What do you think of when you hear “sex”, “drugs”, and “Mexico” in the same sentence? Let me guess: human trafficking and drug lords.
English-language discourse often filters Mexico through an American lens and boxes it into either one of two categories: illegal immigration or drug violence. Out of convenience, we see Mexico as a dysfunctional monolith, an endless repository of destitute farm workers that just happens to have resorts and tequila on the side. Mexico is an appendage of the American narrative, a prop without agency.
Then there’s Y Tu Mamá También, a film that, more than a decade after its release, still provides a welcome respite to America’s commodification of all things Mexican. It’s a film that puts “sex”, “drugs”, and “Mexico” in the same sentence, but without the drug lords or human traffickers or Chipotle burritos or margarita mix, a film that masquerades as yet another Americanized story but ends up bleeding Mexican between the lines.
On its surface, Y Tu Mamá También deploys a classic Hollywood trope: the roadtrip. Protagonists Julio Zapata and Tenoch Iturbide seem like stereotypical best buddies from an American high school–they smoke Pineapple Express volumes of weed, they jack off to Salma Hayek, and they crack fart jokes. Drunk at a wedding, Tenoch invites his cousin’s attractive wife Luisa to join the two at an imaginary beach named “Boca del Cielo” (Heaven’s Mouth). To the boys’ surprise, she ends up accepting, and the three embark on a hormone-filled roadtrip to the Mexican coast.
Needless to say, Julio and Tenoch’s intentions with Luisa aren’t exactly wholesome. Lust is the movie’s most obvious theme; in fact, its very first scene is of Julio having loud, passionate sex with his girlfriend Cecilia. These boys are out to screw, get high, and get drunk… and NC-17 amounts of sex, drugs, and alcohol are exactly what they get.
Boorishness aside, director Alfonso Cuarón (one of Mexico’s most renowned directors and winner of 2013’s Best Director Oscar for Gravity) infuses the narrative with a massive amount of character depth. Y Tu Mamá También is a coming-of-age story rich with meaning — but on this level, it could still be yet another Hollywood movie. Therefore, what makes the film so unique is what Cuarón chooses to write between the lines. At the narrative’s margins are clues that, when pieced together, give viewers a fascinating ride on the currents of Mexican history and society.
Let’s start with the characters’ names and backgrounds. Julio comes from a working-class family and shares a surname with Emiliano Zapata, Mexico’s most famous leftist revolutionary. Opposite him is Tenoch, whose father is a Harvard-trained economist and high-ranking government official. Tenoch’s surname reflects his family’s wealth and power; it recalls Agustin de Iturbide, independent Mexico’s first ruler. The name “Tenoch” itself comes from the old Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. We learn that Tenoch’s parents originally wanted to christen him Hernán, but in a bout of opportunistic nationalism they decided that he shouldn’t share a name with the Spaniard who conquered Mexico. That Spaniard is Hernán Cortés — and it just so happens that Luisa’s surname is Cortés, and that she’s actually from Madrid.
With those surnames as a starting point, history, class, and other socio-economic realities paint the film’s backdrop. At strategic junctures, Cuarón cuts all diegetic sound and deploys an omniscient narrator. The narrator is a colorless, nameless entity who floats independent of the story, yet offers biting commentary on what Julio and Tenoch ignore or brush away. His voice is calm, yet his content is jarring.
As the boys blame leftist protestors for a Mexico City traffic jam, we the audience learn that, actually, an unfortunate migrant worker was run over. While the boys ignore the Mexican President’s presence at the wedding where they meet Luisa, we receive his itinerary: first, deny the government’s complicity in a peasant massacre, next, jet off to Seattle for a conference on globalization.
When Luisa picks up a cute stuffed mouse, we hear that the adorable toy commemorates a girl who died trying to cross into Arizona 15 years prior. While the boys live in their fantasy world of lust and vice, the narrator comes in every so often to pop that bubble, injecting spurts of underlying sobriety into a film whose surface narrative leans heavily on intoxication.
If the narrator isn’t enough, the roadside scenery on Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s journey to Boca del Cielo bleeds more Mexican ink between the lines. They start their trip in a gas station run by PEMEX, Mexico’s hugely significant state-owned oil giant (just last year in 2014, the Mexican government voted to end the company’s 75-year petroleum monopoly). Going away from the city (Mexico City — the center) and towards the coast (the margins), the imagery changes from bustling traffic to vignettes of life and death tinged with both indigence and magnificence.
One moment our protagonists’ Volkswagen whizzes by a funeral procession that sports the Virgin Guadalupe, the next it’s ambushed by a wedding party’s smiles. Later, it passes checkpoints reminiscent of Iraq or some other third-world country, a stark contrast from the America-esque country club that Tenoch invites Julio to in Mexico City.
These margins are–well–marginal to Julio and Tenoch, yet imbue Y Tu Mamá También with a depth and local color that few roadtrip movies can match. What we see isn’t just another American drive down Route 66. There is something uniquely Mexican in the movie’s beauty and horrors, something that goes beyond props and monoliths and categories. It’s an acknowledgement that yes, illegal immigration and drug violence are problems, but there’s so, so much more.
Near the film’s end, our nameless narrator announces a (true) historically significant event: for the first time in 71 years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party has lost Mexico’s presidency. This detail gives no immediate spoilers about Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s roadtrip.
However, it’s massively telling on other fronts. The teenage roadtrip movie is usually a bildungsroman, a metaphorical setup in which the characters drive away from innocence. On their journey, these characters uncover hints of who they are and what they stand for; at road’s end, they look back and see how far they’ve come.
In this sense, Y Tu Mamá También is member of a rare breed: the dual bildungsroman. Looking forward through the windshield, it’s a human journey. But glance back with the rear-view mirror, and you’ll see a nation–animated, aware, and alive–along for the ride.
Y Tu Mamá También–Mexico. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. First released June 2008. Running time 1hr 46 min. Starring Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, and Diego Luna.