REVIEWS : Walking Between Two Worlds in ‘Oaxacalifornia’
January 03, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Go to Oaxaca, in the heart of Mexico, and you’ll hear about Monte Alban, one of the world’s great, ghostly ancient cities situated on a massive plateau that seems to look down on the rest of the world. Oaxaca was once home to a kind of imperial grandeur; now, it is a place people leave to find work in the United States. Sylvia Stevens’ impressionistic documentary, “Oaxacalifornia,” portrays the divided loyalties of one such Oaxaceno family whose wallets are in El Norte , but whose hearts are in their hometown of Jaltepec.
The Mejia family, led by Leoncio, have a very attractive Fresno home, nice kids and the patriarch’s seemingly thriving landscaping business. The kids, being American-born, have assimilated, but only to a point. Leoncio’s young son (unidentified, as are most of the family members, in one of the film’s several flaws) calls himself “100% Mexican,” dreams of doing animation for Disney and retiring to Oaxaca. Leoncio himself speaks for many Mexicans relatively new to the U.S. when he says “we’re not from here (America), and we’re not from there (Mexico).”
“Oaxacalifornia” begins with the promise that it will be that rare film that will really express in visual terms this divided identity–what makes first-generation Mexican Americans so special among U.S. immigrant groups. Stevens artfully cuts between Fresno’s swanky suburbs and Jaltepec’s dusty rural lanes, between boulevard cruising and the modest joys of Jaltepec’s annual festival of Mary Magdalene.
This event is what brings the Mejias back to Mexico every year, and it’s where the film loses direction. Stevens seems to fall in love with the festival’s folk traditions at the expense of communicating the tradition’s meanings. Her camera takes on a tourist’s outsider point of view: here a cockfight, there a fireworks display, here a religious procession, there a village banquet.
What does come across are the strengths and weaknesses of the old country’s ways–how, for instance, the festival’s annual costs have sent some of its organizers into debt, which they can ill afford, or how the festival expresses the value of mutual support by all of the townspeople. But in its muddling messiness, “Oaxacalifornia” falls far short of being the affecting portrait of trans-border Mexicans it clearly wants to be.