Susana Hayward, Knight Ridder, August 4, 2004
On a recent sunny day, a mysterious pink fog descended on the borders of California and 13 million Mexicans and other Latinos suddenly vanished.
Gone were maids, field hands, car washers, waitresses and waiters, and their families.
Chaos and paralysis quickly followed. Schools closed, grocery shelves emptied, and garbage piled up in streets clogged with abandoned cars. Martial law was quickly declared.
This is the scene painted in the satiric comedy “A Day Without Mexicans,” subtitled “The Gringos Are Going to Weep,” and its reception at private premiers here before its official launch Friday suggests it is going to be a big success.
Mexicans laughed good-heartedly as on-screen American stereotype characters were lampooned as helpless, pompous hypocrites. But there was a dark undertone from those who could appreciate what immigrant life can be life.
“I went to the United States when I was 23 to become an engineer and study music, and instead I ended up cleaning toilets,” recalled Edgar Lira, 32, a musician who was born in Chicago, raised in Mexico and lived as an adult in California and Texas.
“It was the reality. I almost cried it was such a great movie,” he said.
The movie, which is in English and eventually intended for the American market with the title “A Day Without A Mexican,” has its roots, according to director Sergio Arau, in California’s 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which denied undocumented workers state benefits.
“Our thanks go to Pete Wilson, and we give him a lot of credit,” Arau told reporters, referring to the former Republican governor of California, after a screening whose audience included Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, the former Mexican representative to the United Nations. Zinser was fired after he criticized the United States’ treatment of Mexico.
The movie was written by Sergio Guerrero, who lived for 12 years in Texas and California. Despite the word “Mexicans” in the title, the film is intended to address the plight of working Latinos of every stripe who feel they are taken for granted in the United States, he said.
“It’s a serious comedy. The message is to make visible the invisible,” he said. “It’s like when someone takes a piece of candy away from a baby. The child appreciates the candy only when it’s gone.”
Guerrero said the movie was five years in the making and cost about $3 million. The first efforts to open it in the United States were unsuccessful — “We couldn’t compete against the monsters such as ‘Spiderman,’“ he said — so its backers brought it to Mexico, where it will open in 300 theaters, hoping to build momentum for a return to the United States.
The movie is a many-layered affair, complete with various humorous sub-plots, each one pricking a cultural bias or cliched gringo character.
The plot begins with the mysterious pink fog whose descent causes the disappearance of all Latinos — including Gov. Shaw, who no one knew was Latino.
Named acting governor in his stead is Sen. Steven Abercrombie, a race-baiting Anglo politico who suddenly discovers how much he misses his Mexican maid, huevos rancheros and illegal house painters.
Then there is the mad Anglo scientist who, after noting the similar shapes of sombreros and flying saucers, theorizes that the mass disappearance is linked to UFOs, noting that illegals are also called aliens.
Another academic said: “It happened with the Maya, who disappeared without a trace” — a statement clearly wrong to the millions of Maya who still inhabit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The movie also explores inter-ethnic marriages and romances, old and sincere friendships between Anglos and Mexicans, and, with gentle hands, hard-core bigots.
Best of all, there is the lead character, a Mexican-American TV reporter named Lila Rodriguez — Lila Rod on the air — who strangely is the only Latino in California to remain behind.
Rodriguez quickly becomes “The Missing Link,” subject to 24-hour coverage by her own station, which milks the crisis. But — without giving away her secret — Rodriguez is not what she appears, though she too eventually vanishes just as she is about to be subjected to a genetic experiment to find the “L Factor” or “Latin Factor.”
After 24 hours, the 13 million Latinos miraculously reappear, greeted with hugs, kisses and joyful welcomes, even from U.S. Border Patrol agents accustomed to chasing them down.
“It was both a comedy and a political statement,” said a viewer, Alfonso Jarero, 29, as he exited. “The Mexicans will love it because normally Americans are very racist.”