“Hola, hombre, let’s go see Spanglish.”
“I hear it’s fantastico!”
“Hurry up, dude, tiempo is money!”
I’ll bet you understood most of the dialogue above. Congratulations, amigo, and welcome to Spanglish.
Spanglish is the language that combines (some say “deteriorates”) Spanish with English and is now spoken, to one degree or another, by just about everybody who lives in a bilingual American city.
The movie Spanglish actually has very little of the wildly inventive Spanglish language in it (the movie is very tame and proper), but the point of the movie’s title is clear: The merging of cultures between Mexico and the United States is real and affects almost every aspect of life among those who live closest to the heat of the melting pot. For example, in Los Angeles, 48 percent of the population is Hispanic, and Jose is the most popular child’s name.
If you think Spanglish is only a border-town thing, take a drive through West Asheville, or dine at one of the city’s excellent south-of-the-border eateries. And let’s not forget the exuberant annual Fiesta Latina — this year was its seventh incarnation. Although it’s still relatively subtle, Hispanic influence, whether it’s from Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico or other origins, is alive and well right here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Spanglish is the story of a young Mexican mother’s attempt to raise her daughter in Los Angeles while maintaining her traditional Latin values. It’s a fairy tale that makes nice-nice of the reality of immigrant life in L.A. There are no raids from La Migra, no sweatshops, no gang violence; there’s not even one square inch of a graffiti-labeled wall. But Spanglish is not meant to be a documentary. Its purpose is to entertain a lot and enlighten a little. In other words, it’s a long-form sitcom. Which is understandable, since it’s directed and written by sitcom king, James L. Brooks (TV’s Rhoda, Taxi, and The Simpsons, as well as movies such as Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets).
As a guy who likes to make people laugh after he makes them cry, Brooks pulls out all the stops in Spanglish, creating a surprisingly pleasant tale of culture clash among people who are basically nice and likeable. As such, Spanglish accomplishes something that is practically impossible with any other approach: It gives average Americans safe and easily digestible insight into the immigrant perspective. Even people who think millions of Hispanic immigrants can work for us at minimum wage as our grape-pickers, nannies, gardeners, busboys, housekeepers, carpenters and chicken slaughterers (yet not obtain a driver’s license) will enjoy this movie.
Spanglish‘s story is told as a young woman’s voice reads her life story from the essay she’s written on her application to Princeton University.
Flor (played by beautiful Spanish star Paz Varga) and her 6-year-old daughter have been abandoned by her husband in Mexico. “You have one tear and only one tear to cry,” Flor tells her daughter, “so make it a good one.” Then they set off for Los Angeles. It’s a nice crossing with no border guards shooting them and no dying of thirst in the desert. They end up at the home of Flor’s cousin, in one of the L.A. barrios. Since the barrio (five hours drive north from the border) is just like Mexico, Flor is able to enjoy living in the United States while pretending she’s still in her beloved homeland. She does such a good job at this that she’s there for six years without learning to speak English. (That’s absurd: Even living in a barrio, most young immigrants start learning English shortly after their arrival, if not before.) Meanwhile, like all good immigrant children, daughter Christina (Victoria Luna) becomes bilingual.
When Christina is 12, Flor decides she wants to make more money, so for the first time, she ventures out of the barrio into the world beyond — the universe of rich white folks.
Here we meet John Clasky (Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love), a talented chef who also happens to be a genuinely nice guy. He makes valiant attempts to be a good husband to his wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni, The Family Man), who has completely flipped out since she lost her job and became a full-time Mom. Deborah’s trying to do her maternal duty (“Do you have any idea how many books on parenting I’ve read?”) and maintain her multi-tasking lifestyle, but she’s not very good at it because she’s basically unconscious, depressed and spoiled. In addition, she jogs too much, eats too little, and never connects her mouth to her brain. Leoni gives a terrific performance that you might think is over the top, unless you’ve lived in L.A., and then you know how pathetically realistic her performance is.
In a fit of overeager naivete, Deborah hires Flor as the family housekeeper. Soon everybody loves Flor because she’s a tranquil Hispanic influence in a house that is suffocated by Deborah’s hyperactive craziness. Grandma Evelyn (Cloris Leachman, Alex and Emma) loves her because Flora doesn’t condemn her (though she certainly condemns Deborah), and while Grandma sobers up, she gives her stressed-out daughter lots of advice.
All kinds of cute misunderstandings are caused by the language barrier, and then Deborah insists everybody move to the beach for the summer. Flor has never told the Claskys about her daughter, but she can’t commute from the beach to the barrio, so to keep this job, she brings Christina to live at the beach, too.
Deborah is unhappy with her own daughter (adorable Sarah Steele), who’s a little tubby, and is always hurting the poor child’s feelings with her obsession about being thin. Adrift without a project, she takes Christina under her oppressive wing, and they take off one day and do rich-girl things. “You’re the most amazing white woman I’ve ever met,” Christina enthuses, loving her new pink-striped locks.
Meanwhile, Flora is enraged. One misunderstanding leads to another as the two women battle out their differences. Then, as Dad grows increasingly miserable with his wife’s nuttiness, he finds Flor ever more irresistible. But in a lovely change of pace from movies and life, Dad and Flor don’t act upon their attraction, and instead make a decision that is best for their children.
Many years later, Christina’s college application ends thusly: “Acceptance at Princeton will thrill me,” she writes, “but not define me — I am my mother’s daughter.”
I dare you to keep a dry eye.
— reviewed by Marci Miller