MARÍA LLENA ERES DE GRACIA: FAIRY TALE, DRUG CULTURE, AND THE AMERICAN DREAM by Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky Oakland University THE film María llena eres de gracia (2004), directed by Joshua Marston, became a big success both commercially and critically. It received over twenty awards in festivals such as Sundance, Cartagena, and Berlin, and was considered a “Top Ten Film” by the American Film Institute and “One of the Top Foreign Films of 2004” by the National Board of Review. Likewise, in terms of its box office success, it has placed within the top ten Spanish-language films of all time, among such blockbusters as Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006) or Carlos Carrera’s El crimen del Padre Amaro (2002). Considering such an overwhelming visibility in the international cinema market of a film both directed and protagonized by newcomers, one may wonder what exactly contributes to its break-through success. Is it its folklorization of Colombian small-town tropics and the economic misery of the Other, or its portrayal of drug culture, whose tentacles spread from village settings to the boroughs of New York? Or perhaps, it is the plot itself that speaks to the general public through a cornucopia of commonplaces that consciously (or unconsciously) make the spectators feel good about its approach to resolving the events? Most importantly, however, what kind of construct of Latin American cultural representativity is being channeled through a film that has proven to be so appealing to the public at large? This essay will explore the ways in which María llena eres de gracia complies with metropolitan tastes by examining its two most salient characteristics: recurrent fairy-tale motifs that permeate its structure and shape the fate of its eponymous heroine, as well as what Mabel Moraña has called a “neoexoticism” (236), to refer to othering representations 27 of Latin America in present-day hegemonic cultural discourses. Focusing on these two characteristics will serve to answer the fundamental question in the essay, namely, what kind of ideological model of “Latin America” is being served through the film’s overwhelming success among transnational spectators and critics alike, and how its point of enunciation – typically obscured in the era of globalization – may have influenced the mode of representation. Even though the film seems fully embedded in Colombian drug subculture since it features a cocaine mule as its central heroine, one cannot ignore the similarities between the plot and certain tropes of classic fairy tales. More specifically, the film shares numerous motifs with “Cinderella,” which, as Jack Zipes describes the tale, is a story about a young woman who either learns to take destiny into her own hands or is a fool for not taking any steps towards self-fulfillment (The Brothers 144). The similarities between Cinderella and her Colombian counterpart start with the unfairly arrayed alliances at home, where her evil sister and tyrannical mother nag María to work harder to support the household while they themselves appear to be far less industrious . The resemblance continues through the most crucial bodily trial of “fitting ” that brings about the heroine’s liberation from her oppressive surroundings and, finally, the movie arrives at a customary happy ending despite the crime-infested background and the realistic approach to the drug industry in Colombia that usually precludes any positive resolution. But unlike the widespread Walt Disney version of the passive Cinderella who relies on her suitor’s succor, the protagonist walks in the steps of Cinderella’s folkloric ancestors who, as Maria Tatar reminds us, were adept at engineering their own rescues (101). At the beginning of the film, María, the youngest and the prettiest in the family, shares her cramped and modest household with three generations of women: her grandmother, mother and her older sister, herself a single mother. Every day María has to work long hours in a flower-processing factory where, reminiscent of her fairy-tale opposite number, she repeats the same manual job of de-thorning and packing roses under the scrutinizing eye of an unfriendly foreman. It is here where the classic fairy tale meets the global economy and the neoliberal market: the town’s factory is...
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Maria llena eres de gracia: fairy tale, drug culture, and the American dream.
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Even though the film seems fully embedded in Colombian drug subculture since it features a cocaine mule as its central heroine, one cannot ignore the similarities between the plot and certain tropes of classic fairy tales. More specifically, the film shares numerous motifs with "Cinderella," which, as Jack Zipes describes the tale, is a story about a young woman who either learns to take destiny into her own hands or is a fool for not taking any steps towards self-fulfillment (The Brothers 144). The similarities between Cinderella and her Colombian counterpart start with the unfairly arrayed alliances at home, where her evil sister and tyrannical mother nag Maria to work harder to support the household while they themselves appear to be far less industrious. The resemblance continues through the most crucial bodily trial of "fitting" that brings about the heroine's liberation from her oppressive surroundings and, finally, the movie arrives at a customary happy ending despite the crime-infested background and the realistic approach to the drug industry in Colombia that usually precludes any positive resolution. But unlike the widespread Walt Disney version of the passive Cinderella who relies on her suitor's succor, the protagonist walks in the steps of Cinderella's folkloric ancestors who, as Maria Tatar reminds us, were adept at engineering their own rescues (101).
