Mexican Cinema
Of churros and charros

by John Mraz

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 23-24
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. 287 pp. $29.95.

Beatriz Reyes Nevares, The Mexican Cinema: Interviews with Thirteen Directors. Translated by Carl J. Mora and Elizabeth Gard. Introduction by E. Bradford Burns. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976. 176 pp.

The Mexicans have a word for it — churro. A churro is any piece of work hastily and poorly done, but Mexicans use the word most often to describe the endless stream of wretched movies turned out by an abysmally commercial cinema. Thus, it has come to mean a film produced for little money (except in the case of the great national churros, such as CAMPANAS ROJAS, discussed below), less time, and no imagination — purely for the “fast buck.” Mexican Cinema has so dominated by churros (sometimes about charros, the Mexican cowboys) that observers from other cultures have rarely found little else to remark on. That, however, is not a comment just about the poor quality of Mexican commercial cinema. It also tells us something about the "otherness" of Mexico.

The otherness of Mexico is sometimes difficult to see from a U.S. perspective. U.S. commodities and popular culture have penetrated everywhere to such a degree that Mexico sometimes looks like an unintentional parody of the U.S. to us. Maybe that's why I laughed at the first Mexican film I saw. Along with a good many others, I chuckled derisively at what is one of the Mexican classics, MARÍA CANDELARIA (dir. Emilio Fernández, 1943). Most of the rest of the audience just left. In my Mexican history class, with the air alive with struggle, we all saw ourselves as proper "Third Worlders." Immersed in polemics about imperialism and neocolonialism, we could easily follow the didacticism of THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES. Weaned on the rapid-fire form of U.S. television advertising, we could appreciate the dramatic juxtaposition of Santiago Alvarez's Cuban documentaries. Introduced to the murals of Rivera, Siquieros, and Orozco, we could perceive the great revolutionary themes in their work. But, even in one of its finest examples, Mexican commercial cinema just seemed too strange and too distant for us.

It is ironic (but not meaningless) that Mexican cinema is so culturally disparaged. As Carl Mora notes, it is "the largest and most important in the Spanish-speaking world." (p. xi) Along with Argentine cinema, it dominated film production in Latin America for almost three decades. Thus, it has a similar position of cultural hegemony in relation to the Spanish speaking world that the U.S. cinema has to the English speaking world. Further, Mexican cinema is the most important foreign language cinema in the United States, serving the largest Spanish speaking audience outside Latin America and Spain. Nonetheless, it is paradoxically easier to obtain films from Cuba, Bolivia, Brazil or Argentina for non-commercial screenings. Mexican cinema stays almost entirely confined to the commercial screens of the Spanish speaking barrios, reproducing at the cultural level the physical and economic marginality of Mexicans and other Latin Americans in the United States.

This neglect is beginning to be redressed. Carl Mora has generally succeeded in his aim "to provide an introduction to the Mexican commercial cinema for Americans [sic] and other English-speaking readers." (p. xii) Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-1980, a very broad, largely descriptive, survey of the history of Mexican cinema, focuses on films important to the Mexican structure of film production and distribution. Given the almost total lack of anything written in English on Mexican cinema, it is a timely and useful book.

However, the book suffers from today's inflationary processes; the hardcover version, with 140 pages of text, sells for $30. (Note the outrageous proportions this takes on in Mexico, where $30 is currently worth 4,500 pesos, approximately a week's wages for an assistant professor.) And the book's scant 140 pages are deceiving, for many pages are taken up with production stills, which do little more than introduce us to the faces of Mexican actors, actresses, and directors. Such visual material could have been of great analytic value had Mora used instead the University of California Press' fine photographic reproductions for frame enlargements with which to study the visual structures of Mexican cinema. The book is filled out with another 140 pages of appendices, notes, bibliography, and index — all of which are useful but, particularly in the case of the appendix (a 100-page listing of Mexican film production, year by year), not essential.

