incarnated in this case by Spanish America, this rewriting seems to have been to the benefit of the erotic appeal of Zorro, because his sexuality has been enhanced. At the same time, we witness an ironic and parodic treatment of Zorro as a hero, which reduces his position as a symbol of masculinity. The premodern values associated with both the Latin Lover and Zorro have disappeared in favor of the –often comical – clash with modernity itself.

It would be tempting to consider this rewriting as indicative of a more open, tolerant concept of Hispanicity, one that rejects essentialism in favor of a postmodern concept of cultural identity that could be considered more politically correct or illustrative of the “browning” that Richard Rodriguez hopes will occur. However, this would leave out of the picture an essential ingredient of the Latin Lover: the fact that it is a consumer’s icon (Malossi 24), designed to make money. Without a doubt, the North American society that brought forth Zorro has changed in such a way that Hispanics are now not only people of a country “far-far-away” (to quote Shrek 2): the fact that they are an active part of the consumer audience of these icons must have helped the producers find their way to an updating in terms of multiculturality and humor.

[1] This essay constitutes a complement to a previous analysis of the Zorro-figure, in which I focused on its appeal as a symbol of resistance and cultural identity (Lie 2001).Though detailed surveys of Zorro’s evolution in the 19th century exist (Mérida 1997, Curtis 1998), the connection between Zorro and the stereotype of the Latin Lover has never been studied before.

[2] The dictionary quoted is Il Grande Dizionario, Garzanti, Milano, 1987.

[3] Though this article centres on North American popular culture, it should be noted that images of Latin Lovers circulated everywhere, including Latin America. Thus, Jaime Manrique, in his semi-autobiographical book on homosexual writers, testifies about the pervasive influence of Hollywood and European movies on the Latin American popular imagination and his own erotic imagination (Manrique 1999: 15, 25). In this context, it is telling that Manrique explains his initial romantic crush on Manuel Puig – who would later on become his main literary and personal model – by referring to a picture he had seen of Puig, in which the writer resembled Marcelo Mastroianni, that other prototypical figure of the Latin Lover (Manrique 1999: 39).  This also shows that Latin Lovers can appear in contexts of homosexual attraction, an aspect not dealt with in this article; a famous example can be found in Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), in which the main [End Page 13] character Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) has a lover called Miguel Alvarez, interpreted by Antonio Banderas.

[4] Useful information about the life of Valentino can be found in Belluscio 1996, Malossi 1996 and Thomas 1998. Without a doubt, his life and early death contributed to his mythical status. An interesting fact is that  he was “discovered” and “designed” by women such as Natascha Rambova.

[5] Another important prototype of the Latin Lover was Marcello Mastroianni.

[6] Some, as Panaro, state that Latin meant “exotic” to an American and could therefore include “Mexican, Spanish, Parisian, Italian, Arab (and also included Viennese, Hungarian and Slavic touches)” (Alberto Panaro, Mass-produced Valentinos in Malossi 1996, 95). Allen Woll observes that “only rarely was it synonymous with ‘Latin American’. More often than not, the Latin Lover was “of Italian descent” (1980, 23) or “the property of Mediterranean civilization” (1980, 25).

[7] This French background also explains the presence of two French-speaking servants in his tent, who can communicate with Diana, and the visit of his dear friend Raoul de Saint Honoré. This French doctor admonishes Ahmed on the values of respect and liberty, thereby rehearsing a trope in Orientalist discourse: “the theme of Europe teaching the Orient the meaning of liberty, which is an idea that Chateaubriand and everyone after him believed that Orientals, and especially Muslims, knew nothing about” (Said 1978, 172). In the end, Ahmed is ready to free Diana in spite of the fact that he has fallen in love with her.

[8] In Muy Macho – a collection of autobiographical essays in which sixteen Latino writers testify about the impact of the stereotype of the macho on their personal lives –  the word ‘macho’ is presented as “the catchword for Latino adult manhood” (González 1996:xiii), and the general term under which all North-American images about Latino men can be ranged (González 1996 cover text). However, I believe there is ground to distinguish between the macho and the Latin Lover in terms of erotic and sexual behaviour. Thus, it is striking that the concepts of ‘suavity and tenderness,’ which figure so prominently in The Sheik, and the intimate connection with the motif of female desire, hardly ever appear in the essays collected by González. Moreover, the main figure evoked in the essays of Muy Macho is the father, never the mother nor the female lover, which underscores the fact that the macho world is mainly a male world, whereas Latin Lovers are directly defined with respect to women.

[9] See the analogy with Tarzan (1911-1912), who is able to develop into Lord Greystoke because he has the European genes (Cheyfitz 1997).

[10] Interestingly, Curtis points out that Fairbank’s interest in the Zorro stories was the result of his objective to attract more female, matinee audiences (in McCulley 1998, viii).

[11] In this context, also see Foster on the first filmic interpretation of the Cisco Kid in 1914: “Thus, in keeping with an entrenched Hollywood tradition that has a long life, people of color (Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks, Asians) are played by Anglos; this practice was true even when the former were as much the evil and perfidious enemies of the latter as their benefactors” (Foster 2010: 29).

[12] “El éxito de La marca del Zorro llegó a tomar tales dimensiones que, durante las primeras semanas de exhibición en el Capitol Theatre de Nueva York, la policía tuvo que [End Page 14] tomar el local para contener a las exaltadas masas que anhelaban ver a su nuevo héroe” (Mérida 1997, 35).

[13] Sandra Curtis believes McCulley depicts Californian life under Mexican rule (in McCulley 1998, x). However, no single mention of Mexico is given in McCulley’s text, except for vague references to “the mongrel people”. Possibly, this has to do with the influence of the Boltonian school of historiography, which silenced the part Mexico played in California’s history. The Boltonians were part of the “cult of Spanish California” and Curtis (1998, 11) confirms that McCulley consulted documents on the region before writing his stories.

[14] “To play the only Spanish hero created in Hollywood and the first time a Spanish guy is going to portray that character is an awesome and beautiful thing. It is almost spiritual to me” (Banderas  quoted in Lie 2001: 497).

[15] In Lie 2001 I have analyzed the way in which the master-disciple-figure in this Zorro movie rehearses and rewrites the dichotomous discourse on Mexican subalternity which Claire Fox, in The Fence and the River (1999) saw appearing at the beginning of the 19th century. In this respect, The Mask of Zorro presents itself as a post-NAFTA movie that inscribes Mexican subalternity in a playful way into an inclusive concept of Hispanicity.

[16] In his brillant study of the Cisco Kid, David William Foster points out a similar emergence of an ironic and parodic stance towards this character in a made-for-TV movie directed by Luis Valdez in 1994  (Foster 2010: 27). In his conclusion, Foster draws a comparison between the Cisco Kid and Zorro, which first shows an important difference between the two figures: whereas the Cisco Kid allows for homosocial and homosexual behaviour,  which is due to the fixed presence of his male sidekick Sancho, Zorro – often solitary – tends to be ‘straight’ (Foster 2010: 39). At the same time, Foster underscores the crucial fact that both popular characters are incarnations of the Hispanic caballero as a deviant moving through the Anglo world and therefore carry with them the potential to unsettle Anglo heterosexual normativity. In the case of the Cisco Kid, this ‘queer’ character is shown in scenes in which a certain effeminate posture of the Cisco Kid becomes an important tool to outwit his adversaries. In the case of Zorro, the potentially subversive dimension of his behaviour shows in his systematic triumph over Anglo rivals when it comes to winning the heart of women.  As for the stereotype of the Latin Lover in general, his transgressive nature is often staged in the context of a marriage or another form of an official engagement between an Anglo man and woman, which turns him into an important agent of adultry and illicit sex. For a famous example, see the disruptive effect of the exotic Hungarian guest Sandor Szavost on the marriage of Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) and her husband Dr. Harford (Tom Cruise) in Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

[17] We find a similar strategy in the movie Internal Affairs: see Lie 2006.

[18] Another aspect of this deconstruction of the Zorro-figure  is the way in which his son Joaquín appears as a childish incarnation of Zorro. When faced with a rather strict schoolmaster, who is out to punish him, he performs a playful fight with his “opponent,” and lands outside on his feet, receiving, with a glimmering face, the applause of his fellow schoolmates. Zorro is not only about heroism: it is about playing and performing.

[19] The fact that the original Puss in Boots helped his master to appear as a count (the Marquis de Carabas), though he was only a miller’s son, is another indication of this connection to illusiveness. [End Page 15]

[20] Quoted from her book Le roman d’amour et sa lectrice by R. Amossy and A. Herschberg-Pierrot (2005: 84).[End Page 16]

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. Zorro : Comienza la Leyenda. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 2005. Print.

Amossy, Ruth & Anne Herschberg-Pierrot. Estereotipos y cliches. Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 2005. Print.

Belluscio, Marta. Seductores y Amantes : Historia del ‘Latin Lover’ y otros galanes. Valencia: La Máscara, 1996. Print.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1997. Print.

Curtis, Sandra. Zorro Unmasked: The Official History. New York: Hyperion. 1998. Print.

Foster, David William. “Of Gay Caballeros and Other Noble Heroes.” Good Bandits, Warrior Women and Revolutionaries in Hispanic Culture.  Ed. Gary Francisco Keller. Temple, Arizona: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2010. 23-44. Print.

González, Ray. Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront their Manhood.  New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Print.

Lie, Nadia. “Free Trade in Images? Zorro as Cultural Signifier in the Contemporary Global/Local System.” Nepantla: Views from South (2001): 489-508. Print.

—. “Cet obscur objet du désir : Andy García como Latin(o) Lover en Internal Affairs.América: Cahiers du Criccal 34 (2006): 129-138.

Limón, José. American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2006. Print.

Litvak, Lily. “Latinos y anglosajones : Una polémica de la España de fin de siglo.” España 1900: Modernismo, anarquismo y fin de siglo. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1990. 155-199. Print.

Luceno, James. The Mask of Zorro. New York: Pocket, 1998. Print.

Malossi, Gianni. Latin Lover: The Passionate South. Rome: Pitt Immagine, 1996. Print.

Manrique, Jaime. Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. Print.

McCulley, Johnston. The Mark of Zorro.  New York: Tom Doherty Associations, 1998. Print.

Mérida, Paul. El Zorro y otros justicieros de película. Madrid: Nuer, 1997. Print.

Ramírez Berg, Charles, 1997. “Stereotyping in Films in General and of the Hispanic in Particular.”  Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US Media. Ed. Clara E. Rodríguez. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997. 104-120. Print.

—. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Reich, Jacqueline. Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Print.

Rodríguez, Clara. Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004. Print.

Rodríguez, Richard. Brown: The Last Discovery of America. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.

Thomas, Victoria,. Hollywood’s Latin Lovers: Latino, Italian and French Men who Make the Screen Smolder. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 1998. Print.

Weber, David. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.[End Page 17]

Woll, Allen L. The Latin Image in American Film. Los Angeles: University of California, L.A., 1980. Print.

Visual materials

The Sheik (1921). Artwork InstantVision Ltd 2004.

The Mark of Zorro (1920). Sterling, Fort Mill 1998.

The Mask of Zorro. Tristar Amblin 1998.

The Legend of Zorro. Columbia Pictures & Spyglass Entertainment. Tristar Amblin. 2005.

Shrek II. Dreamworks Pictures Production 2004.[End Page 18]


Vulnerable Bodies: Subverting Masculine Normativity in Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s Boquitas pintadas
by Assen Kokalov

Director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson enjoyed an intimate connection with Argentine cinema from a very early age: his father, Leopoldo Torres Ríos, and his uncle, Carlos Torres Ríos, were two of the most important filmmakers of their country during the first half of the twentieth century. Following in their footsteps, Torre Nilsson began his film career at fifteen when he was enlisted as an assistant director for two of his father’s productions, Los [End Page 1] pagarés de Mendieta (1939) and La luz de un fósforo (1939). When he was barely twenty-four, Torre Nilsson directed his first short, El muro (1947), and three years later released a full feature titled El crimen de Oribe (1950). For the next thirty years, until his death, he produced, directed, and scripted a vast array of movies, some of which became hallmarks of Argentine cinema.

Most critics agree that Torre Nilsson’s films reveal an intricate knowledge of his country’s middle and upper classes and tirelessly subvert social norms, particularly in terms of gender and gender-based behavior (Amado, España, Esplugas, Maranghello). The plight of women, the gendering of the body, and the implicit rules that govern collective order are some of the most common issues his productions exposed and criticized throughout his more than three decades of filmmaking. When discussing Torre Nilsson’s career, it is imperative to underscore the importance of his life and work partner, Beatriz Guido, whose novels and scripts conditioned most of his movies. Their creative relationship is aptly summarized by Claudio España, who claims that the esthetic mannerism developed by Torre Nilsson exists in perfect harmony with Guido’s steadfast efficiency in demolishing the establishment through her literature (40).

Within such a context, it is not surprising that the collaboration between Torre Nilsson and another important Argentine writer whose works aim to destabilize social and gender conventions and rules, Manuel Puig, inevitably produced a work that exposes, parodies, and critiques social, class, racial, and gender power relations in a society obsessed with sexual desire and the culturally mandated need to repress it. Puig wrote his novel Boquitas pintadas (translated into English as Heartbreak Tango) in 1969; the homonymous film was released five years later with a script coauthored by Torre Nilsson and Puig.[1] The bulk of the movie’s storyline takes place in the 1930s, an important historical period for the director. Gonzalo Aguilar points out that throughout his career, Torre Nilsson adapted several eminent Argentine novels that take place during that specific time period (Boquitas pintadas, Roberto Arlt’s Los siete locos [1929], and Adolfo Bioy Casares’ Diario de la guerra del cerdo [1969]) as well as several real-life events. The critic also draws attention to the fact that in his Fin de fiesta (1960), Torre Nilsson explicitly elaborates on his belief, reflected in all his movies portraying the 1930s, that the origins of the political violence that reverberated in Argentina until the end of his own life can be traced back to that very decade (Aguilar 24).

Boquitas pintadas revolves mainly around the lives of five women from a small village in the interior of Argentina who reminisce, via letters, about their youth back in the 1930s. Growing up in a close-knit community, they went to the same school despite belonging to disparate social classes. Their social differences are deftly used to depict the oppression from which women suffer as a result of patriarchal norms. In her study of the film, Claudia Esplugas argues that Torre Nilsson uses melodrama and parody to expose patriarchal power structures and their subjugation of women (n/p). The film does not stop at presenting traditional female oppression, however. It also portrays normative gender roles and androcentric romance while effectively subverting them in a series of acts that destabilize both femininity and masculinity, and the latter’s most cherished values of power and dominance. My aim here is to examine the ways in which the film challenges and subverts traditional masculinity by engaging the male body—its health, visibility, and vulnerability—and by defying the traditional patriarchal expectation that men control all social and economic power. [End Page 2]

The male body is one of the main symbols of masculinity within traditional Western society. George Mosse traces this idea back to the seventeenth century and to the works of Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz, who argue that body and soul form an essential unity. Their concept of a union between the two spurs the rebirth of the ideal of a male corporeal image based on the ancient Greek model,  in which “real” men possess healthy, strong, and muscular bodies (Mosse 24-25). R. W. Connell also affirms that “true” masculinity is thought to originate within the male body, which is in charge of a set of actions that establish the privileged position of those men who are considered inherently masculine for being what is traditionally deemed “able-bodied.” In his further analysis on the subject, Connell focuses on the materiality of the body and on the different tasks and actions that it is able to perform or not. Due to its material nature and consequent vulnerability, the body also offers a way to subvert patriarchal masculinity and gender in general. For example, points out Connell, when performance cannot be sustained as a result of a physical disability, injury, or illness, what follows is the subversion or outright deconstruction of traditional gender norms (45-66). Within the general Latin American context, Lorraine Nencel affirms that men are afforded “the entire panoply of power” through the deep-rooted tradition of machismo, as long as they are “healthy” and heterosexual (many conventional epistemological systems conflate the two categories) (56-58). Similarly, Kristi Anne Stølen argues that man is “portrayed as the bearer of physical strength, rationality, and authority” within the region (167). In the particular Argentine context, the importance of bodily strength is considered crucial for the establishment and preservation of masculinity as well. Eduardo Archetti points back to the writings of some of the country’s most notable intellectuals, Lugones and Borges, who associate dominant models of masculinity with the courage and physical strength of figures typically linked to manliness, such as the gaucho and the urban compadrito. Furthermore, the critic emphasizes the “importance of physical-muscular power” as an “exemplary role” of paterfamilias’ masculinity (Archetti 51-52).

