The sprawling cityscape of Mexico City – or DF (Distrito Federal) as it was long dubbed until 2016 – is the clear ideological focal point of Alfonso Cuarón’s film. Y tu mamá también. As the film follows a sexually charged trio on a roadtrip through the verdant landscape of Puebla in search of the sandy shores of Oaxaca, it is the political function of the Mexican capital that influences the perspectives of the three protagonists – and perhaps most important, the perspective of Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Carlos. Cuarón’s three films in Spanish, Solo con tu pareja, Y tu mamá también and Rome, take place in the capital, with each project increasingly concerned with dissecting the social and political landscape of Mexico as seen through those who reside in its federal epicenter. Through the lenses of sexuality, class and race, the director continually returns not only to his country of origin, but to his hometown, with high nuances and kernels of nostalgic re-examination. Never one to cynically castigate the follies of the state, Cuarón rather cleverly juxtaposes the lived realities of Mexicans against what the conventional apparatuses – government, media, the United States – characterize Mexican life with.
Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) live relatively privileged lives, though one comes through family wealth while the other manifests through upward social ties. Tenoch’s father is the country’s secretary of state with a disreputable reputation, while Julio is the son of a struggling single mother whose only access to this realm of wealth and status is through his friendship with Tenoch. The minutiae of their class differences are briefly mentioned via voice-over narration – Tenoch won’t touch the toilet seat in Julio’s working-class home with his bare hands, while Julio’s sister shapes her identity around activism and of leftist protest – making it clear that this connection stems from their shared experience as horny teenagers. They may not inhabit the same social stratosphere, but they mutually succumb to every carnal urge and mortal vice. Their friendship is defined by simultaneous masturbation sessions and a manifesto featuring a rule that you have to get high “at least once a day”. It genuinely seems that nothing else in their lives is as important as the pursuit of sex and drunkenness, which makes details of world and national news almost absent from their routine thoughts.
There is a definite comfort in this disconnect, and as the boys embark on their journeys, the surrounding instability and corruption of their country becomes shocking to the viewer, but remains almost entirely invisible to the teenagers. Slightly less guilty of this myopia is Tenoch’s Spanish cousin by marriage, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), who accompanies the boys on their road trip and is slightly more sensitive to the divisiveness of their surroundings due to her outsider status. nationally – and perhaps also due to his own grim personal situation, which contrasts dramatically with the quiet exploits of Tenoch and Julio. These jarring perspectives might also have something to do with the metaphorical blinders the boys are wearing, reducing their sole purpose to locating the fictional beach they told Luisa they would charter too – aptly named Boca del Ciel. (Heaven’s Mouth) for her elusiveness and sultry promise, while also hoping to score with her sexually.
Even outside of the boys’ company with Luisa, the presence of Europeans is significant in the upper echelons of Mexican society. This is especially true of Tenoch’s own circle, which includes his French-Mexican girlfriend who is flying to Italy for the summer with Julio. In fact, Tenoch’s cousin Jano only finally met Luisa during a ten-year stay in Europe, a move he took to get some space from his “stuffy” mother. Given the colonial bond between Mexico and Spain, it’s fascinating to see that for these upper-class Mexicans, the lure of Europe far outweighs the lure of exploring their own country. On the road, Luisa constantly marvels at Mexico’s natural wonders, repeatedly commenting on how lucky the boys are to live in such a beautiful place. However, the boys remain relatively phaseless, that is, until they pass a road sign for the Oaxacan town of Tepelmeme, which Tenoch realizes is the location of birth of her childhood nanny. An omniscient voiceover reveals that she moved to Mexico City when she was 13, eventually finding work with Tenoch’s family and essentially raising him from birth. As such, he called her “mamá” until she was four years old. While the term “homeland” is certainly rooted in the imperialist notion of empire, right now Tenoch feels a melancholy pain of displacement – for his surrogate mother and the countryside she hails from. After all this time, Tenoch only now realizes that he has been completely divorced from any experience of Mexico outside of his own.
