America, America

The Perez Family and My Family chronicle the lives and dreams of immigrants

The Perez Family and My Family (Mi Familia) are full of hardship, deprivation, bitterness, and death, yet they're ultimately optimistic. They remind us that no matter how terrible our daily lives might seem, for our immigrant predecessors, life was almost certainly worse.

These movies don't glance off of you the way most movies do. They stick with you, even haunt you, because America is a nation of immigrants who carry tales of their ancestors' hardships inside them as part of their family's living memory, and will pass them on to their children.

The two films share more than just a basic narrative of outsiders trying to build new, better lives in the United States. They share archetypal scenes that will be familiar to many immigrants and their descendants: the long, dangerous journey to America; a large family packed into a tiny room; temptation by greed and crime; a sudden shooting at what should have been a joyous public celebration; and the relentless grind of degrading, low-wage jobs and the defiantly humorous ways employees find to make them bearable.

Most of all, the movies share a melancholy, accepting quality--one borne of a precarious balance between disappointment and hope, regret and contentment. The characters of The Perez Family and Mi Familia are intimately familiar with the sadness and horror America can inflict, yet they seem to accept such things as the price of a new beginning--a duty levied in the form of heartache. They know they will persevere, and that, God willing, each successive generation will endure less and achieve more.

As Dottie Perez, a young Cuban immigrant in The Perez Family, Marisa Tomei is hunger incarnate--emotional, sexual, and material. She revels in new experiences so intensely that at times she seems to literally absorb them through her pores.

When the small vessel that bore her and her fellow immigrants to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift is stopped a few hundred yards from the harbor for a routine Coast Guard boarding, she's so full of adrenaline that she dives into the waves, swims all the way to shore, then kneels in the shallows, cups her hands, and splashes herself with water from the New World's shoreline.

Watching her wriggle, flirt, and dance her way through her new life in Miami, fantasizing about all the men she can have and all the things she could buy (if only she had the money), you can't help thinking that Dottie is going to fit in just fine here. She is free of encumbrances on arrival. But she has been forced to develop new ones at the behest of the INS, which will deport anyone who isn't claimed by an already established immigrant family. So in short order, Dottie hooks up with a 13-year-old "son" named Felipe (Jose Felipe Padron) and a "grandfather" named Armando (Lazaro Perez) who's so mysteriously shell-shocked that he keeps shedding his clothes and climbing naked into the highest boughs of tall trees expecting to see Cuba in the distance.

Dottie gains a "husband," Juan Raul Perez (Alfre Molina), who she met on the boat. (The film's running gag is that very few of its Perezes are actually related. Of course, the device also serves a more serious, metaphoric function, reminding us that all its Cuban characters are bound by circumstance into a gigantic meta-family of immigrants. They are all Perezes in the way that the displaced Okies of The Grapes of Wrath are all Joads.) Juan has come to America to search for his wife, Carmela Perez (Anjelica Huston), who was separated from him 20 years ago when he became a political prisoner.

Unfortunately for Juan, Carmela has become a different person while waiting for word of his fate. She got a good job at Saks Fifth Avenue and put her brother, Angel (Diego Wallraff), and her daughter, Teresa (Trini Alvarado), through school. Her memory of her imprisoned spouse has become idealized, even a bit abstract. Now, after so many years of celibacy, she is attracted to a divorced Italian-American cop (Chazz Palmintieri).

Boil away all the plots, subplots, and sub-subplots in The Perez Family--some of them very dark and painful--and what you're left with is essentially a comedy, and a romantic comedy at that. The picture's central component is a farcical romantic triangle.

Dottie and Raul are forced by circumstance to live together in the basement of a Catholic church, working together to feed and clothe themselves and their supposed son, Felipe. While Raul pines for his real wife (to the point of spying on her at home from behind bushes and cars, too cowed by the thought of what she may have become in his absence to actually risk approaching her), Dottie gets involved with a freewheeling Anglo man she believes is sophisticated and rich, but who's really just a possessive lout who parties beyond his means. It's obvious that both Dottie and Raul will eventually have to let go of their respective illusions and realize they're destined to be together, and that Carmela will finally break down and admit her brash new love holds more promise than her old, faded one.

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