The book's title is also inflationary. The author promises us that the book will show us how Mexican films are a "reflection" of Mexican society. But his lack of background in Mexican history and culture make his fulfilling such a task difficult. Although the book uses a clear chronological framework, Mora makes few attempts to relate the various films to their specific historical context. When he does, the results are often less than satisfactory. For example, he says in the preface,

"Mexican filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s responded to their mainly middle-class moviegoers' liking for melodrama and turned out a great number of such movies." (p. xiii)

In using the concept "middle class” to discuss Mexico of the 1940s and 50s, Mora rushes in where almost anyone else would fear to tread. A long and bitterly ideological controversy, still unresolved, debates whether a middle class of such significance existed in Mexico in those years. Mora may be referring to the development of a predominantly urban audience, for in these years Mexico became increasingly urbanized.

But, to be urban is not necessarily to be middle class. I believe that the audience for these movies was (and is) composed of the pueblo, the "people": maids, secretaries, campesinos, and workers. The author is apparently unfamiliar with this long debate on the middle classes in Latin America (a debate fueled in part through generous grants from U.S. foundations for studies proving the existence of the Latin American counterparts to the great "American" middle class myth). I feel that he has created an audience demand that probably never really existed.

Mora's lack of background in Mexican culture stands as an even greater hindrance. Writers such as Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz have analyzed many of the concepts popularized in Mexican films, such as the "inferiority complex" and the "pachuco," in depth. Had Mora familiarized himself a little more with Mexican culture, he might have been able to develop these themes and avoid errors of judgment. For example, in discussing MARÍA CANDELARIA, he approvingly notes,

"… false idealization or not, Fernández presented a positive view of Indians …" (p. 65-6).

But, romantic and idealized renderings of Indians were neither new to Mexican art, nor positive: the art of the late Porfiriato(1) is replete with paintings idealizing Indians to the point of making them appear like ancient robed Athenians. This is simply another way of denying Indians' otherness by reducing them to caricatures. The first duty of a foreign critic, as Michael Chanan argues, is to orient viewers to the otherness of foreign films by directing

"the audience's attention toward those elements that might escape them because of a lack of knowledge of the reality that the film assumes in its own context."(2)

It is regrettable that Mora cannot build a critic's bridge to the otherness of Mexican cinema, for it was that very otherness which made us students snicker at MARÍA CANDELARIA.

However, the book's shortcomings may also result from Mora's inability to deal with the subject analytically. Here, given his persistent, simplistic anti-Marxism (out of place in intelligent Mexican film circles), I ask whether or not historical materialism might have given his work more of an analytic focus. The book does provide a useful overview of production and distribution and gives some background on the role of unions, but it never gets below the surface.

One pertinent instance of the work's analytic superficiality is the manner in which it deals with the concept of commercialism, a recurring motif in discussions of Mexican cinema. For example, Reyes Nevares says the new directors in her book attribute the low quality of Mexican films to "an excess of commercialism." (p. 4) And, Mora, in addressing this issue, draws a sharp distinction between U.S. and Mexican producers:

“… the moguls of Hollywood were not only hard-nosed businessmen but also dedicated filmmakers; they plowed their profits back into the movie business. In Mexico, on the other hand, producers were often businessmen out to make a quick profit who had little interest in building a solidly based production company. The directors were hampered in their efforts to make quality films by a strong commercialist imperative …” (p. 48)

But, how are we to account for this difference between Mexican and U.S. producers? Are Mexicans more avaricious (perhaps because of their Mestizo blood)? Or, does this phenomenon of "excess commercialism" bear a distinct relationship to Mexican neocolonialism  — a situation notorious for the difficulties of capital formation and, in the case of cinema, for confronting Hollywood's affluent technical perfectionism.

Rather than attempt to grapple with such issues, Mora appears content to describe. For example, his discussion of commercialism in the recent past seems to flow out of the mouths of Margarita López Portillo and commercial film executives linked to her. Margarita López Portillo is the sister of José López Portillo (President of Mexico, 1976-1982) and was appointed by him as Director of the national government owned system of Radio-Television-Cinema. She virtually dismantled the state cinema apparatus created under Luis Echeverría (President, 1970-1976) and promoted that "return to commercialism" which Mora celebrates in his final chapter. Widely known as "La Macartita" for her McCarthy like purges of the film and television industries, she is almost universally despised for having destroyed Mexico's cinematic past an present. As one writer remarked the day after the National Cineteca burned on March 24, 1982, annihilating Mexico's film history:

