Gigante (2009)

Gigante, directed by Adrián Biniez, is a slow-moving, oddly-engrossing film. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

It’s about a very large, lonely, shy man who works as a security guard in a grocery store. He is also a bouncer at a heavy metal club.

He comes to the rescue of a night cleaning-woman he has been following via the security camera. She has knocked over a display of toilet paper and is sternly disciplined by the night-manager. He tells the night-manager that his attention is needed in another part of the store. The night-manager leaves the security guard alone with the woman, but he doesn’t have the courage to talk to her. Instead, he continues to follow her via the security camera and then begins following her outside of the grocery store, as well. It’s kind of creepy even though you know he isn’t going to hurt her. He’s just really shy.

This is the second film I’ve seen that takes place in Montevideo. Whisky, possibly my favorite Latin American film yet, is the first. In some ways the two films are very similar. There is very little plot or dialogue in either film and the main characters live a life of repetitive drudgery, loneliness and disconnection.

If these films offer any sort of accurate portrayal of the people who live there, I imagine Montevideo must be home to the most bored and boring people on the face of the earth! But somehow, being a voyeur into the boring lives of these people isn’t at all boring. It’s rather interesting.

I didn’t like Gigante as much as Whisky, but I definitely enjoyed it.

Wild Tales (2014)

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes) is a hilarious, but very dark black comedy written and directed by Damián Szifron from Argentina and co-produced by the Almodóvar brothers. (Szifron is best known for Los simuladores, the most successful television series in Argentina.)

The film won multiple awards and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. It debuted at the 2014 Cannes festival where it won the Palme d’Or and received a 10 minute standing ovation.

It consists of 6 independent stories that all have in common a sort of satisfying revenge against injustices of various kinds (government and corporate corruption, bureaucratic wrong-doing, class and gender bias, etc.) Szifron says he was writing short stories just to “let off steam”. He had written 12 tales, each which could have been created into a movie individually, but he realized that they would have more impact if he presented them together. He chose the 6 wildest tales.

Szifron says that what connects each story is “the fuzzy boundary that separates civilization from barbarism, the vertigo of losing your temper, and the undeniable pleasure of losing control”. He says it is a movie about people who are unable to restrain their emotions, and the pleasure involved in exploding and reacting to injustice. What makes the stories humorous is what the characters are feeling within their very dramatic circumstances.

There is something very pleasurable about each segment in that regard. For instance, in the second segment, I was horrified by the idea of poisoning a man with rat poison, but there was something so gratifying when the older woman actually went through with it. (Is expired rat poison more potent or less potent?)

Szifron says the movie is not a statement about life in Argentina. The theme is universal: man versus a system that is designed against him, not to facilitate life, but to take things out of him. It is a study of the dehumanization of society.

Each film is independent of the other and is filmed in very different ways. The third story, “El más fuerte”, was filmed on a road that connects Salta and Cafayete in the northwest region of Argentina. It is absolutely beautiful. Much of that segment is filmed driving on the road. Szifron said he chose this stretch of road because a desolate route with stunning scenery and “degrees of sobriety” was needed to provide a contrast between the violence of the fight and the beauty of the environment.

I think my favorite segment was “La propuesta”. It’s about a wealthy man who persuades his gardener to plead guilty for the hit and run death of a pregnant woman in the place of his wimpy teenage son, the true guilty party. There are so many fun twists and turns as the story progresses. Everyone in the story, from the son, to the government official investigating the scene, to the gardener, are guilty of manipulating the situation for their own gain.

Every story is gripping, thrilling and a lot of fun. I have always restrained my emotions in the face of the system that is “designed against me”, but it is disturbingly fun to watch people who explode in the face of it..

Excellent film!

Feliz Día de la Madre


Happy Mother’s Day to mothers here in the U.S. and several countries in Latin America that also celebrate on the 2nd Sunday in May (Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Venezuela…). And happy belated Mother’s Day to the many Latin American countries like Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala that celebrate on May 10th.

In the U.S., the first Mother’s Day celebration is usually considered to be when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother in 1908 at her Methodist Church. She had begun a campaign to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday in 1905 when her mother died. Her mother had been a peace activist and created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” that helped mothers learn to care for their children and to maintain sanitary conditions in the home during a time of widespread epidemics. The club was also meant to help promote peace. Jarvis meant for Mother’s Day to follow in the spirit of her mother’s peace activism and public service. She was finally successful in getting national recognition in 1911 but was soon disappointed with how commercial the holiday rapidly became. Hallmark began selling mother’s day cards in 1920 and she felt this exploited the holiday, making it more about sentiment and profit than truly a day of honoring the significant role and power of “mother”.

