The sprawling cityscape of Mexico City—or D.F. (Distrito Federal) as it was long-dubbed until 2016—is the clear ideological focal point of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también. While the film follows a sexually charged trio on a roadtrip through the verdant landscape of Puebla in search of the sandy shores of Oaxaca, it is the political function of the Mexican capital which influences the perspectives of all three protagonists—and perhaps most importantly, the perspective of Cuarón, who co-wrote the script with his brother, Carlos. All three of Cuarón’s Spanish-language films, Sólo con tu pareja, Y tu mamá también and Roma, take place in the capital, with each project becoming increasingly more interested in dissecting the social and political landscape of Mexico as viewed through those who reside in its federal epicenter. Through the lenses of sexuality, class and race, the director continually returns not only to his home country—but to his hometown—with elevated nuance and kernels of nostalgic reexamination. Never one to cynically lambast the follies of the state, Cuarón instead intelligently juxtaposes the lived realities of Mexicans as opposed to what conventional apparatuses—the government, the media, the United States—characterize Mexican lives as looking like.
Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) live relatively privileged lives, though one is through familial wealth while the other manifests via social-climbing connections. Tenoch’s father is the country’s secretary of state with a dishonorable reputation, while Julio is the son of a struggling single mother whose only access to this realm of wealth and status is through his friendship with Tenoch. The minutiae of their class differences are briefly mentioned via voice-over narration—Tenoch will not touch the toilet seat in Julio’s working-class home with his bare hands, while Julio’s sister molds her identity around leftist activism and protest—making it evident that this connection stems from their shared experience as horny teenage boys. They might not inhabit the same social stratosphere, but they mutually succumb to each and every carnal urge and mortal vice. Their friendship is defined by simultaneous masturbation sessions and a manifesto featuring a rule stating that one must get high “at least once per day.” It earnestly seems that little else in their lives is as important as chasing sex and inebriation—making the details of global and domestic current events all but absent in their routine thoughts.
There’s a definite comfort in this disconnect, and as the boys embark on their travels, the surrounding instability and corruption of their country becomes jarring to the viewer, but remains almost entirely invisible to the teenagers. Somewhat less guilty of this shortsightedness is Tenoch’s Spanish cousin by marriage, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), who accompanies the boys on their road trip and is marginally more attuned to the disharmony of their surroundings due to her status as a national outsider—and perhaps also due to her own grim personal circumstances, which contrast dramatically with the untroubled exploits of Tenoch and Julio. These discordant perspectives might also have something to do with the metaphorical horse blinders the boys don, narrowing their sole objective to that of locating the fictitious beach they told Luisa they’d charter her too—aptly named Boca del Ciel (Heaven’s Mouth) for its elusiveness and sensual promise—while also hoping to score with her sexually.
Even aside from the boys’ companionship with Luisa, the presence of Europeans is significant within the upper echelons of Mexican society. This is particularly true of Tenoch’s own circle, which includes his Franco-Mexican girlfriend who jets off to Italy for the summer along with Julio’s. In fact, Tenoch’s cousin Jano only ends up meeting Luisa during a decade-long stint residing in Europe, a measure he took to get some space from his “suffocating” mother. Considering the colonial connection that Mexico has with Spain, it’s intriguing to see that for these upper-class Mexicans, the allure of Europe far surpasses the allure of exploring their own country. While on the road, Luisa is constantly marveling at the natural wonders of Mexico, repeatedly commenting on how lucky the boys are to live somewhere so beautiful. However, the boys remain relatively unphased—that is until they pass a road sign for the Oaxacan town of Tepelmeme, which Tenoch realizes is the birthplace of his childhood nanny. Omniscient voice-over reveals that she moved to Mexico City at age 13, eventually finding work with Tenoch’s family and essentially raising him from birth. As such, he called her “mamá” until he was four years old. Though the term “motherland” is certainly entrenched in the imperialist notion of empire, in this moment Tenoch feels a pang of melancholy displacement—for his surrogate mother and the countryside she hails from. After all this time, Tenoch only now realizes he has been completely divorced from any experience of Mexico outside of his own.
