Yes, muchachos, it has finally come to this. First the jobs, then the backbreaking chairs of our emergency rooms, and now – ay dios mio – our corn-fed vocal talent. For as the United States gets browner, and our elections more decisively Democratic, we will be that much the poorer, though for reasons heretofore unknown. It seems that as the walls are breached and the rivers rise, Mexico is stealing mariachi singers from bumfuck Kansas. Oh, how they waste away in tornado alley – hopped up on meds, working for peanuts in UPS stores, destroyed by typically unfeeling parents with eyes not on the stars, but next year’s harvest. And while these cold Americans pray to a vengeful god and sit lamely at bland breakfasts, awaiting their inevitable decay, the Mexicans dance. Dance! And sing, eat, and love, all with more color, spirit, and lustful engagement. So when a confused young man named Edward plucks his guitar from mothballs, the die is cast. He must meet the town’s version of the Magic Negro – the equally Magic Mexican – learn the trade, and hit the road in search of a dream. Yes, he’s white – unusually white, if we’re being honest – but he has a Mexican’s heart. He will become a mariachi singer, perhaps the best Mexico has ever seen.
But first, he must sit at the feet of Alberto, the Sunflower State’s resident eccentric, who just happens to possess the sort of voice that sets all hearts a-beating; that is, when they aren’t being encased in lard from the fat-centric Mexican diet. But no matter, Alberto is a romantic. He can sense that the boy is a Mexican underneath all that white guilt, and he must train as all mariachis have trained: with vigor, passion, and the soul-splitting drone of a backing accordion. The film’s tagline – “One gringo’s dream of being Mexican” – says it all, and Edward will learn from the best in the business. But he’d better hurry, as Alberto’s charms are sure to be silenced by a first act health crisis, which in this case comes to call as a massive stroke. Before he’s hospitalized, however, he first shows Edward his scale model of Guadalajara he keeps in his basement. “Go there,” he insists, for that is where all mariachis fulfill their destinies. Edward takes heed, and in the time it takes to present a colorful montage of Mexican stereotypes, he is fluent in Spanish and the master of 1,000 mariachi classics. Or so it would seem.
Sickened by his glassy-eyed parents (his father is Tom Wopat, for chrissakes), he writes a farewell note, grabs a few things, and leaves for the border. The decision is, admittedly, spur of the moment, and at no time did we see him applying for a passport. Apparently, he has no plans of returning to the United States. But why would he? America is drab and dull; Mexico is, well, VIVA! It’s teeming with viva, in fact. He sells his car in a border town, catches a bus, and arrives in Guadalajara. Greeted by children selling their wares, loose pigs, stray dogs, and corrupt cops who demand $200 in exchange for not being sent to jail, he remains undaunted. He’s also blessed by the presence of Lilia, a beautiful Mexican maiden who not only speaks English, but has the power to scatter the cops with only a few words. She takes in young Edward, filling his belly with great food and an earful of her own dreams. You see, she once studied ocean science in California, but her father’s death forced her to come back and help mom with the family restaurant. Lilia also instructs Edward to rent a room next door at 1,500 pesos a week. Thankfully, it’s big enough inside to play a football game. Or soccer, as it’s known in civilization.
So how to explain the Guadalajara of Mariachi Gringo? Some delightful architecture, yes, but it’s no lie to say that it just might be to mariachis what 42nd Street once was to male hustlers. Not only are they sprawled out on every loose chair and bench, they charge passing cars with hands extended, even resorting to hitchhiking. The Plaza of the Mariachis, in fact, features so many in full dress that I’m not sure who they beg for change and/or work. I can’t say I saw anyone else around. But morning, noon, and night, they sing and sing and sing for their supper, and it stands to reason that there likely isn’t any other form of employment. Edward isn’t even safe in his own room, for at the crack of dawn, a full band roars up to serenade the woman next door on her birthday. But she swoons – as they all swoon – and it’s fair to say that if a woman is pregnant in Mexico (it could happen), the father is almost certainly a mariachi singer. Sure, every song sounds the same, but all is the music of quiet despair: tales of lost love, broken dreams, and mariachis who couldn’t support the millions of children they sang into existence.
Edward is inspired, of course, and with Lilia’s help, he gets a few auditions. This being Mexico, this means either weddings or funerals, though he’s still not quite ready. He also uses his spare time to call home now and again, hanging up soon after hearing dad yell, “But what about the beheadings?” If only Edward had told him that there is no violence in Guadalajara, only celebration, and the occasional lesbian lounge singer who knows a person or two in the mariachi business. Yes, Lilia has a gay friend who can sing the feathers off a chicken, and they may or may not have shared a night of love so many moons ago. It’s complicated. But as Edward reiterates, “I want to be a simple mariachi of the people.” So when Jorge comes along with more opportunities – thanks to the lesbian – he’s finally ready. The big break has arrived, but only after Lilia gets drunk, makes a pass, is rebuffed, and Edward wonders if maybe he too is gay because he danced with a guy at a bar the other night. It too is complicated. He sings before a skeptical crowd that evening, most of whom have their arms crossed. Who is this gringo to usurp our cherished traditions? Okay, maybe not in those words, but Edward may not get out of the theater alive.
Edward’s performance, while long, finally wins everyone over. He is a hit, and ready to make this his life. But first, he must return to Kansas to visit Alberto’s grave. Sans passport, he comes and goes at will, but after another fight with his dad, he knows Mexico is now his home. Kansas has its charms, but is decidedly lacking in mariachi work. But his journey back is fraught with sadness, as he learns that Lilia has returned to school, never to be seen again. She too had a dream, and it didn’t involve making tortillas sixteen hours a day. To find love is to lose it, and now he can sing the mariachi songs of the motherland with more feeling and authenticity. Plus, he looks pretty damn good in a sombrero. And not just for a white guy. For any guy. A born again Mexican. His casa the very streets where he plies his trade, with only his voice to carry him. Kansas’ loss is Mexico’s gain, as it was always meant to be.