In Boquitas pintadas, the five main female characters recall their relationships with two men who embody traditional masculinity and whose early deaths arguably destabilize it. The first one is Juan Carlos, lover of three of the women (Nené, Mabel, and Elsa) and brother of another (Celia). The announcement of his premature demise in 1947 functions as a catalyst for the entire plot. Upon seeing his obituary in the newspaper, Nené, who is already married to another man, enters an early midlife crisis. She experiences a deep sensation of sadness bordering on depression and deals with it by sending a letter to her ex-lover’s mother. In her letter, she reminisces about the past and her intimate relationship with Juan Carlos. When he was her boyfriend, the two of them spent many nights in front of her house in a typical rural, middle-class courtship. What becomes clear from her initial letters is that Juan Carlos, despite being a handsome and successful young man from a relatively well-established family, suffered from one crucial physical flaw: he had tuberculosis, a disease still practically incurable in the 1930s.[2] One of the first indications of his ailment was a slight but persistent cough, which he tried to conceal while talking to Nené in front of her house. In a conspicuous manner he ignored the symptoms, following a set of behaviors prescribed by the patriarchal tradition of men not showing concern for their own physical health, as any admission of problems could be perceived as a possible weakness. Sylvia Chant confirms the fundamental role of this behavior by indicating that Latin American men “typically delay their visits to medical personnel until their conditions [End Page 3] are quite advanced” (“Gender and Health” 121). Hence, the first ones to become preoccupied with Juan Carlos’ cough were his sister and his mother, who swiftly blamed his girlfriend for keeping him out in the cold late at night.

Soon enough, Juan Carlos’ condition starts to worsen and his social status deteriorates accordingly in a process wherein illness and subversion of masculinity converge, as indicated by Connell (45-66). For Juan Carlos to be allotted what Nencel calls “the entire panoply of power” within Latin American patriarchy, he needs to be perceived above all as a healthy man (56). When the village doctor receives his X-rays and medical test results, the entire town takes notice. Once it becomes clear that Juan Carlos is in fact infected, his situation becomes the main topic of conversation. Chant indicates that in 1930s Latin America, prior to what today is labeled “the epidemiological transition,” communicable respiratory illnesses were a leading cause of death (“Gender and Health” 99). There is no doubt, therefore, that the inhabitants of Vallejos are very much aware of the dangers presented by the contagiousness of the protagonist, who shortly thereafter is forced to leave town in a first step towards social marginalization. Initially, he is interned in a rather comfortable upper-class sanatorium near the mountains, where his health and state of mind start to improve. Thus, he is not immediately deprived of all of his masculine advantages. Nonetheless, there are several crucial moments during his stay in the sanatorium that imply that his status as a privileged man is being compromised due to his failing health and the social perceptions surrounding his ailment.

The first moment is directly related to the issue of the male body as a symbol of masculine prowess, and it takes place in a scene that shows Juan Carlos swimming naked in a deserted river nearby. The style of his solitary swim is highly reminiscent of Isabel Sarli’s notorious soft-porn productions from the same period. In some of her most widely-recognized scenes, the erotic star appears swimming naked in what she believes are solitary lakes and rivers with her breasts and legs clearly visible—not only to the camera and the audience, but also to the occasional peeping Tom who incarnates the male spectator and shares in the pleasure of the epitomic male gaze. In his study on the actress and her films, David W. Foster maintains that Sarli’s body can be seen as a symbol of masculine exploitation due to her complete lack of power in regard to all artistic decisions (those were made exclusively by her husband and director, Armando Bó) and to the uncritical exposure of her naked breasts in what the critic calls “muchos baños fílmicos” (“Las lolas de La Coca” n/p). Her films affirm these dynamics as her characters are typically at the control of male protagonists who use Sarli’s overly sensual and nude body (Ruétalo 207-08). In the case of Boquitas pintadas, the exposed body that occupies the gaze of the audience is male and its nakedness and sickness transform it into a vulnerable entity, a position reserved exclusively for the female body within traditional film and within traditional male/female structures of power throughout most of twentieth-century Argentina.

Another crucial moment that destabilizes Juan Carlos’ masculinity during his illness-imposed stay in the sanatorium is related to his unsuccessful efforts to attract and seduce women. These attempts are important because they strive to rebuild his sense of manliness and to prove that he still has what it takes to be an Argentine macho. The woman he finds most attractive and most valuable as a conquest is a young and beautiful fellow patient. After a few short and encouraging conversations, though, she suddenly disappears. Upon inquiring whether she has left, Juan Carlos is informed that she has passed away from the [End Page 4] disease they have in common. The fact that such a healthy-looking woman with a pleasant appearance could succumb so quickly to the illness they share emphasizes Juan Carlos’ own mortality and the fact that tuberculosis does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, or physical attractiveness. His body, that until now he has perceived as a solid defense against the ailment due to its youthfulness and virility, becomes a very real liability in his fight against the disease.

The final key element that surfaces during Juan Carlos’ stay in the sanatorium has to do with his connections to the outside world, established through letters he writes to and receives from people he left behind. He is advised by some of the older and more seasoned patients that the more time he spends there, the less he will be remembered and the less correspondence he will receive. A significant number of those with whom he exchanges letters are women with whom he has been intimate. To them, he is first and foremost an attractive body. In fact, during a conversation between Mabel and Nené after his death, the former affirms that his most praised feature was his large penis. Thus, when Juan Carlos receives an ever-diminishing amount of mail, it becomes clear that women are assuming that his body can no longer perform its most important manly function—and is incapable of providing them pleasure. All of these developments that occur during his initial stay at the sanatorium prove the importance of a healthy body in the construction of a successful model of masculinity within traditional patriarchy. When Juan Carlos’ health begins to decline, the foundations of his masculine privilege begin to crumble and the vulnerabilities of his body start to translate into direct hits on his manliness and on his position of power within society.

The other important male character in the film is Juan Carlos’ buddy Pancho. He belongs to a lower social class, but Juan Carlos, before he goes to the sanatorium, takes him under his wing to teach him how to seduce women from within his own class. The first target of such training is La Raba (the fifth main female character), who is selected by Juan Carlos because of her connection to his wealthy lover, Mabel. La Raba is about to become a servant in Mabel’s house and Juan Carlos wants La Raba to spy on her. Under the expert tutelage of his friend, Pancho is successful in his pursuit of La Raba, whom he abandons once she becomes pregnant. It is important to underline that the class difference between the two pairs, Juan Carlos-Mabel and Pancho-La Raba, is clearly emphasized by their racial dissimilarities as well: the actors who portray the latter couple are visibly darker-skinned than the former.

A paradigmatic change in Pancho’s situation takes place when Juan Carlos has to leave the village. At this point, he finds himself in a position in which he can try to replace his mentor and to occupy, at least partially—due to his darker skin and consequent inferior social status—some of the privileges left vacant by the other man’s departure. His perfectly healthy body allows him to assume a certain position of masculine privilege in a power vacuum created by the disappearance of his friend. The first step he takes to solidify his position is to enter the police academy in Buenos Aires. Upon his eventual return to the village, he swiftly becomes a noncommissioned officer. The uniform that comes with the rank affords him a level of social recognition and transforms him into a man who embodies state-sanctioned power.

An important feature of “real” heterosexual men within traditional Latin American macho culture is their role as penetrators. As Annick Prieur points out, “Value is given to the male who penetrates women or other males, and never lets himself be penetrated. His [End Page 5] defence of his own bodily boundaries and his attack on other men’s bodies may mirror and symbolize the social competition among men” (83). In a similar fashion, Claudio Lomnitz-Adler argues that “[t]he value or aesthetics of ‘closedness’ is a kind of idiom of power where ‘penetration’ stands for domination and ‘impenetrability’ stands for power” (259). In Boquitas pintadas, Pancho follows this set of prescriptions by sexually penetrating and impregnating La Raba. To be able to even better occupy the position left vacant by Juan Carlos, he chooses to penetrate another woman: one of his mentor’s lovers, Mabel. In a highly suggestive scene, he finds himself standing on the stone fence surrounding Mabel’s house fixing an antenna while proudly displaying his police uniform. The young woman is in the garden, pruning flowers, when she asks him to pick some figs from a tall tree next to the fence. In a brief sequence of scenes, the audience is allowed access not only to the words of the two characters, but also to their inner thoughts. They are strongly attracted to each other and give clear indications to that effect. Pancho asks if and when he can visit Mabel and she informs him that her parents go to bed early, suggesting that he come to her room that night. At the same time, the scene offers an initial subversion of Pancho’s masculinity and the couple’s androcentric romance. Mabel’s thoughts illustrate the way she objectifies his body sexually, a behavior typically reserved for males. She thinks of him as “un negro grande” with big hands who represents the primal and savage sexuality she craves. His portrayal as a lower-class, darker-skinned, sexualized being is highlighted as he is presented as the forbidden fruit that prevalent social structures at the time do not allow Mabel access to.

Later that night, they have intercourse that presumably includes the sexual penetration of the female body. This establishes Pancho’s position as a penetrator and, as Prieur points out, vests him with masculine privilege from a patriarchal point of view. Once the act is concluded, the woman becomes conscious of the advantage she has afforded Pancho and orders him to leave her room. He complies only after roughing her up and indicating that now that he has penetrated her, he can choose to stay or leave at his own will. The next sequence of scenes reveals the subversive character of Torre Nilsson’s film in regard to Pancho’s masculinity. Once he leaves Mabel’s bedroom, the young woman hears a piercing scream which signals her lover’s violent demise: he has been stabbed to death by La Raba, who still works as a servant in the house. His body has been physically penetrated with a big kitchen knife, as the mother of his child takes revenge on him for seducing and abandoning her, as well as for cheating on her with her employer. He is unable to defend his bodily boundaries, penetrated by a woman in an act that ends up costing him his life. Ultimately, then, he fails to occupy the space left open by Juan Carlos’ departure and joins the other man in an early death. His unsuccessful bid to reincarnate traditional masculinity by penetrating several women and donning a police uniform reveals the vulnerability of patriarchal definitions of masculinity and emphasizes the role of Boquitas pintadas in explicitly deconstructing gender relations. The final blow to his role as a penetrator is the fact that La Raba is not charged with murder. Following Mabel’s advice, she claims that she killed him in self-defense when he was trying to rape her. In front of society she is the one capable of defending her own body against a forceful penetration while transforming the penetrator into a mortally penetrated/wounded man.

Another important function of the male body within traditional discourse is its invisibility. Rosalind Coward affirms that Western society and culture have worked hard to convert the collective body of men into a “dark continent” (227) while Peter Lehman [End Page 6] argues that the invisibility of men’s bodies serves the needs of a civilization that cherishes male privilege (5). Furthermore, Lehman insists that the only way to decentralize masculinity is by turning the lights on and exposing the body that symbolizes it. The critic asserts that the biggest danger is to ignore men’s bodies “since that is what patriarchy wants us to do and has, in fact, been quite successful in bringing about” (Lehman 5-6). The critic focuses his attention mainly on the penis, which has been conspicuously absent from film throughout history. Shot during a period of a strict censorship, Boquitas pintadas does not expose any of the characters’ genitalia, yet it is successful in exposing the male body with all its weaknesses and defects in order to demystify it and to challenge the patterns of traditional masculinity.

Even though in 1970s Argentina it was completely unthinkable for a film to reveal a naked penis on film, the audience is still able to observe much of the semi-naked bodies of Juan Carlos and Pancho. In a scene mentioned earlier, the former appears swimming naked in a river near the medical facility where he is being treated. He strips in front of the camera and jumps in the warm waters. The camera shows him splashing happily around and on a few occasions catches quick glimpses of his bare buttocks. A more intriguing scene that reveals the man’s body takes place earlier on, when he is still intimate with Mabel. He comes to her room in the middle of the night and, prior to intercourse, appears sitting on the bed while his lover is hugging him from behind. The undressing of the man in this scene is initiated by his partner, who undoes his belt and exposes his crotch (still covered by underwear) to the audience. Soon, his body is completely nude and even though all that can be seen is his naked upper torso, the material shape of his male body is made very visible. Pancho’s body is equally exposed. After coitus with Mabel, he lies naked in bed, holding a cigarette in one hand. His other hand is resting up behind his head and his leg closer to the camera is folded up, cutting off the view of his penis but revealing his naked chest and abdomen down to his dark pubic hair. The position of his body is extremely revealing and presents his vulnerability at a moment when Mabel orders him to leave. The exposure of the two men’s naked bodies reinforces the subversive character of the film and is instrumental in destabilizing the traditional norms of masculine representations by exposing the so-called “dark continent” and turning it visible.

While the first half of the film exposes and objectifies Juan Carlos’ body, the second half presents it as ever more fragile and increasingly ostracized. One day, he is informed by the director of the sanatorium that his family is no longer able to cover his costs and he needs to leave immediately. His social marginalization only deepens upon his return to Vallejos. Nené, the last woman who still sends him letters, refuses to kiss him and her father bans him from seeing her. The older man understands that Juan Carlos has become a severe liability to his daughter’s future, since she still has time to find a respectable and a healthy husband—unlike Juan Carlos—as long as she is not infected. Next, the former playboy loses his job because his employer believes that he will be unable to return to work without an unacceptably long sick leave, if at all. Seeing Mabel is out of the question as well. At this point the only person outside his family who is still willing to spend time with him is Elsa, the elderly widow with whom he had an affair prior to his internment. This sudden, yet not unexpected, shift in fortune transforms Juan Carlos from a desired and thriving young male into an outcast viewed with suspicion and avoided by the rest of mainstream, “healthy” society. He is rejected by Vallejos’ inhabitants and has to abandon the town, retreating into a small pension that Elsa purchases near the mountains to accommodate his [End Page 7] medical condition and their continuing, clandestine love affair. This last development is important, considering the central role that economic autonomy plays in reinforcing male privilege, and I will return to it later.

The ailment, vulnerability, and visibility of the main male character’s body—as well as its resulting marginalization—can be examined from a queer perspective as well, especially bearing in mind that the film is based on one of Puig’s works and he was also one of its screenwriters. The novelist’s use and criticism of medical and scientific discourses—which have been employed by heteronormative institutions to oppress and exclude the “other,” particularly those whose sexuality and eroticism do not fit well-established social norms—are crucial in some of his other works, above all in his most famous, El beso de la mujer araña (1976). That novel contains a series of footnotes that seemingly strive to explain, from a medical and psychoanalytical point of view, the causes and consequences of non-heterosexual desire. In his detailed paratextual study of the notes in question, Daniel Balderston points out that Puig invents some of the pseudoscientific sources he quotes while twisting others with the explicit purpose of subverting, denouncing, and rebuking the use of antiquated scientific arguments that aim to disparage and condemn the queer subject (227-30). Considering Juan Carlos’ illness—and its effects on his body, sexuality, and social status—as a queer element, one that undermines the paradigms of traditional masculinity, we can see how his demise fits into the mold of a well-established trend in queer criticism to search for unorthodox gender and bodily representations.