Today, the U.S. arguably has one of the most commercialized Mother’s Day celebrations in all the Americas. Estimates show that the average person in the U.S. will spend over $180 on Mother’s Day this year. Some Latin American countries, like Brazil, also have very commercialized celebrations. But because of the heavy Catholic influence in much of Latin America, Mother’s Day is often connected with a veneration of the Virgin Mary and is therefore considered by many in Latin America to be one of the most important celebrations of the year.

In Mexico, Mother’s Day was originally imported from the U.S. in the 1920s by a conservative Catholic government to encourage women to remain in (and return to) traditional female roles. It’s had various political uses over the years, including encouraging women to gain more independence, but blenders (for making soups and salsas for the family) and irons are still very popular gifts. It’s not a national holiday, so celebrations typically take place in the evenings and often begin with Mass at Church and large family gatherings afterward where the mothers are treated to food provided by children and husbands.

In El Salvador, Mother’s Day is a paid national holiday. It is considered so important that employees are often given days off before and after Mother’s Day in case they have to travel to visit their mothers. My mother in-law was raised in El Salvador. She sent me a mother’s day card in Spanish because she knows I am studying the language. We sent her a very beautiful card in English that she hopefully received on Saturday, but that’s a far cry from how mother’s day is celebrated in her homeland. I had no idea! (Although if I’m not mistaken, mother’s day wasn’t an official holiday in El Salvador until 1983, long after she had already moved to the states.)

There is no national vacation day in Guatemala, but mothers are typically given the day off and kids have off school if the day happens to fall on a weekday.

In Bolivia, Mother’s Day Celebrations are often combined with Independence Day celebrations because women fought alongside men to win independence from Spain. In Paraguay, Mother’s Day is also celebrated at the same time as Independence Day as a way to respect and remember Juana Maria de Lara who played an important part in leading independence movements in 1811.

I find the connection between Mother’s Day and Independence Day interesting because before Anna Jarvis began campaigning for a National Mother’s Day in the U.S., Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, had also attempted to create a national Mother’s Day. Her attempts are what inspired Anna Jarvis’ mother to create the “Mother’s Day Work Clubs”. Howe wanted Mother’s Day to be a celebration dedicated to the eradication of war and she wanted to celebrate it on July 4th, America’s independence day.

In 1870, Howe wrote:

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

I wish Mother’s Day was about women standing for peace and the well-being of family and public welfare because Mother’s Day doesn’t make any sense to me – not as a daughter or a mother.  Perhaps the celebrations are less commercial in Latin America, but I have deep rooted issues with celebrating female sacrifice so am not sure I’d want to celebrate it there, either.

In 2015, there was a study done by SOASTA that showed that 40% of mothers in the U.S. were disappointed in Mother’s Day and that 45% would buy themselves a gift on-line after Mother’s Day if they were disappointed in the gifts they received. That’s good news for the retail industry but makes Mother’s Day seem extremely petty, doesn’t it?

I know my kids and husband honor me. They don’t need to buy me gifts to prove it. I don’t mind being taken out to brunch, though!

If you are celebrating today, however you celebrate, Happy Mother’s Day!/¡Feliz Día de la Madre! I must get ready for brunch.

Puebla, Mexico

After writing about Cinco de Mayo yesterday, I wanted to learn more about Puebla, the original inspiration for the day of celebration. So, I did a little research.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the day the Mexican Army defeated the French Army. This was a really big deal because the Mexican Army was about half the size of the French Army and the French Army hadn’t been defeated in 50 years. Plus, the Mexican Army was very poorly equipped. Although the day is heavily celebrated in the U.S., it is not a major celebration anywhere in Mexico except in the State of Puebla which is where the French were defeated.


The State of Puebla is located in the central highlands of East-Central Mexico. It’s capital is Puebla City which was founded by the Spanish in 1531 to secure the trade route between Mexico City and the Port of Veracruz. It was built at the intersection of two rivers and was called the New Jerusalem. Today, Puebla is one of the most industrialized states in Mexico, but industrialization is centralized in the larger cities like Puebla City so the rural areas are often remain quite poor.