At the beginning of the film, Maria, the youngest and the prettiest in the family, shares her cramped and modest household with three generations of women: her grandmother, mother and her older sister, herself a single mother. Every day Maria has to work long hours in a flower-processing factory where, reminiscent of her fairy-tale opposite number, she repeats the same manual job of de-thorning and packing roses under the scrutinizing eye of an unfriendly foreman. It is here where the classic fairy tale meets the global economy and the neoliberal market: the town's factory is the only establishment that hires local youth, and it is also a classic sweatshop that micromanages its employees' time--restricting, for example, their bathroom usage in order to maximize the profit by sending inexpensive Colombian roses to the US. Free-spirited by nature, Maria must obey strict regulations in order to maintain her job, and she is forced to hand over her wages to her mother and sister who always seem to gang up on her. This atmosphere of stagnation is augmented further by the dead-end relationship she maintains with a local boy, Juan, who, like everyone else around her, seems resigned to the economic misery. It is with a similar resignation that Juan offers to marry Maria when he finds out about her missed menstrual periods, even though they both admit that they are not in love.
Pregnancy out of wedlock is hardly a fairy-tale trope, but here it unleashes the whole array of what Vladimir Propp classified as the thirty-one fundamental tale components, which Jack Zipes has narrowed down to eight basic functions (When 3). In other words, the argument of the film not only coincides with the Cinderella story but it also responds to the more general fairy tale pattern. Thus reviewing the plot is in order, for it allows us to see how closely, in fact, the film emulates the archetypal fairy tale model, which in turn weighs heavily on its ideological reading. First, the protagonist disobeys a prohibition, which in the movie translates to Maria's argument with her boss who forbids her from using the bathroom. Forced to remain at her work station, the pregnant heroine vomits on the flowers and refuses to clean up her mess, as instructed by the sadistic manager. She then defiantly quits her job, thus exemplifying the second tale function known as the departure or banishment of the protagonist. By now unemployed, Maria is scolded both by her family and Juan who, mirroring the psyche of the colonized subaltern, all preach resignation and obedience to the bloodthirsty capitalist. Her non-conformity to the abusive employer makes her a misunderstood outcast in her environment but, at the same time, it endears her in the eyes of a well-intentioned First World audience that scowls at the thought of sweatshops in the developing world. The brief state of limbo ends when Maria reaches the third stage in Zipes's synthesis of Propp's paradigmatic turning points: the one where the heroine meets a stranger or a villain who gives her what can be interpreted as a gift or a magical agent responsible for miraculous change (Then 3). Miracles are scarce in this era of post-magical realism, where in Latin America cultural visibility now tends to be predicated upon ultra realistic violence. (1) Similarly, this modern fairy tale translates the element of wonder into the one venue in Colombian reality that can transform the status of the poor precipitously, almost in a magical fashion: the narcotrafficking industry.
At a local dance Maria meets a stranger from out of town, Franklin, who guesses Maria's sense of wanderlust and proposes to procure for her the risky but very well paying job of a drug mule in Bogota. All she needs to do is smuggle into the US about sixty 10 gram-pellets of cocaine wrapped in latex and hidden securely in her stomach. This is Zipes' fourth element that calls for the test of the protagonist who moves on to battle and conquers inimical forces (When 3). The film implies that a polite but scary mid-level drug trafficker is the agent of evil, for if she disobeys his directions he will dispose of her family in no time; however, it is also clear from the start that Maria's worst enemy is the poverty of her stifling hometown, thus giving this present-day tale a socio-economic sense of direction.