This represents a small yet significant shift in Tenoch’s consciousness, one that is nonetheless foreshadowed by the origins of his own name. After what’s described as a sudden wave of nationalism, his father decided to name his son after a fourteenth century Aztec chief. Yet during Tenoch’s youth, he distinctly remembers his father being embroiled in a political scandal that involved providing contaminated corn—one of the country’s most essential food staples—to impoverished communities. Though subtle, the inclusion of this anecdote interrogates the reality of Mexico’s own government sabotaging the people and the land which it governs. This creates a cycle that perpetually favors the wealthy—they cut costs and protective measures in closed-door meetings in Mexico City, effectively creating economic instability in rural regions. As a result, a wave of people desperate for work migrate to the capital, where they are hired to care for the children of the elite. Cuarón returned to examine this dynamic in Roma, probing his family’s own personal stake in that very system. When reconsidering the significance of the name “Tenoch” specifically, there remains the fact that the Nahuatl symbols of this particular Aztec ruler are found on the contemporary flag of Mexico. This demonstrates the country’s reverence—with Mexico City containing its fair share of ancient Aztec structures, having been founded by Tenoch himself—for the Indigenous culture that once thrived before it was decimated by the colonizing forces that created modern Mexico. It is a political paradox, at once fetishizing the remains of a decimated culture while continuing to uphold the very violence which brought about its demise.
After Cuarón’s 1991 feature debut Sólo con tu pareja, a sexual satire which emphasizes the manic paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic, it took a decade for the Mexican director to release another film in his own country. During this period he helmed two Hollywood studio features, A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). Neither of these works had the impact of his breakout feature, and the director began to feel disillusioned with his directorial pursuits in the English-language market of the United States. Explaining this feeling during a recent New York Times interview, Cuarón states that he “had let the industry seduce me …. It’s a myth that the industry corrupts you, you corrupt yourself.” This dissatisfaction is what prompted the filmmaker to reach out to his brother for creative collaboration, which resulted in their combined effort on the script of Y tu mamá también. While Sólo con tu pareja only engages with Mexico City through its climax on the Torre Latinoamerica from which Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho, who also serves as the narrator for Y tu) and his lover Clarissa (Claudia Ramírez) threaten to hurl themselves off of, Y tu mamá también feels more invested in depicting not only the capital, but in the entire country, in a more naturalistic sense.
However, this pursuit never loses itself in rose-colored nostalgia, consistently raising alarm over the callous (yet seemingly inconsequential) mistreatment of Mexico’s own citizens by the very forces which promise to support them—whether by its police forces or local tourism initiatives. Intelligently highlighted without ever dominating the narrative, the pitfalls of uncritical reminiscence are even more pronounced in the director’s semi-autobiographical (and most recent) feature, Roma, with the entire plot revolving around the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the Mixteco housekeeper of a middle-class family in Mexico City. With Cleo (and Aparicio herself) hailing from Oaxaca, the parallels between Tenoch’s fictitious nanny and Cuarón’s own upbringing are readily apparent. Interestingly, the filmmaker once again embarked on an extended hiatus from directing films in his country of origin after the critical and commercial success of Y tu mamá también, this time lasting 17 years. He went on to helm Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), with each project featuring a grand-scale fantasy or sci-fi element. Yet with each return to Mexico and its capital city, Cuarón brings greater depth and authenticity to the country, its largest metropolis, and those who inhabit both.
Twenty years after it was released widely in American theaters, Y tu mamá también persists as both a tale of the oft-magical, ever-enchanting vibrancy embedded in the natural landscape of Mexico and of the state-level corruption that threatens to spoil it. While the torrid sexual encounters that Tenoch, Julio and Luisa share are certainly the most evocative images of the film, its sharp political slant feels neither minimized or ham-fisted in comparison. Of course, the controversial same-sex kiss the teen boys share while Luisa mutually stimulates them during the (literal) climax may have overshadowed some of the finer institutional criticisms—such as a Oaxacan fisherman and tour guide being pushed out of his line of work due to an influx of similar venturers from the already booming tourism destination of Alcapulco—but this is as much of a boon for the film as it is a distraction. As it boldly confronts the ingrained ideal of machismo that upholds ultra-hetero-masculinity as the baseline for manhood in much of Latin America, it also asserts that even those who are the most entrenched in the privileges of these systems are privy to at least momentary dissent. If two masculine-posturing teenage boys can admit that what they want most in the world is to kiss each other, what’s the harm in breaking out of other restrictive molds imposed by hierarchical society? With the country’s extensive history of civilian defiance (with several of Cuarón’s Mexican-set films featuring at least one protest scene), it certainly seems that complacency is simply not an option for Mexican citizens. As such, Cuarón utilizes Y tu mamá también to assert that any semblance of stagnancy is all but a national impossibility—it is vital to explore, experiment and maybe even make yourself uncomfortable in the process.
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.