"They had already done away with our national cinema's present, and they just now finished doing away with our past."(3)

Margarita López Portillo later stated that she had known the Cineteca was a "time bomb" because of the nitrate film stored below it. But, rather than spend the 25 million pesos (one million dollars at the time) to make the necessary improvements, she preferred to disburse some 32 million (the official estimate) to fund a ridiculously poor Soviet-Mexican coproduction about John Reed, CAMPANAS ROJAS (RED BELLS). Mexicans are unanimously critical of this great national churro (one pro-Soviet director described it as "disgraceful") as they are appalled by the current commercial fare. Mora extols this "return to commercialism" in such statements as these:

“Commercialism has won out in Mexico and the movie industry is enjoying an economic recovery. This is the logical, usual pattern for a capitalist country.” (p. 140)

But he cannot substantiate this assertion, and in the current situation it is extremely dubious. Those who live in Mexico and are subjected to movies such as EL MACHO BIÓNICO have a good deal less reason than Mora to cheer.

Not only is Mora's book lacking in historical, cultural, and economic analysis, its descriptions of films are uneven. I assume that if someone chooses to write the history of a national cinema, s/he will necessarily consider what might constitute the elements of that "national style." Mora flirts with the issue in discussing Emilio Fernández, but never develops the argument. He does offer an interesting perspective on what he calls "the most enduring genre of the Mexican cinema, the musical comedia ranchera,” in his comparison of the charro and the U.S. cowboy:

“His [the charro's] environment is not a wild frontier area but a minutely ordered feudal society in which the hacendado presides with paternalistic yet firm authority over his socioeconomic inferiors — the hacienda's employees, tenants, and, of course, women. The charro glories in his masculinity and he exercises it not so much to right a wrong but rather to enhance his male self-esteem and social prerogatives. It is the idealization of an attitude firmly rooted not only in the Porfirian past but in Mexico's colonial tradition …” (p. 47)

An interesting and provocative argument, it reveals the weakness of remaining at a descriptive level. The author accepts the film's definition of "feudal" society. He is seemingly unaware that a highly developed historical discussion (with a definite ideological cast) rages as to precisely when the hacienda system became capitalist. Only the most starry-eyed nostalgia would define the haciendas of the Porfiriato and later periods as feudal. It is well that Mora described this important genre, but analysis is also important.

An equally provocative, but less interesting, discussion takes place around the statist cinema of Echeverría and its "finest example," CANOA. Mora finds CANOA "the most powerful and unsettling statement on the bloody repression of 1968.”(p. 124) He states:

“It is nothing short of miraculous that the regime would permit, much less produce, such a statement on the events of 1968, especially so since at the time the incumbent president was widely thought to have been directly responsible for the army's attack on the demonstrators [at Tlatelolco].”(4) (p. 126)

An analysis of the film is crucial as a prime example of the most important and interesting film movement in Mexico's recent past, but such an analysis will also reveal how far short of miraculous it is that the film was produced. CANOA deals with a superstitious village community (Canoa) which, urged on by a reactionary priest, murderously attacks five young employees from the University of Puebla. It is clearly meant as a reference to Tlatelolco, though a Tlatelolco turned inside out and standing on its head. At Tlatelolco, the army massacred those assembled. In CANOA, it is the Mexican pueblo — ignorant and primitive — which attempts to murder the men, who are then saved by the army! The story of an uncivilized and sadistic people who require a strong state (or church) to protect individual lives is at least as old as that of MARÍA CANDELARIA, where Maria is stoned to death by her pueblo because her mother was a prostitute.

So there is nothing miraculous about the fact that the film was produced under Echeverría, given the distinct responsibility he bore for the massacre as Secretary of Gobernación.(5) Felipe Cazals, CANOA's director, reinforces the film's message by using a documentary style. He does so to remind us persistently that "this really happened," but such a technique raises issues about realism and generalization. That is, it may be true that, in this instance, the army served to protect the men from a barbaric pueblo. But the enormity of Tlatelolco’s horror hangs over Mexico like a savage cloud. The facts insist that it is more generally true of the state (and its representative, the army) to act in a brutal and repressive fashion. What is really nothing short of miraculous is that anyone ever swallowed this film's attempt to blame the Mexican people for Tlatelolco — however obliquely disguised the message.