While Maria had not been able to stomach her quotidian exploitation in the factory, her adventurous spirit allows her to dedicate her digestive tract to the more modern and by far riskier articulation of Colombian export: illegal cocaine. This is when she most comes to personify Cinderella in this peculiar narco tale that combines the universal desire of self-advancement with the underworld of narcotrafficking. Whereas the traditional Cinderella proved her superiority over other applicants in that she either could slip on a ring or a slipper that would fit no one else, Maria proves her worthiness by the capacity of her throat: she agrees to swallow numerous grape-sized pellets of cocaine and retain them in her body for a specific period of time. While this trial proved revolutionary for Cinderella by automatically granting her high economic status, so it is for Maria who now can move from one trope of Latin American visibility in the transnational cultural market to another: she leaves a quaint but futureless town in the tropics for the vertiginous life of borderless and sublimely brutal narcotrafficking. The movie lingers on the scenes of her struggle to force the oversized cargo down her throat without resulting in a violent gag reflex, or as we see later in the film, in a premature bowel movement on board the plane. Thanks to the patient instruction provided by another, more experienced mule, Lucy, Maria manages to prepare herself for her final trial. Her action is insanely dangerous, considering that she is also carrying a baby, but the message suggests that Maria is dead set to get out of the economic misery for which she seems to have been predestined by her environment.
The next fairy tale element is a temporary setback that requires a miracle to reverse the wheel of fortune and, similarly, Maria's endeavor does not go as well as expected. While the other two mules get through the US customs unnoticed, Maria is fished out at the airport because of her suspiciously small luggage. Questioned by customs officers, Maria sticks to her story, finally agreeing to an X-ray that would determine her criminal status once and for all. Again magic--in this case her pregnancy that precludes the possibility of X-ray exposure--saves her from certain prison, and Maria can join the other two girls. But her setback is of a double-edged nature, since Lucy begins to feel worse by the minute, showing the signs of one of the cocaine-filled condoms having ruptured in her body. When Maria wakes up to find blood-smeared bathroom with no sign of her ill friend, she escapes with the other mule Blanca and, by means of cunning --Zipes's seventh tale element--she manages to reverse the wheel of fortune.
Whereas, according to Propp, the success of the protagonist--the eighth and the last element--leads to marriage, acquisition of money, survival and wisdom or any combination of the three, Maria's story falls by default in the third category of gained experience, but there is also an implicit suggestion that she will be economically better off as well. What is fully missing, however, is the presence of the male agent, who--reminiscent of the proverbial prince--would automatically elevate her status. This nearly feminist tale of an ambitious, enterprising and self-sufficient young woman would not be true to its nature if it resolved Maria's plight by male intervention. In a very symbolic scene at the beginning of the film, Maria's insatiable sense of adventure pushes her to climb to the roof of an unfinished building just to see the world from above, whereas her boyfriend Juan refuses to follow her to the top, fearing the risk involved. This situation attests to the heroine's fearlessness and individualism, two qualities that assure not only her future triumph in the neoliberal conditions of the free market but also a success achieved on her own, independently of men.
Returning to the unequivocal correlation between a classic tale and Marston's film, it has by now been illustrated that Maria exudes an easy familiarity because the otherwise "foreign" Colombian material has been "translated" for the international audiences by means of an easily recognizable classic fairy tale paradigm. As Zipes contends, "The classical fairy tale makes it appear that we are all part of the universal community with shared values and norms, that we are all striving for the same happiness, that there are certain dreams and wishes which are irrefutable, that a particular type of behavior will produce guaranteed results, like living happily ever" (The Brothers 148).
Likewise, Maria llena eres de gracia carries a significant symbolic charge by embodying the same archetypal mythology that has long been a repository of widespread beliefs and values for its worldwide audience. The weight of this underlying message is enormous, because the fairy tales that bring us all under the same cultural denominator have undergone the process of mythification, and myths are nothing else than a manipulated speech defined much more by its intention than by its literal sense (Roland Barthes quoted in The Brothers 149). For Zipes, "Paradoxically the myth acts to deny its historical and systematic development. It takes material that already has a signification and reworks it parasitically to make it suitable for communication in an ideological mode that appears non-ideological" (149). That is to say, just as with myths, fairy tales are never innocent of socio-political indoctrination, as they favor some choices over others, mediating between conflicting cultural desires by means of the marvelous in order to yield a more successful "ever after" effect in a given social environment.