Julia Erhart traces this tendency back to Ruby Rich’s 1981 study on Maedchen in Uniform (1931), where Rich does not scan the film for images of openly queer practices as we understand them today, but rather for historical representations of gender and sexuality, such as, in the particular case of Maedchen, spinsterhood, independent women, and bachelorhood (Erhart 166). The critic goes on to affirm that “queer” has the capacity to explore not only practices that involve non-heterosexual erotic acts, but also “non-homosexual imagery that [falls] outside of hegemonic representation, such as representations of s/m sexuality, intergenerational sex, or interspecies sex” (Erhart 174). In her study, Erhart also turns her attention to Alexander Doty’s seminal book Making Things Perfectly Queer (1993) and agrees with his radical reevaluation of “queer,” which he recognizes as a fluid category that can insert itself not only into the content or the message of a given cultural production, but also into the perception of such a production by the audience. For example, an audience can construct as queer a film, an actor/actress, or a TV show not originally intended to be viewed as such by its producers or creators (Erhart 175).[3]

Within similar epistemological paradigms, it is feasible to consider Juan Carlos’ ailment as an event that strikes at the foundation of his marked heterosexuality and queers the film in general. His condition as a man suffering from tuberculosis places him in a marginalized position and forces his exclusion from the rest of society. It is important to underscore that the purpose of this analysis is not to liken queer subjectivity in an uncritical fashion to any type of physical or mental disease. On the contrary, the aim is to demonstrate that the film functions as a successful subversion of patriarchy and repressive scientific and medical discourse precisely because it exposes the way in which personal degradation and exclusion are frequently created by indiscriminate applications of arbitrary (and sometimes erroneous) health-related diagnoses, and the mass panic that these are capable of creating among a poorly-educated public.[4] What happens to Juan [End Page 8] Carlos in the film is a prime example of the effects of this type of hysteria, which creates a sort of “border-crossing,” following Nicola Rehling’s definition of the term. In his study on white heterosexual masculinity on screen, Rehling claims that identity is always a “multifaceted affair” and, as a result, “crossing over from one identity category to another affects the other identities that a given body inhabits (however incompletely), and always impacts on normative white masculinity, which discursively positions itself as the universal structuring norm and locus of origins” (138). In the case of Boquitas pintadas, the shift from healthy to unhealthy identity changes all the other facets of the male protagonist’s identity and positions his masculinity into a space of severe crisis. There is no doubt that his ostracism is similar to the one experienced during the historic period in question by openly homosexual subjects, who were also considered sick, dangerous for the well-being of society, and even contagious.[5]

In Gayle Salamon’s reading of the transgendered body, the critic engages with Judith Butler’s and Elizabeth Gorsz’s writings and convincingly concludes that there is no such a thing as a “natural” body, only one that has already been cultured with the express intent to present it as “organic” or “natural.” Additionally, continues the scholar, “sexual difference, which is often located at this same level of the natural or biological, is similarly constructed and just as dependent on cultural mediation” (Salamon 148). In the first part of Boquitas pintadas, Juan Carlos’ body is portrayed as “organic” or “natural,” and it seems to possess all the characteristics required from a young man who is in control of his own destiny and sexuality. His body is inscribed with male-dominant privilege and represents the power that white heterosexual men “biologically” have access to. He has a well-paying job, a girlfriend, two additional female lovers, and male friends who look up to him for advice. Once his body starts to experience the consequences of tuberculosis, however, it is clear that the power vested in it is not the result of some natural predisposition but of social conventions, and thereby dissipates quickly when the body no longer satisfies societal expectations. The sickness that transforms Juan Carlos into a pariah also exposes the fact that the materiality of the body and its place in society are not connected to any natural characteristics; rather, they depend on the fashion in which they are conditioned and perceived by the rest of society.

When Juan Carlos becomes the marginalized “other” and is banished from his community due to his illness and the way such illness is viewed by his fellow townspeople, he ends up sharing a similar destiny with any openly queer subject in 1930s Argentina. At that time, any deviation from strict heterosexuality was considered a disease, and the homosexual body was deemed easily identifiable and inscribed with pathology. In his historical analysis of homosexuality’s criminalization in modern Argentina, Jorge Salessi draws attention to the first “scientific” observation of a homosexual, which was done by Francisco de Veyga, a founding father of the country’s Medical Forensics. In 1902, de Veyga describes the subject of his study as an easily recognizable “invert” due to his effeminacy and “rectal hyperesthesia.” In addition, the young man in question, N. N., is diagnosed with tuberculosis—a disease intrinsically linked to sexual inversion in the study (Salessi 156-60). Thus, the prevailing scientific discourse in the first half of the twentieth century, established by the likes of de Veyga, portrayed the homosexual body as inherently marked by disease while explicitly suggesting that privileged, heterosexual masculinity inhabits a naturally healthy vessel. The transformation of Juan Carlos’ body throughout the film subverts the notion that the heterosexual body is essentially healthy and gives a strong [End Page 9] indication that any body, regardless of its “natural” features, can eventually be marked as undesirable by society and shunned as a source of transgression under the right circumstances. Juan Carlos’ death shows his body to be as vulnerable as any queer one from that time period and demonstrates that it possesses no “biological” characteristics to protect it; the materiality of all bodies is constructed and deconstructed by society depending on its current needs and politics. This way, Boquitas pintadas succeeds in proving the permeability of dominant heterosexual masculinity and undermining its claims to organic supremacy and permanence: any human can be queered, marginalized, or rejected under certain conditions.

Discourse about traditional gender roles and masculinity within Latin America is also grounded in the male body’s ability to produce economic value and power. In her study on different class and ethnic groups in early 1970s rural Argentina, Stølen affirms that among the dominant classes, “sexual division of roles [grants] men control over the most crucial material and institutional resources of the community, and limits women’s opportunities for influence, movement, and action” (173). The critic finds this type of attitude among rural, light-skinned upper and middle classes very similar to the one to which Juan Carlos, Mabel, and Nené belong. Regarding the more general Latin American context, Marit Melhuus argues that men are traditionally seen as economic support for the family and their chief responsibility is to maintain it. The value placed on this social expectation is so high that when a man is “unable to provide for his family, or is dependent on a wife for an income, [he] is called a ‘mantenido’, literally a maintained man, which is regarded as very unusual” (243). Initially, Juan Carlos is portrayed as a man who fulfills the patriarchal requirement to produce economic value: he holds a steady job that allows him a privileged position within the village’s social order. In addition, he has a girlfriend, Nené, whom he is inclined to marry at some point in the future and to support financially. A wedding between the two would be a natural development within the context of their native Vallejos, as both pertain to the same social class and their union would serve to procreate and perpetuate the traditional economy of heteronormativity within their environment. Nené is very conscious of her position as a future wife and mother. She defends her virginity relentlessly, preserving it for her wedding night and rejecting all attempts made by Juan Carlos to consummate their relationship before such a time. To satisfy the excess of sexual energy that as a Latin American macho man he is expected to possess and exercise,[6] Juan Carlos has sexual relationships with two other women, Mabel and Elsa.

The nature of his affairs provides an additional opening for the subversion of androcentric romance, traditional masculinity, and man’s role as the main producer of economic value: Mabel and Elsa are from a higher socioeconomic class than their common lover, who ends up using them, with different degrees of success, to improve his own fortune. Every time he is in bed with Mabel, he asks her to persuade her fiancé to hire him as an administrator in one of his ranches. Due to his illness and the ultimate dissolution of Mabel’s engagement—a result of the failed business partnership between her father and her future husband—Juan Carlos does not reap any economic benefit from his affair with the young heiress. His relationship with the elderly widow, however, turns out to be more profitable. Once his family is unable to pay for his stay at the sanatorium, Elsa sells her house in Vallejos and purchases a modest boarding house in the mountains where she supports him until his death. As a result of this arrangement, Juan Carlos becomes the type [End Page 10] of “mantenido” man to which Melhuus refers in his study. The social stigma of his position is made clear in the film, and once his mother becomes aware of it, she sends his sister Celia to demand that the widow do everything in her power to conceal her relationship with Juan Carlos and the fact that she is his financial support. In both of these relationships, the young man essentially assumes the role of a gigolo who maintains purely sex-based liaisons in exchange for lucrative benefits. The class difference between him and the two women—and the fact that he depends on one of them financially—means that he is unable to fulfill his function as producer of economic value.

Juan Carlos’ situation produces clear fissures in traditionally male-centered, romantic interactions, as patriarchal epistemology shows that in heterosexual relationships, men must control all sources of power, including money and economic standing. Chant explores a number of studies which conclude that in the second half of the twentieth century, market-driven economic changes within Latin America undermined men’s ability to fulfill their duty as “economic providers” for their immediate kin, which in turn led to a crisis of conventional “masculine identity” (“Gender, Families, and Households” 165). Boquitas pintadas portrays this dynamic through the class and pecuniary characteristics of Juan Carlos’ affairs, and places traditional Latin American masculinity once again in a space of instability. It is important to remember that even though most of the story in the film takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, the script was written in the 1970s, when many free-market economic policies were introduced throughout Latin America, including Argentina. It was the beginning of a period of transition when men and women started transgressing “norms and values in their everyday practices,” a time when they “emerged out of their new realities […] in the process of rewriting their scripts, while weaving new social relations” (González de la Rocha xx). Boquitas pintadas illustrates this rewriting of patriarchal scripts by placing economic power and the responsibility for financial support in the hands of Elsa when she decides to “maintain” her younger lover. The nature of the transgression that their relationship signifies is made obvious not only by their ostracism by Juan Carlos’ family, but also by its tragic end when the young man dies despite living in a healthy, clean-air environment.

Boquitas pintadas is an extraordinary example of a subversive cultural production created during a period of strict censorship. The film destabilizes traditional masculinity by engaging the male body, by undressing it and exposing its deficiencies, and by portraying it as fragile, diseased, and socially and economically defunct. The two main male characters experience a series of life-changing events that deprive them of their traditionally privileged positions within patriarchal society. They are unable to defend their own bodily limits against circumstances that defy the power with which masculinity has been typically endowed. Their early deaths signal a new social landscape that emerged as a result of violent political and economic shifts in twentieth-century Latin America. The events portrayed in the film also challenge the heterosexual masculine body and open fissures within its supposed naturalness. This process allows for new queer possibilities that reveal the unstable character of any construction of power. Torre Nilsson’s production seizes the opportunity to employ an effectively deconstructive discourse on gender, and to create a space that disrupts heteronormative masculinity and one of its most cherished symbols, the male body. [End Page 11]

[1] Even though this study makes several references to the literary text from which Torre Nilsson’s film is adapted, the analysis centers on the film adaptation as a wholly autonomous work. A number of adaptation studies critics such as Robert Stam have clearly established the independence of cinematographic adaptation, which needs to be examined as an independent object of cultural research. For more details, see Stam’s “Beyond Fidelity” (2000).

[2] The first significantly successful cure for tuberculosis, the antibiotic streptomycin, did not become readily available until 1946.

[3] A good example of such a dynamic in Doty’s book is his analysis of The Jack Benny Program and its host, Jack Benny, whom the scholar identifies as “America’s favorite feminine straight man” (63).

[4] Ironically enough, upon his death in 1990, Manuel Puig himself was the victim of such panic. Many insinuated that his demise was the result of another epidemic, AIDS, which produced a substantial amount of hysteria among the middle classes. It was later confirmed that he was not HIV positive.

[5] For more details on homosexuality and the treatment of homosexuals in Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century, consult Osvaldo Bazán’s Historia de la homosexualidad en la Argentina: De la conquista de América al siglo XXI (2004) and Jorge Salessi’s Médicos, maleantes y maricas (1995).

[6] For more details on this last point, consult Foster, Queer Issues 24. [End Page 12]

Works Cited

Aguilar, Gonzalo. “Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. Un cineasta entre escritores.” Vieites 11-33.

Amado, Ana María. “La casa en desorden. Apuntes sobre cuatro ficciones domésticas.” Vieites


Archetti, Eduardo P. “Playing Styles and Masculine Virtues in Argentine Football.” Melhuus and

Stølen 34-55.

Balderston, Daniel. “Sexuality and Revolution: On the Footnotes to El beso de la mujer araña.”

Changing Men and Masculinities in Latin America. Ed. Matthew C. Gutmann. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. 216-32. Print.

Bazán, Osvaldo. Historia de la homosexualidad en la Argentina: De la conquista de América al

siglo XXI. Buenos Aires: Marea, 2004. Print.

Boquitas pintadas. Dir. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. Perf. Alfredo Alcón, Marta González, and

Luisina Brando. Directores Asociados S.A., 1974. Film.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1989. New York:

Routledge, 2006. Print.

Chant, Sylvia. “Gender and Health.” Chant and Craske 98-127.

—. “Gender, Families, and Households.” Chant and Craske 161-93.

Chant, Sylvia, with Nikki Craske. Gender in Latin America. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003.


Connell, R. W. Masculinities. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005. Print.

Coward, Rosalind. Female Desires: How They Are Sought, Bought, and Packaged. New York:

Grove P, 1985. Print.

Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: The

U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.

Erhart, Julia. “Laura Mulvey Meets Catherine Tramell Meets the She-Man: Counter-History,

Reclamation, and Incongruity in Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Film and Media Criticism.” A Companion to Film Theory. Ed. Toby Miller and Robert Stam. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999. 165-81. Print.  

España, Claudio. “La casa del ángel.” Vieites 37-43.

Esplugas, Celia. “Power and Gender: Film Feminism in Boquitas pintadas.Ciberletras 3

(2000): n. pag. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

Foster, David William. “Las lolas de La Coca: el cuerpo femenino en el cine de Isabel Sarli.”

Karpa 1.2 (2008): n. pag. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

___. Queer Issues in Contemporary Latin American Cinema. Austin, U of Texas P, 2003. Print.

González de la Rocha, Mercedes. Foreword. Chant and Craske xv-xx.

Lehman, Peter. Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. Detroit:

Wayne State UP, 2007. Print.

Lomnitz-Adler, Claudio. Exits from the Labyrinth: Culture and Ideology in the Mexican

National Space. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. Print.

Maranghello, César. Breve historia del cine argentino. Barcelona: Laertes, 2005. Print.

Melhuus, Marit. “Power, Value, and the Ambiguous Meanings of Gender.” Melhuus and Stølen


Melhuus, Marit, and Kristi Anne Stølen, Eds. Machos, Mistresses, Madonnas: Contesting the

Power of Latin American Gender Imagery. New York: Verso, 1996. Print. [End Page 13]

Mosse, George L. The Image of Men: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford UP,

1996. Print.

Nencel, Lorraine. “Pacharacas, Putas and Chicas de su casa: Labelling, Femininity and Men’s

Sexual Selves in Lima, Peru.” Melhuus and Stølen 56-82.

Prieur, Annick. “Domination and Desire: Male Homosexuality and the Construction of

Masculinity in Mexico.” Melhuus and Stølen 83-107.

Puig, Manuel. Heartbreak Tango. New York: Dutton, 1973. Print.

—. Kiss of the Spider Woman. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. Print.

Rehling, Nicola. Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary

Popular Cinema. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009. Print.

Ruétalo, Victoria. “Temptations: Isabel Sarli Exposed.” Latsploitation, Exploitation Cinemas,

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Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New York:

Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Salessi, Jorge. Médicos maleantes y maricas. Higiene, criminología y homosexualidad en la

construcción de la nación Argentina. (Buenos Aires: 1871–1914). Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo, 1995. Print.

Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation. Ed. James

Naremore. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 54–76. Print.

Stølen, Kristi Anne. “The Power of Gender Discourses in a Multi-Ethnic Community in Rural

Argentina.” Melhuus and Stølen 159-83.