The people from Puebla City are called poblanos. Puebla City is said to be the home of the China Poblano. This was a woman who created a style of dress that became quite popular in Mexico. The woman, and the dress, came to Mexico in an interesting way. There are all kinds of tales, but the most likely is that in the early 1600s, an Indian princess was kidnapped twice by pirates, sold into slavery, and then purchased by the highest bidder who lived in Mexico. He eventually made a deal with a viceroy in Puebla who bought her. The Indian woman’s beautiful saris made the trip with her. Her new owners in Puebla were childless and treated her like a daughter. When the viceroy died, she was set free.  After she was freed, she began seeing visions of the Virgin Mary and became revered in Puebla. She continued to wear her saris over the years, but eventually adapted them to the culture of Mexico. The look caught on in Puebla and then spread throughout Mexico. (No, she wasn’t from China, she was from India…)

Puebla is also the home of mole poblano which is sometimes called the national dish of Mexico. It is thought to be a very ancient dish consisting of 20 ingredients including chili peppers and chocolate.

Besides Cinco de Mayo, the Day of the Dead is a huge celebration in parts of the state. The far north and far south parts of the state are home to five major indigenous groups: the Nahuas, the Totonacs, the Mixtecs, the Popolocas and the Otomi.

Puebla City is considered to be one of the 5 most important Spanish Colonial cities in Mexico and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 because of the architectural styles ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque and the rich history of the area. It is the fourth largest city in Mexico and has many prestigious colleges and universities that attract people from all over the country. Unlike Mérida, however, it wasn’t inhabited in pre-Columbian times but the area is thought to have been used for the Flower War which was a ritual war fought between the Aztec Triple Alliance and its enemies from the mid-1450s to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519.

There is so much more to say about this city: the museums, the art galleries, the pottery it is famous for, its beautiful Cathedrals & Churches, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana which is the first library in all the Americas (established in 1646), and the 6 miles of tunnels discovered under the city…


And there is also much more to say about the state, itself: the beautiful terrain in the rural areas, the mountains, the volcanos, the people…


But alas, I must call it a night.

Cinco de Mayo


Cinco de Mayo is a huge celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in the U.S.  Many people think Cinco de Mayo has to do with Mexican Independence, but Mexican Independence Day is known as “Cry of Dolores” and is celebrated September 16. (Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1810.) Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the victory of the Mexican Army over France at the Battle of the Puebla in 1862 during the Franco-Mexican War, and it is a much bigger deal in the U.S. than it is in Mexico.

The reason the date is so important is that it was a very unlikely defeat that helped establish a national Mexican identity. The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and the Reform War of 1858-61 had nearly bankrupted the Mexican economy. The repayment of all foreign debts was suspended and while Spain and Britain were willing to renegotiate repayment, Napoleon III took advantage of the situation by attempting to set up a French empire in Mexico that would favor French interests. He launched an invasion in late 1861, causing the Mexican President and Government to flee in retreat. The French army, which had not been defeated in 50 years, was stopped by a much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican Army outside Puebla on May 5, 1862.

The U.S. focus on Cinco de Mayo is said to have started in California when Mexican miners in Columbia (now Columbia State Park) were so overwhelmed by the news of the defeat that they spontaneously fired off rifle shots and fireworks, sang nationalistic songs, and made impromptu speeches. It has been continuously celebrated in California, ever since. In 1933, President Roosevelt enacted “The Good Neighbor Policy” and Cinco de Mayo celebrations were used to connect the two different cultures. In the 1960s, Chicano activists used the holiday as a way to boost awareness and Mexican morale in the U.S.

It took off across the country in the 1980s in areas with large Mexican populations thanks to beer commercials and other marketing efforts. It’s the 7th largest holiday for the beer industry and Americans consume more tequila on Cinco de Mayo than any other day of the year. It’s a really big deal in Texas, especially San Antonio, because “the hero of the Battle of Puebla”, General Zarazoga, was born in Goliad, Texas just 90 miles from San Antonio.

With the exception of Puebla, however, it’s not that big of a holiday in Mexico, although kids are off from school for the day. In Puebla, it is also a work holiday and there is a massive parade with colorful floats and bands. The Mexican Army, Navy, and Special Forces participate in period uniform. Artists, musicians, and dancers come from around the world to share their art. People eat mole poblano and chicken tinga and drink aqua fresca. There are speeches, battle reenactments and speeches. And kids get the day off from school.

