aphasic narrative in Spanglish

Independent Project Paper
January 28, 2005
Yongho Kim

In this paper I argue that the recently premiered film Spanglish, a documentary about the “integration” of a Mexican single mother into white U.S. society through the eyes of her daughter, represents a form of an essentialist reading of their social texts that can be analyzed using the notion of double consciousness.

Spanglish is the story of Flor, a single household mother, and Cristina, her daughter, who come to the U.S. via the migrant trail and get established in California. The story progresses as a narrative in the past tense from Cristina’s perspective as she writes her college admissions essay to Princeton. (The essay is read aloud in the admissions office by an employee)

The film starts off with an image of Mexico that self-consciously works around breaking the overused image of realismo mágico, a literary device in Latin American literature that emphasizes the supernatural in everyday life. The film shows some clear examples of such device (such as a big and long tear scene with Cristina), ridicules it, and the single family moves over the border to California.

Once Flor starts working in California, she realizes that the pay is never enough, and decides to start working for a white family as a nanny. Pay is great, and the white family is full of little middle class problems – unmotivated children, weight-complexed daughter, combative husband-wife relationships – that Flor helps solve with her “Mexican wisdom”, a remix of age old European desires regarding the good old customs that can probably be traced back to Rousseau’s noble savage.

It could be argued that Spanglish is just a comedy film, and that none of the stereotypes herein presented intend to represent the reality of white middle class family crises nor Latina nannys. The response is twofold: first, the director already presents us with well known truisms from White America towards Latin America, which is magical realism, and crosses it out after playing with it a while, as if saying: “this is what you have been hearing all along – now let me tell you what the real thing is like”. Second, the film takes on a documentary quality insofar as it takes the voice of Cristina, the daughter, looking back at the past.

The second essentialist reading of social realities in the U.S. is through the main theme of Spanglish, which deals with the affectionate relationship between Flor and John, the white family’s father (whether this was a deep friendship or a love affair has been purposefully hidden from the public). The main point made regarding love in the film is that white women talk too much. Naturally, for the dialectical relationship to occur, brown women ought not to talk. And so it happens. Flor cannot talk, because she cannot speak English.

The director, James L. Brooks, portrays the scene with tact, but what remains in the center is that what awakens a sense of longing and/or loving in John towards Flor is the fact that she is quiet and yet gets the job done (i.e. making children happy, “discussing” house problems with monosyllables and gestures, housecleaning). Although there is a crucial moment in the middle where Flor recourses to Cristina as her interpreter to settle down some misunderstandings between her and John, the occasion is an eventful scene focused around the viewer’s pleasure of seeing two women ramble in Spanish (and English)

The point might be to suggest that relationships can develop without language, and the brown woman in her quality of undocumented immigrant might be simply a device for that rhetoric. It is of noting, however, that even giving this definition (that things go smooth when problems are not talked about) is given by the enligsh speaker, John, the master signifier, who claims that “we [John and Flor] have been communicating so well through silence all this time” in the movie itself. Thus, the film gives its viewers the sense that what Mexican immigrant women want is for the English speaking male, to speak for them, and tells them that former misconceptions such as magical realism were wrong.

Finally, the entire narrative of the film takes place in Princeton’s admissions office, where at the end of the essay, after telling how Flor was fired from her nanny work by John’s wife after she found out about the relationship and Cristina was unwilling to let go the white privileges of going to a private school, Cristina decided her primary identity was being the daughter of her mother, a Mexican single household immigrant mother, but in front of white admissions office workers, in order to get herself accepted in another stronghold of whitedom in academia. Thus identity formation is used to please and reaffirm white expectations of how minorities should perform or self-identify in the United States.

(some references, I ended up never using for lack of sleep)
Dávila, Arlene
2001 Latinos, Inc: the Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press
Dibango, Manu
1994 “The Shortest Way Through”: Strategic Anti-essentialism in Popular Music. In Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. Pp. 51-66 New York: Verso
DuBois, W.E.B
1994 The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Fiske, John
2004 Understanding Popular Culture. New York: Routledge
Lipsitz, George
2001 The Lion and the Spider: Mapping Sexuality, Space, and Politics in Miami Music. In American Studies in a Moment of Danger. Pp 139-67







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