The walk of a trailblazer can be a lonely one, and one feels that while watching the film Que Caramba es la Vida, directed by Doris Dorrie.
Mariachi is a cultural institution in Mexico. The music is an essential expression that is woven into the city streets, bars, ceremonies, and celebrations of the culture, but for the most part it is still considered the domain of men. Que Caramba es la Vida follows young female mariachi musicians as they break custom and tradition to follow their passion. It also documents the over 50 year legacy of all female mariachi bands (Las Estrellas de Mexico, Las Coronelas, Las Pioneras).
All the female mariachi musicians, but particularly, Maria “Windy” del Carmen, hold themselves with a compelling and admirable dignity and grandiosity in the face of hostile resistance. Day-to-day they contend with chauvinistic men who do not want women to perform in what was once strictly their world, many women patrons are appalled by the gall of these women who dare to enter this esteemed realm, and some of the female musicians must also contend with jealous suspicious husbands and the demands of children — it takes much courage to proceed.
Balancing life as an artist is also a theme explored in the film. Del Carmen is a talented, intense, single-minded women who best exemplifies the internal transformation artists must navigate. As we watch her put on her costume and makeup – like a suit of armor – her internal transformation can be felt.
Del Carmen tries to balance the duality of artist and mother in a traditional society where strict gender roles remain intact. It’s a balancing act her male counterparts do not have to deal with. Not surprisingly, this constant negotiation and sacrifice has taken its toll. Del Carmen is often distant and impatient with her daughter who idolizes her. Unable to show affection, and often guilt-ridden, her young daughter now seeks support from her always available grandmother, who also serves as del Carmen’s main emotional support.
Del Carmen’s story is juxtaposed with four women who sing together in a female/male band that enjoys a close knit relationship. For these married mothers, mariachi provides welcomed glamour, freedom and independence that outweighs the challenges of breaking gender roles, the ceaseless responsibilities at home, as well as the extensive exploitation of young girls (and boys) they witness every night in the Plaza Garibaldi.
There is something beautifully transgressive and poignant about these women singing macho songs about love, pleasure and death in a climate where women are suffering a great deal of loss and instability. Ultimately, celebration and mourning are often a sliver a part in both the music and the lives of the women, but the somber ending is a reminder of the healing importance of the music they play. Chaka V.