FROM DESPERADO TO LUCHA UNDERGROUND: REPRESENTATION MATTERS TO ROBERT RODRIGUEZ

by Hector Acosta

If you grew up as a fan of movies in the early 1990s, chances are you recognize the name Robert Rodriguez. Along with other contemporary filmmakers such as Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez helped to popularize the idea of independent filmmaking in the nineties. Rodriguez, along with the aforementioned Smith and Tarantino, all brought with them a DIY attitude, which plenty of fans not only found appealing, but also encouraging—after all, Smith and Tarantino had gotten their start not in some movie lot, but by working in video stores, and Robert Rodriguez made his first wide released movie—El Mariachi—for a paltry (in movie making figures) seven thousand dollars.

It’s been interesting to track all three of their paths since those first releases and watch them change into the filmmakers they are today. For the longest time Smith catered to his fans, seemingly happy to play with his characters and world while blockbuster success eluded him. A poor box office showing a few years ago made him a more insular creator, one who now focuses on ideas and films which he finds appealing, and doesn’t worry about whether they will reach the mainstream. Tarantino, on the other hand, has found mainstream success, largely by creating homages (i.e stealing) from previous films and directors, and in the last few years people have rightly become more critical to how so much of his success hinges on his appropriation of black culture.

In a way, Rodriguez and his work can be put in the middle of the other two’s. He’s had some successes—his adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City was a surprise hit, and the Spy Kids franchise born out four movies, but he’s also had a number of less successful ventures, such as his most recent work Alita: Battle Angel which failed to gain much critical or box office response.

But Rodriguez hasn’t allowed the successes or failures of each of his movies to define him. He’s focused instead on making movies on his own terms, working from the film studio he built in Austin and collaborating with not only actors like George Clooney, Salma Hayek, Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, but with his family as well (Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D, his 2005 film, was inspired by a story from one of his children and co-written with his brother). His output is varied, and almost more than any other filmmaker he’s jumped from genre to genre, directing From Dusk till Dawn, a pulpy vampire tale, and then releasing Spy Kids the next year, his PG-rated take on the spy genre.  

And yet, whether it be Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Machete, or Predators, one of the things which defines Robert Rodriguez is his desire to ensure his movies reflect the diversity he saw growing up in Texas as one of ten children.  As he told Evan Smith on February of this year;

‘… you didn’t see any positive Hispanic characters, much less heroes, and you didn’t see women heroes … it was just so bizarre … I wanted to stop that as soon as I made anything.

Bedhead, his first film and a student project during his time at the University of Texas Austin, is true to the above words. In many ways, Bedhead defines Robert Rodriguez perfectly and highlights the themes which will show up in his later work. The plot, about a girl who suddenly gains psychic powers and is determined to use them to get rid of her brother’s unruly set of hair, never takes itself too seriously and is full of kinetic and inventive shots. Even for a student project it’s impressive how many roles Rodriguez took upon himself; he’s credited as writer, director, cameramen and editor. The film is also a family affair, with his sister starring in the lead role as Rebecca, and the rest of his brothers filling in the cast as well as working behind the scenes. Most tantalizing is a scene halfway through the short film, shortly after Rebecca gains her powers. As she’s considering all she can do with her newfound powers, she realizes she could be the first Mexican-American female president. After she gets revenge on her brother, of course.

His next film, El Mariachi, brought Robert Rodriguez to the attention of many American movie fans. The origins of the movie are almost as famous as the movie itself—Rodriguez participated in a number of medical studies to raise the necessary $7000 dollars. Filmed in North Mexico with a cast of predominantly Latinx actors, the movie mixes western, pulp, and crime motifs. It’s no wonder that the main character was popular enough to carry two sequels—Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, both which cast Antonio Banderas as the titular Mariachi, who simply goes by the name of ‘El’.

Seeing Banderas on-screen for the first time—the way he struts his way into a bar full of gangsters and tries to pass himself off as a musician, and when that fails, proceeds to gun down everyone in the establishments in the most showy way possible—was a revelation for many Latinxs. True, Antonio Banderas himself was Spanish, not Latinx, but to many, the mere fact this was an actor with a noticeable Spanish accent speaking and singing in Spanish, being the hero of the film and getting the girl at the end (Salma Hayek in her first American role) was a revelation, to the point that there are likely still some who have no idea what Banderas’ true nationality is.

This is likely partly because Desperado, and later Once Upon a Time in Mexico, are unabashedly Latinx. The casts to both movies include actors like Cheech Marin, Eva Mendes, Enrique Iglesias, Pedro Armendariz Jr, Danny Trejo and more. Rodriguez gave many of them their first big mainstream movie roles, and pulled others from bit parts. Both films also exude a sense of Latinx pride, from their soundtrack, to their look. One of the last shots in Once Upon a Time in Mexico is Los Mariachis (turns out there’s more than one) walking with the president of Mexico, who is wearing the Mexican flag as a bandolier.

Something which Rodriguez understood back then, and has continued to understand, is the systemic problem Hollywood has when it comes to representation. ‘… So I realized anything I wrote, I was going to write in my own person … I needed to create my own star system.’  And he has, utilizing many of the same talents throughout his films, such as Danny Trejo, who first appeared as knife-wielding lackey in Desperado and went on to have his own starring movie in 2010 with Machete. Rodriguez has also focused on bringing new Latinx talent to the forefront.

In 2013, Rodriguez launched El Rey Network, a subscription cable network with a focus on Latinx and grindhouse/pulp programming. A year later Lucha Underground debuted in the network, which married the Lucha Libre wrestling style popular in Mexico with the outlandish storylines (there’s time traveling, cults, and a Frankenstein luchador) Rodriguez has been known for. His latest work, Alita: Battle Angel, stars Peruvian-American actress Rosa Salazar in the role of the big-eyed, cybernetic, ass-kicking protagonist. Salazar, like Rodriguez, is aware of the importance of representation. “It’s something we’re in desperate need of. [Latinos] make up a quarter of the people who actually see movies, so it’s important for us to see ourselves up there on screen.

Hector Acosta is the author of the wrestling inspired novella Hardway. His work has appeared in Weird Noir, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey and Mystery Tribune. He resides in Houston with his wife, dog and Whataburger.