Revisiting ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’: A Political Perspective

Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal in Y Tu MamaTambien
Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal in Y Tu MamaTambien

“You are lucky to live in a country like this…Mexico. It exudes life everywhere.” So says dental hygienist and sex-goddess Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdú). Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, often remembered by viewers as a boundary pushing coming of age story, is equally as much a deeply perceptive portrayal of Mexico and a few of its inhabitants. Although the scenery in Y Tu Mamá También, especially scenes on a phantom beach called “Heaven’s Mouth”, is breathtakingly stunning, Cuarón is careful to point out that this “beautiful” country as Luisa calls it not only exudes life, but also death.

The film is challenging to categorize. On a surface level, Y Tu Mamá También is a quintessential road movie, following two pubescent, sticky teenage boys accompanied by an unlikely bedfellow in the form of a married Spaniard named Luisa. The plot seems to be a perfect equation for the latest Mexican sex comedy. However, the detail and grace that Cuarón pays to these characters and their country results in a much more affecting and even tragic journey than the typical genre film.

We are first introduced to Tenoch (Diego Luna) as we watch him having sex with his equally libidinous girlfriend, quickly followed by a scene of Julio (Gael García Bernal) following suit. The audience is immediately aware of the differences between these two best friends, as a recurring voiceover explains that Tenoch—a boy from an upper class political family—is allowed to spend the night with his girlfriend, whereas Julio must return in the evening to his working class mother. The two boys’ girlfriends are on their way to Europe for the summer, leaving the protagonists to maneuver their way through a summer filled with theoretical sex, drugs, masturbation and alcohol. Throughout the film it becomes clear that, more than anything, Tenoch and Julio are on a journey to find themselves, trying to become what they think is “cool” and “manly”, and more often than not contradicting these conceptions.

Neither of the boys care much about politics, although the issue permeates every facet of their lives and is oftentimes reflected in them and their interactions. Tenoch doesn’t want to enroll in economics, although ends up pursuing this route on the orders of his corrupt Harvard educated politician father. The boys show contempt at the protests occurring in Mexico City, although Julio’s sister is an activist demanding change. Even Tenoch’s name is inherently political. But the boys choose to disregard their overtly political, corrupt and even disturbingly unequal surroundings. Instead they live in their very own testosterone filled bubble.

At a bridal party they end up meeting Tenoch’s cousin’s wife, Luisa. She is seen in a clingy white dress that leaves little to the imagination. Tenoch and Julio begin to drunkenly and clumsily flirt with her in an almost predatory fashion. They invite her on a made-up road trip to a fictitious beach called Heaven’s Mouth, purely as an act of both jest and domination, expecting to be disregarded. And initially they do. But due to circumstances beyond her control, including an intoxicated admission by her husband that he has been unfaithful, Luisa decides a road trip with two rambunctious teens may be just what she needs.

Tenoch and Julia attempt to put on a façade of knowledge and masculine control, sticking to the story that Heaven’s Mouth in fact exists. They pass exaggerated tales back and forth, bragging about their sexuality and their partying in hopes of impressing the fantasy woman who has somehow found her way into their car. They even reveal to her their Manifesto, signed in blood. The two boys are “charolastras” and have proclaimed, among other things, that a hit is happiness, morals are less important than jerk offs, one must never marry a virgin or screw the other’s girl, and although truth is great, it is unachievable. If any of the rules are broken, they lose the title of “charolastra”. The two protagonists are inherently bonded thanks to this manifesto, despite their drastically different home lives.

Although overt clashes never occur between the classes, the tensions still deeply penetrate the film and its characters. It is revealed that Tenoch uses his foot to lift up the toilet in Julio’s house, something he also does at the cheap motel, exemplifying his degrading attitude towards the working class. On the other hand, Julio tries to fit in with the upper class, lighting a match to mask the smell after using the restroom at Tenoch’s house. These simple revelations by the voiceover narrator reveal the undeniable division between classes and attitudes in the country, despite an image that they live harmoniously together. While driving through the country, the narrator reveals that they are travelling through the hometown of Tenoch’s nanny, who migrated to Mexico City at age 13 and began working for his family. Until age 4, Tenoch called her Mom, suggesting that these divisions are culturally manifested issues. Yet they still must remain—Tenoch chooses not to speak about his nanny, despite the revelation that he is in her birthplace.