If Mora's book falls short of perfection, it is still much better than Beatriz Reyes Nevares' collection of interviews. Although she has interviewed 13 of the leading Mexican directors, being careful to include both "old" and "new", she offers little of substance in the book. Reyes Nevares' knowledge of cinema appears to be quite limited; rather, she seems thrilled to make contact with such famous personages. The predominant tone of the book is "chummy," if not that of an intellectual "groupie." For example, this is how the book begins with an interview with Emilio Fernández:

"Is Mr. Fernández in?"

“I don't know how many times I repeated this question. On the telephone, in person, in any number of ways. ‘El Indio’ was never in. Does El Indio Fernández really exist? Who knows?” …

“Until the last, one day around noon, in the studios … The creator of MARÍA CANDELARIA is surrounded by friends, seated at a very long table. It is like a fortress. The group seems impregnable. How can I get him to interrupt the conversation with his friends and say something to me?”

“But El India Fernández isn't as fierce as he is made out to be, or as he wants people to think he is. He sees me from a distance, gets up, and walks toward me. At a small table, next to the one he shares with that chorus, we can talk.”

“At last … and now it happens — as it always seems to in these instances — that I don't know what to ask him. What question would be worthy of this personage of the Mexican cinema? My God, I shouldn't waste this chance.” (pp. 11-12)

Such "chummyism" is not only annoying but also important to criticize, for it indicates inexperience with the world of cinema and a non-critical attitude toward it.

Originally published in Spanish as Trece directores del cine mexicano (13 Directors of the Mexican Cinema — a little more modest as a title), the book was promoted by Rodolfo Echeverría, brother of President Luis and appointed by him to direct the Banco National Cinematográfico, 1971-76. Evidently, the book's purpose was to push the New Mexican cinema at home and abroad in order to counteract the fact that the Mexican cinema has lost its commercial appeal. “This is the heart of the matter.” (p. 4) Paradoxically the excess of commercialism has caused films to lose their commercial appeal, and one response here is to produce an essentially commercial book. The book is useful, although it could have been even more so by listing the various directors' films.

In sum, although I probably wouldn't call these books churros, I believe they were published prematurely. Such are the ways of commercialism. This is particularly disappointing in the case of Carl Mora, for he has obviously put in a great deal of time, effort, and thought. Why did the U.C. Press publish the study before it had really been transformed from Ph.D. thesis (University of Alabama) to book? And why did the University of New Mexico Press decide to translate Reyes Nevares' book when something by Emilio García Rivera or Jorge Ayala Blanco would have been much more substantial?(7)

Both books have disappointing texts but are beautifully printed and contain superb photographic reproductions. While both fill a gap, publishers in general would do well to keep in mind that what gets published in English about Latin America becomes disproportionably important because of the language difference. Though both books contribute to our understanding of a cinema almost totally ignored in the United States — except, of course, by its millions of viewers — the books really bring us no closer to answering the central question about Mexican cinema: How is it that a culture which has produced world-class art and literature continues to be dominated by a cinema of churros? The story of Mexican film is still to be written.


1. The "Porfiriato" (1876-1910) is the period immediately prior to the revolution, during which Porfirio Díaz ruled Mexico.

2. "El cine como realidad del otro: la situacion de la crítica del nuevo cine latinoamericano en Englaterra," Cine Cubano, No. 101, p. 75.

3. Emilio Carballido, “'Nos han privado' de nuestra historia nacional fílmica: Emilio García Rivera,” Uno más Uno, 26 March 1982, p. 19.

4. Tlatelolco is the plaza in which the army massacred between 500 to 1000 people on October 2, 1968. The event is referred to as Tlatelolco.

5. Secretary of Gobernación is the most powerful of the cabinet positions in Mexico, placing him essentially in charge of internal matters.

6. This information comes out of conversations with Alberto Ruy Sánchez, author of the most interesting work to date on cinema during the Echeverría period, Mitología de un cine en crisis (Mexico: Premia editora, 1981).

7. García Rivera is best known for his indispensable nine-volume study, Historia documental del cine mexicano (Mexico: ERA, 1969 on) and Ayala Blanco for his interpretive La aventura del cine mexicano (Mexico, ERA, 1968).