Vieites, María del Carmen, Ed. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson: una estética de la decadencia. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editor Altamira, 2002. Print. [End Page 14]


Regimes of Affect: Love and Class in Mexican Neoliberal Cinema
by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

The recent rise in the study of affect and emotions within different paradigms of cultural studies opens many questions relevant to the study of Mexican and Latin American cinema.[1] It has led to the reconsideration of a series of cultural paradigms, most notably melodrama,[2] as part of networks of aesthetic configuration, audience engagement and political agency. However, the enthusiasm that naturally accompanies an emerging critical paradigm has led to a consistently optimistic understanding of affect and emotion either as a category with strong hermeneutic potential or as a practice that in itself functions as a tool of emancipation or, at least, as a way of reading and thus resisting the tyrannies of the political. In this study, I want to use the case of Mexican cinema to suggest a critique of that optimism, one that raises the question of the historicity of emotion and its relationship to the complex social networks of the contemporary. My primary suggestion is that, while emotions may seem a zero-degree approach to culture, insofar as all humans experience and perform them, the unequal access to the structures of representation and consumption of feelings create distinct regimes of affect that replicate rather than question existing ideological, racial, and class separations. This point echoes the warning raised by Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg in their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, where they state that “this promise of affect and its generative relay into affect theory must also acknowledge, in the not yet of the never-quite-knowing, that there are no ultimate or final guarantees– political, ethical, aesthetic, pedagogic, and otherwise– that capacities to affect and to be affected will yield an actualized next or new that is somehow better than ‘now’” (9-10). I would even push this point further and contend that a considerable part of the cultural infrastructure that manufactures and deploys structures of feeling is bound to ever more globalized and privatized cultural industries. Accordingly, affect and emotion in the contemporary world should be engaged by considering their irrevocable relationship to capitalism in general and neoliberalism in particular.[3]

Mexican cinema provides a good vantage point to explore this idea because of the way in which the neoliberal process led the country’s mediascape to transition from hegemonic post-revolutionary national culture– which successfully appealed citizens and consumers across class lines– to a cultural industry clearly demarcated by class lines.[4] Up to the late 1980s, Mexican media consumers in urban areas were exposed to more or less the same cultural offerings. The primary medium was television, which was fundamentally controlled by Televisa. Its telenovelas ruled the ratings in primetime hours to the tune of 50 to 70 percent of the audience, mostly because of their ability to successfully construct narratives that appealed to the national identity and the cultural specificity of spectators across the social board (Mazziotti 47-51). The consumption of cinema was mostly in decay as a result of disastrous interventionist policies from the State in the 1970s (Mora 150-88), but cinema attendance remained considerable thanks to a government-regulated fixed ticket price. One may add other policies, such as the ban on rock concerts established in the wake of the Avándaro festival in the 1970s and the strict control that Televisa and a group of radio stations exercised in the distribution of popular and pop music (exposure in the Televisa show Siempre en domingo was a prerequisite to commercial success). Because of the dominance of Televisa on the one hand, and of the overwhelming presence of the State in the distribution and exhibition of cinema in the other, Mexican media products had secure control of the tastes and consumption of a wide-ranging national spectatorship.

During the 1990s, this longstanding mediascape was subject to wide transformations due to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies in the cultural realm and the expansion in the commercial offerings of television and cinema. On the one hand, the monopoly of the State in the distribution of cinema came to an end with the gradual privatization of COTSA, the government-owned distribution agency, as well as of many of the production funds created in the 1970s (Saavedra Luna). This favored the emergence of three private exhibition companies that dominate the Mexican market to this date –Cinemex, Cinemark and Cinépolis– and the creation of a Mexican private production sector favored by tax credits and subsidies provided by the State. On the other, audiovisual offerings were diversified by the growth of cable and pay television in the 1990s, which, in turn, broke Televisa’s stronghold in the production of content. This allowed for Mexican audiences to access US media products such as situational comedies and serialized dramas, which became very popular with the middle and upper classes. Taken together, these phenomena resulted in the creation of two distinct media audiences separated by a paywall. The middle and upper classes, able to pay cable subscriptions and movie tickets priced at three times the rate of the Mexican minimum wage,[5] developed a cultural taste focused on romantic comedies, sitcoms, alternative music, and other products resulting from the importation of US cultural products, while the working classes unable to afford such products remained tied to telenovelas, popular music genres such as norteño and cumbia, and other genres available to them at no extra cost. Film sociologists like Ana Rosas Mantecón have spoken of “new processes of urban segregation” and of the undermining of cultural diversity to represent the way in which film exhibition reorganized itself in the wake of these processes, highlighting the correlation between cinema consumption and the urban middle and upper classes. In Consumers and Citizens, his well-known analysis of the impact of neoliberalism in Latin American culture, Néstor García Canclini showed that “the most salient feature of the restructure of markets is the segmentation of publics” (119), which, at the time, he identified with the possible “cultural formation of a democratic citizenship” (122).

In hindsight, it seems that Rosas Mantecón’s diagnosis is more accurate than García Canclini’s. The diversification of audiences in Mexico created separate spheres of cultural consumption drastically segregated by class. For the purposes of my argument here, this economic segregation resulted in the formation of differentiated “structures of feelings,” to use Raymond Williams’ celebrated notion. Williams himself warned of “the complex relation of differentiated structures of feeling to differentiated classes,” which could only be read by recognizing the fact that they are not “reducible to ideologies of these groups or to their formal (in fact complex) class relations” (134). Williams resolves this conundrum by suggesting a methodology aimed at “defining forms and conventions in art and literature as inalienable elements of a social material process” (133). Echoing these ideas, the study of affect and emotion in contemporary Mexican cinema needs to account for the way in which certain films embody the transformations of lived experience and social aspirations brought about by neoliberalism. Historically, melodrama was a cultural form, which allowed Mexican audiences the negotiation of social inequality through narratives that tied emotion and love to social redemption. This is the case, for example, of the Pepe el Toro trilogy (1948-1953), which used melodrama (in films entitled Nosotros los pobres and Ustedes los ricos, emphasizing the issue of class) to narrate the way in which its protagonist painfully overcomes poverty and tragedy in the path to a final redemption. Telenovela became in Mexico another vehicle in which affect and emotion allowed audiences the embodied experience of class overcoming. One can remember here another trilogy, the María series (1992-1994), in which actress Thalía performs three different characters (María Mercedes, María la del Barrio and Marimar, with each name being the title of a respective telenovela) from different varieties of the lower class (a homeless girl, a girl from the slums, and a girl from a coastal town in the interior) who end up marrying a man from the upper class and thus attaining a social status that was consistently denied to them by other characters. Narratives like this helped Mexican culture use love stories to negotiate the fundamental tension between a national culture based on the horizontal camaraderie famously theorized by Benedict Anderson and a visible class divide that represented the failure of the promises of Mexican modernization. The wide appeal that both Pedro Infante vehicles and telenovelas such as Thalía’s María series had resulted not only from the lack of diversity in cultural offerings, but also from the way in which narratives of love and affect galvanized social identities in a way that trumped class difference through melodramatic allegories focused on the formation of the couple (for example, love stories between rich and poor characters).

While this “structure of feeling” remained central to the cultural experience of the Mexican working classes, as attested by the enduring success of telenovelas in the contemporary media landscape, the cultural products made available by neoliberalism generated an alternative narrative of class, one which provided middle and upper class audiences with the fiction of a central role in a new, modern Mexico and which systematically excludes lower classes from its imagination of the social. As I have described elsewhere,[6] I believe that the emergence of the romantic comedy in Mexico is a central example of the consolidation of this new structure of feeling. The earliest representative of the genre in post-1988 cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s Sólo con tu pareja (1991), already showed elements that radically departed from the hegemonic structure of feeling that ruled Mexican culture in the 1980s. The film depicts the emergence of a love relationship between Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a jingle writer and serial womanizer, and Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez), a flight attendant in the process of learning about her fiancé’s infidelity. The film’s central conceit is constructed upon a prank played on Tomás by a nurse with whom he slept. The nurse switches his blood tests at the hospital and makes him believe he has AIDS. It is until the very end of the film, when he and Clarisa decide to commit suicide together because of their respective problems (the disease and the fiancé’s infidelities) that the nurse comes clean and Tomás and Clarisa decide to be together. The remarkable aspect of this film for my argument is not so much the plot, but its formal decisions: most of the film takes place in indoor spaces, which, in turn, allows the plot to develop in a decidedly middle-class space that puts under erasure the social diversity of the city. A similar choice is exercised a few years later by the most successful Mexican movie of the late 1990s, Sexo, pudor y lágrimas (Antonio Serrano, 1998), a comedy of errors involving two couples and two characters that destabilize them, fully staged in two apartments of the upscale neighborhood of Polanco.[7] David William Foster has commented, apropos of this setting, that the luxury apartments give “access to a panoramic view of the city, with the effect of ‘owning’ or ‘controlling’ the city as an important correlative to the financial status of the apartment’s residents” (40). Both Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, like many Mexican movies that will follow their model through the 2000s, construct their love stories upon the erasure of the social conflict and class diversity that defines contemporary Mexico City.

This type of movie exists and produces a language of affect that pertains exclusively to the middle and upper classes because the class segregation in media consumption practices became formally articulated by the adoption of aesthetic and ideological elements proper to the myth of the middle class in neoliberal Mexico. As MacLaird puts it, “[t]hese films can be as transition films, grounded in PRI-era production practices while also breaking into new thematic territory by looking at sexuality among upper-middle-class couples in the context of Mexico’s changing consumer culture, in contrast to the economic plights of the working class and more traditional representations of Mexican culture” (48). Following this argument, one should note that in the two aforementioned movies, the main characters portray the social ideal that sociologist Richard Florida famously termed the “creative class,” that is, people who attain social status and centrality through “a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit” (8). Florida’s argument when he defined the notion–he has since redesigned the concept in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis–[8] was that these highly educated professionals were at the center of a new structure of economic development. Reading this notion against the grain, one could argue that, in the middle of the neoliberal process, it represented a social ideal that allowed late capitalism’s turn to immaterial labor to be allegorized as a social virtue and it did the same for late capitalism’s erosion of both labor-based forms of the middle class (i.e. unionized labor) and the old professional-managerial class (doctors, lawyers, and the like). This is why the protagonists of Sólo con tu pareja are a publicist and a flight attendant, while the six characters in Sexo, pudor y lágrimas are a writer, a photographer, an advertising executive, a model, a zoologist, and a “free spirit.” The structure of feeling that they construct is based on the aspirations of the middle and upper classes to achieve the promise of individual success brought forward by neoliberalism. It is the type of cultural product that appeals to people educated in Mexican private universities– where being a major in communications and international relations was in vogue in the 1990s.

Movies like Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas belong to a heyday period of the global romantic comedy, where love stories provided narratives of isolation that deflected the anxieties of middle classes threatened by the uncertainties of neoliberalism. One can remember here two parallel films produced at more or less the same time in the United States and Great Britain, respectively. The first one is You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1999), where Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), a bookshop owner, falls in love with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the owner of a corporate bookstore chain that mirrored the rise of Barnes and Noble at the time. The movie functions on the basis of the tension between the old-fashioned romantic coupling embodied by Kathleen and Joe (through which Ryan and Hanks revisit their celebrated screen coupling in Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993)) and the at times astonishing acceptance of the advance of corporate capitalism upon the ways of lives of the middle class. As Aimée Morrison convincingly argues, “[a]cknowledging the seemingly inexorable advance of global brand capitalism at the expense of local enterprise, You’ve Got Mail aims to carve out a new and compelling arena of personal agency, to foster connection, understanding, compromise, and romantic love in times that do not seem to provide for these fundamental pleasures” (55-56). The other film is Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), where William Thacker (Hugh Grant), the owner of a small travel bookshop, and Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), a movie star, fall in love. We see in this film a similar conundrum to that of You’ve Got Mail: the representative of a pre-neoliberal “authentic” way of life (bookshop ownership in both cases) ultimately accepts the advancement of US-centered global capitalism, respectively embodied in a CEO and a movie star.[9] One could say that the way in which these two movies normalize the advancement of neoliberalism through the love story is parallel to the way in which romantic comedy operates in Mexico (it is not coincidental that both movies were released months after Sexo, pudor y lágrimas). The difference in Mexico, which makes its romantic comedies even more striking, is that the reflexive work on the problematic elements of global capitalism is not even there. In both Cuarón and Serrano’s movies, neoliberalism is not a problem but a given and accepted fact.

The ability of the Mexican romantic comedy to create a structure of feeling adequate to a middle class that isolates itself from the remainder of society lies in one of its central structural elements. In The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy, Celestino Deleyto points out that the genre “proposes an artistic transformation of the everyday reality of human relationships by constructing a special space outside history (but very close to it)” (30). Deleyto’s analysis consists of affirming that this space allows romantic comedy to isolate its ideologies of love and gender from certain immediate social pressures. However, one could go beyond Deleyto’s analysis and suggest that it is this very ability to semi-isolate its characters from the historical that makes the romantic comedy such an apt genre for the expression of creative class ideologies in neoliberal Mexico. We can take as an example Cansada de besar sapos (Jorge Colón, 2006). In this romantic comedy, protagonist Martha (Ana Serradilla) is a graphic designer who decides to “shop” for a new relationship on dating websites after she learns that her boyfriend is a cheater. While this plot is in itself unremarkable, the movie is quite symptomatic of the close relationship between love and neoliberalism due to key formal choices. First, by making the protagonist a graphic designer, it falls squarely in line with Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas in the elevation of the creative class to the status of object of desire. One can note, for instance, that the “wrong” person for Martha is a businessman, while the man that will ultimately become her object of affection is an actor. But the point is that Martha and her lifestyle are a clear example of Deleyto’s formula of the “space outside history (but very close to it).” The possibility of using a graphic designer as a central character comes from the rise of professions related to flexible and immaterial labor in narratives of social ascendancy and in emerging corners of the neoliberal Mexican economy. The very existence of a publicity industry to accommodate characters like Martha or Sólo con tu pareja’s Tomás, just to mention the ones relevant to the movies discussed here,[10] results from the same expansion of media that allowed the emergence of neoliberal Mexican cinema in the first place. However, it is as important to note how inaccessible that social ideal is, even to people in the traditional middle classes. As economist Enrique Hernández Laos shows, people with degrees in communication sciences and other fields identified with the creative class faced daunting realities of unemployment in the 1990s (and one could safely suspect that it is still the case today), given the fact that the production of professionals in those fields did not match the creation of work opportunities (106). In Deleyto’s language, Martha as a character exists in a place very close to history, insofar as her lifestyle reflects historical transformations of the middle class, but her ability to focus on her love life is made possible by her being in a “space outside of history” that isolates her from the economic insecurity that accompanies the ideal of the creative class in the real world.

The “space outside history” thesis also explains the way in which these movies create middle-class fictions that effectively render the working classes invisible. In Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, this was achieved by locating most of the action in apartment buildings and indoor spaces. Cuarón’s film goes from Tomás’ apartment building to a cantina to the Latin American tower at the end of the film, and the only time when we actually see the city, it is at night, when the population of the city is not present in the streets. Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, as I mentioned before, takes place mostly in an apartment in one of Mexico City’s most expensive neighborhoods. In Cansada de besar sapos, the procedure is developed further. Early in the movie, we can see that Martha’s apartment is located in Mexico City’s historic center, thanks to a shot that points to a colonial church tower. Her building has a colonial façade, but her apartment is a postmodern loft with designer furniture: the type of creative-class arrangement one might expect from an idealized publicist. The point is that the urban space where the movie takes place (old colonial streets, bohemian cafes) does not correspond with the reality of Mexico City, a place ruled by chaos and with considerable class diversity. As Frederick Aldama puts it when pointing to this startling representational choice, the location “is packed near suffocation with folks from all walks of life, as well as street vendors hawking their wares […] Colón’s camera cleans and Europeanizes the place in its fairy tale depiction of Mexican Yuppie life” (91). Rather than just sidelining social diversity, the “space outside history” fully erases it. The aspirational world of the Mexican romantic comedy is not only one that identifies love with the near impossibility of economic success via the access to the creative class, which is allegorized by the ideal couple formed by a publicist and an actor or by a publicist and a flight attendant. It also frames that ideal in a representational economy of Mexico where the lower classes have no significant role.[11]

The three movies mentioned so far are part of a paradigm of filmmaking that structurally incorporates neoliberal ideologies of success and social advancement, where romantic and economic success result from individual achievement and/or pre-existing privilege. These movies had considerable success, too: Sexo, pudor y lágrimas was, at the time, the highest grossing Mexican film in the national box office, and Cansada de besar sapos had a very successful run in the 2006 Christmas season. This success shows that the core audience of Mexican film (those who are wealthy enough to pay for box office prices, and susceptible to the appropriate genres available in pay TV and the like) identifies at least partly with the regime of affect constructed by such movies. This is not to say that the segregation of structures of feeling is neat, or that the audience is unaware of it. In fact, as the neoliberal economic promise eroded from the weak recovery after the 1994 crisis, commercial Mexican cinema began to question the representational economy of its own regime of affect. Thus, Mexican filmmakers gradually questioned this narrative by producing romantic films addressed at the middle classes, but where social inequality is central to the plot. The most iconic example of this type of work is Amar te duele (Fernando Sariñana, 2002), a “class-clash film”[12] to which I will devote the remainder of this article.

