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Film Examines 'A Day Without a Mexican'

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

What would happen if suddenly, scores of busboys, gardeners, farm workers, and house cleaners decided not to show up for work?

Well as we've mentioned today, that day in fact may be here with the national boycott. The boycott echoes the theme of the 2004 independent film, A Day Without a Mexican.

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with the movie's star, Yareli Arizmendi, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

FARAI CHIDEA reporting:

Your film is prophetic, in a way. How did you even come up with the concept?

Ms. YARELI ARIZMENDI (actress and writer): Well, let's go back a little bit, about ten years before the film actually came out, in '94.

In California, we had Pete Wilson launching his reelection campaign based on Proposition 187, basically. It was then that my husband, Sergio Arau--who co-wrote and directed the film--and myself, you know, just had the gut wrenching, wait a minute. You're just telling them a half truth. You know, you're saying that there's expenses that this--that California has to put up with for these undocumented workers, but you're not telling them how much money they make for the state. So it was that feeling that got us to, in '97, actually put out a short film.

And audiences had such a reaction that, obviously, producers approached us and said, have you thought of doing the feature length? And to us, it was like emergency filmmaking. It's like, we've got to say what we've gotta say. We didn't have any money. We got a little bit of money from Chicago, of all places. A museum in Chicago that gave us...

CHIDEYA: There's a lot of Mexicans in Chicago.

Ms. ARIZMENDI: Yes, I've come to understand that. I didn't know then--you always think the southwest is the one that has, you know, the Mexicans, right? And by Mexicans, we mean Latinos. It's just--you know, to clarify, in the film, anybody speaking Spanish around here is called a Mexican, right?

CHIDEYA: A friend of mine, who is the founder of Latina Magazine, she said, well, you know, there's those Dominican Mexicans, there's the Puerto Rican Mexicans, you know, just like a joke. Everybody--it's like...


CHIDEYA: ...you know, all different kinds of Mexicans. But let's listen to a clip from your film, A Day Without A Mexican.

(Soundbite of film, "A Day Without A Mexican")

Unidentified Woman: With no one in the field, canneries, and meatpacking plants, the hunt for groceries has escalated.

Mr. LARRY CARROLL: (As Newscaster) Baseball fans went crazy when they found out that the game had been cancelled. Riots outside the stadium are being quickly quelled for fear that the violence might lead to broader disruptions across the city.

Unidentified Man #1: The place was a mess. I had to wash a dish. I am going to have to close my restaurant if they don't come back. I need these Mexican individuals.

CHIDEYA: The boycott that's going on...

Ms. ARIZMENDI: Mm hmm.

CHIDEYA: Has divided not only Anglos and whites, not only Spanish speakers and non, not only citizens and non, but people within the movement for immigrant rights. Why do you think that is?

Ms. ARIZMENDI: Whenever you have, you know, such a large group of people, you're going to have a debate on what the best strategy is, and definitely, to boycott, boycott, that is the extreme. In a sense--we talk about it in the film--we made them disappear. And, of course, the way that we did it was with a little pink fog that kinda--you know, in a fable kind of manner--disappears everybody.

You know, I think that it is a strategy issue. But to tell you the truth, even though some people say, well, is this an emotional response? You know, and is it just passionate, and they're not thinking straight on what their best strategy is? I think it's both. There's been talk of, is this the civil, you know, the civil rights movement of our time, and I really think it is. These people aren't going back into the shadows, that's for sure.

CHIDEYA: You use the word disappeared, in terms of the Mexicans who are in your film, just vanishing in this pink fog. Now the term disappeared has often been used in Latin America in a context of people being abducted and killed. How does the whole idea of people disappearing relate to just the very nature of life--life in America but also life throughout the Americas, of which this country is not the only part?

Ms. ARIZMENDI: Mm hmm. To tell you the truth, I had not really made that connection. And right now, I'm stunned because, of course, I grew up in Latin America, and it--over there it takes on a very dark tone to it. To disappear--and in the film, in our film as we say, is how do you make the invisible visible? You take it away. So in a sense, we're making absence weigh heavier than the presence that is under appreciated.

CHIDEYA: Let's hear a little bit more from your film. Sprinkled throughout your comedy is some serious commentary. Here's a little bit.

(Soundbite of film, "A Day Without a Mexican")

Ms. ARIZMENDI: (as Lila Rodriguez) Has something like this happened before?

Unidentified Man: In the past few days, we've lost five or 10, but nothing like this. We're going to lose the entire crop.

Ms. ARIZMENDI: (as Lila Rodriguez) Any idea what might have happened?

Unidentified Man: The INS, making it hard for people to come here and stay here.

CHIDEYA: Well, in 1965, there was a play--newly written, produced--called Day of Absence, which was about black folks disappearing from the workforce. And that play really resonated during the civil rights movement. And it seems like your movie has done a similar thing.

Ms. ARIZMENDI: You know what was fantastic, is when we came out with a short, everybody kept referring us to Day of Absence. And we had never really heard of it. It just goes to confirm that--the reason the idea was so powerful for the film, is because it's very basic. We've all felt that, either as a cultural group, or as a child, or as an adolescent, I mean--it's basically like do you see me, do you appreciate me, do you value me? And what if I wasn't here, then you'd be crying. But it comes from a real desire to be appreciated, to be told that, you know, it does make a difference that you're on this earth.

CHIDEYA: You're film's distributor has seen an increase of 17 percent in rentals just in one month. You know, your film really has struck a nerve. A lot of people right now are worried that this boycott won't live up to some of the other spontaneous demonstrations. If that's true, is it a deep setback? If it is huge, is that a deep move forward, or is this about something ongoing?

Ms. ARIZMENDI: I think that it has already been successful. It is in the, you know, the lips and minds of everybody in the nation. And I'll tell you, one of the objectives of our film was to make issues of both immigration and appreciation of Latino contributions a nationwide issue. We are so proud to always say that we're a country built on immigrants, etc., etc. But you can't just say that at like a tourist attraction. I mean, you've got to live up to it. So, of course, it's everybody's issue.

CHIDEYA: Yareli Arizmendi starred in and co-wrote the screenplay for A Day Without A Mexican. Thank you.

Ms. ARIZMENDI: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's, Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.