Maids and chambermaids

la camarista.jpg

The Ariels are Mexico’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, and not only did La Camarista win as best first film this year, but in the past few months it’s picked up prizes in festivals in San Francisco, Portland, Palm Springs, Morelia, Marrakesh and Havana. It was showing in New York recently, and opened here in Mexico City a few weeks ago. It’s one of those films that I’m afraid will disappear without much fanfare, a shame because it’s beautiful and brilliantly executed. 

The story of a chambermaid at a luxury hotel in Mexico City, in a clear-eyed but understated style La Camarista portrays the breach between the privileged and the disadvantaged here. The movie is entirely set in the hotel, and by the end it feels claustrophobic. The director, Lila Avilés, who also collaborated on the screenplay, illustrates the protagonist’s hardships in any number of ways, without rubbing our noses in it or reveling in “poverty porn.” If you are someone who stays in hotels when you travel, I venture to guess you will never see the women who clean your rooms as anonymous figures again.

It’s tricky to pit one film against another but La Camarista struck me as everything that Roma could have been but wasn’t. Although I realize it’s unpopular to express misgivings about Roma, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Ever since I got to Mexico City in 1990, various well-to-do people (I’ve heard them referred to as “whitexicans” recently) have told me how little I understand the dynamic between them and their maids; in fact, they love each other and they’re one big happy family. Let’s just say that Roma struck me as a fulfillment of that fantasy. Although it’s nominally about the life of a cleaning woman, the character is a passive tabula rasa that the privileged people who employ her (and the audience) can conveniently interpret in the way that reflects them in the best light. My guess is that cleaning women in Mexico City would have a substantially different story to tell than the one shown in Roma.

Meanwhile, in La Camarista, you get a bird’s eye view of the chambermaid’s daily struggles and frustrations, and her interaction with her colleagues, her supervisors, and the hotel guests who ask her for special favors. It’s still at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, and if it’s playing anywhere near you, don’t miss it. It’s too bad that such a worthy movie doesn’t have Netflix backing it the way they got behind Roma.

Mérida, real and fake


Carlos Mérida (1891 - 1984), a Guatemalan artist who spent most of his career in Mexico City, was a contemporary of Diego Rivera’s. He began doing work somewhat like Rivera’s, in the sense of rejecting some techniques and traditions of European painting and depicting Guatemalans in their native dress.


Through March 17, at the Museo Nacional de Arte in the Centro Histórico, there’s a retrospective exhibition of Mérida’s work. He became most famous as an abstract painter, and if you look at the trajectory of the work, it’s fascinating to see how he “progressed” from the nativist imagery to the abstraction.

Carlos Mérida painting / Mexico City David Lida Blog

I became the proud owner of what I thought was a Carlos Mérida, bought for about $30 USD at a flea market in the Colonia Doctores a few years ago. Even before I showed it to my friend, the art historian James Oles, he laughed in my face, making it clear that there was no such thing as a $30 Carlos Mérida to be found in a flea market.


In any case, feel free to feast your eyes and admire my fake Mérida. Or go to see the real ones in the MUNAL. It’s one of my favorite museums. In my opinion, the Art Nouveau staircase alone is worth the price of admission, a little more than $3 USD at the current exchange rate. I often take people to see the stairs on my tours of the centro histórico.



One Life Jacket Front.jpg

There’s a web site called Snowflakes in a Blizzard which each week features books that its editor feels haven’t received the attention they deserve. This week he chose my novel, ONE LIFE, as well as another novel brought out by Unnamed, the same publisher — FINGERPRINTS OF PREVIOUS OWNERS, by Rebecca Entel. As always, I’m grateful for the attention. Click here to link to the page and read brief interviews with Rebecca and I.

That time of year again


I suppose that many countries around the world celebrate one form or another of Independence Day. Still, given what is going on these days, one can hardly help but wonder how many countries have anything about which they can be proud enough to wave their flags. In Mexico, we celebrate the night of September 15th, where at 11:00 at every town square -- from one-horse podunks to the Zócalo in Mexico City -- hordes gather to shout "Viva México!" This will be the last time that Enrique Peña Nieto officiates at this ceremony. According to opinion polls -- practically since he was elected -- there are very few people around who will be sorry to see him go.

Our new president assumes office on December 1. While he has many followers who believe in him to the marrow, I think that many other Mexicans voted for Andrés Manuel López Obrador because they simply couldn't stand another moment of the status quo. They wanted the PRI and the PAN, who have been in power here since 1929, to get buried as deeply as possible. I wish our new President well and truly hope that he will be able to fulfill the voters' expectations of him. Certainly his predecessors have been so disappointing, many would even say disastrous, that they provoked the kind of mood that the metro rider, pictured below, is in.