The dynamics of the mother archetype in Mexican cinema shaped by women: analysis of pioneer Matilde Landeta's screenwriting and film directing in La Negra Angustias.

Author:DePaoli, Maria
Position:Critical essay

In Mexican cinema, the image of the mother has dominated the national discourse through the creation of myths and female archetypes connected with the universal Madonna-Whore dichotomy. These archetypes have proliferated in Mexican culture and are rooted on the Guadalupe (1)-Malinche (2) paradigm, continually reconfigured since the nineteenth century and reshaped during every national project. Various representations of this alternative set of "good mother"-"bad mother" archetypes are found in different expressions through popular culture, especially after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. But even before, romantic literature dealing with the Guadalupe-Malinche binary, such as Jose Olmedo y Lama's essay "Malintzin" (1874) as well as the first novel dealing with the Malinche myth: Dona Marina (1883), written by Irineo Paz, offer examples of cultural representations that compete for the hearts and minds of a selected group of educated male Catholic Mexican readers, mostly white Creole, and a few privileged "Mestizos."

With the establishment of the young film industry, the national mother dichotomy of Guadalupe-Malinche began to reach a wider audience within the first decades of the twentieth century. Some novels such as Federico Gamboa's Santa (1903) and the Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos' Dona Barbara (1929) explore the possibility of a potential reconfiguration of binary oppositions regarding the role of women and mothers by inserting the creation of new female identities, such as the "redeemed-through-death-whore" in Santa and the "Devourer mother" in Dona Barbara. These female prototypes got to the big screen and became very popular in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s while galvanizing the original Guadalupe-Malinche opposition.

Another enormous cultural influence during the first part of the twentieth century derives from the long tradition of the "novel of the Mexican Revolution," (1910-1917) usually dominated by male authors. Thus, Matilde Landeta's unpublished screenplay (Landeta 1949), (3) and her resulting film adaptation (1949) of Francisco Rojas Gonzalez's novel La negra Angustias [Black Angustias] (Rojas Gonzalez 1944), are rare exceptions as texts written by women, that deal with the revolution, and which portray an Afro-Mexican "soldadera" (woman soldier) mother. This essay examines the representation of motherhood on the battlefield by comparing the three versions of Angustias's story: Rojas Gonzalez's novel, Landeta's screenplay adaptation, and also the film directed by Landeta. Although Landeta generally follows the story traced by the original source, the screenplay adaptation and the film proper display significant adaptation differences that beg further analysis. The idea of the Mexican mother as a self-denying, unselfish woman, who always puts her children's and husband's interests before hers, has historically served as an object of consumption in the cinema industry. Julia Tunon observes that, customarily, the good mother in Mexican film should preferably be a long-suffering woman who endures all kids of torments, pains, and misfortunes, frequently dying in the process (Tunon 1998: 73). In this respect, Landeta's adapted screenplay is an exception to the preferred melodramatic formula of the self-sacrificing mother, the image that was successfully sold in Mexican popular culture for decades, especially during the golden age of Mexican film. (4)

The concept of motherhood has traditionally functioned as a common cultural tool to keep intact established gender roles within the traditional masculine oriented power structure of Mexican society. In addition to exploring the notion of the combatant mother in film, I also address the concept of "mestizaje," since these two elements have historically been closely related to the idea of national identity. Coined during the colonial period, "mestizaje" stems from the term "mestizo (5)" included in the system of castes. "Mestizaje" comprises the process through which that blood mixing takes place. In his famous essay, La Raza Cosmica [The Cosmic Race], originally published in 1925, Jose Vasconcelos asserts in his thesis that Mexicans (who he describes as mestizos) are the new superior race. He suggests that through mestizaje, Mexicans have evolved into a new race to lead the world (Vasconcelos 1997: 97-98). The government of Mexico enthusiastically embraced this doctrine to elicit racial pride, and incorporated it into the education plan. Vasconcelos's essay was consistent with the government's post Mexican Revolution view that all ethnic groups should be combined into a common one that would engender Mexican national identity. (6) The symbolic importance of motherhood and mestizaje in Mexican culture has persisted through every national discourse since the nineteenth century. By analyzing Landeta's adaptation against other film representations, I illustrate how within the history of revolutionary melodrama, the cinematic coexistence of Mexican fixed feminine archetypes such as the "mother" and the "soldadera" is hardly achievable. In addition, I address the notion of race in La negra Angustias by focusing on the historically difficult reception of negritude in Mexican culture.