Amar te duele tells the story of Renata (Martha Higareda), a wealthy high-school student, and Ulises (Luis Fernando Peña), an urban popular-class youth with aspirations to become a visual artist, as they fall in love and face the social challenges produced by class divisions in Mexico City. As expected, Renata’s friends and parents strongly oppose the relationship, while Ulises faces his social group’s increasing resentment, as well as accusations of forgetting who he “really” is. The movie’s tension builds around the insurmountable obstacle of social class, leading to a final scene where Renata’s wealthy ex-boyfriend (Alfonso Herrera) accidentally kills her when she tries to leave Mexico City with Ulises. The movie takes place in the neighborhood of Santa Fe, on the western edge of Mexico City, a prime example of the social dynamics of neoliberalism in Mexico. Santa Fe is currently the location of Mexico’s corporate expansion, an area that headquarters the offices of a large array of national and transnational businesses. But it is not only a place of economic expansion: the neighborhoods surrounding Santa Fe constitute some of the poorest zones in Mexico City, which were built there because parts of these areas were in fact landfills. This contrast is an essential part of life in this area of Mexico City: to reach the corporate areas of Santa Fe, one must drive through some of the poor ones, while the sudden emergence of such a concentration of wealth is, for the inhabitants of the old neighborhoods, a stark reminder of their marginalization. Furthermore, Renata and Ulises meet in Santa Fe’s mall, Mexico City’s largest, where working-class youths sometimes spend time regardless of the harassment of private security officers. Framed by this social contrast, Amar te duele is unique within Mexican commercial cinema, a film that successfully appeals to the logic and aesthetics of the romantic comedy while attempting a commentary on the social inequalities brought about by neoliberalism.

The movie’s success follows the blueprint established by Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, right down to its soundtrack in which Natalia Lafourcade, a successful singer-songwriter, performs the title song.[13] The twist here is that, rather than looking for the young professional audience summoned by singer Aleks Syntek in the soundtrack of Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, Amar te duele makes use of Lafourcade’s success with high school and college students by populating the movie with all her hit singles, including Busca un problema and En el 2000 from her 2000 eponymous debut album. In this, Amar te duele is one of the first major manifestations of middle-class youth as a clear marketing target for Mexican cinema.[14] This audience was, in 2001-2002, a clear target for many media enterprises: besides musical acts like Lafourcade, young middle-class people were the subject of telenovelas such as Clase 406, a high school soap running at the time of Amar te duele’s release. The emergence of a high school and college-aged audience is not surprising, given that multiplexes, particularly those located in malls, are a significant component of young people’s social geographies. Timothy Shary has shown that Hollywood’s interest in teenagers is related to the “disposable incomes that they enjoy spending on entertainment” and to the fact that “today’s children become the consumptive parents of tomorrow” (1). Perhaps more importantly, Shary argues that the multiplex was directly responsible for the emergence of landmark youth films, including Grease (1977) and Sixteen Candles (1984), allowing teenagers to become a sought-after demographic insofar as they are important denizens of the social spaces that include multiplexes.

This social phenomenon is equally true in Mexico, where high school students vastly populate malls on weekday afternoons and college students do the same on the weekends. However, it took nearly a decade to translate this social phenomenon into film production, perhaps owing to the filmmakers’ unwillingness to compete with Hollywood action movies. Mexican romantic comedies did not quite appeal to these audiences, given that, from Sólo con tu pareja onwards, their subjects were largely urban professionals in their late twenties and thirties. Amar te duele is amongst the first major attempts to lure this audience, whose profitability had already been demonstrated by Televisa productions like Clase 406 and El juego de la vida, a 2001 soap opera based on the soccer team of a private high school.[15] Interestingly, both of these telenovelas are centered on the life of private school kids, not unlike Renata and her friends, helping them resonate with audiences located in parts of the social scale higher than their core audience, which replicates the segregational logic of structures of feeling outlined above. By luring audiences through Lafourcade’s music and its protagonists’ youthful looks, Amar te duele clearly sought a segment of an audience made visible by those Televisa productions and previously unexploited by film. The main indication of this technique’s success came a few months later, when the movie was selected as “audience favorite” in Mexico’s MTV Movie Awards, a show that grants awards, mostly, through high school and college-age viewers’ votes.

The languages developed by the Mexican romantic comedy clearly frame the film’s aim for the youth market. Ulises’ artistic aspirations are one of the significant elements of Amar te duele in light of my discussion, given that his class location is underscored by his incapacity to become part of the creative class. The film presents Ulises as a talented graffiti artist, an activity that, in Mexico City, is usually criminalized and identified with gang activity. In one of the scenes in which Renata becomes attracted to him, we see Ulises narrating a comic book story he conceived, set in a world where “all men are equal.” In another scene, Ulises and Renata tour an art school where he shadows the instructors. Here, Ulises tells Renata that he has tried to enroll in the school, but cannot afford it. At first sight, this is one of the film’s most important social commentaries: the absolute lack of mobility of a popular class whose labor situation is precarious, as illustrated by the fact that Ulises’ family income comes from a street market stand with unpredictable sales. However, it is also quite telling that Ulises shares the same ideals presented in the romantic comedy’s portrayal of the Mexican middle class. While Ulises wants to go to art school, his ultimate goal is to write comic books, a trade as closely related to the culture of the creative class as advertising (we can remember here that Alicia, the main character of Ladies’ Night, a film mentioned in a prior note, is a comic book artist). He does not lack the technical talent: the graffiti work the film attributes to him is first-class. As Ana León-Távora and Itza Zavala Garrett underscore, one of the tensions in the movie, represented through the trope of adolescence, is the one established between belonging to a social group versus individuality (85). The ultimate failure of the couple’s formation in this film is directly connected to the failure of both of them to assert their individual values vis-á-vis their social class. What is telling is that Ulises’ redemption is considered impossible because he has no access to a realm in which he can use those talents in the context of a profitable economic activity. His incapacity to access art school is as much a sign of the exclusionary nature of the creative class as of its portrayal as a desirable social space.

Ulises and Renata’s relationship works insofar as they are exceptional representatives of their respective social classes. Everybody else in their social worlds expresses a clear conformity with the existing social divisions. Renata’s sister Mariana (Ximena Sariñana) consistently asserts her class position by speaking in English in front of servants so that they don’t understand what she is saying, or by dismissively rejecting Renata’s love for Ulises. Interestingly, Renata’s driver echoes this view: after he picks her up from her first date with Ulises, he tells her that the “young man is not good for her.” Ulises’ social circle is hardly better. The film presents his best friend Genaro (Armando Hernández) as having criminal tendencies, ranging from his dealings with a shady group of people in the neighborhood to his organizing an attack on Renata’s school to get back at her former boyfriend, who had attacked Ulises in a previous scene. In the only encounter between the two groups, Ulises’ friends organize an excursion to Renata’s school to beat up her former boyfriend and her friends in retaliation for their previous attack on Ulises. The fact that this excursion is disproportionally vicious shows that interclass dialogue is not possible in contemporary Mexico:  the scene validates stereotypes of poor people as violent, which are held both by the wealthy characters and by members of the intended audience. By constantly asserting the insurmountable nature of class in Mexico, Amar te duele operates both as social commentary (by allegorizing the social inequality brought about by the social order behind Santa Fe) and as contradiction to the traditional narratives of melodrama and telenovela, in which people from different classes are allowed a happy ending, both romantically and economically. Sariñana’s film allows no space for a redemptive narrative based on the idea of romance overcoming social odds. Even though Renata’s death is dissonant in terms of genre convention, it is quite consistent with the film’s critique of the new social structure. The point to highlight is the way in which Sariñana translates the aims of his social cinema as represented, for instance, in his preceding movies, Hasta morir (1994) and Ciudades oscuras (2002),[16] into a language more attuned to the new commercial realities of cinema. Still, in doing so, a problematic concession becomes apparent: while the film presents Ulises in a sympathetic light, it shows other urban popular youths in a less favorable way. The movie consistently criminalizes Genaro and, in contrast with Ulises’ soft-spoken, sensitive personality, his demeanor is strident. Similarly, the story presents La China (Daniela Torres), Ulises’ former girlfriend, as violent and intolerant to Ulises’ middle-class friends, a mirror of the attitudes shown by Renata’s former boyfriend. Perhaps more tellingly, Ulises’ brother, Borrego (who, like La China, is only identified by a nickname), has Down Syndrome, a plot element that showcases Ulises’ good heart when he takes care of him, while questionably using a genetic disorder as part of the representation of the lower class (a false notion, of course, because Down Syndrome manifests itself across economic and ethnic lines). By framing his drama within the conventions of the neoliberal romantic comedy, Sariñana’s social commentary must reconfigure itself in representations of the working class addressed to the middle classes who have a view of the poor as diseased, criminal, or morally bankrupt.

In the meantime, a final point regarding the film’s work within the conventions of romantic cinema must be made: the importance of space as a site of affect. Renata and Ulises create a bridge between social classes that proves impossible to sustain, and their relationship unfolds in social spaces redefined by their relationship, reminding us of Deleyto’s arguments on romantic comedy spaces. The scene in which Ulises narrates his comic book to Renata takes place under a highway bridge, a space ridden with graffiti and removed from the safeties and comfort of middle-class spaces. This space becomes meaningful when Ulises invests it with his story, which the director represents by splitting the screen in different squares, occupied by Renata, Ulises, and the comic book characters he imagines. The original space is thus erased, allowing for the emergence of a new space fully constructed by Ulises’ dreams and ideas and by his emerging love for Renata.[17] Another use of space stems from Ulises and Renata’s appropriation of class-specific locales. One of their first dates takes place in the Chapultepec Forest, a site typically identified with Mexico City’s working class, while their first interactions occur in the Santa Fe mall, an upper-class commercial venue. The use of photography in the mall scenes is revealing. Whenever Renata and Ulises interact in this space, the image turns black and white and the narrative pace slows down, adding a contemplative and peaceful feeling to those scenes. The sound replicates this sensation by suspending the buzz of daily mall activity with a piece of music that overtakes the action’s background. From the outset of their relationship, Ulises and Renata develop the ability to confer new meanings on city spaces in different ways by projecting their subjective interaction onto the visual aesthetics of certain crucial class-specific scenes. This interaction with space fades towards the end at the bus station where the final scene develops. The violence that would ultimately and irreversibly end their relationship ultimately overtakes this particular site.

In its many uses of space, Amar te duele deploys a crucial convention of romantic comedy, its subjectification through the affective interactions of the protagonists with a different effect. Unlike Sólo con tu pareja or Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, in which the characters’ perspective effaces Mexico City’s social interaction, Ulises and Renata never fully erase the social meanings invested in the spaces of their relationship. In a great analysis of the film’s space, Joanne Hershfield contends that one can analyze what I have called “the space outside history” through Foucault’s notion of heterotopia to understand youth culture in a way that “rejects the fixity of geographic location” (154). I would expand this point by arguing that the heterotopic gesture of youth culture in Amar te duele (which Hershfield identifies with the comic book scene mentioned above) ultimately fails, because there is always in the film a reminder not of geographic, but of social fixity. In a particular scene at the mall, after a date, Renata decides to purchase a t-shirt for Ulises to replace the one that she ruined during the date. The fact that Renata nonchalantly purchases an item of clothing clearly beyond Ulises’ economic reach brings back to the story the class difference between them, after an interaction that seemed, for a moment, to have erased it.  Therefore, even though Ulises and Renata construct their own spaces and move between urban geographies, that heterotopic gesture does not suffice to truly overcome the class difference.[18]

Beyond its appropriation of the urban, youth culture in Amar te duele may be read as a site of critique of the inequalities of neoliberal modernity and as the portrayal of a generational stance against the notions of development advocated in the 1990s.[19] Renata’s family, a clear beneficiary of the neoliberal model of development, represents the lifestyle pursued by the professional upper classes. They live in a mansion clearly isolated from any sense of neighborhood, protected by 24-hour security, designed, like many of Mexico’s upper-class houses, as a bunker against any outside intrusion. When Renata’s father learns of her relationship with Ulises, he plots to send her to Canada, hoping that a trip to a “more developed” nation will help her avoid the “folly” of crossing class lines.[20] While romantic comedies tend to idealize the self-referential cultural space of the middle and upper classes, Amar te duele’s appeal to youth issues provides it with a language to weave a more critical fiction by allowing urban popular classes a space of cinematic representation alongside the wealthier sectors of society. In other words, while most commercial movies engage either the working classes or the upper sectors, Amar te duele stands apart in its representation of both social groups.

The parallel careers of the two main actors are telling in this sense: Higareda, a light-skinned young actress with large appeal to the middle classes, goes on to play wealthy characters in movies such as Niñas mal (Fernando Sariñana, 2007), in the role of the unruly daughter of a powerful conservative politician, and 7 días (Fernando Kalife, 2005), in which she plays a girl that becomes part of a scheme to bring the band U2 to play in Mexico. Most recently, she was the protagonist of Te presento a Laura (Fez Noriega, 2010), yet another romantic comedy which she co-produced. On the other hand, Peña’s most significant roles have mostly been portrayals of urban popular youths, in films such as De la calle (Gerardo Tort, 2001), where he plays a street kid who gets involved in cocaine trade to feed other homeless children.[21] Most recently, Peña has moved out of the middle-class cinema circle from Mexico City and into US-Mexico border trends of social cinema, playing a struggling working-class kid in Mexican-American director Alex Rivera’s sci-fi immigration allegory Sleep Dealer (2008), and a violent Mara gang member seeking redemption in Victorio (Alex Noppel, 2008). As one could expect from these trajectories, Higareda’s films have enjoyed considerably larger box office success than Peña’s. Their parallel careers are emblematic of the ways in which the need to appeal to middle-class audiences has led to a class compartmentalization of cinema that replicates urban social structures of exclusion. It also shows the ways in which commercial cinema, which mostly focuses on middle and upper-class subjects, and so-called social cinema, which tends to represent issues of the urban popular classes, occupy altogether separate paradigms in the new cinema’s economy.

Amar te duele is iconic for being perhaps the only commercially successful movie to cross this divide in formal and narrative terms, and for doing so in a cultural register that, unlike telenovela or the old-regime film melodramas, seeks no appeal whatsoever to working-class audiences. It is decidedly a film marketed to middle and upper classes, although it replicates some conventions (such as the rich-poor relationships) with distinguished histories, but also a film in which self-awareness of the enclosed culture of the upper classes is used as a critique of the new privileged subjectivities of post-1990 romantic comedy, rather than a celebration. Thus, in focusing his film not on the urban professional class benefitted by neoliberalism, but on youths born and raised within the Mexico constructed by it, Sariñana finds a site to critique Mexico’s paradigms of modernity. Still, this critique has limits, and Sariñana himself has been unable to replicate his stance on class issues: Niñas mal and Enemigos íntimos, his following movies, take place fully within the social spaces of the middle and upper classes and ignore the working class altogether.

