Troubadour in trouble

Romántico puts a very human face on the harsh economic reality that drives illegal Mexican immigration to the US


Mark Becker
2005, Kino
80 minutes (Spanish with English subtitles)

LATAMROB rating: ****

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

MUSIC is stripped of all but its monetary value in this groundbreaking documentary that puts a human face on Mexican migration in the US.

This clever film by Mark Becker follows the fortunes of Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, an “illegal” but very harmless immigrant who pounds the streets of San Francisco strumming mariachi standards on his guitar with his friend Arturo.

Behind the romantic tunes lurk setbacks and sadness as Carmelo struggles against poor pay, bad health and loneliness to generate enough money to send home to his dependent family in Salvatierra, Guanajuato.

The bards describe themselves in a very Mexican formulation as a “romantic trio of two” as they ply their trade in the bars and cafes of their temporary home.

To add to his woes, Carmelo has to endure his compañero’s drinking problem and the certain knowledge that his ailing mother back home will not survive long.

Becker followed the fortunes of the ageing, overweight Carmelo in the US and, when he has had enough, back in Mexico, where we see him settling back into the constant Mexican struggle to make ends meet.

Daughter’s quinceaños

A humble but responsible father, Carmelo agonises over his inability to provide and the disappointments of his life. When he has the capital to invest, he makes and sells nieves – ice cream – in his town to raise cash for his older daughter’s quinceaños celebration. Sadly, the money he saves will have to go on his mother’s funeral, and there is visible disappointment on the face of the poor girl when they make do with an impromptu party in their small home.

Yet Carmelo’s spirit is never impoverished, and he tells us that, given his own tough upbringing, he sometimes gives children without money who ask him free ice-creams – and tears come to his eyes as he recalls his own hungry childhood.

This is a tale about the motor that drives Mexican immigration to the US: deep poverty and a lack of opportunities. Carmelo becomes an archetype – a man with his own dreams who wants to support his family and will break his back trying to do so but encounters little but obstacles. The deep lines in his weatherbeaten face and his at times almost defeated morosity provide us with a touching insight into the psychological toll of his condition.

He wants nothing more than to work – and would happily go to the US legally with papers if he was able to do so, but the stringent bureaucracy and the need in particular to demonstrate that he has had steady employment and so a steady income precludes him, like so many informal workers in Mexico.

Becker has done a sensitive and smart job of getting under Carmelo’s skin, and although we end up having nothing but sympathy for him, we also respect his efforts and admire his resolve.

And Carmelo comes away from Romántico with a new sense of pride after gaining a standing ovation at a US screening of the film: “I always thought I could be something,” he says. “Now I feel that I am.”

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist

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