Preparing to waste some time watching an in-flight movie as I flew to Europe from Mexico, I perked up considerably as soon as Los Tigres del Norte’s America came on. This film, McFarland USA, was not going to be a standard high school sports movie after all!
Todos son Americanos, sin importar el color
De América, yo soy, de América, yo soy
We are all Americans, no matter our color
I’m from America, I’m from America
The plot line:
Track coach Kevin Costner’s (Mr. White) temper has resulted in him and his family bouncing from one high school to another in a downward spiral of disenfranchisement from family and friends, as well as loss of self esteem and family cohesion. As the movie opens, Mr. White is forced to leave a (very white) school in Idaho for a very rural school in another part of the USA. His daughter’s first words as they pull into their new home? “Dad, are we in Mexico?” It turns out they’ve moved to the agricultural Central Valley of California. Living as a US expat in Mexico, their cultural confusion delighted my soul.
The initial culture shock:
Arriving tired and hungry, the White family heads to a restaurant in search of a burger. “We have tacos, tortas, burritos, quesadillas, tostadas…” recites the waitress. After several repetitions of the phrase, the family orders the only thing they apparently understand, tacos. They imagine their confusion has ended, but oh no… “Do you want asada, al pastor, chorizo, cabeza, lengua…?” While they are dumbfounded by the options, my family would be in heaven!
Low riders cruise the streets and Dad is scared he won’t be able to protect his family—bias incarnate. A rooster wakes them up at dawn, in stereotypical fashion, and a neighbor lady gives them one as a welcome gift. Dad finds a simpatico cultural informant in the local grocery store owner. They go from hating the Virgen de Guadalupe colorfully painted on their living room wall, to loving it.
Within a week of his arrival to their new home, Dad is fired from his position coaching football. His students’ reaction to the news? “Congratulations, Mr. White. They are treating you like a picker.”
A teacher now without a head coach position, Costner notices that many of the local kids run far distances as part of their daily lives—there isn’t any transportation other than one’s own two feet. He also realizes that the kids wake up early in the morning to help their parents pick crops, before they begin their second day later in the morning at school. The kids’ abilities impress the heck out of him; he is blown away that they have the stamina for both work and study, and disappointed when his students’ parents don’t support their kids’ after-school activities (they need the kids’ help in the fields).
Mr. White gets to know a couple of the local kids, and enlists their help to put together a cross-country running team. Part of his learning journey includes a day with the kids out picking in the fields where, as expected, Mr. White fails miserably.
The movie does an excellent job capturing Mexican values such as family, respect for elders, hard work, dealing with adversity, and joy in life. We watch with delight as Mr. White and his family learn invaluable life skills from their new neighbors and friends, and experience, for the first time in their lives, some of the joys of community and tradition.
The movie as a learning resource
McFarland USA is a predictable movie, rather stereotypical, but refreshing and timely. I found it a very worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours on an international flight, and would recommend it to you for summer viewing. I can definitely see using clips from this film in coaching, educational or training environments. Please let me know what you think.
Do you have a favorite cross-cultural movie, book or resource? Share with us your review!