To conclude this essay, I would like to return to the questions I raised in the first pages in light of my discussion of Amar te duele. The dilemma that this film posits is that, even though it shows considerable self-awareness of neoliberalism’s class divide, it remains a film closely invested in a regime of affect dissociated from working-class audiences. The film’s very title (a wordplay between the title’s literal meaning, “Love Hurts You,” and “Loving you hurts,” which in Spanish would read “Amarte duele”) connects it to recent scholarship on the importance of love for the reading of the contemporary. As sociologist Eva Illouz points out in her recent book Why Love Hurts, “[h]eterosexual romantic love contains the two most important cultural revolutions of the twentieth century: the individualization of lifestyles and the intensification of emotional life projects; and the economization of social relationships, the pervasiveness of economic models to shape the self and its very emotions” (9).[22] While Illouz’s main aim in this particular book is to discuss the creation of new structures of domination of women by men, her insight on heterosexual romantic love is also a powerful tool to understand the way in which love as a cultural discourse reproduces class divides. Her two “cultural revolutions” are indeed relevant to a film like Amar te duele: Ulises’ love for Renata runs parallel to his attempt to “individualize” his lifestyle through comic books, resisting the injunction to work in the family’s small business, a small and precarious clothing shop in a street market; and its main obstacle is precisely the “economization of social relationships,” which is why Renata is punished with a murder inflicted by none other than the class-appropriate boy she was supposed to date in the first place. If, as Illouz argues, social suffering is “mediated by cultural definitions of selfhood” (15), the “hurting” in the film’s title unfolds in Ulises’ case not so much in connection to his love of Renata, but in his inability to achieve the notion of selfhood that would allow him to establish a definitive relationship with her. If anything, Amar te duele is not only a romantic dramedy focused on the impossibility of loving across class lines, it is also a mise-en-scène of the lower class’s inability to conform to the social idea of the creative class as developed by Mexican neoliberalism’s culture.

[1] For a sampling of this rise in the context of Latin American studies, see Moraña and Sánchez Prado. In the specific context of cinema, the most notable contribution to this date is Podalsky, The Politics of Affect and Emotion in Contemporary Latin American Cinema.

[2] See particularly Sadlier, which offers an important reconsideration of melodrama in various quadrants of the region’s cinema.

[3] I should acknowledge here that the definition of affect and emotion in cultural theory are by no means consensual. Some critics use both interchangeably, while others, like Sieworth and Gregg, articulate a wider notion of affect that embodies not only emotions and feelings, but also a Spinozist idea of the body as an entity that affects and is affected. For the purpose of this essay, I will stay on a notion of emotion and affect more narrowly bound to the question of feelings such as love, but it is important to note that this limitation is merely heuristic and not conceptual.

[4] I have developed this argument extensively in my book Screening Neoliberalism: Mexican Cinema 1988-2012. For the sake of space, I will restrict myself in the article to describe the relevant processes of change in Mexican cinema, but interested readers may find in my book more substantial data and analysis regarding these processes. Readers may also consult Misha MacLaird’s excellent book Aesthetics and Politics in the Mexican Film Industry, particularly chapters 1 and 2.

[5] When the first Cinemark complexes opened in Mexico in 1994 and 1995, tickets were priced between 36 and 45 pesos, while the daily mínimum wage ranged between 14 and 16 pesos. In 2013, that gap is not as dramatic, but attending the theater remains a very expensive proposition: a ticket costs somewhere between 50 and 70 pesos, while the mínimum wage stands at 64 pesos a day.

[6] See Sánchez Prado, Screening Neoliberalism, Chapter 2.

[7] As MacLaird documents, the producer of Sexo, pudor y lágrimas was inspired by Sólo con tu pareja and by Cilantro y perejil (Rafael Montero, 1997) when deciding to shoot a romantic comedy (48). It is also useful to remember that Cilantro y perejil, a romantic comedy about a middle-class couple facing potential separation, was the first co-production between the State and Televisa’s film arm, Televicine. The fact that the first collaboration between the two historically dominant entities in film production is a romantic comedy provides telling evidence of the centrality of the genre in the new mediascape.

[8] The updated version of the “creative class argument” is found in the revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition of Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class. I opt instead to cite the original argument because it  better frames the ideals set forward by Mexican cinema. I must clarify here that, for me, the creative class is not necessarily an existing entity –particularly in Mexico, where neoliberal capitalism and immaterial labor have manifested themselves in uneven forms, compared with the United States. Rather, the “creative class” in Mexican cinema is a social ideal that allows the middle class to embrace the narrative of individual achievement as neoliberalism undid the collective protections created by the post-Revolutionary regime. To read about the actual middle class in Mexico during the neoliberal period, see Gilbert, Mexico’s Middle Class in the Neoliberal Era.

[9] For a good reading of Notting Hill in similar terms, see Wegner, who argues that the film allegorizes in the relationship the tension between the global and the local embedded in the advancement of capitalism in a way similar to the theorizations of global capitalism gurus like Thomas Friedman (322-23).

[10] Other examples in mainstream Mexican movies with considerable box office success include the protagonist of Fernando Sariñana’s Todo el poder (2000), a documentary filmmaker, the upper-middle-class protagonist of the second story in Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñarritu, 2000), and the protagonists of the very successful comedy Ladies’ Night (Gabriela Tagliavini, 2003), who are all employees in an advertising firm. The examples are very extensive, and part of my claim here is that this creative class is in fact the protagonist of the affect regime constructed by the type of commercial Mexican cinema addressed to middle and upper classes.

[11] This pattern also exists in drama movies. I have discussed in a different article something that I call the “neoliberal sublime,” present in highly aestheticized films that use temporal disruption to represent failed love relationships. For the purpose of the present discussion, the films I study in that article– Sobreviviente (Jesús Magaña Vázquez, 2003), Eros una vez María (Jesús Magaña Vázquez, 2007) and Amor, dolor y viceversa (Alfonso Pineda Ulloa, 2008)– all construct “spaces outside history” that allow all characters to be middle and upper class and that fully erase the visibility of the lower class. See Sánchez Prado, “El sublime neoliberal.”

[12] I take this term from Timothy Shary, who identifies the genre in American cinema of the 1980s. The contentions that Shary develops about youth cinema in the US in the 1980s foreshadow my analysis here. Shary identifies both youth romance and class-clash romances as central to 1980s film culture. This coincides with post-2000 Mexican cinema because there are parallels in the way in which class difference becomes crucial due to the pitfalls of neoliberalism in both settings, and due to the rise of the multiplex as a central space for film viewing both in 1980s America and in 1990s Mexico.  See Shary, Generation Multiplex for the latter point.

[13] Sexo, pudor y lágrimas is the first post-1988 Mexican movie to use the movie soundtrack proactively as a marketing tool. In that case, the eponymous song, written by Aleks Syntek, allowed the film unprecedented exposure on media such as MTV and radio. In Amarte duele, music is also an important device to demarcate class differene. As Frederick Aldama shows, “In Amarte duele Sariñana and his sound designer use music to distinguish the presence of nacos (a pejorative term used to describe working-class Mexicans), such as Ulises, and the fresas (the wealthy elite), such as Mariana (Ximena Sariñana) and Renata (Martha Higareda). Music here works to emphasize what the film already achieves: dividing different groups of people in artificial and destructive ways” (40-41).

[14] Perhaps the only other major precedent is La primera noche (Alejandro Gamboa, 1998), a Televicine production that sought to capitalize on cinema the success it had attained with telenovelas aimed at the youth market. The film follows Mariana (Mariana Ávila) in her sexual and emotional awakening. While following some of the conventions of the romantic comedy, the movie is not as strongly linked to neoliberal aesthetic as Amarte duele, mostly because it remained tied to the languages developed by the telenovela. The movie, however, was successful enough that two sequels (with similar names but different plots and characters) were released in 2002 and 2006, respectively.

[15] One can remember here that female soccer leagues are hardly a pursuit in Mexico’s private school circuit, and that the appropriation of female soccer is not related to an actual reality (in Mexico, soccer is mostly regarded as a male sport, although some strides have been made to allow women more spaces to play), but to the popularity that female soccer has in US schools.

[16] Hasta morir is focused on a young man trying to escape criminal networks in Tijuana, while Ciudades oscuras is a film about members of Mexico City’s social underground and their chance encounters. Both of these films stand in stark contrast, both representationally and ideologically, with the predominantly middle- and upper-class universe of Sariñana’s more commercially successful works.

[17] For a detailed and very suggestive analysis of the comic book scene, see Hershfield 153-54.

[18] If one brackets the youth topic for a moment, a good contrasting film is Maid in Manhattan (Wayne Wang, 2002), a romantic comedy that narrates the love relationship between Marisa (Jennifer López), a hotel maid, and Christopher (Ralph Fiennes). This relationship is rendered possible because of the initial invisibility of their class difference, given that Christopher mistakes Marisa for a socialite when she is trying on a dress. The initial separation takes place when the misunderstanding is cleared and the final reunion is achieved when her son pleads with Christopher, convincing him (using the telling example of Richard Nixon) that you can lie for a higher purpose. Beyond the film’s political revisionism, it is worth noting that Marisa, like Ulises, is defined by her individual exceptionality, which is shown by presenting her as more professional and enterprising than her fellow maids. The final closure of the relationship is connected to the presumed social climbing of Marisa, via a major promotion to management. Thus, the film shows neoliberalism as a viable path upwards, providing the exact opposite allegory as Amar te duele.

[19] Of course, I am not claiming here that all youth cinema is critical. As Jorge Ramírez Suárez’s (¿Ya lo hiciste sin?) Amar (2009) shows, the topic of youth has recently been domesticated into relatively critical presentations of sexual initiation within the context of the middle class. In other cases, youth has been taken even further than the class critique of Amar te duele. Gerardo Naranjo’s Drama/Mex, for instance, presents a very critical stance on the superficiality of affective engagement in the realm of the privileged upper-class adolescents, while Voy a explotar also represents a teenager whose decision to date an unruly young man is a way to rebel against her powerful politician father. Another example is Horacio Rivera’s Limbo (2009), in which a young boy’s accident gives him a more critical perspective on his middle-class life, which he observes from limbo. Through this conceit, the protagonist, Isao (Fátima Díaz), encounters characters victimized by life in contemporary Mexico. A meaningful issue in this movie is the fact that Isao is gay and that he is played by a young female actress, subverting the coming-of-age masculine discourse of youth cinema. A final relevant example is Fernando Eimbcke’s Temporada de patos (2004), a successful, minimalistic feature that focuses on the tedium and absurdity of middle-class life, as experienced by three youths during a power outage. The film’s black-and-white photography distills the characters’ empty lives and explores the minutiae of their subjectivity, resulting in a subtle critique of over-mediatized youth.

[20] It may be noted here that family crisis is becoming a common topic in more recent cinema. For instance, Rodrigo Ortúzar’s Todo incluido (2009), which, incidentally, features both Ana Serradilla and Martha Higareda, centers on the family of a professional man, played by Jesús Ochoa, as it goes on vacation to an exclusive resort in order to reconstruct its family dynamics. Also, Sariñana’s latest movie, Enemigos íntimos (2008), tells the story of two middle-class people, played by Demián Bichir and his daughter Ximena, whose battle against cancer highlights the decaying structure of their family.

[21] It should be noted here that Joanne Hershfield uses both Amar te duele and De la calle as paradigmatic examples of youth cultures creating heterotopias in the urban space. In both cases, she privileges Peña’s character as the agent of this creation. In the light of my argument here, one could supplement her argument by pointing out that the lower-class individual’s ability to do this is imagined in a way thoroughly consistent with the creative class ideology, in that the characters’ exceptionality is what allows them to achieve something that no one else in their social position can.

[22] Illouz’s previous work, represented in her books Consuming the Romantic Utopia and Cold Intimacies, have been of great influence to my understanding of romance in contemporary Mexican cinema. I find that her work on what she calls “emotional capitalism” is one of the best critical and theoretical tools to study the relation between love and capitalism.

Works cited

7 días. Dir. Fernando Kalife. Perfs. Eduardo Arroyuelo, Jaime Camil, Martha Higareda. 2005. Quality Films, 2006. DVD.

Aldama, Frederick Luis. Mex-Ciné: Mexican Filmmaking, Production, and Consumption in the Twenty-First Century. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2013. Print.

Amar te duele. Dir. Fernando Sariñana. Perfs. Martha Higareda, Luis Fernando Peña. Distrimax, 2002. DVD.

Amores Perros. Dir. Alejandro González Iñarritu. Perfs. Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo, Emilio Echevarría. 2000. Lions Gate, 2001. DVD.

Cansada de besar sapos. Dir. Jorge Colón. Perfs. Ana Serradilla, José María de Tavira, Ana Layevska. 2006. Buenavista Latino, 2007. DVD.

Ciudades oscuras. Dir. Fernando Sariñana. Perfs. Alejandro Tomassi, Demián Bichir. NuVisión, 2002. DVD.

Clase 406. Perfs. Sherlyn, Dulce María.  2002. DVD. Xenon. 2006

De la calle. Dir. Gerardo Tort. Perfs. Luis Fernando Peña, Maya Zapata. 2001. Imcine/ NuVisión, 2002. DVD.

Deleyto, Celestino. The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.

El juego de la vida. Perfs. Valentino Lanú, Sara Maldonado. 2001-2002. Televisa/ Univisión. Television Broadcast.

Enemigos íntimos. Dir. Fernando Sariñana. Perfs. Demián Bichir, Ximena Sariñana. Corazón Films, 2009. DVD.

Faulk, Barry. “Love, Lists, and Class in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.” Cultural Critique 66 (2007): 153-76. Print.

Florida, Richard L. The Rise of the Creative Class, and How it is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Foster, David William. Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print.

García Canclini, Néstor. Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts. Trans. George Yúdice. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001 [1995]. Print.

Gregg, Melissa and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Hasta morir. Dir. Fernando Sariñana. Perfs. Demián Bichir, Juan Manuel Bernal. 1994. Vanguard Cinema, 2002. DVD.

Hernández Laos, Enrique. “Panoramas del mercado laboral de profesionistas en México.” Economía UNAM 1.2 (2004): 98-109. Web.

Hershfield, Joanne. “Youth and Urban Space in De la calle and Amar te duele.” Transnational Cinemas 3.2 (2012): 141-56. Print.

Illouz, Eva. Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. London: Polity, 2010. Print.

—.  Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. London: Polity, 2007. Print.

—. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.

La primera noche. Dir. Alejandro Gamboa. Perfs. Mariana Ávila, Oswaldo Benavides. 1998. Quality Films, 2003. DVD.

Ladies’ night. Dir. Gabriela Tavigliani. Perfs. Ana Claudia Talancón, Luis Roberto Guzmán, Ana de la Reguera. 2003. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.

León Távora, Ana and Itzá Zavala-Garrett. “Romeo the Mexican and Juliet the Gipsy: Shakespeare’s Hispanic Flavor in Amar te duele and Montoyas y Tarantos.” Coming of Age on Film: Stories of Transformation in World Cinema. Eds. Anne Hardcastle, Roberta Morosini, and Kendall Tarte. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. 80-92. Print.

Limbo. Dir. Horacio Rivera. Perfs. Fátima Díaz, Enoc Leaño, Érika de la Llave. 2008. Distrimax, 2010. DVD.

MacLaird, Misha. Aesthetics and Politics in the Mexican Film Industry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Maid in Manhattan. Dir. Wayne Wang. Perfs. Jennifer López, Ralph Fiennes. 2002. Columbia TriStar, 2003. DVD.

María la del barrio. Perfs. Thalía, Fernando Colunga. 1993. Televisa. DVD.2008.

María Mercedes. Perfs. Thalía, Arturo Peniche. 1992. Televisa. DVD. 2008.

Marimar. Perfs. Thalía, Eduardo Capetillo. 1994. Televisa. DVD. 2008.

Mazziotti, Nora. La industria de la telenovela: La producción de ficción en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1996. Print.

Mora, Carl J. Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-2004. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005. Print.

Moraña, Mabel and Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado. El lenguaje de las emociones: Afecto y cultura en América Latina. Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2012. Print.

Morrison, Aimée. “New Fangled Computers and Old-Fashioned Romantic Comedy: You’ve Got Mail’s Futuristic Nostalgia.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 19.1 (2010): 41-58. Print.

Niñas mal. Dir. Fernando Sariñana. Perfs. Martha Higareda, Camila Sodi, Ximena Sariñana, María Aura. 2007. Columbia Pictures, 2008. DVD.

Notting Hill. Dir. Roger Mitchell. Perfs. Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant. Universal Studies, 1999. DVD.