According to USA Today, the 10 best places to celebrate Cinco de Mayo are:

  1. Puebla, Mexico.
  2. Celebrate Culture at Central Civic Park, Denver
  3. Market Square, San Antonio
  4. Cinco de Mayo Parade, New York City
  5. Fiesta Broadway & El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Los Angeles
  6. National Cinco de Mayo Festival, Washington D.C.
  7. Cinco de Mayo Parade in Lawndale & Cinco de Mayo Pub Crawl, Chicago
  8. Delores Park, San Francisco
  9. District del Sol, St. Paul
  10. Various Cinco de Mayo Festivities, Phoenix

Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros was born in 1954 to a Mexican-American mother and Mexican father in Chicago, Illinois. When she was growing up, her family was constantly moving between Chicago and Mexico City because of her father’s job as an upholsterer

She has a bachelors degree from Loyola University in Chicago and an MFA from the University of Iowa. It was during her MFA studies that she was struck by the differences between her and her classmates, and realized that her social position gave her a unique writing voice.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a Mexican woman. But I didn’t think it had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, and my class! And it didn’t make sense until that moment, sitting in that seminar. That’s when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn’t write about.

The House on Mango Street was a coming of age novel written by Cisneros in 1984. The book was critically acclaimed, made the New York Times Best seller list, and was turned into a stage play by Tanya Saracho. It is also included in The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books with Professor Grant Voth through the Learning Company that my husband and I have been slowly making our way through.

The House on Mango Street is the first literary selection provided on The Prentice Hall Anthology of Literature, which I am also intend to make my way through. There are discussion questions after the except, so here goes…

Esperanza, the main character of the book, was named for her great-grandmother. She says she doesn’t want to inherit her great-grandmother’s “place by the window” because she wants to have a life of her own. Her great-grandmother was essentially abducted by her great-grandfather as though she were “a fancy chandelier” and her great-grandmother never forgave him. She would “sit with her sadness on her elbow”, presumably by the window. Esperanza wonders if her great-grandmother was able to make the best of what she got, or was she sorry that she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be?

Not only has Esperanza been named for her great-grandmother, her name gets butchered at school. In Spanish, her name is very soft, like silver, but her classmates say her name as if the syllables “are tin and hurt the roof of your mouth”.  Her sister’s name, Magdalena, is uglier than Esperanza, but there are nicknames that can be made out of Magdalena, like Nenny. There is no nickname for Esperanza. Esperanza wants to change her name to Zeze the X because she wants to baptize herself under a new name that better reflects who she truly is.

She also wants a house of her own. Not a flat. Not an apartment Not a man’s house. Not her daddy’s house. She doesn’t want someone else’s garbage to pick up after. She wants her own identity. Her own life.

As a female, I can relate to wanting a house of my own. But I imagine it must be a feeling that is even more exaggerated when you grow up within a culture that can’t even pronounce your name correctly.

Esperanza means hope. And Esperanza hopes to one day be free of Mango Street. Her friends and neighbors will not know that she went away to come back, but she will come back for the ones “who cannot out”. She won’t literally come back, but will come back through her writing.

Cisneros spent many years in San Antonio. She lived on Guenther Street, overlooking the Riverwalk, in a house she painted periwinkle. She said she moved to San Antonio because she wasn’t a minority there, but Guenther Street is in a neighborhood with code restrictions having to do with the history of the area. When she painted her house Tejano colors, she was asked to prove the colors had historical relevance. What she discovered was that Mexican-Americans don’t exist according to the architectural history records of San Antonio, despite having such a large population of Mexican-Americans…

…what I found is this: We don’t exist. My history is made up of a community whose homes were so poor and unimportant as to be considered unworthy of historic preservation. No famous architect designed the houses of the tejanos, and there are no books in the San Antonio Conservation Society library about houses of the working-class community, no photos romanticizing their poverty, no ladies’ auxiliary working toward preserving their presence. Their homes are gone; their history is invisible. The few historic homes that survived have access cut off by freeways because city planners did not judge them important.

Concessions were made and she was allowed to keep the house periwinkle with a few changes. She later painted it pink. She sold her lovely, colorful house on Guenther Street and I think she moved to Mexico. (Wikipedia says she currently resides in San Antonio, but I think that’s incorrect. I think she is living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.) The 1600 sq. ft. house on Guenther St. was sold for just under $1,000,000 last year.

I wonder if you ever truly can have a home of your own? I suppose what is most important is to have the freedom and sense-of-self necessary to at least try.

Latino Literature: An Introduction

Latino literature is a rapidly growing genre of literature. There is debate over which writers should be included. Some say it should only be people born in this country, but others claim it should also include people who emigrated to the US and have spent a lot of time here.

I’m making my way through the Prentice Hall Anthology of Latino America. It had great ratings on Amazon, but I’m not sure where it ranks within the scholarly debate. This is how the text defines Latino Literature:

  1. The work of writers whose ancestry can be traced to Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas.
  2. The work is produced by authors who have lived in the United States for a significant period of time. It doesn’t matter whether or not the author was born here, but rather that his or her artistic consciousness has been significantly affected by life in the United States. They must have a sense of both Spanish and English.
  3. The work should contain characteristics that are unique to the Latino experience. These include attention to family, concern for home, interest in historical formulations, and an attention to components such as music, food, and religion. Above all the work should contain issues that pertain to identity formation, appropriation, and determination.