Likewise, Marston's drug-era Cinderella contains elements of political protest and wishful thinking, explicitly or implicitly condemning certain behaviors and settings while promoting others. Of course, this does not mean that the director consciously used the Cinderella archetype to appeal to a transnational audience accustomed to and inclined to respond positively to the canonical story, but it opens the possibility that the presence of such a highly popular motif complies with universal tastes while obscuring, albeit inadvertently, the ideology that courses through the film. Thus what remains to be explored in the interstices of this transcontinental fairy tale is the question of authorship, identity, and representation, as the movie was filmed in Spanish and it seemingly speaks for Colombians, even though it was directed and financed from within the US. Another important question that begs attention is whose values are represented and legitimized in the story, and-- since fairy tales always seek betterment--what type of society is envisioned as glorious and beneficial for its disenfranchised subjects.
The aesthetic and ideological representation of Latin America in the film connects with the next category mentioned in the introduction: the appeal of the exotic, which has been associated with Latin American cultural cartography since the time of Columbus. Concerning the pitfalls of representational strategies, Silvia Molloy has pointed to the dangers of exoticizing critical categories that pre-package Latin American production into what it 'should be' in order to appeal to transnational audiences. Molloy refers in particular to intellectuals from the North who reduce Latin American cultural production to a regional, ethnicized commodity spiced up by the hot-selling magical realism (194). In the same vein, Morana warns about the effects of the commercialization of the concept of Latin America by the international centers that intend to totalize its hybrid experience while simultaneously conferring their own centrality in the postcolonial re-articulation of the power praxis (241). Both Molloy and Morana consider the exportable etiquettes attached to the Latin American production a dangerous weapon which, in a long run, does nothing more than objectify, alienate and subjugate the continent to a theoretical place that is situated on the margins of the metropolitan desire, and thus it must be theorized from the outside, as if it were incapable of creating its own parameters of knowledge.
Likewise, Maria builds upon the formulaic exotic performance, while at the same time it illuminates its relatively recent transition in focus from a picturesque magical realism to the irruption of the violent other. The film opens up with a traditional, picture-perfect locus amoenus, desirable for its luscious tropics and small-town intimacy, where, notably, everyone gets to participate in local dances in the main square. In accord with the stereotypical conceptualization of Latin America within the metropolitan discourse, these pleasures of the tropics are corroded by dreadful living conditions, where large families are cramped in small houses and all the housework, such as laundry for example, must be done in the most primitive, meaning pre-modern, conditions. The only sign of modernity that gives a temporal frame to this otherwise timeless imaginary of Latin America is the flower sweatshop that fixes the story within the era of globalization.
Likewise, cosmopolitan Bogota is somehow denied its modernity, as the camera only focuses on the seedier suburban areas of the city, including bars and the backrooms of shady pharmacies housing illicit businesses. (2) Once again, it is not the contemporary cityscape but rather the narcotrafficking business that situates the story in the present, as Maria, through the intervention of Franklin, steps into the world of the international drug industry. The absence of the trappings of modernity may very well serve as the vehicle to accentuate the economic despair of the protagonist, but it also succeeds in freezing the Colombian imaginary in the film in a pre-modern and peripheral stasis, thus putting it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the United States that serves as the backdrop for the second part of the film.
The change of the scenery from small town to the capital takes the film into another, newer form of the "exotic" associated with Latin America, by bringing up the now highly exportable topic of narcocultura, a multi-faceted phenomenon that in the last two decades has crossed over from a marginal subculture to the Latin American mainstream. Narcocultura has become one of the 'trendiest' cultural motifs, which almost assures an instant success for a new novel or a film among the Latin American and the metropolitan audience alike.3 Needless to say, the interest in narcocultura differs from one reading/ viewing public to another, but it can be said with some degree of certainty that its perception by the metropolis stems from its formulaic association of drugs with the uncontainable other. David Bushnell's 1993 The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself sums this up by stating that "at the level of popular impressions in the United States and western Europe the name Colombia suggests mainly drug trafficking and endemic violence. If anything more positive comes to mind, it is the familiar Juan Valdez of the Colombian coffee growers' advertising, whose image is really that of a stereotypical Latin American peasant farmer" (vii). This general perception has not changed much; if anything, it has become reinforced thanks to what we could call a recent boom of drug-related cultural productivity born out of the interest in its varied subsocieties.