Podalsky, Laura. The Politics of Affect and Emotion in Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Rosas Mantecón, Ana. “La batalla por la diversidad: Exhibición y públicos de cine en México.” Situación actual y perspectivas de la industria cinematográfica en México y en el extranjero. Coords. Néstor García Canclini, Ana Rosas Mantecón, and Enrique Sánchez Ruiz. Mexico City: Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía/ Universidad de Guadalajara, 2006. 263-91. Print.

—. “New Processes of Urban Segregation: The Reorganization of Film Exhibition in Mexico.” Television and New Media 4.1 (2003): 9-23.

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Sadlier, Darlene J. Latin American Melodrama: Passion, Pathos and Entertainment. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009. Print.

Sánchez Prado, Ignacio M.  “El sublime neoliberal: Amor y temporalidad en el cine mexicano del capitalismo tardío.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 16 (2012): 293-310. Print.

—. “Innocence Interrupted: Neoliberalism and the End of Childhood in Recent Mexican Cinema.” Representing History, Class, and Gender in Spain and Latin America: Children and Adolescents in Film. Eds. Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 117-33. Print.

—. Screening Neoliberalism: Mexican Cinema 1988-2012. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2014. Print. Forthcoming.

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Temporada de patos. Dir. Fernando Eimbcke. Perfs. Enrique Arreola, Diego Cataño. 2004. Warner Bros. 2006. DVD.

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Todo incluido [All Inclusive]. Dir. Rodrigo Ortúzar. Perfs. Martha Higareda, Ana Serradilla, Jesús Ochoa. 2009. En Pantalla, 2010. DVD.

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Special Issue: Love in Latin American Popular Culture (Editor’s Introduction)
by David William Foster

By one of those quirks that make language so fascinating, in Spanish the word romance, although in common use to refer to a love story, is derived from the same word with an older meaning: romancero, which means something like “popular [song] ballad.” The connection lies in the way that these ballads “in the colloquial [Roman] manner” (thus the etymology of the word, as opposed to “in the formal Latinate manner”) circulated among the people, sung by professional balladeers, in opposition to learned literary works. One of the major categories of the ballads, and perhaps its most popular, was that of the love stories, and especially those that had unhappy endings. After all, lives lived in misery are intrinsically more interesting that lives lived in carefree happiness….

Because of their origins in oral rather than written literature (beginning in the late Middle Ages, the ballads were eventually gathered into collections), these “romance stories” are intrinsically marginal to the more elevated high culture canon. While Romanticism did much to make the medieval ballads important, most popular-language love stories did not make it into the canon. And in Latin America, where we do find popular love stories, now written in prose or presented on screen, rather than circulating as poetry, they are customarily read as allegories of larger sociopolitical issues. Whether in written novelistic form or as television drama, popular romance in Latin America has hardly been studied at all in its own right, and certainly not as expansively as English-language materials have been studied in recent years.

Thus, the opportunity to bring these essays together in this special issue is a particularly satisfying scholarly task. Authors were charged both with discovering pertinent examples of popular love stories and examining them within the context of contemporary theoretical models. Of particular interest would be that critical work that approaches popular romance from a feminist, queer, and masculine studies perspective: work which emphasizes the prevailing Hispanic critical practice of viewing cultural production in historical and ideological terms. It is for this reason that these studies all, in one way or another, challenge hegemonic patriarchal and heteronormative parameters, with a secure commitment to Alexander Doty’s premise in Making Things Perfectly Queer (1993) that popular culture, far from simply repeating fossilized social models, allows, in [End Page 1] its loosely structured and often irreverently comical mode, for various degrees and forms of queering the social text.

The six texts brought together here are, if not predominately queer in focus, clearly positioned to go against the grain of heterosexist prerogatives, official narratives, and unreflective reinforcements of the amorous status quo. As with any special issue, they represent only a sample of the work that has been and might be done on the topic.  Still, by ranging over straight and queer, masculine and feminine, and various national traditions in Latin America, these essays will, it is hoped, serve to stimulate a broader and more inclusive research agenda on Latin American popular romance than we have had to date. [End Page 2]


Review: Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, by Victoria Nelson

Review by Angela R. Toscano

Victoria Nelson’s second book, Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural, ends on an invocative note. “May the Gothick never lose its dedication to Story.  May it never lose its outrageousness or its lowbrow ways.  And may it never lose its ability to push us into territories that are totally unexpected. Long live Gothick” (266). That this sentence resembles in its structure a prayer is no coincidence. The central premise of Nelson’s book revolves around the idea of the gothic as a transcendent genre, one that alters story to create new kinds of religious experiences and movements. While the gothic has previously occupied a marginal and peripheral space within the Western imagination, at the beginning of the twenty-first century it has moved to the center of mainstream and popular narratives. The gothic, Nelson argues, is an especially flexible genre, one that adapts its own conventions as well as the conventions of the genres it merges with. While the gothic was, at one time, representative of the dark underbelly of Christianity—particularly Protestant Christianity—it now is being reconfigured as the primary avenue through which secular culture experiences the sacred, just as it reconfigures concepts of what constitutes the sacred within Western culture.

Published in 2012 by Harvard University Press, Gothicka is an ambitious and timely project, one that overlaps with a variety of scholarship being done in a number of fields, including post-secular studies, literary theory, and, of course, popular romance studies. But while the central argument of Gothicka offers a rich avenue for interrogating the way narrative intersects with culture, it often stumbles, giving short shrift to the nuances of each as it tries to categorize them in terms of the gothic impulse. Nelson concedes in the Preface that, “this book will be more notable for its omissions than its inclusions” (xii) referring to those texts in popular culture she has chosen not to address. Without doubt, every scholarly book and article struggles to define its scope, encountering similar problems of omission and inclusion. This is particularly true when dealing with broad and expansive topics like the novel or the gothic. Yet, it is not the failure to mention certain [End Page 1] iconic texts that undermines Nelson’s argument. Rather, it is the failure to mention relevant scholarship. Later in the Preface, Nelson goes on to say that,

I have made no attempt to survey the present state of Gothick scholarship and position my own thinking within it, thereby omitting mention of many current key thinkers in this vast, rich, and exciting field. Had I expended the necessary time, and space to do so, I would not have had room, either mentally or on the page, for the explorations presented here. I have learned an enormous amount from the scholars whose work I do cite and am acutely aware of the large negative space left by those I omitted (xii-xiii).

Certainly, it is not my expectation that Nelson write an encyclopedia, dutifully covering every possible manifestation of the gothic or its tributaries. Yet, there are certain omissions within the text that are glaring and reveal what I believe to be three underlying weaknesses in Nelson’s central argument.

First, there is the problem of the use of the term gothic. In her opening chapter, Nelson defines the gothic or, to use her parlance, the Gothick, as a sensibility. She says, “Historically, the rapidly proliferating Gothick quickly subdivided into overlapping subgenres of supernaturalism, anticlericalism, psychological horror, and sentimental romance” (5). She continues to say that the gothic borrows from “the Old Goth historical period of the Middle Ages” and that the gothic possesses an “implicit heterodox spirituality” which occurs in its ability to transform “antagonist-villains” into “protagonist-heroes” (8). Yet, why is this a particularly gothic sensibility? Why make the claim that this metamorphic religiosity is particularly gothic and not one inherent to narrative or, more broadly, myth? Why call this phenomenon gothic and not merely supernatural, paranormal, or mythic? Why the use of the term gothic as an all-encompassing category for understanding the supernatural in narrative? Moreover, the Romance is inevitably related to and connected to myth, so why the gothic rather than either of these other established categories? In short, what aspects or qualities does the gothic incorporate that prior concepts—like Romance or myth—fail to include? For instance, what is so very gothic about Mormonism? Perhaps it is the Mormon theological belief in the deification of humanity or the intrusion into the mortal world of Gods and heroes, but if so then these concepts pre-date late 18th-century and 19th-century gothic novels as well as 14th-century Gothic architecture. This is just one example of ideas, narratives, and movements that are pulled under the heading of the gothic without a full explanation of why these concepts are connected to that tradition. If this is a sensibility, then it is one far older than the gothic and, as such, requires a more thorough clarification of the use of the term.

Second, Nelson’s central claim is most definitely part and parcel of the critical movement known as post-secularism. And yet, Nelson never positions her claim within this larger body of scholarship. This presents several problems within the text, but most particularly in the lack of any delineation between religion and secularism, or between one religion and another. Religion as institution? Religion as a system of beliefs? As personal sense of the spiritual? What does she mean by the religious nature of the gothic? This lack of definition means that the term “religious” changes meaning throughout the book. At times the gothic seems to be a mechanism for critiquing a traditional Christian religious ethos, as in Nelson’s discussion of the graphic novels Preacher, Hellboy, and Constantine: [End Page 2] “the Christian God and Satan have both left the building, leaving their half-human, half-supernatural offspring poised to take over” (91). More often, though, religion is addressed as something that needs revival and reconsideration. Are these different kinds of religion? Is it religion at all or rather a sense of religiosity? Is the sacred synonymous with religion? Does this only work in a Western and Christian paradigm? Both these first two issues pivot on the absence of definitions for key terms. The supernatural within a story cannot be the definition of the gothic, because such stories existed prior to the gothic novel. If the gothic is being defined as a response to the rise of secularism and rationality during the Enlightenment—which is what I believe Nelson is getting at—then what is different about this supernaturalism compared with prior instantiations? If it is that the gothic enables an underground route to the divine, then how is this not simply myth in action?

Because religion and the gothic are never fully demarcated, the relationship between the gothic and religious experience also remains opaque throughout Nelson’s text. Moreover, the way in which religion and theology are explicated feels flimsy at best, a point affirmed by the absence of relevant scholarship on certain ideas. For example, Chapter Four, “Decommissioning Satan,” explores the figure of the devil in literature, but prior work done on the devil, like Elaine Pagel’s seminal work The Origin of Satan, is not mentioned. Nor is Paradise Lost, without which it is hard to imagine the creation of graphic novels like Spawn or Lucifer. The effect of this absence is to put the gothic front and center as that which has allowed Satan to transform from a malevolent demon into a kind of Everyman, rather than the transformation being part of a larger, ongoing understanding of the devil in variant Christian theologies.

This points to a larger problem of the book as it constructs its argument. Each chapter feels like a discrete entity, a broad survey rather than a development of the subject as a part of the larger thesis or its attendant claims. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the chapter on romance, “Gothick Romance.” The chapter opens with a history of the sentimental romance and is followed by a cursory exploration of its relationship to the gothic. Again, romance is subsumed under the label of the gothic but it is never fully explained why this is the case. This is especially problematic because not all romance novels are a part of the gothic tradition or follow the plot of Jane Eyre. More problematically still, Nelson quotes from Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms (2009) at length, using it as her main source for defining and understanding contemporary popular romance. While Beyond Heaving Bosoms is a useful book for understanding how a particular reading community understands romance it is, by no means, the only scholarly work on popular romance, a fact to which this journal testifies. Moreover, the underlying assumption is that romance is fundamentally a gothic genre. This is ratified in Nelson’s discussion of the eroticization of romance, saying that “most striking of all was the intrusion of two elements formerly associated only with the male Gothick: sex and the supernatural” and, later, that the “introduction of explicit sex into what had formerly been a virginally discreet genre was in part a reflection of the major shift in women’s social roles in the late twentieth century” (107).  This presumes a great deal. First, it conflates the erotic and the sexually explicit. Second, it collapses all the 1970s bodice rippers into “the obligatory rape of the heroine” (107) and denies that this is both erotic and sexually explicit. What the position of rape in romance is or ought to be is certainly up for debate, but Nelson presumes that it was not erotic or read erotically by its readers. And this is simply not the case. Moreover, there were books written before the 1990s that were [End Page 3] sexually explicit and supernatural, which Nelson does not acknowledge in her history of romance. The thrust of this argument about the increasing sexualization of romance is unclear. Which is to say, why is the erotic and sexually explicit romance a part of the gothic sensibility and what does it have to do with spirituality or religion? This link is never attended to, and the reader is left wondering at the significance of this discussion.

The chapter ends with a close reading of Hilary Mantel’s Fludd (1989), one that reiterates the chapter’s central thesis that the gothic romance is defined by female identity formation. This text, however, seems a peculiar choice considering that the chapter has so far focused on popular romance and not its sisters in literary fiction. The purpose of this choice, I believe, is twofold. First, it is intended to show the ways in which the gothic and the romance infiltrate all genres. Second, it is intended to show how the gothic is used to transform older forms into new expressions of religiosity. However, there are plenty of popular romance novels that would have fit this premise: I can name three off the top of my head—Mary Jo Putney’s Thunder and Roses (1993), Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm (1992), and Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish (1995).  Putney’s novel even has the benefit of being a variation on the old gothic theme of a woman trapped in a dark manor. At the end of the chapter, Nelson states that “Even romance heroines more conventional than Roisin [the heroine of Mantel’s Fludd] find their true identity by passing through spiritual death and rebirth in the alchemical refiner’s fire” (114). This is a well-made point. Yet, if Nelson’s claim is that the gothic romance deals with identity and the formation of personhood, then this is never explicitly stated. If this reading of Fludd is meant to tell us something about the inherently religious nature of the romance, then this point is never fully linked to the early discussion of popular romance. And if the chapter as a whole is also intended to explain a broader connection between sexuality and the post-secular, then we are left wanting a fuller exploration of that connection. Romance is left as a subset of the gothic without any explanation of why this is important to an understanding of its religiosity or its feminine, erotic impulse.

Despite these criticisms Nelson’s prose is eminently readable, and the premise a fascinating and fruitful one.  As a book intended for a general audience, Gothicka provides a good, if rather shallow, overview of the topics it discusses. However, as book that could be assigned to undergraduates in a class on the gothic or used for the purposes of scholarly research on romance, Gothicka does not offer much meaty or substantive analysis of the texts explored, as well as omitting important scholarly work from its discussion. [End Page 4]


Review: Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature, edited by Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega

Review by Luke Hortle

The relentless pairing of trauma and romance in literature is no coincidence. Both trauma and romance—which, apart from psychological and social experience, manifest as themes, narrative strategies and styles—mount formidable and relentlessly popular challenges to the capacities of language and narration. In their recent edited collection, Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature (part of the Routledge Studies in Contemporary Literature series), Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega set out to survey the intriguing prevalence of trauma and romance in contemporary British literature. In their introduction, Ganteau and Onega ground their aims for the collection in “the observation of a double omnipresence in contemporary British fiction: that of romance strategies and that of trauma-related themes and forms” (4). In a nutshell, Ganteau and Onega’s central contention describes the expression of traumatic experience in the romantic mode. They contend that trauma’s imperative to represent the unspeakable and unfathomable has “forced fiction to problematize the traditional conventions of transparent realism” (4) by shifting towards strategies of nonfictional testimony. Interestingly, they argue that such a move also involves a simultaneous and paradoxical turn towards key romance modes or strategies, characterised by Ganteau and Onega as a shift back towards “fictionality and fantasy” (4). The argument is fascinating and fleshes out of some of the key binaries of both trauma and romance: real/unreal, realism/fantasy, history/fiction.

The necessary question that such a critical project must ask, according to Ganteau and Onega, is “why bring in romance at all?” (2). With this question, they set the scene in what is an insightful introduction. The ubiquitous pairing of trauma and romance within contemporary literary and popular texts presents a compelling project to scholars: how is such an insistent feature of literature to be understood? With reference to Barbara Fuchs, Ganteau and Onega clarify their intended use of romance as a mode, rather than what they see as “the narrower category of genre” (2). The role of romance then becomes one of modal qualification; romance is regarded as a distinct and recognisable form that [End Page 1] “collaborates with” or “dynamises” fiction to produce a narrative of trauma (5). They argue that trauma and romance favour parallel thematic concerns, such as excess, psychological imbalance, intense emotional experience that defies articulation and representation, the historical past, and haunting and repetition. One of the introduction’s more useful organising metaphors further illustrates how this relationship is structured: “romance becomes the privileged vehicle for trauma fiction” (10). By envisaging a “crucial collaboration” between trauma and romance (2), the real benefit of this introduction is in its critical optimism; Ganteau and Onega bring these two established fields of scholarship together in a way that is sure to inspire future research.

