Chicago Tribune
September 17, 2004

As a full-length film, 'Mexican' loses caustic bite

By Achy Obejas
Special to the Tribune

Six years ago, the idea for "A Day Without a Mexican" was wrapped in a delightful 28-minute short and seemed marvelously clever: What if Californians woke up one sun-drenched day and discovered that every single Mexican in the state--that's about a third of the population--had vanished?

In the original short "mockumentary" commissioned by Chicago's own Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, director Sergio Arau and co-creators Yareli Arizmendi and Sergio Guerrero blew a thick pink fog over the West Coast and had Californians contend with the harsh reality of their dependence.

Without Mexicans, who would pick the crops? Who would cut the grass? Who would take care of the children of the wealthy? Who would teach? Who would build the houses? Who would buy the products and pay for services that make California the fifth largest economy in the world?

The new feature-length version poses these questions yet again. This time, there are salient factoids that freeze frame information (agriculture, not Hollywood, is California's largest industry; 20 percent of California's teachers are Latinos; 60 percent of the construction trade is Hispanic) and a more complicated, if not more complex, vision of events.

But while Arau and his cohorts are smart to resist explaining the phenomenon--it could just as easily be collective hallucination or a wrinkle in time that causes "the disappearance"--the movie in its extended version is frequently muddled, emotionally messy, a little heavy-handed and misses the real opportunity presented by the new format.

There are unfortunate narrative lapses throughout. For example, Jose, the best friend and foreman of a large orchard owned by a white family, is seen telling his boss that 60 or 70 Mexicans have vanished that historic day. Later, we see the boss lamenting Jose's own absence. The leap is startling, off-putting.

But perhaps more problematic is the film's emotional waffling. As it expands to feature-length, "A Day Without a Mexican" seems compelled to want to touch the viewer. In doing so, it not only loses some of its bark and bite but actually gets a little treacly in a scene in which Arizmendi, the film's ostensible heroine, finds her "Mexican" heart.

Worse, in trying to make a point, sometimes the movie commits the same misdemeanor sins: It pounds the fact that most whites see all Latinos as Mexicans, yet in its back-and-forth nearly interchangeable use of both terms, it seems to do the same.

The idea is a subtle but important one because in a way, by being seen as Mexicans, all Latinos contend with prejudices against Mexicans--all Latinos thus become Mexicans.

But the movie doesn't really explore this much; it just throws it out there, either taking the viewer's understanding for granted or not thinking it's all that important after all.

Instead, it spends an inordinate amount of time on negative stereotypes of whites. Certainly, it's fun to see the tables turned, but after a while, these stock characters become both predictable and pathetic--not just in and of themselves but as a reflection of the creators' imagination.

And that's what's stunning here, because Arau is one of his generation's most fertile minds--a man who seems to live for invention and inversion. Artist, musician and video artist, his work has an edge unlike any other and has been seminal in Mexican rock, graphics and journalism. The original short commissioned by the MFACM reflected all of that promise.

Yet this new "A Day Without a Mexican" never really moves beyond its premise. It never takes us to a place of real understanding. Though Arizmendi's character plants the thesis front and center--that the only way to make the invisible visible is to take it away--the film dwells almost exclusively on how we depend on Latinos.

At the end, the non-Latinos are relieved, even thrilled, to get their Mexicans back. But there's never a sense that any one of them sees Latinos any differently, or understands any better that we are all the same, and that each and every life has meaning.

'A Day Without a Mexican'


Directed by Sergio Arau; screenplay by Sergio Arau, Yareli Arizmendi and Sergio Guerrero; photographed by Alan Caudillo; edited by Daniel A. Fort; production designed by Anthony Rivero Stabley; music by Juan J. Colomer; produced by Eckehardt Von Damm, Isaac Artenstein. A Televisa Cine release. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: R (language and brief sexuality).

Mary Jo Quintana ......... Maureen Flannigan
Senator Abercrombie ...... John Getz
Roberto Quintana ......... Eduardo Palomo
Lila Rodriguez ........... Yareli Arizmendi

Copyright © 2004