When Alonso Salazar, who was elected in 2008 the Mayor of Medellin, wrote in the early 1990s two testimonial-anthropological accounts about the underworld of Antioquian sicarios and their female companions--meaning adolescent killers for hire recruited by drug lords as a weapon and shield against their enemies--the topic was still relatively unknown outside of Antioquia, but it had already become a cultural phenomenon with its own language, a very peculiar take on religion, and a media-inspired fashion style. (4) Nevertheless, it quickly transitioned into the fictionalized genre of the sicario novel, which has became a curiosity for the Colombian and Latin American audience in general, but even more so for the metropolitan spectators who were drawn to the rampant lawlessness of the underrepresented youth from the tropics. Fernando Vallejo's scandalizing and nihilistic The Virgin of the Sicarios (1994) and Jorge Franco's bestselling melodrama Rosario Tijeras (1999) have proven that novels embedded in the idiosyncratic underworld of sicarios from Medellin, whose heyday -- if we can call it that -- appears to have ended with the death of Pablo Escobar and, more recently, with their vigorous persecution under the government of Alvaro Uribe, had the marketing power to redress Colombian cultural visibility from the aura of the 1960s magical realism in a couple of ways. First, both bestselling novels have inspired successful multi-national cinematographic adaptations that diffused the sicario genre even further. Secondly, the filmic Rosario Tijeras combined two media, by joining forces with Juanes, an internationally acclaimed pop singer from Colombia, who wrote the theme song for the film, and thus sent out the topic to a larger, transnational pop music audience. Finally, it made narcocultura a household name, worthy of further cinematographic exploration. After all, it cannot be coincidental that three movies about Colombia presented for the Oscar nomination in 2005 focused on drug-related issues, namely, the already mentioned Andre Maille's Rosario Tijeras, Marston's opera prima, and Jose Antonio Dorado's El rey, dedicated to the rise and fall of one of the first drug lords from Cali, Jaime Caicedo.
Naturally, this cultural boom of narco realism does not limit itself to Colombia. Mexico, too, has experienced the phenomenon of drug-themed production, beginning with controversial narcocorridos banned in 2002 from state-controlled radio stations in Michoacan and Chihuahua, to big-screen films. (5) When asked about the present state of Mexican cinematography, Carlos Monsivais pronounces it in decline, noting that its "Mexicanism" evidences itself more than anything in a technology inferior to that of Hollywood. Simultaneously, Monsivais attests with bewilderment to the explosion of drug-related films on the national market, where eighty out of a hundred twenty movies produced in Mexico in one year deal with the topic of drugs. Thus Monsivais calls narco-themed production a cultural phenomenon in itself and the driving force behind today's popular culture in Mexico, one born perhaps out of the need to warn and inform about the destructive trend that, somewhere along the way, turned into a shameless paean to the drug-infused lifestyle. The critic's commentary is not reductionist in his interpretation for, as he observes, drugs have been a source of employment in Latin America, from marihuana farmers to the smugglers who transfer the goods clandestinely, thus they must surface in the country's cultural production.
This comment echoes the opinion of Paul Manning, who examines the presence of drug consumption in popular culture as another form of commodity. For Manning, narco stories link with the emergence of new cultural practices accompanied by new forms of self-narrative, which seek to make sense of one's identity and how it is tied to the specific location (5). Likewise, Colombian, Mexican or any other Latin American nation's need to revisit the topic of narcocultura with its numerous manifestations perhaps should be read as a form of national self-reflection vis-a-vis themselves and often vis-a-vis the US; in a sense, they are mapping their identity anew within the global design. Again, the point of enunciation and the readership -- meaning, whether they come from the North or from within Latin America -- play a crucial role, for they deliver messages that are altogether different. For example, as Molloy succinctly points out, by pigeonholing all the Latin American literary production regardless of its character within the magical realist mode, the US swiftly established "spatial distance and, perhaps more importantly, temporal distance vis-a-vis a region that may be too close for comfort, a way of practicing what Johannes Fabian has called 'the denial of coevalness'" (195). In other words, this 'poetic' alienation into the realm of the magical hints of cultural condescension, as its stereotypical casting of the exotic erases the differences abounding in heterogeneous Latin American cultural production and imposes an outside evaluation on how this phenomenon should look, thus rejecting everything that does not comply with the imperial canon of "Latin Americanism."