Trauma forms the organising thematic focus of the book. The collection is comprised of four parts (three essays in each, except for four in Part 3), each with a focus recognisable to those familiar with trauma theory. Part 1 considers trauma fiction’s peculiar recourse to ghosts and haunting as a way of engaging repetition; Part 2 establishes a closer focus on narratives of individual and personal trauma; Part 3 broadens the scope to collective trauma, history and ethics; and Part 4 offers a consideration of the therapeutic possibilities afforded to trauma by romance. As the title makes explicit reference to “British” literature, the collection might have engaged more clearly with the significance of this national literature and its contemporary features. The focus remains, for the most part, thematic: on the mutual occurrence of trauma and romance.

Given the importance of romance to such a critical approach, its modal permutations might have been more clearly described throughout these essays. In her book Romance, Barbara Fuchs writes that “Romance is a notoriously slippery category” (1). Designating romance as a mode could perhaps work to embrace such “slipperiness” in its implied defiance of generic categories. However, throughout this collection of essays, there runs the risk of losing sight of this interesting distinction between romance as genre and romance as mode. Such potential for confusion is idiomatic of genre studies more broadly; in a discussion of the relationship between genres and modes in his book Genre, John Frow notes that “one of the inherent problems with working with genre theory is of course the lack of an agreed and coherent terminology” (65). Ganteau and Onega’s book risks perpetuating such a trend in the field.

The second group of essays, on narratives of individual trauma, will be of particular interest to romance scholars. In it, Lynne Pearce and J. Hillis Miller focus in very different ways on how intense experiences of psychological distress can intersect with particular aspects of romance. Pearce outlines an impressive and fascinating reading of the relationship between romantic love and trauma. Following Roland Barthes, she considers how the first instance of romantic love can function as a trauma, with subsequent romantic experience coming to be structured around the problem of “repeatability” (72). The value of such an approach, both to popular and literary texts, becomes blazingly apparent in its demonstration of how critical romance studies and trauma theory can intersect, and of how such an intersection can be utilised to read fiction’s fixation on overwhelming experience (see Pearce’s article in issue 2.1). In his enthralling consideration of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Hillis Miller considers the role of trauma in this postmodern romance and, in an intriguing move, examines the blending of the novel’s traumas and the reader’s traumatic experience of reading them. Such a consideration leads Hillis Miller to reflect on the nature of fiction itself, and the often-fraught relationship it holds with its readers. These essays [End Page 2] demonstrate a refreshing style of lucid analysis that is often absent from trauma studies more broadly.

History’s importance to both romance studies (perhaps epitomised by the work of Diane Elam) and trauma studies is reflected in the third section of the collection, which is also the longest section of the book. Ángeles de la Concha offers a reading of Martin Amis’s trauma fictions, where political trauma and sexual violence collide in horrifying ways. Her essay is indicative of how reading the collaboration between trauma and romance can enliven discussions of history. For de la Concha, Amis’ trauma fictions situate sexual violence and abuse at the heart of broader social violence; trauma and romance, whilst in thematic collaboration, couple in unfamiliar and often irreconcilable ways. With a very different approach to history, Andrés Romero-Jódar delivers an entertaining analysis of political trauma in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s cult graphic novel, The Watchmen. By arguing that this “postmodern romance” (181) reacts to and comments on Thatcher’s Britain, the essay also offers a fascinating discussion of how romance modes deliver artistic value as well as enabling a text to challenge, reconfigure and approach a “rewriting” of history.

The final section suggests the compelling and—rarely for trauma studies—uplifting idea of the therapeutic potential of romance. Reading McEwan’s The Child in Time, Brian Diemert argues that in seeking that “contemporary cliché” of trauma—“‘closure’ or ‘coming to terms’”—forms of representation can render the traumatic event understandable and therefore somehow manageable (219). Diemert’s analysis of McEwan’s novel subsequently demonstrates how “trauma is pared, and what is left is representation. The gesture essentially sacrifices trauma to romance …” (219). Moments such as this evince the creative critical potential of this book’s theoretical project, and will be of interest to scholars working in the areas of trauma fiction and romance studies. Put to good use, such a project offers trauma studies the potential to evolve from its psychoanalytic roots. Romance and trauma, it would seem, are not the strangest of bedfellows, and this book is sure to inspire further scholarship about the romancing of trauma.

Works Cited

Frow, John. Genre. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, and Susana Onega, eds. Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print. [End Page 3]


Review: Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction and Vampiric Conquest, by Cathy L. Jrade

Review by Jeannine M. Pitas

As one of the most well-known Uruguayan poets of the twentieth century and the only recognized female member of the Latin American modernista movement, Delmira Agustini (1886-1914) has received substantial critical attention throughout the twentieth century and beyond.  While her early readers tended either to extol her as an innocent young girl prone to mystical visions or vilify her blatant eroticism, more recently critics have interpreted her life and work as a highly deliberate performance allowing her to assert her creativity and insist on inhabiting a room of her own.

Now, Cathy L. Jrade – who is one of the foremost scholars of modernismo – has breathed new life into discussions of this perplexing poet’s work. Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction and Vampiric Conquest is essential reading for any scholar of fin-de-siecle Latin American literature and for anyone else interested in engaging with this subversive and iconoclastic poet. Familiarity with Agustini’s work is equally fruitful for any scholar of popular romance interested in exploring the well-known cultural stereotype of the “passionate Latin American”. As Jrade shows, Agustini and her fellow modernistas effectively embody this stereotype and transform it into a means of resisting the bourgeois social structures of the early twentieth century.

Despite the book’s provocative title, Jrade’s study gives little attention to “vampiric conquest” as we normally encounter it in popular culture.  Instead, Jrade focuses on Agustini’s conquest of one of her primary literary precursors, the Nicaraguan modernista poet Rubén Darío. Jrade argues that Agustini – who corresponded with Darío and met him personally on one occasion – is highly influenced by his poetics:

He is this imposing figure, this erotically charged image of artistic supremacy and sexual discourse, and the human face given to the modernista movement. As Agustini’s work matures (toward the end of the tragically short seven-year period in which she wrote her best work), Dario recedes and turns into a vague, ghostlike figure who haunts her poetic imagination. At times she [End Page 1] relegates him to the past, to winter, and to a rigid iciness… At other times, her struggle with his imposing presence turns into a sadomasochistic vision of erotic entanglement in which she alternately injures or is injured (4).

Jrade organizes her study of Agustini’s work around this relationship with Darío, analyzing much of it in terms of a dialogue with the older poet in his many incarnations. Thus, while the “sexual seduction” that Jrade speaks of might refer to the eroticism that pervades all of Agustini’s work, it can also be viewed as the sexually charged relationship between the two poets. And, while Agustini does explore vampirism in her poetic work, the “vampiric conquest” can be seen as her desire to feast on the richness of Darío’s poetics while boldly transforming them into something completely her own.

Organized in five chapters, Jrade’s study begins with an examination of “Agustini and her world.” After briefly outlining the author’s biography, Jrade offers us an overview of the political changes occurring in Uruguay under the progressive President José Batlle y Ordóñez, whose administration saw labour reforms and the beginnings of the Uruguayan feminist movement. She then discusses the general cultural trends sweeping Latin America at the time, particularly that of European positivism. According to Jrade, August Comte’s philosophy, with its emphasis on science and reason at the expense of intuition and imagination, proved problematic for the modernistas:

Torn between the reigning faith in science and an enduring fascination with intangible realities, modernistas, like their European, British and Anglo-American contemporaries, often sought answers that went beyond secular realities. By the same token, however, most were incapable of returning to the unquestioning faith of their ancestors. Their art revealed their ambivalent longing for the ease, elegance and increasing Europeanization of the bourgeoisie and ruling elites at the same time that they, for the most part, cast themselves in the tradition of the great romantic poets who saw themselves as outsiders and social critics (20).

Situating Agustini within this context of rapid social change and ambivalence over values, Jrade draws particular attention to the challenges facing a woman writer at the time.; despite the burgeoning feminist movement and the family support that Agustini enjoyed as a writer, she worked under a huge amount of social pressure and, as many critics have observed, had to don elaborate masks in order to live out her chosen vocation. She also observes that the writers of the predominantly male modernista movement – including Darío – invoke familiar metaphors of women as passive, quiet, marginalized figures. As the youngest member of the movement, Agustini engages with Darío’s work but refuses to be intimidated or limited by it.

In the following four chapters, Jrade carefully and insightfully analyzes each of Agustini’s four poetic collections: El libro blanco (Frágil) (The white book (Fragile)), Cantos de la mañana (Songs of the morning), Los cálices vacíos (The empty chalices) and Los astros del abismo (The stars of the abyss). While Jrade’s painstaking close readings of the poems reveal many insights for interpreting the texts, the poet’s complicated relationship with Darío and the challenges she faces as a woman writer form the backbone of the analysis. [End Page 2]

Examining Jrade’s work as a whole, the most consistent feature is the immense love and admiration that she expresses toward her subject without sacrificing intellectual incisiveness and rigor; indeed, it is as if Jrade has become infected by the passion of Agustini’s writing and seeks to convey that passion to her readers, be they expert scholars of Agustini or complete newcomers to the poet’s work. This passion is most evident in Jrade’s sensitive translations of the original texts into English, her thorough and comprehensive engagement with the existing body of Agustini scholarship, and the poetic quality of her own critical writing, which is engaging and easily accessible. An example of this beautifully written analysis can be seen in Jrade’s discussion of “Las alas”(The wings), a poem from Cantos de la mañana in which the speaker imagines being given a set of perfect, angelic wings, only to awaken and find them melting from her shoulders. Jrade initially relates Agustini’s poetic quest to Darío’s in his poem “Sonatina”, in which the speaker imagines himself as a heroic knight on a winged horse. While the wings, for both poets, signify transcendence, Jrade is quick to point out that in Agustini’s case the adversity in the poem suggests pain and suffering rather than triumph only – thus pointing to the limitations that Agustini encountered as a woman writer, challenges that Darío does not have to face. When Agustini’s poetic speaker seeks the promise of a reaching a transcendent realm on these shining wings, Jrade interprets the ascension thus:

In this passage, Agustini expresses the most fundamental of modernista aspirations, namely, to provide a transcendental vision that breaks with the predominant positivistic ideology of the day. The materialism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism that informed daily activity are implicitly contrasted with a search for ultimate truths. Her focus is on what others cannot see. Her perspective reflects a dynamism and an eroticism that become all-consuming (“ardiente, devorante y único”). Equally significant is the way Agustini appropriates the sexual metaphors of creation previously used by male authors and makes them female and birdlike as well. She has the power to incubate a “beyond,” that is, to hatch a vision that elevates her above the here and now. This semantic shift and the foregrounding of wings and flight hint at the emergence of a new swan of modernista verse, one that embraces women writers (114).

The sheer beauty of Jrade’s prose radiates through the text, making this work an appropriate companion to Agustini’s own passionate linguistic artistry.

While Jrade’s focus on intertextuality and the literary relationship between Darío and Agustini provides a solid organizing principle for the study, I am inclined to question if this focus is perhaps too narrow for a book which is definitively the first comprehensive, book-length investigation of Agustini published in English. Jrade has argued that Darío stands out as the epitome of the modernista movement, and his relationship to Agustini – personal as well as literary – is certainly significant to her work. Nevertheless, I am curious as to the ways this examination might look different were Jrade to expand the dialogue and invite other interlocutors to the table; for example fellow Uruguayan modernista writers Julio Herrera y Reissig and Jorge Enrique Rodó. Perhaps a broadened study would  have lost its focus; indeed, other books have been published on the Uruguayan “Generation of 1900” and Jrade’s own Modernismo, Modernity, and the Development of Spanish American [End Page 3] Literature (University of Texas Press, 1998) offers a much broader overview of modernismo as a whole. At times I found Jrade’s repeated returns to Darío to be somewhat limiting in the way that they steer my own interpretation of Agustini’s poetry. After reading the book for the first time, I was left with a desire to know more about Agustini’s relationships with other modernistas and perhaps other literary precursors in French, Spanish and Latin American literature.

Meanwhile, I would also raise some questions about Jrade’s focus on gender. Of course, it is practically impossible for any critic of Agustini to discuss her work seriously without taking gender into account. As Jrade has revealed, for all its forward-thinking ambitions the modernista movement was highly male-dominated, as was the cultural realm of bourgeois Montevideo that Agustini inhabited. Publicly nicknamed “la nena” (the little girl), pressured to marry a man who did not share her literary inclinations, Agustini struggled to forge her identity as a woman writer. And so, when Jrade interprets Agustini’s “Las alas” as seeking an inclusive form of transcendence that creates a space for women writers, I do not doubt her interpretation. The same holds true of her brief discussion of “El cisne” (The swan), a poem from Los cálices vacíos that can indeed be interpreted as a vampiric conquest of Darío’s writings on the same subject. However, at other times throughout the analysis I wonder whether the intense focus on gender serves to limit the scope of interpretation rather than to enhance it. An example of this concern can be seen in Jrade’s analysis of Agustini’s “Elegías dulces” (Sweet elegies) in Cantos de la mañana. In the first of these two short, deeply mournful poems, the poetic speaker passionately cries out, “Almas hermanas mías, nunca miréis atrás” (Dear sister souls, never look back) (Line 8, quoted in Jrade 89). Interpreting this powerful cry, Jrade responds,

The famous “don’t look back” is addressed to “almas hermanas mías.” In this phrase Agustini cleverly draws upon the grammatical gender of “almas” to move the apostrophe to a female perspective, that is, to her sisters in poetry. While on first reading it seems to warn against Orpheus’s tragic fate and the everlasting entombment of former lovers and previous voices, it actually exhorts her sisters not to repeat the same mistake made by Lot’s wife. She urges them not to turn to the past for models of inspiration, which will confine them to a position of inferiority or, worse, turn them into a worthless pillar of salt (89).

While the interpretation of “almas hermanas mías” as referring to other woman poets is plausible and interesting, and the connection to the story of Lot’s wife highly insightful, I cannot help but wonder if Jrade’s interpretation is a little too eager to direct our critical gaze toward one particular reading. What if we were to view the text in terms of Orpheus rather than Lot’s Wife? What if the “almas hermanas mías” did indeed refer to Agustini’s sisters in poetry, but also to something else? Of course, in a study as comprehensive as Jrade’s only a certain amount of space can be devoted to each particular poem, and a critic needs to make choices. But while I admire Jrade’s critical assertiveness, her exploration might be enhanced by a wider engagement with some alternative interpretations. However, I am confident that this highly focused yet comprehensive study will spark a widespread interest in Agustini and initiate a varied conversation in which many such alternative voices will be heard. [End Page 4]

Overall, Delmira Agustini, Sexual Seduction and Vampiric Conquest is an insightful, engaging, and beautiful critical companion to this poet’s work and essential reading for scholars of twentieth-century Latin American literature and women’s writing. In terms of popular romance studies, Jrade’s engagement with Agustini’s eroticism – in the context of modernismo – provides insight into the later stereotypes of “the passionate Latin American” that have persisted to this day.  For the modernistas who did much to advance this concept, it was a liberating way of asserting their cultural identity and distinguishing themselves from the imperialistic United States of America, which they saw as cold, avaricious, and a threat to their new nations’ autonomy. As Jrade’s discussion of modernismo reveals, passion in the fin-de-siecle context was not only an end in itself, but a means of resisting the cultural paradigm of Comtian positivism, which they saw embodied in the United States of America as well as in their own governments. In this way, Jrade’s work complexifies the stereotype of “the Latin lover,” revealing it not to be a haphazard, North American-invented caricature of an imagined other, but a trope that these poets themselves consciously and strategically cultivated as a means of asserting a cultural identity. There is much calculation in this “passion.” As Jrade shows us, Agustini’s embodiment of this passion is indeed a double resistance; not only to positivism and the threat of US imperialism, but also to the social restrictions imposed on women even within her literary movement and to the imposing, larger-than-life presence of Rubén Darío. [End Page 5]