Colorful, Innovative: The Book of Life honors Mexican culture

Posted by Moraima Capellán Pichardo on October 29, 2014 · 7 mins read

[caption id=”attachment_1498” align=”alignnone” width=”500”]Del Toro received the 2014 Anthony Quinn Alma Award for achievement in film.  (Photo provided by Flickr, NCLR) Del Toro received the 2014 Anthony Quinn Alma Award for achievement in film.
(Photo provided by Flickr, NCLR)[/caption]

During his speech at the 2014 NCLR Alma Awards, Guillermo del Toro shared a story of his friend and colleague, Guillermo Navarro (Pacific Rim) of their early days in the film industry. Simply put, a Hollywood studio executive told Navarro that he did not need a Mexican filmmaker, he already had a gardener.

“When I came here, to America, at the beginning of the ’90s it was a very different panorama,” Del Toro explained to the star studded crowd of the Alma awards. Founded by the National Council of La Raza, the Alma awards have been honoring and celebrating for 15 years the fair and appropriate representation of Latinos in music, film and television. This year Del Toro was awarded the Anthony Quinn Award for Industry Excellence. “And we need to recognize that we have taken huge steps forward. There’s much more to do, we are going to do it together,” Del Toro said.

_The Book __of Life _is another huge step forward and one that targets the misrepresentation of Latinos at an early stage, youth.  The American perception of Mexico — and by extension Latino America — is not exactly at a positive place. The border crisis has revealed not only the ugly side of immigration policy but the ignorance, cruelty and racism attached to it. More than ever, being Latino is seen by some as a threat (however irrational) to so-called “American values” and the vast, diverse culture of Latino America is associated with the negative mess occurring at the border.

There’s not much to be done about the old cuckoos attacking the buses of children refugees on the border. Except, wait till they die off. But then what do we do about those that are my age — millennials that still think it is appropriate or funny to dress like a “Mexican” on Halloween? Ignorance is only part of the problem. I myself dressed up one shameful Halloween in a typical “Chinese’ outfit because I was unaware of how degrading it is to use a person’s culture as a costume and because all my friends thought it was okay as well.

Produced by Del Toro, _The Book of Life _has the ability to bring a bit of understanding into a small section of the Mexican culture that America loves to exploit (note: fraternity/sorority Mexican theme parties) by targeting a demographic that is constantly fed mixed messages. And the film addresses it from the very beginning by following a group of elementary school white kids on their way to detention.

Detention is being served in a museum (field trip? I would have gotten into trouble on purpose) but the guide (Christina Applegate) takes a detour into a restricted area that focuses on the _Dia de los Muertos _celebration. The children are reluctant to follow but are immediately in awe as they are submerged into the ancient Mexican traditions and history (the day of the dead goes back to the Aztec and Mayan empires).

Applegate narrates the story from The Book of Life that follows the lives of Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoë Saldaña), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) as they struggle with the expectations of their family, love and the supernatural of the day of the dead. Manolo’s family has been in the bullfighting tradition for centuries and he inherited their skills in the arena but his passion is music. Manolo also refuses to finish his bull fights in the traditional manner, by killing the bull, making him a joke in the town and embarrassment to his family.

Maria was sent away as a child to Spain to live with nuns and get rid of her adventurous nature. Upon returning she is the diamond of the town and everyone expects her to marry the biggest macho that can provide for not only her but the whole damn town. That macho is Joaquin. An orphan of the town’s biggest hero, Joaquin lives under the biggest shadow and has the expectations of the entire town leading him to narcism and a hunt for fame.

_The Book of Life _is far from original with its underlying message about accepting change and following your heart. As the credits roll, the Candle Maker (Ice Cube) tells the audience to “Write your own story.” Great topics for growing children but it is the execution that excels in the film. This is Jorge R. Gutierrez first full length feature, and he not only directed it but wrote the script and worked in the character designs.

_The Book of Life _is absolutely stunning, festive, playful and put a modern twist to a movie essentially about tradition. The depiction of the rulers of the dead, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xilbaba (Ron Perlman), are terrifyingly captivating and should be in everyone’s list of Halloween costume options.

No, dressing up as La Muerte is not racist; reducing a population of over 120 million people to one outfit is.

The film pokes fun and makes light of death in a true Mexican style. And one that is present in many Latin American countries where death is not something to fear irrationally and that remembering our ancestors helps in our own development and history.

_The Book of Life _is the movie I wish I could have seen as a young immigrant struggling to find the balance between my roots and my new home. Yes, I’m not Mexican, but what everyone and Latinos can absolutely relate to is the fun hearted nature and love of life present in the film. The film blends Mexican music with American modern classics in the best soundtrack this year.  The ranchera spin on Mumford & Sons “I Will Wait” is better than the original, sorry but not sorry (and the only appropriate way to write this is to listen to the soundtrack). Did anyone else know about Diego Luna’s vocal skills?

_The Book of Life _is a heartwarming, dazzling achievement and maybe, just maybe, I might be totally off with this, but maybe the depictions are culturally appropriate and genuine NOT because the creators are Mexican (Hint: Sarcasm). Who would have thought?