Recently I sat down to watch Will Ferrell’s spoof of spanish soap operas and spaghetti westerns, Casa de mi Padre, for no other reason than the simple fact that I enjoy Mr. Ferrell’s work. Still, as I sat there, various aspects of our class began to run through my head. Mainly, the use of explicit and implicit brownface, and how it relates not only to the movie, but to Latin culture as a whole.
The movie tells the story of Armando Alvarez, a simple farmer who has spent his entire life in his father’s ranch in Mexico, working hard to get his family through tough times. Played by Ferrell, this character shows massive use of explicit brownface right from the start. From his outfits, which include ascots and cowboy hats, to his actions, such as going to the middle of the desert with fellow farmers to sing a mariachi style song about their lack of knowledge. Surprisingly enough, his language and dialogue showed little use of this, as it’s pretty straight forward and easy to understand. Ferrell didn’t want this to be his character’s comedic trademark, and hoped to blend in with the other actors, something he accomplishes as it’s easy to forget that he doesn’t actually speak spanish. Ironically, his only use of brownface while speaking is when he speaks in english, doing so with an accent.
The film also reunites long time friends and Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, as two clear examples of implicit brownface. The characters constantly curse, drink, and enforce the negative connection between Mexico and drugs many Americans feel, as they play rival druglords. Actors Efren Ramirez and Adrian Martinez also use implicit brownface, playing Armando’s farmer friends, who also like to sing about their simple lives in Mexico (“I’m friends with the cows”) and have names such as “Esteban De Los Santos Escobar Chavez”. Lastly, Manuel Urrego plays a corrupted Mexican police chief, who works with the drug cartels, a very real and serious problem in modern day Mexico.
As a parody, the film also picks out several Latin stereotypes and themes, mainly from their media. The stable of talented actors, featuring Luna, Garcia Bernal, Ferrell, and the late Pedro Armendariz all terribly overact, as is thought of from Mexican soap operas, or Novelas. The movie is filled with cheap sets and props, badly edited cuts, and unnecessary zoom ins on the characters faces as they stare at each other. Even the Film’s villains are easily recognized by their constant smoking, like the villains in the novelas. Still, the movie does a good job of making sure this is a joke, and it’s hard not to laugh when Garcia’s character smokes two cigarettes at the same time to one-up his rival, or Luna trying to drink his whiskey as he is shot down.
As Ferrell put it, “We wanted the movie, while being outlandish, to be satirical, and comment on our cliched view of Mexico”. He also understands that the cultural problem is a “two way street”, and the movie comments on this several times, mainly Mexico’s production of drugs and the United State’s consumption of those drugs. Even the final lines in the movie explore this as a DEA agent attempting to make up for his racist partner tells Alvarez “Not all Americans are bad”, to which Alvarez replies, “Not all Mexicans are drug dealers”. Ferrell’s main objective was to make a movie that people from both cultures could enjoy. As someone born and raised in Mexico, I feel he succeeded and personally enjoyed the small connections to Novelas and the Latin culture. Yes, the stereotypes are there (and plenty of them), but are presented in a way that allows the comedy to shine.
Will Ferrell interview: http://www.dailycal.org/2012/03/14/will-ferrell-speaks-about-new-film-ethnic-stereotypes/