QU and Jazzy’s incredibly professional review of “The Book of Life”:
GO SEE THIS DANG MOVIE
Some thoughts re: representation and exaggeration of cultures within a globalized, white american-dominated media empire
I grew up consuming American media. Sure, I had some Brazilian books, and Brazilian cartoons (of often mediocre quality) and Brazilian music, but I grew up watching many things a typical 90s American kid did: The Powerpuff Girls, Hey Arnold, Angry Beavers, Dexter’s Lab; I watched Disney films and Pixar films and Dreamworks films, in the height of the animation renaissance. Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys played over the airwaves, trendy and cool, and of course, American.
Not all of it was American. Sometimes it came from England, or Canada, or sometimes even Australia. But all of it was in English, (or English originally before getting dubbed into Portuguese, which I hated), and it was cool and sophisticated and everything a kid aspired to be.
I was lucky to be a US citizen by birth. I already had what not many kids my age had: fluent English and an exotic pedigree, even if all it boiled down to was my parents being in the right place at the right time for me to be born outside of their nationality. But despite having Brazilian parents, and spending my entire pre-adolescence in Brazil, I valued my American citizenship more than any part of my identity. After all, it was the scene I saw day after day on every cartoon, every teen sitcom, every family movie: American teenagers, almost invariably white, and their school lockers and cafeterias serving awful food and their lush suburban houses with backyards and tire swings. Even urban environments were awesome: New York City, what could be cooler than that?
So it was no surprise that ten years ago, when my mother got a job offer in Washington DC, I jumped at the opportunity to become American. Finally, truly American, not longingly wishful American, but actually living and seeing things I saw on TV.
That was when my perception of reality shattered. It wasn’t that I only had false expectations. I knew the media exaggerated, I knew that the Brazilian TV shows I watched did not really reflect my reality as a Brazilian. But suddenly I was surrounded by people I had never seen before: many, many Asian kids, Black kids, Latin@s, Jewish kids, and many other backgrounds and nationalities arranged into hierarchical racial boxes that were incomprehensible to me.
And I found myself neatly placed into the “Latin@” box.
I balked at this at first. My entire self perception was that I was a White American. But as the years went by and I observed how these groups interacted and perceived each other, which cultural norms they carried and which expectations they placed on each other, I realized I had little in common with White People besides my skin tone, and everything in common with my Latin@ friends. With them, I felt comfortable, at home and culturally connected; with my White friends I always felt a dense, cold barrier, setting me apart from what was “normal”. It did not matter if they were friendly, warm and generous: I loved them as dearly as sisters, but there were many things I simply could not relate to in their lifestyles.
I thought back to my childhood, consuming so many works that had assured me that this was the “normal” I was to attain. I thought about us kids- seven or eight years old, playing Street Fighter, our swell of excitement and pride when we saw Blanka and his little Brazilian flag on the character select screen. I thought about reading Harry Potter, feeling deeply engrossed, in the middle of a thick volume, suddenly gasping in awe when I read the one throwaway line about the existence of a magic school in Brazil. I thought about José Carioca, charming and underappreciated figure of my childhood, and how I was the only kid in my class who had seen The Three Caballeros.
I became aware of a gaping hole in how the media perceives itself and its audience.
It’s easy enough to say that the target audience is White Americans because that’s the core, the “default” of what we perceive Americans to be. But the media now has a global, insidious reach. The messages we pass along in our movies are no longer contained to our own nation; they are spread across continents, watched in movie theaters and TV screens across the world, printed in books in every major language. The stories we write are templated off the stories we hear: I grew up thinking that stories happened to white american teens in high schools, and so those were the stories I wrote too.
This is why, when a movie like The Book of Life comes along, it’s important to pay attention. A story about Mexican culture: is that niche, or universal? If it is a niche, then how come a story about a white anglo-saxon kid in a neat American suburb is universal enough to be imposed across the entire world as the sort of ideal of what stories should be? What makes that any more accessible to me, as a Latin@, than the Mexican story?
If you say that focusing on a culture outside the White American accepted Story is pandering, self absorbed, or god forbid, racist, you are missing the big picture. When every story we hear is layer after layer of whitewashing and cultural imperialism, we must claw, fight and retrieve our own cultures from below, celebrate them, enhance them, exaggerate them, make them LOUD, because there is no other way for our voices to be heard. If we are different, then we are here to love every part of us that is different, every part of us that deviated from the norm, because our stories have value, and we never hear them, never in the way we hear the White American story.
I am not Mexican, and therefore I can not ever actually know what value this movie holds to my Mexican friends; but I know what it felt to see Rio, to see my nation and culture bright and beautiful, plastered all over the American movie theater for all to see; between the cliches of carnaval and soccer was the essence of my childhood, and the story that never got told in my movies before. I am Latin@, and I feel the culture, especially moreso now that I live in Los Angeles, in a neighbourhood saturated with Mexicans, Salvadoreans, Cubans and many other cultures similar to mine. And our stories will continue to go untold, unless we drag them out kicking and screaming, unless we amplify them and make them our own.
I have no doubt that somewhere out there, a Mexican kid’s life will be changed by this movie. And I want to ensure that it will happen, again and again, many times more.
just so we don’t have another “Coraline was made by Tim Burton” deal on our hands
The Book of Life
- is directed by Jorge Gutierrez, creator of of El Tigre. he is the major figure behind the movie, having come up with the idea originally as well
- is produced by several people, one of whom is Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, etc
- is written by Jorge Gutierrez, joined by Doug Landale, creator of the Weekenders
- has several character designs by Sandra Equihua, Gutierrez’s wife and co-creator of El Tigre