A Day Without a Mexican addresses immigration issues

In 2004, a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles proclaimed, “On May 14th there will be no Mexicans in California.” Within two and a half hours, a Latino woman’s complaints resulted in the billboard being torn down and replaced with an advertisement for cheese. Filmmakers Sergio Arau and Yareli Arizmendi then made a second attempt to promote their film, A Day Without a Mexican, with billboards placed in Latino areas of L.A. reading “*El 14 de mayo los gringos van a llorar*,” or “On May 14th, the Americans are going to cry.” This time, “Let me tell you what happened,” Arau said: “nothing.”

A Day Without a Mexican is rife with controversy because it takes a clear stance on immigration issues facing the United States. In the mockumentary, all of the Latinos in California disappear, launching California into a severe economic and social crisis. Without the crucial Latino workforce, crops are left unharvested, restaurants are left unstaffed, and households are left unmanaged. Every aspect of Californians’ day-to-day lives is touched by the absence of Latinos, be it on a personal or economic level. It illustrates the economic dependence of the world’s sixth biggest economy on Latinos, both documented and undocumented.

Arau and Arizmendi are both native Mexicans and active artists committed to social change. Arau has a master’s degree in film. He is famed for his rock group Botellita de Jerez as well as his political cartoons, paintings, and MTV award-winning film direction. Arizmendi is a writer and an actress, having appeared in films as well as on popular TV shows such as 24 and Six Feet Under. She studied political science as an undergraduate and has a master’s of fine arts.

Arau and Arizmendi came to Carnegie Mellon’s Porter Hall 100 last Monday as keynote speakers for Hispanic Heritage Month. The married duo detailed the process they went through in creating their innovative movie. “We were walking in New York in ’94 and ... they closed all the museums and galleries to show all the artists who died of AIDS and called it a day without art,” Arau said. The couple immediately thought, “What California needs is a day without Mexicans.” Arizmendi asked, “How do we make this invisible presence visible? If we took it away, if it weren’t there, it would probably be felt strongly. Our absence would be weighing more than our presence in that way.”

Though the idea was born in 1994, it took a strong push for Arau and Arizmendi to begin the actual filmmaking process. “One day in ’97 we were talking about this idea. A friend of ours stood up and he said, ‘I give you three months to start this film or I’m going to steal the idea,’” Arizmendi said. Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum gave the couple funding for their project and agreed to screen its premiere. The couple began furiously working on a movie short. “This is what we like to call emergency filmmaking,” Arizmendi said. “Guerrilla filmmaking.”

Through exposure in international and domestic film festivals, the short gained acknowledgement. Companies began to approach Arau and Arizmendi about turning the short into a feature film. Arau and Arizmendi eventually found producers who allowed them to pursue their own visions and political concepts. The team co-wrote the script for the movie, starring Arizmendi and directed by Arau.

Despite A Day Without a Mexican’s repeated mocking of Americans’ tendency to refer to all Latinos as Mexicans, Arau and Arizmendi decided to use the word “Mexican” in the title of the film instead of “Latino.” “There was nothing so powerful as A Day Without a Mexican, because it has the word Mexican in the title. I grew up Mexican and it was a nationality, but here everybody whispers it,” Arizmendi explained. “The title had to work for the objective, and that it did because that got people definitely turning to what this [film] was about.”

The movie received somewhat unfavorable reviews from critics. “The big battle cry from reviewers was ‘What is it? Is it a documentary? Is it a comedy?’” said Arizmendi. The filmmakers themselves dubbed the movie a “fused genre.” Although the story is fictional, the film was shot documentary-style, with handheld camera footage and interviews with characters. The film’s parody and exaggeration is definitely comedic. Arau described it as both a “mockumentary” and a “political cartoon.”

That a film tackling so somber a subject as immigration law is in large part a comedy frequently surprises viewers. Arizmendi described the use of humor as “a little Trojan horse” allowing the message of the movie to get through to people without them quite realizing it. “The use of humor affords you a vehicle to talk about very serious issues in a deeper way and to have your audience relax a little bit to listen,” she said.

A Day Without a Mexican definitely inspires a dialogue about immigration issues. “It’s really interesting how much impact the movie had; how there was such a buzz around it when it came out in 2004 and that there was a resurgence of the buzz in May of 2006 during the countrywide Day Without Immigrants,” pointed out sophomore Georgianne Papacostas. The film is even used as part of the curriculum in a course at Carnegie Mellon, the freshman seminar From Peasants to Ph.D.s, taught by Susan Ambrose, the associate provost for education and a professor in the history department.

Luis Rico-Gutierrez, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and a native Mexican, remarked on Arau’s talent as a subversive musician. “What he was really good at was taking the most basic form of culture, which is the culture most Mexicans lead, and giving it a position in the realm of art.” This is precisely what Arau and Arizmendi have accomplished in their film. They created a piece of art that is accessible and articulate and that continues to inspire dialogue and debate on immigration issues in America.