Why Spy Kids Matters

Memories of a media brown-out

By Mark Sotelo
Published on LatinoLA: July 25, 2003

Why Spy Kids Matters

Juni and Carman Cortez, America's favorite underage spies, are back in theaters this summer for what is being billed as their final and most audacious adventure yet.

Barring a close up of Jennifer Lopez' attributes, "Spy Kids 3: Game Over" will be the first film to feature three dimensional Latinos. The entire lighthearted series itself has been a great departure from the one dimensional Latino characterizations that have caused groans and reinforced stereotypes throughout the decades.

For those not up to speed, Spy Kids follows the adventures of two siblings: The bold and tomboyish Carmen (Alexa Vega) and her younger decidedly more awkward brother Juni (Daryl Sabara), who is cursed with doubts, warts and unruly hair. Together they battle all manner of enemies and creatures in dangerous, imaginative locales, the latest being in an alternative universe that exists within a video game,

They are part of a burgeoning group of Spy Kids, who are themselves offshoots of their father (Antonio Banderas) and mother's (Carla Gugino) own spy careers. It should be noted that as each of the characters have matured in this film and as the previous "Spy Kids Island of Lost Dreams", their parents' onscreen time has become less and less. "Game Over" continues the trend.

"Spy Kids" is the brainchild of Director/ Writer Robert Rodriguez, a man noted for his visual sense in films such as "Desperado", "El Mariachi", and the soon to be released "Once Upon a Time in Mexico", which rounds out his "El Mariachi" trilogy. Hardcore fans of those films and Rodriguez' breakneck style of directing are somewhat confounded by his detour to kids fare, but I for one applaud his decision to make these films. Being near Rodriguez age bracket I think I understand why they are so important to him.

For better or worse, television and movies are a mirror, however distorted, in which children learn about values, culture, material desire, and societal expectations. They also learn from the absence of those important components and for many Latino children growing up when I did in the 70's, we were a non-factor. There was a Fat Albert but no Hefty Jose.

Through the eyes of a young child, never seeing yourself represented in such a large frame of cultural reference as television has a way of inferring that there is something wrong with your culture or race, something undesirable and indeed something wrong with you.

For Latinas who have been rarely seen as anything but maids or the occasional sassy chica obsessed with her love life on a sitcom, this is particularly unfortunate. Role models, real or fictional, exist but are rarely seen.

Perhaps in Carmen Cortez, young girls will revel in a true rarity in Hollywood for a female of any race, a girl action hero who does not inexplicably pause to show of her breasts or grind around in her panties before kicking evil hienie.

We had Cheech and Chong, who were not for kids, and Freddie Prinze, who might have broken through if not for his suicide at such a young age. Latinos mostly existed in the news at 11 and it was rarely a good thing when that happened.

All of this led me to rather confounding idea that I was the wrong race. This was exasperated by the fact that I was light skinned and friends in my friends took delight in beaner jokes and weird urban Myths about Mexican people. I did not have the strength of character as a kid to correct this and to cop to not having any of the Mexican super powers, like a foldable vertebra to get under wire fences, amazing swimming ability should a certain river get in the way, and leaping ability second only to Superman, guaranteed to frustrate your ordinary border patrol agent.

More painful was the memory of an older relative who had darker pigment then my own. One day he held up his brown arm and made a dire statement. "See this? This will happen to you to one day." I don't know if seeing if seeing a movie like "Spy Kids" when I was a kid might have taught me to think another way but it simply was not an option back then.

I can, however, tell you the odd sense of pride and wistfulness I felt at seeing a film which featured Latino heroes, a functional intact family and reflected the vibrant color of Latin heritage through it's rather blissed out art direction. (Memo to my parents: why couldn't I have a groovy pad like Carmen and Juni's?)

I had the sense in watching these films that we had in a small way arrived and not in a cloying "Chasing Papi" sort of way. The previous two "Spy Kids" films have been profitable and there is no reason to believe this one won't be as well.

It could be argued that in the opportunities Latinos have had to depict themselves or to be depicted, there have been many missteps and lost opportunities. A sincere effort to show we have "made it" has resulted in a slew of fictional lawyers, who are rarely shown working but are seen enjoying the spoils.

Of course you might blame this on the Cosby show who showed a doctor and lawyer combo which inspired a generation to aspire for these careers as apparently you only had to actually show up at work for a few hours a day and still got a have a very happening house full of well behaved children.

I always thought the boxing aspect of "Resurrection Blvd." trod on very cliched terrain. My parents were from East L.A. and few of them relied on boxing to survive. My father went several rounds with my brother but that's about it.

More problematic was "Kingpin" featuring the story of an ambitious but troubled Mexican drug lord and his family. Well-written, acted and produced and more violent then the a two day old chalupa eaten after midnight, the show did reinforce the ugly stereotype that rich Latinos must have been up to something nefarious to be rolling around with that kind of bank. (When pulled, over I deny any such affiliation and tell police that I am in fact a boxer by day and law student by night and this seems to work.)

Yet, I could not deny that it was also compelling. Still, the real revolution of Latinos in media will of course be televised but it will be a quiet one. It looks looks the "George Lopez Show", feels like the family depicted in PBS excellent "American Family" and sounds like Dora (yes, yes, the bridge. I know were going to cross the damn bridge!!! Enough already!) and has actually existed for a long time in the talented and underutilized Paul Rodriguez.

It's a vision of cultural assimilation in which we are not refereed to as "spicy" or have magazines announcing "Latinos!!! They have arrived!" as Newsweek and Time announced during the Ricky Martin Latin "explosion" of five years ago, though I was glad to be informed I had arrived as it meant I could finally stop packing .

Perhaps to this generation there is nothing particularly special about seeing people who look like you on a screen but for those of us who were taught that movie heroes only came in one color, "Spy Kids" is still a revelation.

About Mark Sotelo:
Mark Sotelo is a writer for hire who is not greedy but would like to discover cuisine other then cubes of Ramen. He can be reached at mlsotelo2002@yahoo.com

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