By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Mexican Movies’ is a short story from Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, a 1991 collection of short stories by the American writer Sandra Cisneros (born 1954). In the story, a young Chicana girl describes going to her local movie theatre to see Mexican movies with her parents and her baby brother, Kiki.
Many of Sandra Cisneros’ short pieces of fiction are as much prose poetry as they are conventional stories, and ‘Mexican Movies’ is a good example of this. Nevertheless, before we offer an analysis of the meaning of this little vignette, some recap of the story’s ‘plot’, or details, might be instructive.
‘Mexican Movies’: plot summary
The narrator is a young girl who describes going to her local cinema on Saturdays with her parents and younger brother, Kiki, to watch Mexican movies. She begins by mentioning a film starring Pedro Armendáriz (1912-63), a noted Mexican film actor. In the film, he plays a rather stupid character who falls in love with his boss’s wife, who causes him problems.
When his character starts to undress her, the narrator’s father gives his children some money and sends them out into the lobby of the cinema to buy something, until the racy part of the movie has passed. The narrator describes the lobby of the cinema, with its velvet curtains and a velvet rope marking off an area of the cinema that’s out of bounds.
The narrator and her brother use their coins – quarters, specifically – to buy candy treats from the vending machine in the ladies’ toilets. There is also a counter in the foyer where they can buy sweet treats. The narrator recommends that, if buying jujubes (a gummy kind of candy), the box should be kept afterwards because it can be used to make the sound of a donkey braying while you’re sitting watching the film. This practice is so widespread that usually someone else will answer you with their jujube box, braying in response.
The narrator tells us she enjoys the movies of Pedro Infante best of all. He always survives his many escapades because he sings the happy song that ends the movie. The narrator’s brother, Kiki, is young and small, and likes to run up and down the aisles of the cinema. The narrator, being older, has been tasked by her parents with the job of looking after her younger brother.
Occasionally a child will climb up onto the stage and their figure will be silhouetted against the cinema screen. Everyone laughs when this happens. Or a baby starts crying and somebody shouts for them to remove their child from the cinema (this is the meaning of ‘¡Qué saquen a ese niño!’). If Kiki cries, the narrator has to take him out.
She describes the popcorn smell of the cinema theatres, and says that they are allowed to buy some and eat them. She and her brother copy the action of the clown on the box the popcorn comes in. She concludes by stating that she likes Mexican movies, because even a boring film can provide a restful experience, whereby she and her brother roll up in their seats and fall asleep. Then their parents pick them up and carry them out and put them to bed, so that when they wake up, it’s Sunday and they’re happy.
‘Mexican Movies’: analysis
We can argue that there are two main themes to ‘Mexican Movies’. One is the theme of family togetherness and happiness which the narrator outlines: going to see these movies on Saturdays is a family occasion involving simple pleasures which nevertheless possess great significance. The ritual usually ends with the two children being carried home by the loving parents, and placed into their beds where they sleep through until Sunday. We are told about the quirks individual family members possess – the mother’s fear of rats, for instance, leading her always to sit with her feet off the ground – but the overall picture is one of contentment and peace.
The other theme, suggested by the title of the story and its opening paragraph, is the role of cinema in promoting or perpetuating certain stereotypical roles. Most Pedro Armendáriz films involve the actor getting inadvisably involved romantically with a woman, whom he invariably undresses in the course of the movie. By contrast, Pedro Infante always plays a more wholesome character, who never undresses the female character and who usually sings and rides a horse. Women are there to support the male leads in both cases, usually as the romantic interest, and sometimes to provide some titillation for the (adult) viewers.
Viewed few the more innocent eyes of the young narrator, these ‘Mexican movies’ sound quaint and innocent enough, but as so often in Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros appears to be satirising the limitations of Mexican cinema in challenging existing cultural stereotypes (with the reference to the ‘big sombrero’ Infante’s character ‘always’ wears being perhaps the clearest indication). Cisneros’ young narrator is too naïve to realise the extent to which these male and female role models are restrictive, but she reveals their limitations through her summaries of their plots and character types.
Cisneros provides a clever visual symbol of the ways in which the two worlds – the unreal world of the movies themselves, and the real world inhabited by the narrator and her family – intersect. The narrator tells us that whenever a child climbs on the stage and creates a ‘double silhouette’, with their shadow merging with their own (dark) body as it moves in front of the screen, everyone laughs. It is as if Cisneros is suggesting that the figures in the movie are ‘shadows’ of real-life characters (and real-life roles), or that the people viewing the movie are themselves shadows or copies of what they have seen on the screen.
This irruption of the real world into the world of the Mexican movies only underscores the ways in which the movies are reinforcing existing roles, and especially gender roles, which are present in society. Note how the narrator’s two parents behave when Kiki starts crying: the father refuses to act, simply because he is watching a movie and clearly does not consider it his ‘role’, as a father, to care for his baby. As the mother is unable to move because of her fear of rats, their daughter must take on the mother’s role and keep the baby quiet.