They make up one-third of California's population. They play a vital part of the state's economy, the fifth largest in the world. Yet judging by the sort of public policy passed in this state, Californians don't seem to care all that much about the rights of Latinos.
Seems we're more willing to blame them-for high unemployment rates, crime, drug trafficking, welfare and overpopulation. If these largely anti-birth control Catholics and lowballing employees would just leave our Golden State (which, ironically, was part of Mexico until our military said different), our problems would vanish.
Wrong, according to A Day Without a Mexican, the new film directed by Sergio Arau and co-written by his wife, Yareli Arizmendi, who also stars in the film.
An amusing premise, A Day Without a Mexican chronicles a day when a strange fog isolates the state of California and all of the Latinos vanish. Gone are the gardeners, nannies, teachers, congresspersons, newspersons, professional athletes, laborers and professionals of Latino descent. One-third of California's population is missing.
While some Californians celebrate the disappearance of Latinos, the state's economy begins a downward spiral.
Who is going to do the cleaning and parenting? Who is going to pick all the produce that makes agriculture, not Hollywood, California's largest export?
And since Latinos are the fastest-growing consumer group in the country, who's going to buy our endless supply of goods? Who's going to make the rich Anglos richer?
As the film asks (and answers), “How do you make the invisible visible? You take it away.”
“It was 1994 when Pete Wilson was running for re-election and pushing Proposition 187 as a solution to the state's problems,” Arizmendi told CityBeat. “And we thought, ‘What would California do if there were no Mexicans?'”
In A Day Without a Mexican, the only Latino remaining is Lila Rodriguez (played by Arizmendi), a newswoman who holds the fate of the Latino population in her hands.
Or does she?
Born in Mexico City, Arizmendi came to the states in 1983. Her family moved to Kansas, where she discovered “a tremendous ignorance.” When her new boyfriend wanted to introduce Arizmendi to the family, for instance, his mother replied, “If she's not very dark, I suppose it's OK.”
Arizmendi then moved to San Diego to study at USCD, where she experienced the opposite culture shock.
“In Kansas, being a Mexican was exotic,” she explains. “Then I got to California and everyone was Mexican, so I'm like, ‘Where's my edge?'”
Arizmendi describes herself as looking “like an Arab.” In San Diego, she encountered “the typical, ‘You don't look like a Mexican' thing. So it really sent me into an identity thing of, ‘Where do I come from and what is the dissected measurement of what am I?' Identity is perceived.”
After getting her bachelor's degree in political science, Arizmendi earned her MFA at UCSD, where she was awarded the Grace Kelly Fellowship and, later, the Grace Kelly Achievement Award.
Aside from school, Arizmendi was active in San Diego theater. She worked with Luis Valdez at Teatro Campesino, toured with Teatro de la Esperanza to Nicaragua and participated with the Border Art Workshop. She appeared onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse, the San Diego Repertory Theatre and Sushi Gallery. Arizmendi also developed Watcha! Stage Café, a social-satire cabaret at the Centro Cultural De La Raza in San Diego.
Her first big break came in the early '90s when she met Arau while working on her master's thesis, titled “Whatever Happened to the Sleepy Mexican? Four Ways to be a Contemporary Artist.” They became romantic, and Aura cast her as Rosuara in his 1993 film, Like Water for Chocolate. Since, she's had minor roles in films like Beverly Hills Cop III and The Big Green, and has made TV appearances in NYPD Blue and Six Feet Under.
Arau and Arizmendi's collaboration led to the first edition of A Day Without a Mexican-a 28-minute mockumentary that won several film festival awards.
It attracted distributors who were willing to fund a feature-length version. To bring it into full scope, Arizmendi and Arau brought in Mexican film composer, Sergio Guerrero, and shot a large portion of the film on location in San Diego.
Though the feature-length film deals with all Latinos-there are more than 40 countries south of the U.S. border-they decided to keep the original title.
“We did this for historical reasons, because the word ‘Mexican' has become a pejorative word in our language,” says Arau. “And I want to change that.”
This begs a larger question: with so much miscegenation and cross-cultural representations in the media, is there a universal Latino identity that the film can relate to?
“I think identity is, in a large part, perceived by how you perceive yourself,” says Arizmendi. “But, a lot, it comes from how others perceive you.
“Being a Latino on the West Coast is different than being a Latino on the East Coast,” she continues. “I think the strength of [A Day Without a Mexican's] Cuban character in Miami [is that he] makes you walk like you're the owner of the world, versus the Mexican character here [in San Diego].
“That's because so much of the [Latino population on the West Coast] comes from the rural or the underclass in the urban centers. So you're tiptoeing about, and it's better if you're not seen and [you're] just going to do your job.”
Speaking from experience, Arizmendi says that Latinos who aren't quiet and become professionals are often sought out as spokespersons for Latino issues, but little more.
“I find that strange,” she says. “Why do you expect me to be able to come forth and be able to talk about any Latino issue? I can probably talk about the war in Iraq better than a lot of Latino issues in California. I am a citizen of the United States and a person in the world and I have feelings about everything.
“But they will only contact me when it's a Latino issue.”
A Day Without a Mexican opens May 14 at AMC Mission Valley 20, AMC Palm Promenade, Edwards Mira Mesa Stadium 18 and Pacific Gaslamp All Stadium 15.