Similarly, one needs to approach with caution the reading of narcocultura and its points of enunciation, for the topic of drugs has been a thorn in the eye of US -- Latin American relations. While, for example, a North American film Blow (2001) by Ted Demme depicted the Colombian drug world as savvier, far more brutal, and infinitely more aggressive in its thirst for new markets than its North American counterpart portrayed by an inherently kind and naive Johnny Depp, Dorado's El rey produced in Colombia delivers a very distinct message. Describing the beginnings of the cocaine trade in Cali, it shows clearly that the protagonist's international success grew out of his cooperation with a North American Peace Corp official, who came up with the idea of drug smuggling across the ocean and provided the protagonist with a lucrative market for cocaine. In other words, the North sees its southern neighbors as a fascinating yet ultimately alien and dangerous periphery -- the criminal Other as it were -- whereas the message of Dorado's film (and the world south of US) is that narcotrafficking would have been different, had it not grown out of the international cooperation and a high demand coming from the US. Having said that, the take on drugs and its role in mapping national identities is of particular interest in Maria, since the film's structure and the storyline bridge Colombia with the US precisely by means of the sensitive topic of narcotrafficking.
To the film's credit, its approach to the subject of drug smuggling is refreshingly different in a couple of ways. Just as the sicario novel (and film) did at first, Marston's movie focuses on the yet-unexplored but even more disempowered sector partaking in the business -- the mules -- whose level of criminality is far lower than that of lethal sicarios or the drug dealers. This is where the similarities end, however, for Maria, avoids the underworld flashiness characteristic of drug-related cultural production. Most importantly, the film does not exalt violence since, aside from the scene in a motel bathroom where the blood-smeared walls suggest the brutality committed on the dying Lucy, physical or even verbal aggression is virtually absent from the movie. Furthermore, it does not glorify narcotrafficking either, for criminal activity yields very little profit for its participants: Lucy loses her life and Maria gives up a big chunk of her drug earnings for her friend's burial, thus demonstrating that money is not a vehicle that drives her choices. Another thing Maria llena eres de gracia avoids is cashing in on a formulaic, cautionary tale that has become a staple of narco film and literature, meaning a master narrative of the poor who become rich from illegal business, live a life of excess and eventually crash precipitously, due to the criminal lifestyle they have chosen. In fact, excess is absent from Maria altogether, as Marston's work is almost wholesome in its take on the mules: his protagonists are all "good" girls, who abstain from any substance abuse, and who join the narco business unwittingly as it were, pressured only by economic despair. This sympathetic look at the mules stumbles upon problematic cliches, however, once it discloses the way in which Maria decides to resolve her predicament: that is, via the status of illegal immigration to the US. It is here where the authorship and the point of enunciation become more apparent, as the film finally settles into its patent ideological framework.
If Maria perhaps had chosen to return home, the film would have had a different resonance, avoiding the Manichean depiction of the US and Colombia, where the former steps forth as the savior from the messy, poverty and crime-stricken Latin American condition. But the film plays out Maria's redemption based upon her realization of what is best for her and her unborn child, indicating, in a very traditionalist way, that the US still remains the land of opportunities where the subaltern can "Be all that you can Be." In other words, this transnational fairy tale validates the US capitalist-consumer society, celebrating its "free" market system, its heterogonous, multi-cultural ambience, and its relative security and order that differs greatly from the denigrating condition captured on the lawless "Colombian side." After all, there is no other way to explain why the drug dealers who did not hesitate to gut the hapless Lucy did not try to look for Maria and Blanca, nor why they paid the girls in full when they finally received the delayed cargo of cocaine. Likewise, the surprisingly benevolent American Customs officials at the airport refrain altogether from intimidation or harassment to extract the information from a Colombian immigrant who clearly appears suspicious with her minimal luggage and aura of a modest small-town girl. Add to this milieu the friendly compatriots who offer room and board to complete strangers, together with Don Osorio who helps out Colombian immigrants in getting out of any legal mess, and you come across an ultimately Utopian space, where all wrongs can finally be righted. (6) In the end, just as her poverty-stricken hometown, Queens offers Maria traditional Colombian caramel-filled waffles on its street corners, while promising a fresh start with more opportunities for the adaptable and even-keeled individual that she has proven to be.
