The “illegal trailer” for the film May 5, 2010. Before the trailer shows violent gore , Machete says “This is Machete with a special Cinco message...to Arizona!”

The internet trailer released on Cinco de Mayo 2010 by website Ain’t it Cool News was later said to be a joke by Director Robert Rodriguez.

Relying on racialized stereotypes of Latino men as violent, Senator McLaughlin’s right-hand man, Michael Booth, sets Machete up as he frames Machete for shooting the Senator.

Machete is shot by the real shooter. He was blackmailed by Booth after being picked up from a day labor corner and that vulnerability led to him being both shot and framed for shooting the Senator.

Machete's partner pledges his loyalty to Machete right before he is shot, calling him 'jefe.' To this Machete responds in reference to his weapon, 'this is the boss.'

The film ends with Machete and ICE agent Sartana riding off into the night on his motorcycle. Though Machete accepted her company, he did not accept her offer for “papers.”

Nurse Fine, a member of The Network and one of the many racially ambiguous/mixed culture characters, lies to Booth’s henchmen about where Machete is being treated and then warns the doctor that they are coming.

Two dishwashers, both part of The Network, watch each other’s backs during la Revolución.

Julio tells Machete that now that Luz is dead, he needs to lead them to fight.

At first Machete rejects Julio’s proposition based on it not being “his war,” but then he decides to help once Julio asks him, “If not us, then who?”

Torrez is constantly being kept company by this woman in Mexico. Since her character is solely ornamental as she has no name or lines, there is no way for the audience to know her race or ethnicity.

Sartana looks up Machete and finds that he is an ex-Federale. His record says his code name and his birth name are the same and that his race is Hispanic and his nationality is Mexican.

Von and his henchman confront Luz at her secret artillery stash/Network office. Von’s group is modeled after the Minuteman Project, a controversial anti-immigrant group which patrols the US/Mexico border.

In Machete Von’s group, accompanied by Senator McLaughlin, films themselves tracking down and shooting crossing migrants.

“Machete improvises”: racial rhetoric in digital reception
of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete

by Marina Wood

Not many people made it out to the theaters to see Machete (Rodriguez, 2010),[1] a border film[2] with a “race” war thrown in. In fact, the only reason I did was because I heard that the main character was a jornalero (day laborer)[3] and as an activist and an educator in my local jornalero and migrant community, I was intrigued. I was surprised that I enjoyed the so-called “gore-fest”[4] so much. I found that its smart humor about immigration, its border-centric inside jokes, and its portrayal of women as strong characters managed to temporarily overshadow the film’s over-the top violence and overly sexualized portrayal of its female characters. My mixed yet overall positive reaction spurred me to turn to the Internet to gauge the film’s reception. What I found was that the film was seen alternatively as mindless entertainment, a racially charged political film with some problems, another blood-soaked Rodriguez movie with needless politics, and a ticking time bomb that would cause an all-out race-war.

The film’s trailer[5] emerged online on May 5, 2010, just weeks after the signing of the controversial Arizona law SB1070, a law which would provide Arizona police with the power to detain anyone they suspect of being “illegal.”[6] This law was criticized widely by human rights and migrant rights organizations and activists for being an overt legalization of racial profiling and was responded to with massive boycotts and protests.[7] Reacting to the law, the film’s blood-soaked trailer opens with an angry Machete (Danny Trejo) dedicating a “special Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona,” and ends with the narrator saying the catchphrase “they just fucked with the wrong Mexican,” over a montage of explosions and throat slitting. Internet audiences alternatively have found this “message” hilarious and a not-so thinly veiled threat. Due to this trailer, regardless of if people viewed the film Machete or not, it managed to spark controversy on the blogosphere.

Machete has become a catalyst for a conversation about race, nation, borders, and migration in a space outside of the news media and among demographics that don’t typically engage in these discussions. I am approaching Machete by first discussing and defining race, racial formation, and what the racial context at the time of the film was and then analyzing websites and blogs and comments that discuss Machete.

Though Machete is not the perfect vehicle to raise sociopolitical consciousness in the masses, I argue it does succeed in accomplishing the “re-racing” of the immigration issue. So often immigration debates claim not to be about race, but this time people had to talk about skin color, language, and culture as factors in anti-immigrant sentiment because Machete uses exaggeration and overtness to make very clear that race and migration are inexplicably connected. A factor inherent to this discussion is how Chican@/Latin@ people fit into racial categories, which is an important part of identification, community, solidarity, and coalition-building.

