I’m at another film-related event. The wine is flowing, hors d’oeuvres make their way through the crowd, and the low murmur of conversation serves as a pleasant score to the evening, signaling that people are connecting. At these types of gatherings, interactions are sparked with a casual “What’s the best film you’ve seen so far at the fest?” or “What brings you here?” The small talk sticks to ordinary topics.
Yet, every so often, I’m faced with a seemingly harmless question that becomes the gateway to casual racism: “Where are you from?” they ask me. I know what they mean. They’ve heard my accent, they’ve seen the name on my badge, and they’ve noticed my skin tone. In a subtle effort to deviate their attention from the foreignness they seek to pinpoint, I reply: “I live in Los Angeles.” (I would never say, “I’m from Los Angeles,” because even though I’ve lived there since my early teens, I wasn’t born and raised in the US.) They look at me inquisitively and prepare their follow-up: “Where are you really from?”
I’ve never been ashamed of where I’m from, but such a question carries much more than mere curiosity. “From Mexico,” I say. As if trying to prove that they’ve figured me out, they offer, “I’ve been to Cancun and Tijuana.” Sometimes, the reaction goes in a different direction – a much darker one.
“You don’t look Mexican!” they cheerfully state. Their tone implies it’s meant to be construed as a compliment – as though I should be proud not to have the indigenous features that come with “looking Mexican.” I never tell them how offensive this is, perhaps because I’m afraid. Afraid of being told, “Oh come on, I didn’t mean that, I love Mexicans,” and inadvertently causing conflict. Or maybe I’m afraid of losing out on opportunities because power doesn’t like those who don’t agree with it. Of course, it’s most likely true that there was no malice in their comments. Maybe they are very supportive of inclusion and diversity – but then, if that’s the case, why is my origin the one trait about me they’re most fixated on?
A conversation almost identical to the one I’ve described takes place in Miguel Arteta’s latest film, Beatriz at Dinner, starring Mexico’s most well known actress, Salma Hayek. In the role of Beatriz, Hayek plays an immigrant who finds herself trapped at a gathering with people to whom she, and anyone else like her, is disposable. A natural-born healer, Beatriz is a massage therapist who oozes empathy towards the terminal patients she works with and virtually anyone that crosses her path. She finds value in humanity, not tangible goods. One night, Beatriz’s car breaks down after visiting a former client in a luxurious gated community. Cathy (Connie Britton), the longtime client, offers her a place to stay until a mechanic comes the following morning. This means that Beatriz will, by chance, be there for a dinner Cathy’s husband is hosting to impress his tyrannical boss Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).
“I remember being in college and going to parties and having this woman, who was the hostess, always asking me to take the trash out at the end of the day. And my handsome white roommate never got asked. And she was the nicest most liberal person in the world.”
The clash of socioeconomic class becomes immediately evident when the attendees assume Beatriz is the hired help. It seems impossible for them to conceive of another reason why someone with her accent, skin tone, and humble demeanor would be present at the fancy party. Later that night, her immigration status is questioned and her very presence in the country criminalized. And, because the interests of the two couples and the tycoon at the table are entirely motivated by status and financial gain, Beatriz’s experiences and worldview are dismissed and ridiculed.
The sly monster played by Lithgow – who could easily be Donald Trump’s equally depraved but more articulate sibling – never masks his disdain for Beatriz’s earnest preoccupations. Everyone else hides behind hypocrisy, unable to understand Beatriz’s perspective, but unwilling to be as direct about it as Strutt. They, speaking from their positions of power and total disconnect from the average person, believe that they have shown no condescension and that, above all, Beatriz should be grateful to even attend a celebration so unattainable for someone of her background. It’s in the interpretation of this behavior that the divide between audiences will be the most profound. People of color will not see comedy where there is humiliation.
In a recent interview on NPR’s The Frame ahead of the film’s release, Arteta described a screening where this disparity in perception was blatantly exposed, particularly in the scene in which the white characters assume Beatriz is a maid, “I saw the movie with a Latino audience and it’s very interesting how people take that [scene] in particular. The room does gasp when that happens. And when you watch it with a mostly Anglo audience, the room laughs. It seems ludicrous but it actually does happen.” Arteta himself – who is an accomplished filmmaker – has confronted the same discrimination as his film’s title character. Even worse, it’s often perpetuated by those who, on paper, claim to be allies.
