Sweatshops & Drama Queens

Real Women Have Curves a bittersweet take on a mother-daughter relationship

By Ernesto S. Martinez
Published on LatinoLA: October 21, 2002

Sweatshops & Drama Queens

?Real Women Have Curves? (NewMarket) directed by Patricia Cardoso and written by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo opened last weekend in Los Angeles. The film won the dramatic audience award and a special jury prize award for acting to Lupe Ontiveros and America Ferrera at this years Sundance film festival.

An adaptation of a play with the same title and written by Josefina Lopez, the film is profoundly bittersweet -- especially in its representation of a mother/daughter relationship -- but at other times awkward and didactic in its attempt at creating cultural difference between East Los Angeles and the wider (whiter?) mainstream society.

The central story is the bittersweet relationship between the mother and daughter, Carmen (Ontiveros) and Ana (Ferrera). Carmen, played with subtle hysteria by Lupe Ontiveros, is the immigrant mother whose tragic flaw is her inability to comprehend the changing culture in which her immigrant family is immersed. Carmen?s hurtful expressions of love towards Ana -- criticizing her appearance, the importance of a woman?s virginity, and in her lack of commitment to a traditional family structure -- are driven by Carmen?s desires to keep Ana within la familia.

Ana is intelligent, stubborn, persistent and a drama queen -- much like her mother but in a different context. Ana?s desires to perform, succeed, and experience are at odds with her mother?s desires. And it is this central clash of desires that plays out in the film but that is clumsily obscured at times with the larger narrative thrust that feels like a cookie cutter formula to ?universalize? the Latino experience.

The mother-daughter relationship hints at a variety of deep questions about class, race and the meaning of success in the wake of U.S. wealth and opulence alongside immigrant Mexican culture and the erasure of working class traditions wrought by the American Dream.

What makes this film relevant is in how it depicts an immigrant working class woman's struggle to form her daughter out of the same mold which formed her but who is woefully unprepared for the new environment that is influencing her and her daughter. That is what makes the film bittersweet, because Carmen has a large if negative role in influencing her daughter's most relevant traits: fortitude and a persistence to forge onward. Yet, in a new context these traits are what engender a desire to move up and out into mainstream U.S. culture. Ana is like her mother and because of this she succeeds, and because of this she and her mother will never reconcile.

The film stumbles because it takes this central and poignant story, the relationship between Carmen and Ana and ?decenters? it by invoking a larger narrative schematic. Through this larger schematic various troubling portrayals are made about what constitutes a ?good? Latino and what constitutes a ?bad? Latino.

Ana is attending Beverly Hills high school -- evidence of her desire to leave East L.A. -- and Estela (Ingrid Oliu), Ana?s sister, is running a small scale ?sweatshop? (in one of the most didactic moments Ana does some sweatshop economics for mensos i.e. dummies).

These two sites, the school and the sweatshop are the link for Ana?s family to the ?outside.? In order for Ana, or anyone in East L.A. to get to the ?outside? -- meaning success -- one needs help from these institutions: One educational and the other economic. The film presents the link to these institutions through presenting middle-class Latinos who have made it, in the form of Ana?s teacher, Mr. Guzman (a miscast, wide-eyed George Lopez) and Mrs. Glass (Marlene Forte). Mrs. Glass is a successful middle-class Latina who has (shudder) married a Caucasian and is the contractor for the dresses Estela?s shop makes.

Estela, the eldest daughter, has failed to leave East L.A. (and she?s single at 29!) and is ambivalently critiqued for reproducing the ?sweatshop.? Mrs. Glass is criticized for not having the heart to give Estela the advance payment for the dresses under contract in order for Estela to pay the rent and utility bills.

Bad Latinas!

Mr. Guzman is Ana?s savior because he has heart, he cares about his Latino students (at least the ones who attend Beverly Hills) but more importantly he has a close connection to the dean of admissions at Columbia university in New York City ? Ana had not even applied to college at the end of her senior year!

Lalo Alcaraz Lopez, cartoonista, writer and filmmaker has made a short film titled ?Not Another Latino Movie.? The film, a riff on ?Not Another Scary Movie? satires the various cookie cutter representations of Latinos in mainstream U.S. Latino movies. Lopez? film is a faux movie trailer introducing the nonexistent ?Not Another Latino Movie? by introducing various characters like the sweet abuelita, the sell-out college graduate, the cholo with a heart of gold and others who reappear in the growing body of U.S. Latino mainstream films.

Some of the characters in ?Real Women? belong in this calcifying pantheon of ?lovable? Latino characters.

Lopez? short skewers these mainstream film tendencies to create simple one dimensional characters and indirectly indicts the extremely limited space for presenting complex Latino characters in American cinema today.

?Real Women,? despite its shortcomings, does manage to present a cinematic couple not seen on the large screen before and the two actors? performances are noteworthy.

About Ernesto S. Martinez:
Ernesto S. Martinez is diligently working on his dissertation on Latino indie film.

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