About the film

The film Machete is the product of an idea for a character that director Robert Rodriguez had for Danny Trejo over ten years ago when doing the Mexico trilogy.[8] After Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a number of film projects together, they created a double feature, Grindhouse, named in homage of Grindhouse theaters from the 70’s which showed cult, horror, low budget, and exploitation films.[9] Grindhouse included two neo-exploitation films, Planet Terror (Rodriguez, 2007), a horror/zombie movie, and Death Proof (Tarantino, 2007), a horror/revenge movie. Rodriguez decided to use the character of “Machete” in a fake trailer for Grindhouse without the original intention of creating a feature length film.[10]

Following on the heels of Grindhouse, Machete is a mixture of the 70’s grindhouse, low-budget aesthetic that Rodriguez used in Planet Terror and the genres of exploitation, cine fronterizo (border film), and narcotraficante (a Mexican police subgenre). Exploitation films generally were seen in the United States in the 60‘s and 70’s and brought issues such as crime, racism, poverty and other content not sanctioned in Hollywood to the big screen, even if that screen was only at a grindhouse theatre.

The film begins in Mexico, though it does not specify where. Danny Trejo is Machete, a tough-as-nails Federale who ends up relying on a vigilante form of justice when his corrupt boss instructs him not to seek out a missing girl. While Machete and his partner are driving to retrieve the girl, the partner says, “We don’t have to do this,” to which Machete replies, “If not us, then who?”

The partner is shot as they enter the building (by driving into it) and Machete is stabbed by the kidnap victim who turned out to be working for Torrez, the drug boss.  After Machete is stabbed by the formerly kidnapped woman, she is killed along with Machete’s wife and child, and Machete is left to die in a fire.

The film's beginning takes place in an unspecific location simply described as "Mexico." Machete at the cachadero awaiting work.
Torrez, played by Steven Seagal, decapitates Machete’s wife with a Samurai sword. Seagal is not only not Latino, but he is actually a supporter of Joe Arpaio, the staunchly anti-immigrant Arizona sheriff on whom Robert DeNiro’s character, Senator McLaughlin, is partially based. La Revolución at the end of the film is basically a civil war between migrants, workers, members of “the network,” and border vigilantes. The Network members use rakes and other tools as their weapons. This is notable since the machete is both a tool and a weapon, as well as a symbol of rebellion in certain contexts such as the Puerto Rican Macheteros.

“Hey, baby, que paso?” plays the music in the background as the film takes us to the other side of the border, a cachadero,[11] or day labor zone, in Texas. Here Machete is working as a jornalero. After he beats a man one-handed in a street boxing match, he is solicited by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). Meanwhile, the Senator, along with a vigilante group clearly modeled after the Minute Men[12] and run by Von (Don Johnson), roam the border and film themselves murdering migrants.

During a campaign speech, Machete is atop a building preparing to shoot the Senator, but Booth’s crony, a hidden sniper, shoots both the Senator in the leg and Machete in the head instead.  Booth then points up at Machete and publicly scapegoats him.  Machete violently escapes police and the Senator’s henchmen and is saved twice over by the two female protagonists, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), the good-hearted and badass immigrant’s rights revolutionary/taco truck vendedora, and Sartana (Jessica Alba), the plays-by-the rules ICE agent who supports Machete because he was a cop.  At one point Machete leaves Sartana to take care of some business and she gets mad at him for not texting her.  He replies “Machete don’t text.”

Though much more happens in the film, the basic storyline follows Machete seeking revenge on Booth at the same time that Booth is trying to have him killed. The story unfolds, indicating that the Senator’s campaign contributor is the Mexican drug boss, Torrez (Steven Seagal). Throughout the film, Sartana (Jessica Alba) begins to understand that laws can be unjust and she exposes Torrez, Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), Von (Don Johnson) and McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), while Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) is shot by Von but survives and returns in the final scenes for the revolution.

