SXSW Review: Que Caramba es la Vida


Growing up as a young Latino boy in San Antonio, Texas, I’ve had quite a few experiences with Mariachi groups. There was a Mariachi club in my high school, and on several occasions, my great uncle would hire groups to sing at his parties. While I know little Spanish myself (being 5th generation Mexican, Spanish, and Native American), there’s always been something special about Mariachi music. It helps me feel closer to the culture years of assimilation have separated me from. 

But there’s one perspective I shamefully admit I’ve never considered: the women. How do the women of Mariachi exist within this male dominated field? And as bad as it is to say, men are and have always been a dominant part of Mexican culture stemming from some passed down belief that women are supposed to stay home and raise the children. 

Que Caramba es la Vida paints a new picture of the previously homogeneous term “starving artist” with wonderful results. 

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Que Caramba es la Vida
Director: Doris Dörrie
Rated: NR
Release Date: TBD

Que Caramba es la Vida is a documentary detailing the lives of several female musicians in Mexico struggling to make a name for themselves within an already packed Mariachi music genre. As the film begins, you see several hundreds of Mariachi men littering the streets of Mexico as they earn a measly ten or twenty Pesos per song (that’s less than two American dollars) in order to live their dream as a musician. The documentary follows Maria Del Carmen (or Wendy, as her mother refers to her), a single mother who earns her living each day by singing at the plaza, a mecca of Mariachi music and has to compete for her earnings with chauvinistic men who refuse to let her sing with them. 

One of the more interesting facets of Que Caramba is it takes account of different generations of Mariachi women and their different philosophies of the profession. While some of the newer ones notably earn their living off of the music (like Maria, it’s the only money they can to count on), a few of the older women label the younger generations as vain and money hungry. It’s an interesting dynamic in the film which sheds light that not only do women have to struggle against the men in their culture, but other women as well. While there’s a true unity between members of a single group, there is a harshness toward outside groups. To add on to all of this pressure to succeed, some of the Mariachi have to deal with unaccepting parents. 

But you see, the genius of Que Caramba is that the Mariachi aren’t the only ones given attention. As the narrative expands to later include performers of all types, Que Caramba questions the very necessity of artistry within Mexico’s bleak landscape. Throughout the film, we actually get a better picture of Mexico City’s faith culture. It’s ultimately depressing since each individual believes death is constantly above them, but there’s a certain integrity and hope that comes from uniting with that depression and fear to fuel a performance. When each Mariachi performs a folk song, you realize how sad each song is. There’s one about bird singing that’s especially dark since one of the translated lyrics is “Please wait until I die before you sing again, Little Bird.” The stark contrast between dark lyrics and moving, soulful music creates an odd blend of happiness. 

These artists perform to accept their lives. All they can do is live day by day, and push forward in their music as a way of both accepting their struggle and mocking it. Each performer, each Mariachi understands that their life choice was a tough one, but they remain in their profession with grace. It’s really all they can do when faced with terrible surroundings. And the women who chose to fight an additional layer of darkness are the strongest of all. They do it because that’s what they love to do. 

Que Caramba es la Vida made me see Mariachi in a way I never have before. My only qualm with the film may be its length and skewed demographic, but hopefully others witness this cultural marvel. It’s a universally translated fight to maintain artistry and craft. In order to provide others with happiness, the Mariachi must accept and constantly battle against their bleak world. I’m sure that’s a message many can understand.