Mexico's unexpected Hollywood star

Actor and director Eugenio Derbez’s latest movie hasn’t even debuted in Mexican cinemas yet but he is all over the newspapers.

That’s because Derbez’s low-budget movie, Instructions Not Included, is a crossover bilingual hit and has already opened in U.S. theaters, grossing more than $26 million to date.

It is on target to becoming one of the 10 highest grossing foreign movies ever in the United States. According to this box office site, it’s now shown in 933 theaters and ranked 6th over the past weekend. It’s already surpassed the gross of the last Mexican hit, Like Water for Chocolate (1989).

Few expected such a feat from Derbez, a longtime comic actor more known for his work for the Televisa network than feature films. This is how El Universal opened a profile of him in its Sunday magazine (behind paywall) yesterday:

“Few believed that he’d ever have a hit movie. They said his projects were too ‘Televisa’ and that his name didn’t belong on movie marquees.”

The movie has a different name in Spanish, ‘No Se Aceptan Devoluciones,’ which translates as Returns Not Accepted. It doesn’t open in Mexico till Sept. 20.

The movie is about a playboy from Acapulco who suddenly finds a young daughter he never knew he fathered dropped in his lap. Father and daughter move to Los Angeles and struggle to get by.

Much of the Mexican press on the movie deals with Derbez’s desperate search to find someone to play the role of his child. He sought a boy but couldn’t find a blond, blue-eyed completely bilingual boy. In frustration, he tweeted the requirements for a boy or girl. That’s when 9-year-old Loreto Peralta showed up. She fit the physical requirements and spoke fluent English from spending summers in the United States.

The Los Angeles Times published a feature on Derbez last week, touching on how “entertainment companies, media outlets and advertising agencies have increasingly devoted resources to capturing a share of the growing Spanish-dominant and bilingual audience.”

It’s been a tough struggle. Even hit actor Will Ferrell, who starred in the 2012 movie Casa de mi Padre, failed to hit the mark. That film didn’t even gross $6 million.

Producers “mounted a bilingual advertising campaign for the movie, both on Univision, the giant U.S. Spanish-language TV network, and with billboard, radio and print advertising in English and Spanish,” the Times report says.

Between word of mouth and the advertising campaign, it definitely brought results.


The secret dossier on Carlos Fuentes

You may have seen a news report about a 170-page FBI dossier on acclaimed Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who died in 2012.

The dossier, put together over two decades, is here. The FBI started monitoring Fuentes because the writer wanted to travel to the United States and U.S. officials considered him a member of the Mexican communist party, a charge his widow denies.

U.S. authorities turned Fuentes down for a visa twice in the 1960s, describing him as “a leading Mexican communist writer” and a "well-known Mexican novelist with long history of subversive connections.”

In this article, Fuentes’ widow, Silvia Lemus, said Fuentes was a staunch leftist but never a member of the Communist Party.

For a memorable appreciation of Fuentes, one of my fellow journalists (and friend), Marjorie Miller, drew upon a meeting with him over a meal, and unbeknownst to him, gathered information for an eventual obituary


Losing a bit of cultural heritage

Mexicans don’t sing as often as they once did. Not at home. Nor when getting their hair cut. Nor at their jobs. That’s what Jose Luis Ceron tells me. He’s a sociologist and an expert on Mexican traditional and popular music, particularly the style known as danzon.

I went to see Ceron on a related matter and he started talking about the loss of cultural heritage in the country over the past half century.

“There are two things we don’t do like we used to,” he said, “sing and dance.”

“We used to sing at home. If we got together, someone would grab a guitar and we’d start to sing. People would sing at work. People would sing in barbershops. We sang at get-togethers (tertulias) among young people,” he went on.

Sing at work? Sing in barber shops? Yes, he said, haven’t you seen old Mexican movies? “Mexican cinema reflects this very well,” he said. “You could sing with any pretext,” even at the office. (I'm trying to imagine what it would be like in a newsroom.)

A guitar would always be hanging on the wall at the barber shop, he said, and a patron would invariably pick it up.

Since Mexico City is the center of the national universe, young kids would learn about their country and its heritage from listening to songs. He brought up the song Cachanilla (check out this music video) identified with Mexicali. Cachanilla is the word for a Sonoran variety of tumbleweed.

Children would learn about the far reaches of Mexico from the songs, he said, like Mis Blancas Mariposas, which is from Tabasco.

I can’t say I actually experienced musical Mexico from years past. And I think Ceron refers to a bygone era that would be impossible to recover. But the government could do more. 

He says the nation lacks a strong state policy to promote popular culture, including dance. Young people now watch musicians, rather than take to the dance floor, he lamented. Without the vigorous cultural heritage embodied in popular songs, Ceron said, people don’t learn about their past and their country.

“You can’t love what you don’t know, and they don’t know where we’ve come from,” he said.

Ceron, by the way, is also part of the Garcia Blanco Orchestra that plays popular music, including paso doble, which is the music heard in one of the orchestra’s music videos below.


The tribal music of 3ball mty

Barely two years ago, the three young DJs of the group known as 3ball mty could barely get a gig in their home city of Monterrey. Gangland violence made it too dangerous to take their high-energy music around town. 