This anthology focuses only on writers of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent which form the majority of Latin American culture in the United States as well as the majority of literary production. Besides Latin American authors from other countries who didn’t make it into the anthology, other writers who don’t demonstrate the universal themes the anthology seeks to highlight aren’t included such as Achy Obejas, Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, Aluristo, Alberto Rios, and Cherrie Moraga.

Labels used in Latino Literature

Two terms are generally used for people of Latin American decent in the U.S.: Hispanic and Latino. These are often used interchangeably but they carry different political and cultural connotations.

Hispanic was first coined by the United States government in the 1970s. This term is often rejected by people because it is not a self-defining term and they believe the term causes people not of Latin American decent to not recognize the European roots of the Latin American people.

Latino has become more popular in recent years and is widely accepted in academia. The term is not connected to Spain, but to it’s colonies in Latin America and encompasses  people from North America (Mexico), Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. It is often preferred because it is a self-created term not imposed by others.

Chicano is a term for Mexicans and is associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that is still used by writers today. It stems from the word Meshicas which the Aztecs used to refer to themselves and was combined with Mexicano and eventually became chicano. Some people believe that chicano comes from the word chico (meaning small) and was used by Europeans as a degrading term. Therefore Mexican-American is the preferred term because it doesn’t have the political associations that Chicano has.

The most popular terms for Cubans are Cuban-American and Cuban Exile. The difference between the two terms is generational. People who arrived in the U.S in the 1960s usually continued to consider themselves Cuban so prefer to be called Cuban Exile because it explains why they abandoned their country of origin. The children of these immigrants, however, generally prefer to be called Cuban-American.

Puerto Rican-Americans, however, rarely refer to themselves as hyphenated Americans. If  an individual from the island of Puerto Rico emigrated to the U.S., he or she is generally referred to as Puerto Rican. It is also somewhat redundant to call Puerto Ricans Puerto Rican-Americans because Puerto Ricans are, by definition, U.S. Citizens.  Nuyorican applies to people of Puerto Rican heritage who have some connection with New York. The book, however, uses this text uses the term Puerto Rican-Americans to help distinguish and differentiate the different types of literature presented in the Anthology.

Cultural and Linguistic Considerations of Latino Literature

Spanglish is often used in Latino Literature. It is the combination of Spanish and English.

All three groups represented in the Anthology share a connection to indigenous and African American roots. Many of the European colonizers engaged often forcibly, in sexual relations with African slaves and native Americans which resulted in mulatto (white/black) and mestizo (white/Indian) children. Very specific spiritual beliefs and rituals are a result of this bond. The Puerto Rican Espiritismo and the Cuban Santería are both combinations of African gods with Catholic saints. In Mexico, Curanderismo is a form of spiritual, ritual healing for treating ailments that modern medicine often can’t resolve. The literature of these groups, therefore, reflect the varied, yet similar beliefs and customs of their multicultural heritage.

The racial dimension is often explored in the writings. Other literature concerns itself primarily with gender differences, which Latino Literature deals with in a unique way. Stereotypes are often examined. Machismo, for example, is common in Latino Literature as a paradigm of Latina identity and behavior. Some Latino writers deliberately shatter the stereotype.

Sense of place is often a focus. Sometimes it is the desire to return to the ancestral home. Mexican-American writers often refer to Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs. Cuban-Americans often write of a longing to return to pre-revolutionary Cuba. Puerto Ricans write of a longing to return to their tropical island, Borniquen, the name the native Taínos gave the land. Whether it be mythical, nostalgic, or very real, the focus on returning to the place of their origins occurs frequently in Latino American literature.

Because all three groups share a past of colonization and oppression, all three groups have developed a strong nationalistic sense of their homeland. But at the same time, they also have a strong desire/need to be accepted in their adopted home. Many of the forefathers of Mexican-Americans were Mexicans before their lands were overtaken by the U.S. and their territories and national identity became American, so there is some lingering resentment about that.  Puerto Ricans view the continuation of U.S. presence and it’s status as a Commonwealth as a form of oppression so feel resentment. For many Cuban Exiles, the U.S. is not their enemy, but rather their savior. Their children, however, often experience economic and social inequality so their adopted home is more problematic for them.

The Anthology presents each group separately, beginning with Mexican-American literature. I’ll begin there next week.