This represents a small but significant shift in Tenoch’s consciousness, which is nevertheless heralded by the origins of his own name. After what is described as a sudden wave of nationalism, his father decided to name his son after a 14th-century Aztec leader. Yet during Tenoch’s youth, he vividly remembers his father being embroiled in a political scandal that involved supplying tainted corn – one of the country’s most essential staples – to impoverished communities. Though subtle, the inclusion of this anecdote interrogates the reality of Mexico’s own government sabotaging the people and the land it rules. This creates a cycle that perpetually favors the wealthy – they cut costs and safeguards at closed-door meetings in Mexico City, creating economic instability in rural areas. As a result, a wave of people desperate for work migrate to the capital, where they are hired to care for the children of the elite. Cuarón returned to examine this dynamic in Rome, probing his family’s personal interest in this same system. When reconsidering the meaning of the name “Tenoch” in particular, what remains is the fact that the Nahuatl symbols of this particular Aztec ruler are found on the contemporary flag of Mexico. It demonstrates the country’s respect – Mexico City containing its fair share of ancient Aztec structures, having been founded by Tenoch himself – for the indigenous culture that once thrived before being decimated by the colonizing forces that created modern Mexico. It’s a political paradox, both fetishizing the remnants of a decimated culture while continuing to support the very violence that caused its demise.
After Cuarón’s first feature film in 1991 Solo con tu pareja, a sexual satire that focuses on the manic paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic, it took the Mexican director a decade to release another film in his own country. During this period, he directed two Hollywood studio feature films, A little princess (1995) and great expectations (1998). None of these works had the impact of his feature film, and the director began to feel disillusioned with his directorial pursuits in the English-speaking United States market. Explaining this sentiment in a recent New York Times interview, Cuarón said he “let the industry seduce me…. It’s a myth that the industry corrupts you, you corrupt yourself. This dissatisfaction is what prompted the filmmaker to reach out to his brother for a creative collaboration, which resulted in their combined efforts on the screenplay of Y tu mamá también. While Solo con tu pareja only engages with Mexico City through its highest point on the Torre Latinoamerica from where Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho, who also serves as narrator for Yes you) and his lover Clarissa (Claudia Ramírez) threaten to rush, Y tu mamá también feels more invested in depicting not just the capital, but the whole country, in a more naturalistic sense.
However, this lawsuit never fades into rosy nostalgia, constantly alarming the callous (but seemingly inconsequential) mistreatment of Mexico’s own citizens by the very forces that promise to back them, be it its police force or its local tourism initiatives. Cleverly highlighted without ever dominating the narrative, the pitfalls of uncritical reminiscence are even more pronounced in the director’s semi-autobiographical (and most recent) feature, Rome, with the entire plot revolving around the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the Mixteco housekeeper of a middle-class family in Mexico City. With Cleo (and Aparicio herself) hailing from Oaxaca, the parallels between Tenoch’s fictional nanny and Cuarón’s own upbringing are obvious. Interestingly, the filmmaker has once again embarked on a long hiatus from filmmaking in his home country following the critical and commercial success of Y tu mamá también, this time for 17 years. He went to the bar Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), children of men (2006) and Gravity (2013), with each project featuring a large-scale fantasy or sci-fi element. Yet with each return to Mexico and its capital, Cuarón brings more depth and authenticity to the country, to its largest metropolis, and to those who inhabit both.
Twenty years after its wide release in American theaters, Y tu mamá también persists as both a story of the often magical and always enchanting vibrancy embedded in Mexico’s natural landscape and the state-level corruption that threatens to mar it. While the steamy sexual encounters Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa share are certainly the film’s most evocative images, its acute political leanings don’t seem understated or awkward by comparison. Of course, the controversial homosexual kiss the teens share while Luisa stimulates each other during the (literal) climax may have overshadowed some of the finer institutional criticisms, like a fisherman and Oaxacan tour guide kicked out of his line of work. due to an influx of similar adventurers from the already booming tourist destination of Alcapulco, but it’s as much a boon to the film as a distraction. While he boldly confronts the entrenched ideal of machismo that upholds ultra-hetero-masculinity as the basis of manhood in much of Latin America, he also argues that even those most rooted in the privileges of these systems are aware of at least momentary challenge. If two teenagers with a masculine posture can admit that what they want most in the world is to kiss each other, what harm is there in breaking out of the other restrictive molds imposed by the hierarchical society? With the country’s long history of civil defiance (with several Mexican Cuarón films featuring at least one scene of protest), it certainly seems like appeasement just isn’t an option for Mexican citizens. Thus, Cuarón uses Y tu mamá también to assert that any semblance of stagnation is anything but a national impossibility – it is vital to explore, experiment and perhaps even get uncomfortable in the process.
Natalia Keogan is a freelance screenwriter based in Queens, New York. His work has been featured in Pastry, blood knife and Director magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.