Today, the music the trio creates, called tribal music, is winning them fame far outside Mexico. They won the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist last fall, and tours have taken them to LA's Staples Center, the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, Central Park in NYC and the Worldtronics festival in Berlin.

For the group's name, it took "3ball" which sounds like tribal in Spanish and "mty" which is the airport code for their home city. Tribal music is a mix of cumbia, Mexican pop, techno with a dose of norteno thrown in.

Even if you don't take to the music, the group's videos are fun because they often feature Mexican dancers wearing pointy boots, the footwear that originated in the northern town of El Huizache. Click here to see photos of the amazing Aladdin-like boots with pointy toes curling up nearly a yard. 

While not exactly a "boy band," the three members of 3ball mty are all either 19 or 20. Two of them met some six years ago outside an Oxxo convenience store, and became fast friends over their shared passion for Latin house music. The third member joined later. The song in the video above is probably their best known hit, Intentalo. 


A new image for the 'Seagull'

SeagullFor most Mexicans, Angelica Rivera needs no introduction. A soap opera star, she’s been in the public eye for two decades.

But her latest role is not a stellar one, certainly not like her part as “La Gaviota,” or The Seagull, in the soap opera titled Destilando Amor (Distilling Love) that was wildly successful and told of love in the town of Tequila, cradle of Mexico’s most fabled liquor.

Her new role is First Lady of Mexico and it requires her to stay in the background of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto’s handlers certainly helped her reshape her image during the campaign. Gone were the sexy dresses. In their place were conservative clothes. The handlers also seem to be airbrushing her past.

Rivera, 42, had a 14-year previous relationship with a Televisa producer, Jose Alberto Castro, and the union produced three children. But no mention is made of that in the biography of the First Lady posted on the official presidential website, and only the briefest of mentions is made of her acting career.

“The First Lady has said on many occasions that her greatest challenge and biggest honor are serving both Mexico and the work of the man she most admires.”

Okay, already.

Pena Nieto’s official bio doesn’t point out that he was married for 13 years to Monica Pretelini, who died in 2007. The couple had three children (link in Spanish).

I guess you could call it a Modern Family, a widower and a divorcee remarry and pull their kids together. All six kids from the two marriages now live with the two in Los Pinos, the presidential residence.


Creative ferment in Tijuana music scene

The music scene in Tijuana is in creative upheaval. This is a 4-minute video about the blend of musical styles occurring in the border city, crossing boundaries between dubstep, punk rock, jazz, cumbia, no wave, norteño, banda, noise and techno. This video is done by Erin Siegal, whose videos I've posted before. Tijuana is indeed coming out of hiberation. Here's a story I did after a trip there early this year.


The expanding longevity of Mexicans

It’s a good time to talk about death. Day of the Dead is just around the corner.

Older Mexicans have seen an astounding transformation in when their day of reckoning comes.

In 1930, life expectancy for Mexicans was 34 years. By 2010, Mexican men were living an average 73.1 years while Mexican women were hitting 77.8 years.

These figures are courtesy of the National Statistics Institute, which provided some other tidbits in a report this week fitting to the theme of Day of the Dead.

In 2010, the most recent year for statistics, 592,000 Mexicans died. Men, it may come as no surprise, are dying in greater numbers than women. On average, the institute says, 132 men die for every 100 women.

But in the age range of 25-29, the gap spreads to 378 men die for every 100 women.

The most common cause of death in Mexico is diabetes, which takes 14 percent of those who die, it said.

Among kids aged 5 to 14, a high number get killed in auto accidents, either run over by vehicles or killed in crashes. It is the cause of 12.8 percent of their deaths. That category kills 16 percent of young people aged 15 to 29.

Of Mexicans who died a violent death, 70.8 percent were killed by a firearm, 10.1 percent were stabbed to death, 5.5 percent were asphyxiated and 13.6 percent were killed some other way.

I’ll let you get back to your pan de muerte and your chocolate skulls now.


Day of the Dead antics


We were out over the weekend and saw this motorcyclist at an intersection. You can't see it well but he was wearing a skeleton mask under his huge horned helmet. It's a fun time of the year, like Halloween on steroids, here in Mexico with the Day of the Dead coming up later in the week. If you're curious about Day of the Dead celebration, this site will tell you all you need to know. Believe it or not, this will be the first time I'm actually in Mexico for Day of the Dead celebrations. Every other year since 2010, I've been called away. 


Opening doors to Mexican opera

This is a really lovely short video about two American opera professionals who are nurturing opera singers in San Miguel de Allende, the artsy colonial city in central Mexico that is home to many expats. This video is under five minutes long and very professionally and lovingly done. Click here for the Washington Post story that accompanies the video.


A lyrical film about poverty

This is a charming trailer about Dreaming Nicaragua, a documentary about four impoverished Nicaragua kids and a traveling art teacher who coaxes them to express their innermost ideas. As you can see from the trailer, this is a light-hearted look at these kids and the film is winning awards. I'm personally delighted by this. The film is produced by the Padre Fabretto Foundation, a very worthwhile nonprofit group in Nicaragua run by my former housemate, Kevin Marinacci. Fabretto was originally an orphanage project set up by an Italian priest in Nicaragua but has expanded to become a training, health and community development project that very directly improves the lives of some 7,500 children and adolescents. Bravo, Kevin!



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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