Carmen has always caught my interest. As a name because my mother was named Carmen. I have also met two Italian males named Carmen. I have met a couple of girls named Carmen, but I can’t seem to get too involved with a girl with my mother’s name.
In high school, I had to read part of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. As I learned later in life, French composers have written some of the best Spanish classical music ever. That’s just one of those mysteries of the universe! I don’t even remember in which class I read Carmen the opera or even why. But I do remember that it was a French opera about a gypsy who lived in Spain. Later, because of my interest in Carmen the opera, I read the book Carmen written by Prosper Mérimée on which Bizet based his opera. Eventually, I saw a video of the opera Carmen and loved it.
I love watching different interpretations of the same work. So I was ecstatic when I saw the movie Carmen by director Carlos Saura. The characters in the movie decide to produce a stage version of the opera Carmen while also referring to the original book by Merimee. The movie is set in Spain, so they will make a flamenco version of Carmen. There is a lot of wonderful flamenco dancing and guitar music in the movie. The main problem for the director Carlos of the flamenco version is finding the perfect Carmen. Well, as luck would have he finds her: her name happens to be Carmen and she also happens to be a gypsy. The movie blurs the line between fiction and reality on multiple levels and the viewer must differentiate between the action of the characters of the flamenco version and the actors who portray those characters. Sometimes the actions and emotions of the actors and characters overlap.
I also recently saw–again!–the movie Carmen Jones that stars an all-African-American cast. The movie follows Bizet’s storyline faithfully and uses his music, but the lyrics were changed to suit the updated plot and characters. The story takes place down south near an army base, perhaps some time around WWII. Carmen works in a parachute factory instead of a cigar factory. Instead of a toreador as the rival lover, there’s a boxer. Don Jose is still a soldier, but a U.S. Soldier. The movie is very good and the lyrics that are true to the characters are sung well by Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Of course, none of this would have been possible without Bizet’s wonderful Spanish music.
I was once at Blockbuster and saw another version of Carmen, a hip hop version. I didn’t have time to watch it, so I didn’t rent it. Now that I have some time, I plan on seeing it. I wonder how faithful the movie is to Bizet and Mérimée. I’ll have to watch it real soon!
When I was a young boy, I was convinced that my mother knew everyone in the neighborhood. Every time I went grocery shopping with my mother, she always met someone she knew, either from the neighborhood, the old neighborhood, or from México. While talking to someone she met in the street, my mother would ask about other mutual acquaintances. I was amazed at how many people she knew. She could talk for an hour with someone she met on the street because they knew each other very well and I would always be pulling her arm so we could go home before the milk went sour.
Once before my mother went to Mexico for her summer vacation, she asked me to do her a big favor. The Mexican singer Irma Serrano was coming to Chicago to perform at the People’s Theater on 47th Street and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards. Well, my mother wanted me to go to the show and take pictures of Irma Serrano for her. I was nervous because Irma Serrano was very famous in Mexico. Then, my mother told me to go backstage after the show and tell Irma that my mother says hello. Well, this was just too great a task for me! I told my mother that I didn’t think I could do all this. My mother assured me that I could once I told Irma that I was the son of Carmen Rodríguez. I told my mother that if she wanted to see Irma Serrano so badly maybe she shouldn’t go to Mexico and she herself should go see Irma Serrano at the People’s Theater instead. After much convincing and threatening on the part of my mother, I agreed to take pictures of Irma Serrano and then go backstage to talk to Irma and then take even more pictures. The day of the concert, I watched Irma perform beautifully—I have to admit that even I loved the show—and I took plenty of pictures of Irma as promised. It took me a while to build up my courage, but I managed to go backstage and talk to Irma Serrano. When I told her I was the son of Carmen Rodríguez, Irma hugged me and asked me how my mother was doing. I asked her if I could take some pictures of her and she posed for me. I managed to get a good picture of Irma’s dress that looked like butterfly wings from behind. My mother loved the pictures!
When I joined the Marines, my mother told me to look for somebody she knew. I said, “Chances are I won’t ever meet him. Even you have never met him!” He was the uncle of a little girl Melanie for whom my mother would babysit. My mother knew that her uncle was in the Marines, but had no other information about him. I promised my mother that I would look for him, but I was sure that I would never run into him since the Marines are stationed all around the globe and I never left California. However, one day, when I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, some arrogant Marine entered our shop shouting, “Anyone here from Chicago?” I didn’t like his cocky attitude, so I didn’t answer him immediately. Then he shouted, “Any south siders here?” Well, I couldn’t resist that invitation to meet and greet a fellow south sider. What a coincidence! He just so happened to be Melanie’s uncle. We even knew some of the same people. We became friends because of my mother!
