Chicano Film Practices

Despues del Terremoto

by Rosa Linda Fregoso

Lourdes Portillo's Despues del Terremoto anticipates Chicana, yet, in a similar vein, Portillo's film exemplifies a Chicana feminist counter-aesthetics. Portillo herself has been one of our most misunderstood and distorted film practitioners. Male critics simply don't know what to make of her. She has been called a Nicaraguan filmmaker by Gary Keller in his introduction to the first Chicano cinema anthology (1985). Assuming that only a man could conceive of a national activist film association, Keller also forgot to mention that Portillo was one of the founders of Cine Acción.

Perhaps, she herself has added to the confusion for she has made a film about a Nicaraguan immigrant in San Francisco, another film on the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina (Las Madres, 1986), and yet another on the Day of the Dead (La Ofrenda, 1989), which dares to give a subject-role to gays in their efforts to revive and transform el día de los muertos celebration in San Francisco. Of course, these diverse ways of re-presenting reality may confuse and perplex those who assume that there is only one way of being a Chicana, that there is only one voice that can speak for all Chicanas, or that there is only one concern that interests Chicanas, in sum, to those who assume that there is an "essential" Chicana identity. Indeed, the ambiguity in Portillo's work, the refusal to be categorized, the multi-dimensionality of her subject matter, her concern for many and varied forms of oppression (for instance, military repression in Argentina; the oppression based on gender and sexuality) are what in fact make Lourdes Portillo very Chicana. Not to mention that she herself claims that very identity. As Norma Alarcón reminds us, what characterizes the work of many Chicana writers is their rejection of singular notions of cultural identity, that is to say, their preference for "multiple-voiced subjectivity" (199Ob:336). Portillo's cinematic trajectory similarly draws attention to the fact that Chicanas are "interpellated by a series of ideological discourses" (Sanchez 1990:5). Her film, Después del Terremoto, assigns these multiple registers to the subject-protagonist's quest for her identity as a woman.

Después del Terremoto's theme may be about the life of a Nicaraguan immigrant woman in San Francisco, but its concerns are ours as well. And, a great deal of the film's sub-text is also about the experiences (cultural, political, and sexual) which affect Chicanas within a dominant culture. In fact, by depicting these conflicts from the perspective of a non-Chicana, Portillo achieves an "objective" distance from the subjectivity of Chicana identity, an objective distance which provides the film its clarity of vision. In so doing, that is to say, by stepping outside of our culture, the film is transformed into one of the most powerful critiques to date of culture and gender conflict within our own "community." The film's formal properties set in motion an allegory for Chicanas' internal cultural and gender oppression.

Después del Terremoto's theme concerns a Nicaraguan working as a maid in San Francisco. The plot is propelled by an impending meeting between the film's protagonist, Irene, and her boyfriend, who has just arrived from Nicaragua where he has been a political activist, imprisoned and tortured in Somoza's jails. Yet apart from this specificity which localizes the theme as "Nicaraguan," or the film as a story about Nicaraguans in the U.S., the film's various subtexts can be read allegorically. And it is the manner in which the film is formally structured which opens up its allegorical dimension.

The film's narrative is orchestrated around two major events, Irene's purchase of a television set and the event of the cumpleaños which serves as a pretext for unveiling women's rituals. The film opens with the purchase of the TV and closes with an ensuing conflict between Irene and the boyfriend over the act. The television purchase is important given that the filmmaker utilizes the TV as a sign with multiple layers of meaning. On the one hand, it is a signifier for cultural imperialism, the dissemination of U.S. programming to the Third World. But, the TV is also, in the U.S., a signifier of acculturation, for it is designed not only to homogenize different audiences and organize them as markets, but also to acculturate immigrants into U.S. society. The television also marks success, or it can be read as a symbol of the culture of consumption. What TV does is to inculcate the ethic and logic of consumerism within these communities as a route to becoming "American." The ability to purchase a television, for many lower income people, particularly immigrants, registers their successful incorporation into U.S. culture, as consumers. Given that success is measured through consumption, access to TV discourse marks their participation in a naturalized and commodified world of consumerism offered by television. (6

Despite these multiple registers embodied in the film, the dominant reading of the television revolves around its function as a signifier for the signified, a woman's independence and autonomy. From the perspective of Irene, the decision to purchase the television symbolizes her autonomy as a wage-earner and her independence as a woman. And it is from the act of her purchase of this commodity that Irene entertains the question of her role as either a future (dependent) wife or an independent (perhaps single) wage-earner, and as a consumer, since the consumer has come to replace the producer in an advanced capitalist economy.

Another significant feature of the film's structure is located in the contrast between two back-to-back sequences: the sequence which depicts Irene and her friend in the bedroom, discussing gender- relations and politics while engaged in the ritual of "dressing-up," and the sequence with the two tias (aunts) involved in a kitchen ritual of making tamales while also talking about gender-relations and politics. The contrast between these two sequences is rich with generational conflict and differences. The filmmaker imbues its imagery with the multiplicity of women's discourse, namely, repression through religion but also bonding through ritual. As Irene walks towards the kitchen-space of the tias, she glimpses one of them before a home-altar, praying to Saint Anthony for a husband for Irene. The tia has just placed Saint Anthony in an upside-down position, a religious practice designed to insure the fulfillment of the request. After the aunt leaves, Irene returns the Saint to its upright position and then glances at an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Unsure of the significance of religious rituals and icons, Irene returns to the bedroom space where she then asks her friend, "Qué piensas de la Virgen?" ("What do you think of the Virgin?"), to which her friend responds, "Nada interesante, la verdad" ("Not much").

Whereas Spanish-language use predominates in both sequences, the film also captures the linguistic structure of code-switching within each generation since in both cases the characters code-switch from English to Spanish, and vice versa. Generational difference in linguistic use is punctuated by an additional sequence, taking place in a third space and visualizing two young girls who do not speak any Spanish at all. The film moreover registers the multiplicity of women's discourse in other ways as well.

In this same segment of the film, the complexity and multiplicity of Chicana identity is captured in the following detail. On the one hand, las tias solterorlas (spinsters) voice the most traditional values about their desire for a husband for Irene by saying "no se vaya a quedar a vestir santos" ("let's hope she doesn't end up dressing saints"). Yet in a second breath one remarks, "mas vale vestir santos que borrachos" ("better to dress saints than drunks"). Indeed, this sequence exemplifies the sophisticated deconstructive and reconstructive style rendered throughout the film. The film's spatial rendition of the quotidian, the everyday rituals, succeeds in illuminating the subversiveness of women's private space. Impregnating onto the quotidian those elements of "resistance" inherent in rituals, Portillo offers a Chicana feminist perspective that critiques the values which imprison Chicanas, salvaging those which liberate.

In its depiction of a central-subject whose relation to cultural tradition and religion remains at best ambiguous and distant, Despues del Terremoto re-constructs multiple-voiced subjectivity. In other words, by assigning "multiple registers of existence" to the main-character, Portillo captures cinematically the process which acknowledges that "knowledge" of Chicana "subjectivity cannot be arrived at through a single discursive 'theme"' (Alarcón 1990:355-6).

Finally, while strongly leaning toward cinematic realism, the film's formal refusal to tie-up the threads that make up a fictional text, that is, to achieve narrative closure, opting instead for the ending with the subtitle, "y empezo asi . . . " ("and so it began . . . "), leaves an opening, a critical space for the viewer to weave his or her own ending to this on-going struggle of gender politics.