MACHETE: Exploiting Anti-Mexican Nativist Phobias

It's a sign of Latino political maturity that a comic film is made about a mock revolt rather than actually making a real r

By Rosa Martha Villarreal
Published on LatinoLA: September 30, 2010

MACHETE: Exploiting Anti-Mexican Nativist Phobias

When my husband and I heard that the mock trailer "Machete" was in development as a full-blown slasher film, we anxiously awaited its release. Fans of the Texas-born director Robert Rodriguez well know his formula: Preposterous, semi-plotless "stories" as a pretense for an hour and a half of visually creative gore and dark humor. As we surveyed the pre-release critical reviews, we were astonished to find that the film was already labeled as "controversial" and "racist" by the legions of paranoid American nativists. How could a film by the irreverent Rodriguez even remotely generate such a fuss?

It was the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in his Theory of Deconstruction, who popularized the notion that creative production carries a "subtext" that reveals a snapshot of that culture's political climate. Based on Rodriguez's previous work, it is doubtful that he intended anything other than a display of over the top gore. However, his "narrative" does take a page from recent events, namely the culmination of anti-immigrant sentiments in Arizona's new immigration enforcement laws. Rather than construct a pro-undocumented/illegal immigrant story as some have alleged, Rodriguez and co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez instead mock the phobias of the nativists by exploiting stereotypes.

Each of the characters represents an anti-Mexican phobia. The protagonist, played by Danny Trejo, is the stock character, the wronged cop turned vigilante. But what has the likes of Fox News up in arms is that his victims are allegedly all white.

Obviously, these "critics" did not bother to watch the film since Machete (Trejo) kills as many if not more Mexicans than white Americans.

Though it is unlawful to cross the border without proper immigration papers, to equate dishwashers, gardeners, and cleaning ladies with violent criminals is a crude rhetorical trick. Professional xenophobes, however, pounce on every news story about a real crime committed by an illegal alien to incite the fears that undocumented immigrants as a group are quite prepared to kill white people.

The casting of Trejo, a dark-skinned, indigenous-looking actor, evokes the images in the news of dark-skinned and mostly Mexican and Central American Indians horded into ICE trucks or scattering like mice in the desert to evade capture. That these images exist in the nativist consciousness is evident in their use in political campaign advertising. Pete Wilson's infamous 1994 gubernatorial commercials come to mind.

The Jessica Alba character also mocks (and unwittingly incites) nativist suspicions. Of the 38 million or so Latinos, the majority are of Mexican descent. Furthermore, anyone who lives near the border or watches the National Geographic series "Border Wars" will notice that most of the Border Patrol agents are none other than Mexican Americans. The Alba character correlates to the fear that Mexican Americans are not true Americans but a Fifth Column ready to turn their backs on their country, jump on the roof of a car and shout, "We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us!" and join in an anti-white revolt.

That quote by the Chicano poet Alurista has been a useful slogan for professional xenophobes. That and El Plan de Santa Barbara, a manifesto created by a self-appointed group of young Chicano activists in the early 1960's---which never took hold in the mostly conservative and skeptical Mexican American mainstream---are used to slander the patriotism of Mexican Americans who have served and died in disproportionate numbers in America's wars starting with World War II.

If the audience didn't get that the film is an elaborate joke, they missed the comic sleight of the hand as portrayed by Michelle Rodriguez's character. The fear that Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans are on a secret mission to re-conquer the lands lost in the Mexican-American War of 1846 is as plausible as the film's notion that a taco vendor can organize and lead an army of gardeners, cooks, and ice-cream vendors in a revolt. It is absurd that people living in a first world country can genuinely believe that a pan and garden tool wielding "army" could even remotely take on a well-armed militia protected by fortified walls. Yet this is the climax of Mr. Rodriguez's film.

Illegal immigration is a serious subject that affects the lives of people on both sides of the border. Some consensus is needed in order to achieve a just and fair solution for these immigrants and at the same time protect the wishes of American citizens, especially those whose properties abuts the border. As I have written in previous essays, illegal immigration affects us Latinos, too, and not just because many have family members who are in the country illegally. As these recent immigrants are poorer than those of previous generations and an increasing number cannot even speak Spanish, they create a difficult challenge for destination Latino communities, particularly in the areas of public education and health care.

Nevertheless, the facts on the ground are indisputable. There is a sizable and powerful minority of Latinos who are Americans, and who are concentrated in the former Mexican territories in the Southwest and California. It is a sign of Latino political maturity that a comic film is made about a mock revolt rather than actually making a real revolt.

About Rosa Martha Villarreal:
Rosa Martha Villarreal's novel "The Stillness of Love and Exile" was the recipent of the 2008 PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award for Best Fiction, and a Silver Medal for Best Regional Fiction in the 2008 Indepedent Publisher Book Awards.

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