Also, Machete ends up having a brother, a priest (Cheech Marin) who is later killed by Booth and a hitman. After this goes down, he texts Booth, “You just fucked with the wrong Mexican.” Sartana says, “I thought Machete don’t text.” To which he reples, “Machete improvises.” In the end, “the network” (migrants, jornaleros, workers, homies, pachucas, palateros, and more) which is loosely led by Luz or more appropriately, the mythical counterpart she invented to give migrant crossers hope, Shé (an iconic feminine version of the Ché image), come violently head to head with the border vigilantes in an all out civil war/revolution. The war culminates in a Machete/Torrez battle which Machete wins, and the revolution sort of fizzles out. The film ends with Machete riding off into the distance with Sartana straddling him on his motorcycle.

Seeing race

General consensus among racial theorists is that race is not biologically meaningful as a category though they have determined that social meanings are projected on race that are undeniably fraught with real-life consequences. For what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls racialists,[13] “races” are small groups of people divided based on their supposed “essential” commonalities of heredity, biology, intellect and morality.[14] Karim Murji says that the term “race” does not have a precise definition, but that it historically has included both visible markers such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, and skull shape and invisible markers such as blood, bones, and brain size.[15] According to Appiah and Murji, ideas about race and racism today have changed since scientific racism’s heyday, but that regardless, the category is based on and shaped by its original definitions.

Today, the term race refers to racial groups formed through practices of racism, racialization and racial essentialism, which treats groups of people “as if they share some common essence.”[16] Murji adds that more recent terms such as “people of color” and “color-blind” reduce race to color, adding that in Latin America in particular color is a specific marker as there are several terms for varying skin colors, from “lechoso” to “morado.”[17]

Though the term “raza,” which literally translates to “race,” is used by the Chican@[18] movement and its contemporary institutionalized forms, it is generally used to mean “the people” such as in the cases of the Raza Unida party and the National Council of La Raza. However, the term originated in José Vasconcelos’s 1925 essay, “La Raza Cósmica” (The Cosmic Race), which presented a utopian future that posited the opposite of racial purity, a future race comprised of all races.

Just as in daily life, in Machete blurry and contradictory lines are drawn between identity-based social groups. For example, “the Network” as described by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) is made up of “all types, all races: lawyers, priests, doctors, homeboys…” Two characters who are shown to be part of the Network are a readably white man and a Mexican man (they mention this in a scene) who work together as dishwashers. Another group of characters in the Network are the doctors, nurses, and administrative staff at the hospital where Machete is taken after he is injured. Some of the staff are light skinned but appear to be of Latino descent, some appear white, and some are brown. Another set of members of the Network are two homeboys, one of which is clearly Latino, Jorge, and one of which is white with red hair, Julio. Though I assumed he was of Latino descent, there is a line in which he comes out as “adopted.” The following exchange between Machete and Julio was in relation to a possible war between border vigilantes and the Network.

Machete: It’s not your war.
Julio: I may be adopted, ese...
Machete: No shit.

The above exchange exemplifies the unwelcoming sentiment that many activists have towards those who are not Mexican. But in the film, the Network, which does end up fighting, is made up of people who connect less by race or nationality than by class, solidarity, and politics. The two dishwashers, the two homeboys, and the group of hospital staff are connected more by social class, friendship, work and upbringing than by any other factors. However, though white people and mixed race/culture people are part of the Network, this does not mean that their whiteness goes unnoticed. As demonstrated by the conversation above, Machete tells Julio it is obvious that he is not Mexican and Julio himself also acknowledges it. What this shows is that in Machete, the Network functions as a utopian solidarity group that is neither nationalist and separatist nor color blind and unaware of the consequences of perceived racial difference.

Race as we know it today can be easily conflated with terms such as nationality and ethnicity, especially when talking about Mexicanidad and Chicanismo. As a term, “race” is most often affiliated with Blackness, and secondarily with anyone not-white. Racial rhetoric when applied to Latin@ people is either reduced to color, for example the phrase “brown pride,” or nation, such as a specific country of origin. One’s nationality is a person’s membership in a nation, usually meaning they are a citizen of a particular country, but it could also point to groups within geopolitical nations such as indigenous groups and Chican@ nationalists. Mexican Americans and Chican@s do not fit easily into racial categorizations. The U.S .Census has historically only had the choices “white” or “Black.” Even when “Mexican or Mexican American” was finally put as an option, these numbers were counted as white.[19]

