Espaldas Mojadas [Wetback] (1955)

Mexicans have been crossing the border to work in the United States since the border was drawn back in the nineteenth century. Many make the trip to escape poverty or persecution, hoping to find a better life. There are some success stories, but the vast majority end up working long hours for subsistence wages. Those who don’t have the papers they need to work legally get stuck in exhausting, low-paying jobs, and often the employers who know they’re stuck take full advantage of the situation.

One of the most powerful films I’ve seen about those who make the crossing is Espaldas Mojadas by Alejandro Galindo. While the story is driven by melodrama, and the director makes his points forcefully, the film also has a haunting sadness that stays with you long after it’s over. This isn’t just a movie about a guy who’s trying to make a living and stay ahead of the law. Espaldas Mojadas is about the painful loneliness and crushing isolation that people feel when they have to leave their home behind.

The film begins with a lengthy disclaimer explaining that it has nothing to do with the US/Mexico border, and that in reality it’s about people who break the law and the consequences they must suffer. It’s all totally bogus, of course, but it’s a sign of how worried the Mexican film industry was about offending American audiences. The US market was vital for the Mexican producers, and the fear of losing that market was always hanging over their heads.

David Silva

David Silva

The story opens in Ciudad Juárez, where we find a man, Rafael, desperately looking for a way to cross the border. He’s in trouble with the law and needs to disappear quickly, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs to enter the US legally. Rafael makes a deal with a coyote who takes him across the Rio Grande into Texas, but this is just the beginning of his troubles. He finds work, but his American bosses use him and abuse him. And if he gets fed up and leaves, then he’s back at square one and has to go begging for a job all over again.

Espaldas Mojadas is a lament for all those who’ve been trapped in the US while their hearts are still in Mexico. Though Galindo relies heavily on melodrama, the film doesn’t treat Rafael’s plight as an excuse for action. The director spends a good deal of time with his characters, allowing us to get inside of them. For me it’s the quiet moments that are the most affecting. Rafael standing by the railroad tracks as he talks to a friend about how it feels to be lost in a strange country. A Mexican border official scolding Rafael for working illegally in the US, and then falling silent as his prisoner tells him about the desperation that drove him to do it. But the most beautiful and haunting scene takes place in a work camp where the men have been laying tracks for the railroad. They have a day off. They’ve been breaking their backs all week long, and now they’re lounging under the railroad cars to stay out of the sun. A man with a guitar starts to play, another starts to sing. The song is Canción Mixteca by José López Alavez, and it’s about the loneliness felt by those who are far from home. The camera tracks past the men as they listen, and in this melancholy moment Galindo crystallizes the sadness they feel and their longing for the country they’ve left behind.

While there’s a good deal of music in the film, the underscoring is provided by nothing more than a single guitar, and this was exactly the right choice. Instead of having a full orchestra to pump up the drama, we have a single musician providing a very spare and very effective backdrop for the story. The lonely tones of the solo guitar match Rafael’s sense of isolation perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a thrilling performance by Lola Beltrán and El Trío Calaveras at a bar in Ciudad Juárez. They set the crowd on fire with their passionate rendition of a song about the pride they feel in being Mexican.

Unfortunately, this film, like so many other Mexican films from the same era, is only available as a budget DVD. The print is okay. The transfer is acceptable. But there are no subtitles, which is probably going to keep anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish from watching it.* I’ve written before about the challenges of trying to preserve Mexico’s cinema. I know the list of films that need attention is long, and the money available is short. But is it too much to ask for a quality DVD release of a classic film by a major director from Mexico’s golden era?

Is anybody at Criterion listening?

*
Honestly, Galindo is very good at communicating through images, and I think most people could follow the story even without subtitles. You might miss some of the plot points and some of the humor, but I still urge you to give it a try. It’s a powerful experience.

Posted on April 11, 2014, in Cinema Scoring, Film Preservation, Mexican Cinema and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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