Mexico itself also can’t resolve these differences. Just because political change was permeating the country in the early 2000s, it didn’t mean that the nation was instantly a stable democracy. Cuarón makes this clear not only by drawing parallels between the country and the characters, but also through the objective yet omniscient voice over, which constantly makes sure to not only reveal what the landscape has suffered in the past, but also what injustices or inconsistencies may occur in the future. We hear of deadly car accidents that happened in the past, expensive hotels that will ruin a family’s future, and deadly infections that have yet to arrive. Cuarón also uses the camera to reveal the country in ways that the characters choose to avoid. For example, when a poverty-stricken man comes begging at a restaurant, he is quickly appeased and disregarded by the protagonists. But the camera leaves the characters and explores the other individuals in the space, including the lower class women working and dancing in the back room. The audience often is directed towards citizens being stopped and interrogated by police. We also see a bride blocking a country road, asking for “contributions for the queen”. This scene is in direct contrast to the party scene that Tenoch’s family attends at the beginning of the film, also featuring a young bride of a drastically different class.

Just as Mexico itself attempts to put up a façade of maturity and authority, when in fact inequality and corruption pervade, these teenage boys cannot stick to their manifesto. Luisa stirs up their homeostasis and the differences between the two protagonists become more pronounced, resulting in viscous competition. They denounce each other as “charolastras” and sling class-based insults back and forth in an attempt to both dominate and reestablish balance. When they do make peace in a homoerotic moment, it becomes very apparent in the bright sober light that this reconciliation will not, and cannot happen. The world simply does not work in this way, despite efforts by Luisa to educate and pacify them.

In the end, the film comes off as not only a character exploration, but also a political and social commentary on Mexico during the early 2000s. We are constantly reminded that although this may be a fresh day, the problems, inequalities and injustices of the past still pervade, and that the carefree ignorance of youth can only last so long. After having childish fun, everyone must face reality.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Mccomrack

    I recently watched this movie again, and I enjoyed it even more than I ever had, mainly for its very astute observations of Mexican culture. To me personally, some of the fondest memories I have in my young life involve exploring the country of Mexico, experiencing natural beauty and amazing year-round weather that I never experienced having spent my life in the midwest. So this movie is a great reminder for me of how happy I was in those times.

  2. i am a 19 year old film student and have seen tons of movies from italian neorealism to film noir to french new wave. i enjoy the work of david lynch, alfred hitchcock, frederico fellini, jean luc godard, etc etc, but have never seen a film that has made me look at things differently then “y tu mama tambien.” i saw this for the first time in nov or dec and ran out to buy it probably less than an hour after i viewed it. it is so unafraid, so bold, so daring, so honest about 3 of the most major elements of life: sexuality, love, and death. An incredible work of art.

    • Yes, the movie is indeed wonderful. I watched it two times in the first three days after I recorded it from cable. And I could watch it again.

      Another movie that I just saw that reveals a revealing glimpse into the meaning of life and freedom is Ikiru. It is also a foreign film, in this case Japanese, directed by Kurosawa. And instead of a view from youth, it is a view from maturity, from one who is dying. In spite of that it’s neither sad nor maudlin in any way. In fact I’d say that Y tu mamá también ends on a sadder note than Ikiru.

      It is a more complex and subtle film which might be either more or less enjoyable depending on your tastes and how you feel at the time. And of course it is an older film, from 1952 post-war Japan.

    • I agree with everything you said. I saw this 4 times in the theater in 2002 and it will always be one of my favorite films.

  3. This film had an effect on me as well. It changed the whole way I look at sexuality, life and politics. I have the utmost respect for it.

  4. Damon Edwards

    Nice post. Glad to see that there’s still a great amount of discussion going on about this movie.

  5. This is on the list of one of the movies we will watch in my film criticism class. This article is handy!

  6. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    I really enjoyed this article due to the author’s insightful perspective. I became interested in Y Tu Mama Tambien after reading a review also arguing that the movie is about class. When I finally saw it, I loved the film. The film is sad yet interesting to analyze. This article provided several examples of class and politics depicted in the film, which quickly captivated my attention.

  7. Jon Lisi

    Great article. This is a great film and there is a lot in it as you describe. I’ve always been moved by the ending and how honest it is about them never meeting again. That’s such a truth about life that is difficult to face but important to understand.