The 2010 U.S. Census has decided that “Hispanic origin” is an ethnicity rather than a race. This origin, they say,

“can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.”[20]

Ethnicity then, though often used synonymously with race, is a whole other thing. Karim Murji defines ethnicity as “quasi-primordial collective sense of shared descent and distinct cultural traditions,” which is a break from the biological and physical markers of race.[21] However, as we can see in the case of the U.S. Census, though one can be an ethnicity, a race, and a nationality, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chican@s, and Latin@s are raceless. In the case of the film Machete, the characters all live in Texas, one of the seven states which once belonged to Mexico and are collectively referred to as “Aztlan” or the home of the Aztec people within Chican@ folklore.[22]

The moving of borders, the nonexistence of Latin@ races, and the definition of ethnicity including cultures just as much as descent, all point to the precariousness of race, nation and ethnicity. Though there may be legal implications to a person born on one side of the border rather than the other, their race does not change as they cross, their culture is not washed away, and their skin does not change colors.

In the film Machete, there is a scene in which an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, Sartana (Jessica Alba), pulls up Machete’s file on her laptop and it shows that his nationality is Mexican and his race is Hispanic. This is another example of how race and ethnicity are conflated, confused, and misused and over-used to the point of losing meaning. Why is race in Machete so explosive that it triggered such a huge Internet response? Because there are people who believe very strongly in biological races and white supremacy. Though Machete blurs these lines, many filmgoers could only see the Network as brown and the border vigilantes and right wing politicians as white. This is an inaccurate reading of the film, especially since the man behind the politician’s border fence and the supplier of resources to the vigilantes is Mexican. However, the strong reactions to the film’s portrayal of a group of people who fight against the vigilantes and the politicians, seeing it as a “race war,” show how race is still seen as something that is real and as something that is pure enough to have divisions.

Current racial context

Sentiment about race and immigration fluctuate radically in popular opinion and culture in the United States, usually based on economic factors and demographic changes and reflected by media representation. Certain analytic trends have emerged as to why outbreaks of anti-immigrant sentiment occur; the most prominent posit a national crisis.[23] Machete, which was filmed in 2009 and came out in 2010, did so while the United States was facing a huge economic crisis.[24] Pair that with post 9/11 raciality, which rhetorically and ideologically conflated immigrants with terrorists in politics, news media, and popular culture, and what we end up with is the scapegoating and targeting of immigrant (and those who look like immigrant) populations.

Anti-immigrant sentiment took many forms, one of the more obvious being Arizona’s SB1070. Supporters of the law, including the media, invoked the name of Robert Krentz, a white Arizona man who was allegedly murdered by an undocumented man in March 2010. However, two months later when a border vigilante group invaded an Arizona family home, killing Raul Flores and his nine-year old daughter Briseña and critically injuring wife and mother Gina, the media turned a blind eye.[25] While SB1070 stirred up protests and boycotts from immigrants rights advocates, it also motivated several other states to propose similar laws.

Aside from legal means, groups like the Minute Men, the KKK, and the Neo-Nazi group the Nationalist Socialist Movement[26] have, along with the Tea Party, organized anti-immigrant protests, marches, and rallies nationwide. Each group accuses Obama of promoting amnesty and demands more fortification of the borders. High profile politicians such as Rand Paul, Mark Kirk, Meg Whitman, and Jan Brewer also became notorious for being anti-immigrant mouthpieces. Though accused of lax immigration initiatives, under Obama there have been more deportations than under the Bush administration and Border Patrol and ICE raids are becoming more and more common.[27]

The rise of the Tea Party also impelled many moderate Republicans such as John McCain to recant or reconsider their agendas and campaigns in order to meet the approval and vote of the conservative constituency. And in the wake of SB1070, Arizona also wrote bill HB 2281 which would ban ethnic studies.[28] Thus, the film Machete exploited or, better yet, tapped into the anti-immigrant/ Chican@/ Latin@ political climate in the United States. But it is debatable whether Rodriguez did so in true exploitation style of making a quick buck.

Senator McLaughlin’s over-the-top campaign commercial warns voters “Don’t get caught on the wrong side of the fence.” McLaughlin’s campaign ad likens migrants to cockroaches and maggots.

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