A Day Without a Mexican
Some frustrated white Californians who listen to right wing radio talk shows in gridlock traffic might often wish to eliminate all the Mexicans and Latinos from the state. As in many parts of the US, Mexicans in California are seen as a symbol. In the eyes of the media, they are responsible for the competitive job market, rising unemployment rates and over-stressed social services. But, what if this 34% of the state's population really did one day disapear? According to the new film, "A Day without a Mexican' it would be a disaster.
The fake documentary tries to address an important social issue – that of the rest of the state's combined dependence on and repression of Mexican workers (both legal and illegal) -- in the form of a ridiculously humorous, fictional comedy that seeks to lessen racial tension by enticing you to laugh.
Most residents acknowledge the growing Mexican and Latino presence in California. In fact, it is predicted that by 2038, Latinos will be the majority in the third largest state. Even though Edward James Olmos is a big player in Hollywood and State Senator Bustamante, a Chicano Democrat, received a lot of press recently for his attempt to save Gray Davis in the state recall, most of the other 14 million Latinos in California don't have it so easy. They are overwhelmingly relegated to low paying jobs and are grossly under-represented in the Universities. Traveling up and down the state, going to restaurants and driving through the huge fields of agriculture, it's impossible not to notice the consistent Latino ethnic composition of dishwashers, cooks and farm workers. As much of California's White population competes for white collar work, huge waves of Mexican and Latin American immigrants come to the state willing to do even the most degrading, low-wage work, creating a tense racial division.
Besides some Latino advocacy groups, very few people openly talk about this delicate dynamic in California. Sergio Arau (the son of "Like Water for Chocolate' director Afonso Arau) immigrated to California from Mexico in 1993 and decided to break this silence by writing and directing a feature film. Along with his wife, Yareli Arizmendi, who co-wrote the script and acts in the film, Arau was originally inspired to make "A Day Without a Mexican' when he learned about a 1994 Proposition in California that tried to exclude undocumented immigrants from public services, including education.
Through what they're calling a "serious comedy," it's clear that Arau and Arizmendi hope to alert state lawmakers to the important roles Latinos play. Unfortunaely, they chose such an absurd plotline for the film, it makes it hard to take anything in the film seriously.
When all the Latinos in California but one mysteriously disappear, (the remaining one being a reporter, played by Lila Hernandez) the state goes into frantic chaos. Families fight each other for the last piece of cabbage at the grocery store and religious extremist come out of their caves calling Latinos "the chosen ones.' Garbage piles up in the streets, cars cannot get washed, INS employees are out of work and the fruit rots on the trees. The story gets even more outrageous when non-Latino Californian's beg for forgiveness to their missing "amigos.' Soon, the cataclysmic effects destroy the California Dream and usher in a nightmare period for the state that might be compared to the Great Depression.
Sergio Arau says that the choice to make the film a comedy was a strategic one. "Humor is the best way to talk about serious themes," he says, "because people relax and are more open." Unfortunately, audience members may stumble over a film that can't ultimately make up its mind. Is it a political documentary or a comedy? Perhaps Arau intends it to a little of both, but a merger of this kind requires a delicate equilibrium and "A Day with out a Mexican" did not reach this refined state.
Technically, the filmmakers uses a number of techniques that seem meant to bring the facts to life. In one scene he tells the audience "The number one industry in California is agriculture, not Hollywood' and "88% of agricultural workers are Latino immigrants,' in an overlay of text over a freeze frame of the film. And, while moments like this can have an obviously "educational' effect, the information is important, and rarely discussed in most media. The film also exposes how much wealth is produced by immigrant Latino labor as California, a state that prides itself on having the fifth strongest economy in the world. It also presents racial/social facts throughout a number of scenes, such as "20% of K-12 teachers, 60% construction workers are Latino' and "Jose is the most popular name for babies in California.'
Abdul, a character in the movie who is a professor at a UC, represents the voice of logic in the film. He is a staunch critic of the treatment of Latinos before the disappearances. Abdul points out that although immigrants require 3 billion dollars worth of social services a year, they also contribute as much as 100 billion dollars a year through their cheap labor.
"A Day Without a Mexican" has not only generated a buzz among young audiences, its advertisements have also generated controversy. A series of billboards in Southern California proclaimed "On May 14th There Will Be No Mexicans In California," grabbing the attention of right wing radio talk shows and Latino TV stations. One billboard company succumbed to pressure to remove one of the ads and found itself all over the six o'clock news. Latino TV stations, meanwhile, got behind the movie and joined in a promotional tactic to place 100,000 copies of a fake newspaper with stories about the missing Latinos in schools, dry cleaners, and other stores around Latino communities.
The quality of the "A Day without a Mexican' might not match the importance of the political issues that the characters, like Abdul, raise, but the film does a tremendous service in challenging the one-sided view of Latino immigrants as parasites. In fact, it as a useful way to get people talking and thinking about what Latinos and immigrants are subjected to in this country and, hopefully, it could open the movie industry to films that are not scared to tackle political issues of such controversy.