“I remember being in college and going to parties and having this woman, who was the hostess, always asking me to take the trash out at the end of the day. And my handsome white roommate never got asked. And she was the nicest most liberal person in the world,” said Arteta on The Frame. Such presumptions about him didn’t stop once he found his way into Hollywood. The occurrences just became even more demoralizing. “For The Good Girl, I was about to give an award to Jennifer Aniston at the Hollywood Film Festival. And in the green room I had a big star come and ask me, ‘Would you go get me a Tequila Sunrise, please?’ The people from [Fox Searchlight Pictures] had to [say], “No, no, no, I’m sorry, mister … he’s a presenter.”
Beatriz (the character), Salma (the actress), and I (the writer of this piece) all speak English with an accent. But despite having learned the language, we still face a world obsessed with our foreignness.
Examples like these beg the question: What amount of opulence, triumphs, and accolades must immigrants or people of color amass in order to be immune to bigotry? Salma Hayek’s experience hints at an answer. Hayek, who was a star in her home country, made a name for herself in the English-speaking world by working with revered directors and earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing the lead role in 2003’s Frida, a movie she also produced. Yet, even with continued success she’s still judged on her accent.
Back in 2015 as part of a talk at the Cannes Film Festival, Hayek shared that the director of a prominent sci-fi film pushed for her to get the lead role but had to back down when studio executives expressed they couldn’t imagine a Mexican in space. During that same chat, she recalled an occasion where a producer told her, “We can’t take the risk of you opening your mouth and people thinking of their maids. You could have been a big star but you were born in the wrong country.” This is Salma Hayek we are speaking of, one of the most recognizable stars in the world.
The core takeaway here is that wealth and status don’t overpower racial discrimination. People of color who’ve reached celebrity or who hold decision-making power are not exempt from racism disguised as ignorant politeness, their positions simply makes them less threatening. That’s not to say that success should be required for a person to merit respect and dignity, but it evidences how profoundly deep white supremacy runs in the psyche of Americans. Beatriz (the character), Salma (the actress), and I (the writer of this piece) all speak English with an accent. But despite having learned the language, we still face a world obsessed with our foreignness.
When verbally attacked, Beatriz is able to respond, to defend herself. She has a full-time job, she has managed to secure legal immigration status, she owns a car, and her basic necessities are met. Yet, for the other guests she is no different than the undocumented construction worker waiting for the bus at 4:00 a.m., the friendly dishwasher at the hipster taqueria putting up with arrogance, the family in crisis with a deported mother, the DACA recipient whose future hangs on the whims of an orange clown in the White House, or even the educated business owner who has lived in this country for decades. If at a film festival – to which I’ve gotten access to because I’m a published writer – in a progressive city like Los Angeles, I must keep my guard up when people question my right to be there, then how are the voiceless supposed to feel safe, respected, or hopeful?
Fight for those in the shadows so one day the light can reach them. Educate those in power and hold them accountable because your money buys as much as theirs. To hate; however, don’t pay attention.
I wonder if immigrants and people color braving real struggles ever look at those in the spotlight that look and sound like them and think, “Man, I’m sure Salma Hayek never has to put up with this crap.” No matter how grotesque an executive’s comments can be, Salma’s lifestyle is still enviable. But being devalued on the basis of intrinsic traits – like the way you speak, the land you were born in, or physical attributes – is as hurtful for the millionaire as it is for the minimum wage laborer. One, of course, has more ammunition to persevere, while the other often remains in the shadowa.
If education, professionalism, and material rewards still can’t buy you equality then what can we aspire to? It would be disingenuous to claim that people criticizing my accent, not being able to find a stable writing job, or having to use public transportation in LA is on par with what other immigrants and people of color must confront each morning. I understand my privilege and because I do, I tremble at the thought of the battlefield endured by those who lack the tools that Beatriz, Salma, and I have access to. We have been told that speaking our native language is wrong and we have believed it. We have been humiliated into thinking our skin is the incorrect tone, our hair is not beautiful, our laughter too loud, our traditions too archaic, and that our grievances are mere resentment. This indoctrination has been applied equally to all of us no matter our different professions, homelands, or origins.
That’s what makes a character like Beatriz so immensely empowering. Her peaceful demeanor doesn’t prevent her from looking at entitlement and greed straight on. There is strength in her remarks even if they fall on deaf ears. We, “the others,” are all Beatriz (at dinner). Like her, I hope we can – to the extent that our circumstances permit – be as fearless in demanding, not requesting, respect. Our contributions are as invaluable as everyone else’s, especially if you consider the added obstacles we encounter and the strength we find to persevere. Encourage the first graduate in your family. Lift up the victims of a system that has incarcerated us, separated us, and that continues to tell us to play nice when our very lives are considered disposable. Fight for those in the shadows so one day the light can reach them. Educate those in power and hold them accountable because your money buys as much as theirs. And as far as hate, don’t pay attention. Be Beatriz, always.