Black Angustias, by Rojas Gonalez's, is a quasi-biographical novel that narrates the participation in the Mexican Revolution of a poor, illiterate Afro-Mexican young woman from a small rural little town who, forced to leave her predominantly mestizo community after killing in self-defense, suddenly becomes a commander in charge of a group of revolutionary men. Angustias is the first female leader, and the first Afro-Mexican woman commandant of the 1910 Mexican Revolution to be represented both in literature and cinema. Almost forty years later, both Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and the film adaptation (1993) portray Gertrudis, another mulatta "soldadera." By analyzing these two Black women combatants, as well as other mothers who are revolutionary soldiers in Mexican film, I discuss how cultural and power dynamics operate in connection to the concept of motherhood. In addition, by considering the Afro-Mexican element, I explore how the notions of race, gender and motherliness are (mis)represented in Rojas Gonzalez's original source, and how they are interpreted and revised in Landeta's screenplay and film proper. I argue that as a Black woman in Mexico, Angustias is socially ostracized from the outset in the three primary texts analyzed in this essay. Given the history of race and power in Mexico, it is not difficult to understand why Angustias, who in the story is a poor, Black, illiterate, defiant woman, is automatically exiled not only from her mythical, mestizo rural town of "Mesa del Aire" but also from the larger idea of a coherent Mexican "imagined community" (Anderson 1983) (7) of the desired national project based on "mestizaje." My analysis mostly focuses on the progress of Angustias's transformation, as well as the semiotics that take place in the story from the original source (Rojas Gonzalez 1944) to Landeta's screenplay (1949), and finally, the film proper (1949). I believe that it is fair to consider whether some specific changes during the adaptation process occur because a woman screenwriter and director adapted the original text. Would these specific alterations to Rojas Gonzalez's novel happen in a similar way if the adapter were a male screenwriter and/or director? Therefore, it is important to explore the evolution of the story from Rojas Gonzalez's original source to Landeta's adapted interpretations: both the screenplay and the film.

The novel relates the story of a mulatta woman who served as a colonel under Emiliano Zapata (8) during the Mexican Revolution. The narration centers on the struggle of Angustias, an orphan whose white mother dies in childbirth, while her Black father is a Robin Hood-type bandit who is serving time in jail. Since her birth, Angustias has lived with the town's healer, Dona Crecencia, and from an early age, she develops a phobia towards heterosexual sex, seemingly after witnessing her yellow goat die after giving birth, but this symbolic image does connect with Angustias's condition as orphan. She reunites with her father when he returns to the community and bonds with him while learning, from his oral stories, about the struggle for equality and social justice. Angustias rejects the traditional role of women, and identifies with her father, the legendary bandit Anton Farrera. Harassed at first by the female villagers for rejecting the traditional role for women by refusing to get married, she is eventually forced to flee the community after killing Laureano, a man who was about to rape her.

Upon being rescued by a man called Guitlacoche, and recognized as the daughter of the Black bandit, Farrera, Angustias unexpectedly becomes a commander who fights on Zapata's side. Tougher than most of the men inspired by her revolutionary fervor, Angustias nonetheless faces her downfall when she falls in love, and marries a fair-skinned, middle-class teacher. At the conclusion of Rojas Gonzalez's novel, the once fierce female leader is conquered, and reduced to nothing by the power of love. She completely surrenders to a husband who disdains her, financially exploits her, and tells others that she is not his wife but his "mistress," because he is ashamed of being married to a Mulatta. Before Angustias decides to kidnap Manuel she confesses her love...

To continue reading