Also, it is no coincidence that the protagonist and Lucy's sister Carla, who takes Maria in for her first crucial days in the US, are both expectant mothers. Zipes pointed out that tales often seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life (When 5), and Marston's film adopts this attitude literally: Maria does not think of her child until she reaches the metropolis where, for the first time, the unborn baby becomes her concern. And it is in the last minutes of the film, when she is about to board the plane back to Colombia, that Maria rediscovers an appointment card from her gynecologist, and decides to turn around and remain in the US. In other words, the film frames it in such a way that Maria -- a carrier of life -- is doing what is best for her baby, and this future clearly aligns itself with the US. Such a message, if not transparent enough, is repeated by Carla, the responsible mother-to-be, who condemns her homeland by stating that one cannot securely bring up children there. In other words, the film diagnoses the sickness of Colombia and induces the traditional Utopia of the American dream, as if trying to silence the fact that the North American borders are closing down, and that US political discourse has been obsessed with imposing ever tighter restrictions on immigration from the South. In a fairy-tale fashion, the movie makes no effort to problematize this contradiction but, instead, it delivers the last Utopian lines of this neocolonial misinformation, making us think that the beginning of Maria's new, better life is just around the corner. As a result, one forgets the present political atmosphere in the US that makes the legalization of a poor, undocumented, and criminal Colombian immigrant virtually impossible, thus reinforcing the viewers' sense of First World superiority.
This paternalistic representativity of the Latin American condition in the film is confirmed by some of the reviews that applaud Marston's work, by attesting precisely to its complacency with imperialistic standards. For example, through a blatantly "othering" lens, the reviewers of the UK-based, Internet Movie Gazette praise Maria, the drug courier as "a sympathetic figure, an illegal immigrant as a human being, and a third world character as a complex and multi-faceted individual" (my emphasis). In case the hegemony of the English-speaking world has not been established clearly enough, the reviewers unwittingly drive home their point by further stating that Maria's "enterprising spirit reflects no more and no less than the American dream," thus legitimizing the old "rags to riches" myth of the metropolis, where the smart and the willing can still make their dreams come true. Finally, they appeal to our sense of self-preservation by giving a universal spin on motherhood and the "central character who, like her namesake from the New Testament, is just looking for a safe place to have her baby." In short, the message seems to be that courageous Maria outgrew her "Latinamericanism," hence deserving to move from the periphery to the metropolitan center, away from her bleak and dangerous origins.
There is a religious element in all this, included in the title and suggested on the film's promotional poster: a woman whose name, as the quoted review affirms, evokes the archetypical Christian mother, accepting a cocaine pellet in her mouth as if it were the Host. The image is bold, not to say offensive to a religious audience, but I would argue that its shocking effect is primarily visual. In fact, the final message of Marston's film is ultimately reactionary, for in a patently North American style it aligns God and country, where the latter stands for an uncritical embracing of the American Way. After all, Maria's so-called-grace does not stem from her involvement in the drug business but from the chance she receives for herself and her baby on the American soil. Thus the cocaine pellet is -- in Cinderella style -- only a vehicle that takes her to the next level, where the Latin American immigrant can "redeem" herself by achieving the neocolonial fantasy of social advancement in the economically vibrant US.
In the end, we can say that Maria's universal success ties with Morana's concept of the "boom of the subaltern," because Marston's protagonist plays according to the prevailing cultural power structures (239). Being a product of a fascinating yet dangerous territory, she stumbles initially, only to succeed in the end thanks to her entrepreneurial spirit that the other mules, Blanca and Lucy, clearly lack. Since Maria embodies the neoliberal ideal, she is also, by definition, a deserving immigrant to the US.
