How a Movie Made Me Understand Cultural Differences

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate movie cover

Over the past week, my CRS 400 class completed group projects in which we were instructed to watch, analyze, and present about a particular film with regard to cultural differences. My group selected the film, Like Water For Chocolate, produced by Alfonso Arau in the year 1992. The film takes place in Mexico during the time period of 1910-1934 and focuses on several main characters, particularly Tita (the protagonist) and Pedro who are in love yet cannot get married because of barriers such as arranged marriage and preexisting family traditions. While much of their strife is caused by the menace of Tita’s mother, the two secretly find ways to be together.

As someone who does not often watch movies that predate the 2000’s, Like Water For Chocolate was a new experience for me, especially because it was produced in Spanish with English subtitles. Moreover, when I watch movies, I typically do so for pleasure and in my free time as a leisurely outlet. Because I was watching this film for a class and knew I would have to later analyze it, I took a completely different approach and as a result, closely examined the saga of each and every character and their contribution to the overall plot. As a movie that took place on a rural Mexican ranch during the Mexican Revolution, it was fascinating to see the lives of the characters unfold and their disconnect from modern-day society. The film forced me to pay attention to small details such as non-verbal communication and the way each character used diction and rhetoric to convey their emotions. For example, in American culture, I would rarely cry to convey my displeasure, rather I would use words to articulate how I am feeling and why I am feeling that way. However, in Like Water For Chocolate, nearly all of the characters weep constantly, regardless of gender as way to channel their feelings. Throughout the film, Tita cries sporadically as a result of her mothers’ wicked words and as a way to indicate her misery and trepidation towards speaking out against her mother.

Tita crying because of her mother's harsh words

Tita crying because of her mother’s harsh words

Moreover, one of the overall themes that highlighted a major difference between my culture and the characters’ Mexican culture is that of arranged marriage and rigid family traditions. As someone who has grown up in a different time period and in a more progressive society, it was difficult to understand Mama Elena’s emphasis on arranged marriage and the subjection of women. Tita is seen as nothing more than an eternal slave until her mother’s death—existing only to take care of her mother and to answer her every need. While this may have been the norm in that culture and time period, it seemed ridiculous to me as women in my culture are treated as equal counterparts to men. Additionally, Mama Elena’s family tradition that the last-born daughter is to take care of the mother until her dying day was hard to understand. In my culture, one’s birth status determines nothing of their future and their obligations. To think that one is “locked-in” to a life of misery and servitude simply because of age is preposterous.

After watching the movie for the first time, I was able to understand the plot and some of the overall themes. However, it wasn’t until I watched the movie a second and third time before I began to understand the emotional depth of each character—the tension that existed not just between Mama Elena and Tita, but Tita and Rosaura as well. Moreover, after watching the movie a second time, I began to sympathize for Mama Elena. Although she was incredibly mean to her three daughters, specifically Tita, I realized that perhaps she too was a victim of this vicious family tradition and was seemingly brainwashed into forcing it upon her youngest daughter.

Looking back on this project, I had several cultural stereotypes that prevented me from watching Like Water for Chocolate free of bias. However, after watching it several more times, I was able to shed that bias and see the movie for what it was and to understand the culture in which the characters lived. I realized the important lesson of experiencing a culture free of bias, as it expedites one understanding of that culture and its attributes. Furthermore, experiencing another culture, whether it be through film or actually in person, helps one understand their own culture. It magnifies some of the differences between cultures and how those differences alter relationships and the way in which people act towards each other.

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