Many, many years ago — probably when I was 10, maybe 11, possibly 9 — I was at a grocery store with my father. We were waiting in line to pay, and I was just standing there, eye level with that rack of candy that they put by the registers exactly for that moment. I grabbed a pack of gum and then tapped him on the back and asked him if I could have it. He said no and to put it back, so that’s what I did. Then, when he wasn’t looking, I picked it up again and put it in my pocket.
We grabbed the groceries, walked out to the car, and put them in there, then I climbed in the front seat. (This was the late ’80s or the early ’90s; you could let your kid sit on the hood if you wanted.) We drove home mostly in silence, because almost everything with a Mexican dad is "mostly in silence," and then when we got there I helped carry the groceries in and then disappeared until it was time for dinner.
When he shouted to everyone that it was time to eat, I hustled to the kitchen and grabbed my plate. As I reached for it, though, he grabbed me by the wrist. "What’s that?" he asked. "What’s what?" I asked back. "In your mouth," he said, and it was right then that I realized (a) I was chewing a piece of the gum that I’d stolen, and (b) that he’d instantly figured out what had happened as soon as he saw me chewing it. I said, "I don’t know," and I tried to swallow it on some prison inmate shit. He said, "I WILL NOT ASK YOU AGAIN," and this time he was loud and angry, because every confrontation with a Mexican dad is "loud and angry." I wilted. "Gum," I said, and my forehead suddenly weighed a million pounds and all I could do was stare at the floor. "Look at me," he said. I didn’t. I couldn’t. "LOOK AT ME," he yelled, and I started trying to figure out how many days of me not showing up to school it was going to take for everyone to realize that he’d set me on fire and shoved me into a coffin. I looked at him.
Of all of the times that I’ve messed up in my life, that was one of only three or four times I’ve ever seen him — felt him — be truly, completely, absolutely angry. He launched into this whole long thing about pride and community and having respect for other people and also for yourself. He ended it by grabbing my arm, coming down to meet me at my eyes, and then saying, "Nobody respects a thief. Nobody." It was all very dramatic. We ate dinner and I never said anything about it to my mom or my sisters or any of my uncles or cousins and neither did he. That conversation only existed between us.
For some reason, that story was the first thing I thought about as I finished watching Lowriders, a movie about a Mexican American family that gets pulled apart (and then eventually stitched back together) by opposing views on the same thing.
A cousin of mine sent me a text after watching Lowriders this past weekend that read, "Is this what it’s felt like for white people watching movies all these years?" At first I thought he was just joking, but after I’d finished watching it I knew exactly what he meant.
At the center of Lowriders is Daniel (Gabriel Chavarria), who wants to be known and seen as an artist, and is trying to chase that dream down via graffiti. His father, Miguel (Demián Bichir), a hard-worn mechanic and also the leader of a car club in East Los Angeles, wants Daniel to not be doing that. ("You’re like a dog pissing on walls," he says to Daniel after he picks him up from jail when Daniel gets caught by the cops after spray painting on the side of a bridge.) Standing in the middle of them is Francisco (Theo Rossi), otherwise referred to as Ghost, Daniel’s older brother and the family’s black sheep who’s just been let out of prison.
The movie is kind of clunky and occasionally clichéd and bounces around in ways you’re anticipating — we learn that Daniel’s mother died, and that when it happened Miguel disappeared down into a bottle, and that Ghost was sent to prison for stealing car parts because he was trying to build a car to impress Miguel, and that the only reason they all seem to dislike each other so much is because they all actually really love each other a lot. But it also presents a couple of interesting philosophical questions, the most compelling of which comes up when Daniel, while acting as a narrator during one montage, talks about the strange space him and his friends exist in because they’ve never been to Mexico and don’t speak Spanish perfectly: Where do Mexican Americans belong in the cultural conversation in America today?
That’s something I’ve found myself, a Mexican American, thinking a lot about these past few years as the discussion for a more inclusive and representative version of Hollywood has grown louder and louder, and so it was very intriguing to watch it play out on a movie screen. I mean, and I ask this in all seriousness: Where do we belong? What is our value? Or, maybe more accurately: Where is our value? What’s our place? Do we even have a place yet? And if so, how do celebrate it while also making sure it does not get exploited? And if not, then how do we get one? Those are big questions that I’m asking, yes, and of course I don’t expect you (or me) (or anyone else) to answer them right now, but that’s because right now that’s not the point. The only point is that, for the first time in my whole entire life, I saw those questions get lobbed into the air during a screening at the same theater where I’d watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and La La Land and Hidden Figures.
Lowriders isn’t a great movie, but it will allow for thoughts like those to become available for public consumption, which is maybe more important. Also, it made more than $2.4 million on just a couple hundred screens during its opening weekend, which indicates an appetite for Latino-led movies, which is another kind of important.
On the drive home from the theater, I called my dad. I wanted to ask him about that day when I stole the gum and he brought the cosmos down on me for it. For all of the time that I lived in his house (and even in all the days since I’ve been out), we rarely ever had talks like that. Mostly, he chose to teach me all of the biggest parts of being a man and the most important parts of being a man by just doing them. (To be sure, I didn’t realize any of this until I became a father and found myself staring at that same responsibility.) So I called him and he answered and we talked for exactly three minutes. I said, "Dad, do you remember …" and then I explained to him all the things I wrote at the beginning of this article. He said, "No." I said, "You don’t remember even one tiny piece of it?" He said, "No." I said, "OK. Well, why do you think you were so mad about it back then? It wasn’t very often that I remember you acting like that about anything." And then he said some things that I’m not going to tell you, but that made me realize that he still has a lot of things left to teach me.