Through the screen: The ones left behind
In its cinematic golden age, travel to Mexico via its films often meant a trip to a land of melodrama, tears and familial strife.
Espiral, a 2008 film directed by Jorge Pérez Solano, contains those elements of a decades-old tradition while dealing with a phenomenon of real importance and consequence in modern-day Mexico. The ‘spiral’ of the title reflects the film’s various movements but above all the movement of men from the village of San Pedro Yodoyuxi, in Oaxaca state, to ‘the other side’, the USA.
This is certainly a subject worthy of attention, in any field. In 2010, 9.4% of the Mexican population lived outside the country, the near totality of them in the United States. Until the financial crisis which began in 2008, it was a trend on a vertiginous upward curve: there were 11.2 million Mexicans in the US in 2005, as opposed to 9.3 million in 2000.
Espiral humanises its discussion of emigration through the story of two families. The story’s main arc follows Diamantina (Iazua Larios), a girl from the village who wants to marry a local boy, Santiago. Her father, Taurino, is less enamoured with the idea, and asks Santiago to pay a dowry. The young man, as a result, sees no choice but to go earn his fortune in the United States. By the time he comes back, Diamantina has been married against her will and has a daughter, Magdalena (in this latter part also played by Iazua Larios, furthering the spiral). Santiago falls in love again on his return, but it cannot be a direct repetition of the past. Attitudes and desires have shifted – hence it is a spiral, not a circle.
Yet there is something of a vicious circle here as well: the more men migrate, the more the village seems without opportunities, and still more decide to leave. The film opens with the village priest scandalised by having to have a girl play Jesus in the Easter passion play, and one of its most striking shots is that of a group of women harvesting a field, doing the ‘men’s work’.
In cinematographic terms, Espiral‘s direction is unobtrustive. The camera is often static, letting the landscapes and colours of San Pedro take their effect. Indeed, such is the beauty of some of the shots of village life that Espiral exposes itself to charges of aestheticizing the situation of the poor and underprivileged (Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s least developed states). This is a recurrent theme in Latin American cinema – one thinks of Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus, which faced similar accusations from some. But Espiral does not provide an uncritical gaze on village life. For all the importance it accords festivals and music, both within the film and in the soundtrack, it does not portray a rural idyll. The spectator sees a woman forced to beg for food after her husband leaves, and it is Taurino’s concept of traditional values which forces Santiago to depart.
The size of Mexican emigration to the US means it has many consequences. Espiral does not deal with many of the ‘hard facts’ – the 3.5 million agricultural jobs lost between 1993 and 2010, the economic dependence on remittances, the links to the devastating ‘drug war’. Other films take a grittier approach to the phenomenon – Luis Estrada’s El infierno (2010), for example, shows the spectator with a town where the men see little option but the ‘narco’ to make a living.
What Espiral does do is show how the emotional and psychological effects of the trend reach even places as remote as San Pedro Yodoyuxi. In the film, at least, these are not all bad: the village’s women learn (through necessity) to have a greater control of their lives and destiny. In spite of everything, the final scene is happy: there is food, music, laughter. Yet always in the background is the unsettling feeling, from the young men above all, that ‘the other side’ is better, more exciting, with more opportunity. And in the film, as no doubt in life, no mention of another statistic: of all migrant groups in the USA, the poorest and least well-educated is the Mexican.