This denouement begs a little trip in time, to the 1960s' Third Cinema movement, which took a conscious decision to "decolonize" Latin American film which, as Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino put it back then in their famous manifesto, was "destined to satisfy only the ideological and economic interests of the owners of the film industry, the lords of the world film market, the great majority of whom were from the United States" (17). The purpose of this movement was to throw off the shackles of neocolonial oppression in ideological as well as industrial terms, and instead to forge a realist, popular, anti-imperialist, revolutionary cinema that rejected hegemonic discourses and neocolonialist attitudes in their portrayal of the Latin American condition (King 69). Five decades have passed, yet it seems that the representational dilemmas remain unresolved; Nestor Garcia Canclini pointed to the same problem in 1997, as multinational co-productions, free trade agreements, regional integration and interculturalism have obscured national identities in this time of globalization, while also benefiting North American interests at the expense of the developing world. Canclini concluded that the question as to who would narrate Latin American identity did not seem to offer a globalized response, but rather pointed directly to an increasing dependence on a single country, as illustrated by this anecdote about Mexico: A transformation imagined by a group of comedians seems appropriate to this discussion. In conjecturing as to what history books would say about Mexico in the twenty-first century: 'Mexico is bordered on the north by the U.S., on the south by the U.S., on the east and west by the U.S., and even on the inside, by the U.S. (254)
Likewise, Marston's Maria llena eres de gracia seems to be infused with the North American spirit, as the movie reveals tensions formed between its director's national pride and his desire of transnational projection. By rejecting what the film presents as stagnation, chaos, and corruption in Colombia, to, instead, take advantage of the land of opportunities in Queens, New York, Maria subscribes to the imperial discourse of the desirable metropolis to which all the neocolonial subjects should aspire. In other words, though the movie attests to the globalization and heterogeneity reflected in the presence of Hispanics in the US, and to the elaborate drug trafficking that knows no national borders, it applies at the same time the old-fashioned idea of North American centrality, where the deserving disenfranchised masses from elsewhere can find stability and financial success. Thus, and perhaps unintentionally, the film succeeds in "re-colonizing" Latin America, by positing Colombia as the antithetical locus of barbarism against the "civilized" First World norm. As a new US citizen in the making, the entrepreneurial Maria stands in stark contrast to her less ambitious compatriots, whose fate is to remain ever mired in their hopeless colonial condition.
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by Aldona Bialowas Pobutsky
(1) Ignacio M. Sanchez-Prado talks about a new form of commodification of Mexico and Latin America that has shifted from a magic realist mode to a violent imperative in recent years, where the metropolitan spectator perceives the Latin American other as born out of foundational violence. He points to the fact that the violence and misery of the other is what fascinates the pseudo-progressive audiences of international film festivals, which in turn explains why some films' international success precedes its national success. Impressed by the Amores perros's resonance abroad, Sanchez-Prado argues, the Mexican public "acquired a renewed sense of national pride and went to see the movie" (61), thus attesting to what we could call a cultural neo-colonialism visible in countless cases. I would argue that Maria llena eres de gracia follows the same trajectory (though it is a movie filmed in the US): its international success sparked the interest of many Colombians who embraced the film precisely out of pride that 'their' case had received so much attention elsewhere. Precisely for the same reason, it was rejected by many Colombians who saw it as a representation of what Colombia signifies in the eyes of the First World public. For instance, in "La mula, otro animal exotico," Oswaldo Osorio argues that the only way he can explain the film's success is that its theme was unknown to the public outside of Colombia, for whom a girl carrying drugs in her stomach is as exotic as a parrot or the cumbia.
(2) I am referring to the film's representation, where the director makes his spectators believe that what is shown is in fact a Colombian landscape, and not the actual filming place -- namely, Amaguana, Ecuador.
(3) Take, for instance, the renowned Spanish author, Arturo Perez-Reverte, whose recent best-seller, The Queen of the South, was inspired by a narcocorrido of Camelia La Tejana. In fact, the author calls his work "a 500-page-long narcocorrido." Perez-Reverte seems intoxicated with the exuberance of the whole exoticism of narcocultura, as he describes Mexico through the prism of the drug-trafficking culture: "It is all a fascinating and a terrible world: hard-boiled Mexico, the violence, the open wound of the Rio Grande, the marijuana of the Sierra, and all that" (my translation).
(4) No nacimos pa' semilla (1990) and Mujeres de fuego (1993).
(5) Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta begins his essay on narcocorridos with anecdotal information about the state censorship of narcocultura, by mentioning a meeting from 14 December, 2002, where the president of the delegation of National Office of the Television and the Radio Industry, Arturo Herrera Cornejo, announced that 42 state radio stations would no longer air narcocorridos in Michoacan. Ramirez-Pimienta adds that the same decision was taken in other states, such as Chihuahua.
(6) In her analysis of Marston's film, Stacey Alba D. Skar pinpoints the problematic cultural ideology as well, referring to the tranquility and general peace the mules find in the US as well as to the presence of highly positive male figures (the taxi-driver, Don Osorio), who are altogether absent on the Colombian side. This, according to the critic, reaffirms the image of US generosity and superiority.
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