    The political subtext of the film is fascinating and while I don’t know if Cuaron is critical of the young boys, the contrast is nevertheless interesting. I’ve always felt as if the film was very nostalgic and even celebratory toward the young boys and their adventures but maybe that’s because I’m nostalgic of my own. I’ll have to revisit this one again.

  8. Gonzalez

    I’m sure if I was Mexican I might appreciate it even more, but it showed me a really interesting perspective of Mexico. Hearing that so many Mexicans felt it was authentic and fascinating, and knowing that it was an actual Mexican-made movie (actors, director, sets, etc.) was really good. And it inspired me to learn more about the country’s history, since it was clear to me that beyond the surface of characters and plot, the director was also using symbolism.

  9. Jacqueline Wallace

    Wonderfully written article, I watched this film several years ago and was naïvely unaware of the depth that the political and social commentary existed in this film. Very eye-opening and makes me appreciate it so much more.

  10. I wonder why you chose to use the word “political” to describe your analysis. I do not think the social commentary, which is inherent to the film, need necessarily be described as “political”. I think the film is meant more as an acute social critique–especially of the absurdly rigid socio-economic ladder, as you suggest–but to read the results of an election into it is seems strained.
    I do love this movie and the way it depicts Mexico. You mentioned the use of voice over in your analysis; do you think it necessary? Are the comments of our omniscient narrator essential for the audience to understand the socio-economic differences between the protagonists? I so love a voice over debate.
    Lovely piece! Thanks for sharing.

    • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

      I’d say the voice-over is not “necessary” (as in, not essential for us to understand the characters or their interactions), but that’s definitely the point. On the one hand, these voice-over intrusions ground the characters’ friendship within their specific social/cultural milieu, such as the class tensions of Mexico City (an important aspect especially given the film’s international audience). On the other hand, the way the voice-over is carried out (by cutting off ambient sound and in a monotone voice) is pulling the old Brechtian move and definitely wants to signal that this is more than just any other road movie.

  11. I really enjoyed reading your piece! I recently watched this film and wondered why the commentary was placed in such a fragmented way throughout the storyline. Now, I definitely can decipher the connections you’ve made and will most likely rewatch this film and look for even more interpretations that can be brought to light. I know that you metnioned that childish games must end and we must face reality – but Luisa actually stays at Heaven’s Mouth with that family after the boys leave. I wonder if this is because she knew of her impending death – is she really facing reality? Thank you for your article, they have inspired me to observe this film with a more critical eye from now on.

  12. I watched this film a very long time ago, but I remember that it broke my heart. For me this film was more of a dose of reality. How short life is and how when we are face with impending death, we act in ways that are out of character because we want to experience all the things we never had a chance to before. All three of the main characters ended up doing things with each other that was out of their comfort zone be it sexual or otherwise, and in a way, all three characters died in this film. The female lead in a literal sense and the boys died when they chose to conform to their societies expectations of them

  13. This movie to me, portrays sexuality in a different way. It’s usually seen in bro comedies or seen explicicty for the knack of it, but here their sexuality is plays into a much more meaningful story.

  14. The appeal of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece, pervades the cultural and political boundaries within which it is beautifully set, because in the post-neoliberal developing world, the problems have also been homogenised. Solutions giving rise to problems. The primary story of two sexually active teens seeking out potential mates, and managing to embark on a steamy journey with the hot wife of their cousin, shouldn’t also make sense to anyone born and raised up in the sexually over-repressed Indian society. But it does. Why? Probably because of basic human nature is yet to be chained by political and economic boundaries and classifications. And that also explains the friendship between Tenoch and Julio and Luisa. And their friendship broke because of jealousy and unfaithfulness. Not the class difference. They momentarily maintain a truce to retain Luisa with them (remember that famous “play with babies and you’ll end up washing diapers” diabtre of Luisa?

  15. I enjoyed reading all these comments. I think we all analyze and discuss it as a way to keep it alive all these years later. Once a movie ends it ends. And then years pass.
    I understand what someone meant on here when they said that this film broke their heart. This film broke my heart as well. I’ve never seen so much honesty and realism before. I’d like to think this will be viewed hundreds of years from now and considered a pinnacle of film achievement, if not just for insight into human nature itself. I can’t watch it anymore because it makes me sad. And I’d like to think its motivated me to put myself out there and have a fun adolescence, enjoying it while I can. But nothing compares to the energy and atmosphere of this film.

  16. While I appreciated that you respected the accent marks of the Spanish title, I found disappointing that you capitalized it as in English.

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