Mi Familia: Nava’s “double-edged sword” Depicting Mexicans in a New World
The reason why I choose to call the film “a double-edged sword” is because of Nava’s over-simplifying of Mexican people and the struggle they had. Even though the film represents a misguided and idealized search for a cultural identity, underlying themes such as migration, exile and cultural displacements are never thoroughly adressed, Nava preferred to portray a more typical family household who is trying to achieve American Dream. Nava’s acknowledgement about his purpose, that in making Mi Familia he didn’t mean to teach or provide a history of the Chicano experience. Rather the main purpose, he argues, was to make people feel proud about being a Chicano. Well, in my opinion he failed on that aspect.
The story is narrated by Jose’s eldest son, Paco, as he chronicles his familiy’s life described by a rich tapestry of character and culture along with visual metaphors. The film attempts to combat the racial construction of Latino people typically seen in Hollywood films – the stereotypical hot-blooded lover, gang member, the greaser or lazy guy wearing a sombrero. But still, we have Chucho the gang leader, though his stereotypical character is connected to the identity crisis he is in. Eventually it leads to his tragic death which shows the ultimate result waiting for those who does not accept assimilation into American culture.
The difference of mindsets immigrant Jose and his children (especially Chucho) had, creates the identity crisis which is the result of cultural displacement. They find their father’s ideal impossible. They feel like they are faced with the choice of either being Mexican or being American. The reason why Chucho ends up being a stereotype is to get rid of the pressure and gain respect, sadly it brings him his early demise.
A major problem with the film is that none of the characters are fully developped expect for an attempt to show Jimmy’s troubled life. As a spectator, we learn very little about Memo and Paco, or how they achieved their success. Particularly, in regard to Memo, the film hints at internalized racism shown through Memo’s Americanization (he’s known as Bill) and his desire to embrace white culture. His embarrassment about Mexican culture can be seen clearly when he brings his white girlfriend and her family to meet his family.
Even though we praise Mi Familia for fighting against the stereotypical Mexican image, it surprisingly discounts gender politics and instead reinforces patriarchal values of Chicana and Latina. We see this during the Irene’s wedding when Jose advises his son-in-law that “a good wife is the best thing that can happen to a man in his life.” The denotation of “good wife” inevitably means the chaste, subservient, obedient virgin and mother image. So the notion of “good wife” is a linguistic remnant of an archaic history predicated on the subservient mothering of the macho, whose sexual power is constructed on the powerlessness and chastity of women. Only way female characters can exist as a strong one is to keep their contextualized mother image. Maria and Toni are good examples of it. What makes Maria important in her family is how she completely adopte to mother and protector of chastity notions. There’s no other way she can assert herself a place in macho-dominated Mexican culture. Toni, on the other hand, show the different side of Chicana problem in the film. Even though Nava tries to show her as a dominant character, she is not much different than Maria as a woman in macho culture. Toni’s lack of sexuality is seen “unnatural” by the male characters. Her sexual image causes her objectification and it is verbalised by one of Chucho’s friend who tells him, “I would give my let nut for a moment with her in the back seat of my Chevy.” The silence of Chucho’s might surprise spectator but explains the big problem. After Toni’s removal from the film, Paco’s comment reinforces sexist discourse; “We all thought it was a little strange that Toni wanted to become a nun but then she was the bossy type and that is the type that usually becomes a nun.” This message shows to the spectator that Chiacas have no place in family unless they bow to the male authority, which is symbolized by Catholic church on that occasion.
At this point, the other major problem of the film overlaps with this one. Toni, Irene and to some extend Maria function more as adornments than as Chicana subjects. The choice to portrat these female characters as two dimensional appears intentional on the part of Nava insofar as he provides male characters with a space to frolic in patriarchal banding and the histronics of wounded macho. So basicly, Nava who decided not to develop any character properly gives even lesser importance to presence of strong Chicana individuals.
In the end, while Mi Familia can be considered as a successful fim which deconstructs common Mexican stereotypes, it is clear that Nava did not really give any thought on underlying realities of their society and decided not to develop any proper characters, ignore Chicana as individuals and instead, depicted a Mexican family who are trying to assert their place in American Dream in their own way.