Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Director/writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland offer us an insightful peek into a Mexican-American family in Los Angeles’ Echo Park. Neither illegal immigration nor gang warfare are concerns of this family that has already begun to live, albeit on a limited basis, the American dream mixed with a touch of old Mexico. The film begins with the extravagant celebration of a Quinceañera, the coming of age rite of a Mexican girl when she is fifteen, combining elements of a birthday party, a debutante coming out event, and a prom, complete with an elaborate gown and tiara, a stretch Hummer limo, and the gala party itself. At her cousin Eileen’s (Alicia Sixtos) Quinceañera Magdalena (Emily Rios) is somewhat sullen because her own, coming up in less than a year, will not be so elaborate. Her father Ernesto (Jesus Castanos-Chima), pastor of a storefront church, tells her that he cannot afford the $500 to rent the Hummer, and her mother has accepted the offer of her sister to refit Eileen’s dress for Magdalena.
There must be some intentional symbolism in our heroine’s name, because she becomes pregnant, though the only sex she and boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) had engaged in was heavy petting. She worriedly assures Herman that she has not been involved with any other boy. His mother wants nothing to do with her, sends her son away. Ernesto is so upset with her because of the shame she has brought on the family and the church that he refuses to believe her protestation that she is not “a fornicator.” Leaving home, Magdalena finds shelter with her kindly great, great uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), at eighty five eking out a living by selling champurrado (a Mexican hot drink) up and down the streets of Echo park. Far more tolerant than his kin, Tomas has taken in Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a tattooed young adult kicked out by his family when they had learned that he is gay. At first Carlos resents the newcomer, but through the weeks, as Magdalena’s abdomen grows larger, they grow closer, even loaning her his new shirt when her top becomes too small to cover her.
Carlos, who works at a car wash, becomes involved with the owners of the little backhouse where he, Magdalena and Tomas live. The white and gay Gary (David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood) live in the larger house just above, which they bought as a good investment rather than as a long term residence. They see Carlos as an exotic boy toy, a view not shared by the naïve Carlos, who thus is headed for a big letdown. Carlos tells Magdalena that he and Tomas will care for her child while she is in school. At first it looks like this will be a solution for her dilemma, but then twin blows abruptly send the story spinning off in another direction. The owners, deciding to sell the property at a good profit, send an eviction notice. This is quickly followed by an even greater shock. How Magdalena rises from this nadir in her life to a Cinderella climax will leave you feeling that all is right with the world after all.
There are spoilers in the following, so beware.
1) How do the opening scenes show that the Mexican-Americans have bought into the American dream? Compare the Quinceanera to other rites of passage. Although there is a veneer of religion over the ceremony, what is really at its heart?
2) How is Tomas the most accepting of all the characters? What do we learn of his background? How could he be an important link to the family heritage?
3) How are Magdalena and Carlos outsiders? How do we see this when Carlos accepts a casually given invitation to attend Gary and James’ party?
4) Ernesto accepts Magdalena back into the family when he learns of the clinical explanation of her semi-virgin birth, but who gives the most when they forgive each other? How is his love conditional? How is his religion more moralistic than spiritual? How do you think Christians can balance the concern for conduct and morals with that for love and spirituality? Where in the events of his life might Jesus offer such a balance?
5) In his tribute to Tomas Carlos calls his great uncle a saint? Would you agree? What do you believe constitutes a saint? Look up and read, or if in a group, sing, the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” (Note how the apostle Paul address the Corinthian church, despite all their problems—1 Cor. 1:1-2. Check out the greetings in his other letters.)