I really loved the movie Real Women Have Curves (2005, Directed by Patricia Cardoso) even though I’m not a woman and I’m not from Los Angeles. I laughed throughout the movie because I could identify with the Mexicans who were portrayed accurately in the movie. We could see the importance of family unity and how going to college could be perceived as threat to this unity. Education is not viewed as positve goal in a Mexican family that has relied on manual labor to survive. Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) wants her daughter Ana (America Fererra, as of late as Ugly Betty on TV) to work in her sister Estela’s dress shop instead of going away to college. Ana finally gives in to her mother’s wishes, but you can see that Ana is not only unhappy there, but she really does not belong there because has so much more potential than that of a laborer. But, that’s how Mexicans think sometimes. Even though Carmen complains about how hard she has worked as seamstress throughout her life, she is willing to subject her daughter to the same punishment of manual labor.
Carmen also criticizes her daughter about her excessive weight, even though Carmen herself is overweight. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Ana is beautiful in her own way. Her boyfriend Jimmy tells her that she’s beautiful and he seems genuinely sincere when he compliments Ana. If she were in Mexico, many men would consider her beautiful simply because she has a nice smile, a nice personality, and is pleasingly plump. Once when I was in Mexico, my cousin saw a pleasingly plump woman and he flirted with her by saying, “Oye, esa gordita viene con atole?” Well, if you don’t know Spanish, I better explain that in this context gordita means both pleasingly plump with positive connotations and also refers to a food that is made of corn flour stuffed with chicken or beef; atole is a tasty, hot drink made from corn. I guess this sentence doesn’t translate well, so I’ll give you a similar example in English. Suppose an attractive woman, say dressed seductively in a short skirt, struts her stuff past you, jiggling all her assets, my cousin could say something like, “Does that shake come with fries?”
This difference in beauty standards reminds me of a story that Rosie O’Donnell once told on a talk show–I believe it was Johnny Carson’s–before she was really famous. She talked about how she went to Mexico with a thin, beautiful Hollywood actress, which at the time I wondered why she would go to Mexico with an actress. Well, now that she’s famous and I know a little more about her personal life, I know why she went to Mexico with a thin, beautiful Hollywood actress. Anyway, Rosie and her thin “friend” were at a bar where all the men were hovering around Rosie instead of her friend. Finally, Rosie asked one of the Mexican men why they found Rosie more attractive than the beautiful actress. One of the men said, and you have to imagine Rosie saying this with a Mexican accent, “The bones are for the dogs. The meat is for the men!”
Well, this movie really got me to thinking about my mother again, whose name also happens to be Carmen. My mother never valued education and there was absolutely no possibility of college in my future. She always told me that I would work in a factory when I was old enough to work. But she would always complain about how factory work was wearing her down. She always came home sore and tired from working. One day, she showed me her swollen hands and said, “Someday you’ll see what it’s like to work hard. One of these days you’ll be working in factory just like me.” I didn’t plan to ever work in a factory, so I told her, “That’s why I’m going to college!” She said, “Why are you going to college if you’re only going to work in a factory?” She couldn’t imagine any other occupation for me. She eventually found me a factory job–a job that would have been ideal for my mother, but not for me because I had such higher aspirations. However, since I lived under her roof, I had to live by her rules, so I began working the midnight shift in a peanut butter factory two days before my eighteenth birthday, while I was still a high school junior. I really hated this job! When I got out of work at 7:00 a.m., I immediately had to get ready to go to school even though I was ready to go to bed. I was always tired in school and often fell asleep during my afternoon classes. I told my mother that I couldn’t work full-time and go to school full-time. She told me that if I didn’t work, I couldn’t live with her; I would have to move in with my father, which she had always described as being my worst possible destiny. So I continued working at the factory, but when I couldn’t take the stress of working and going to school anymore, I dropped out of high school. My mother didn’t complain because I was still working and I was contributing to the family financially.
In the movie, Ana gets accepted to Columbia University with a scholarship, but her parents are against Ana leaving the family in order to study in New York City. Her father finally gives his blessing to Ana, but Carmen doesn’t even say good bye to Ana when she leaves for school. Carmen merely watches from her bedroom window. But you can see that not all Mexicans value education as much as most Americans who know the importance of going to college in order to get ahead in life. When you consider this anti-education attitude of Mexicans in general, you can see why they have a high school drop-out rate of about 50%. At least the movie ends on a positive note with Ana going off to Columbia University and we get to see her walking the streets of NYC near Times Square.