My earliest memory is of riding a blind horse on a stone-paved road with my then-85 year-old grandfather. We were heading to the center of town. This was the town where he was born and where my father was born–a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán: Acuitzeramo. So imagine my delight when, while surfing HBO Max, I stumbled on a 15-minute short film titled “Acuitzeramo.” With so many stories to be told about small Mexican towns, I had to see what this film was about.
Watching the film, I was quickly overwhelmed with nostalgia. The church, in one of the early scenes, is the church where my parents were married, where I was baptized and did my first communion; the cemetery in a later scene, is where my grandparents are buried. I know those streets. I know the fields. I know the houses. I know this town.
But the film also reminded me that time had turned my memories of Acuitzeramo into romantic snippets; that I had conveniently forgotten the bad parts.
While Acuitzeramo, the town, is a featured player in the film, the film is actually about an issue that our community has had a hard time talking about: our relation to homosexuality, and in particular, to homosexual relationships.
Growing up, there was always the suspicion that certain of my unmarried cousins, uncles, or aunts would never marry and that they would not do so because they were gay. If it was just a suspicion, or just a rumor, they were called slurs. But the conversation would not go any further than the catchwords and they would forever be known by it; they were trapped in it. Because of this, a good number of my cousins just picked up and left town, never to be seen again.
This is the context of “Acuitzeramo.” The film begins with the death of a man, Roberto. We quickly learn that Roberto is being mourned by his long-time partner, Salvador. We learn of their relationship in Salvador’s dialogue with Roberto’s son, Anthony, who comes from Chicago to bury his father. The film evokes the power of Roberto’s and Salvador’s “secret” life, a secret that was always out in the open, as evidenced from run-ins between Salvador and a couple of the town’s inhabitants who either sneer at him or refer to him with slurs.
In 15 short minutes, the film does more than weave together a beautiful picture of death and the power of love, it also challenges our stereotypes, those of the traditional Mexican family and of manhood. It forcefully tells us that these stereotypes hide an open secret. As Salvador tells Anthony, when Anthony asks if people knew about him and his father’s gay relationship, “Here, we don’t talk about that.”
But why not? Why don’t we talk about it? LA based writer/director Miguel Angel Caballero’s use of religious imagery throughout the film gives us a clue as to why “we don’t talk about that.” Salvador first tells the priest about Roberto’s death; a woodcut of the Last Supper is prominently displayed in the wall throughout Salvador’s and Anthony’s conversation; women in mourning pray a rosary in a haunting image evoking Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and so on. The message seems to be this: our traditions sometimes force us to keep secrets that oppress many members of our community; secrets that, if exposed, would actually be liberating and decolonizing.
I loved this movie. Caballero is telling a story that the Latinx community is ready to tell, but that it hesitates to tell: “back home” gay partners are common, known, but “no one talks about it.” Everyone knew that Roberto and Salvador, now elder members of the community, were gay, but they had to keep their relationship an (open) secret. The film seeks to talk about these open secrets and in the process shatter stereotypes that should no longer hold in Mexico or the U.S. In fact, perceptions are changing, and, especially in the U.S., Latinx perceptions of LGBTQ persons are now more tolerant than any other ethnic group.
We need storytellers like Caballero to shine a light in those corners of the Latinx community where darkness and ignorance continue to prevail.
“Acuitzeramo” does an beautiful job of shining a very bright light on something I was never allowed to know about my cousins, ucles, and aunts, those that disappeared and were never heard from again: they loved and were loved, but tradition, stereotype, and bigotry relegated their love to a mocking catchword, dehumanizing them in the process.
The Latinx community must no longer hide behind tradition, catchwords, and stereotypes but tell stories that expose its secrets, both for its own sake and for the sake of love and tolerance.
Carlos Alberto Sánchez is Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University.