Politics aren’t inherently boring, of course, but most fiction about them focuses on the big, sweeping dramas of election results. There are very few movies that are actually about the inside workings of campaigns —that’s one of the reasons I love “Definitely, Maybe” and “Primary Colors” so much. And when pop culture looks at how characters’ attitudes shift, politics is low on the list of the kinds of attitudes that get examined, way behind sex, relationships, work-life balance, death, etc.
What Hernandez gets — better than most authors and directors, I think — is the relationship between politics and those other emotions and attitudes. When his heroine, Luba, decides to stand for alcaldesa at the urging of Chelo, her formal rival in the bathing business, it’s a symbol of her investment in Palomar, her willingness not just to be rooted, but to protect her adopted town. It’s a process that took time: Luba went from giving baths in a trailer, to buying real estate that physically anchored her in Palomar and being responsive to its residents as customers, to being not just one of them but representative of them.
Tonantzín’s political evolution takes place on a much bigger scale. It’s a failed romance with an Anglo photographer that catches her up to the rest of the town’s general anti-imperialism. One of the things Hernandez does very well is make her growing radicalism seem cracked without losing respect for the intensity of her convictions. Tonantzín may start wearing native dress, fasting, and get obsessed with nuclear war because she’s getting letters from a prison crackpot, but Hernandez situates those convictions, no matter how extreme they get, within her larger, consuming love of humanity. I don’t think I’ve ever teared up over a depiction of political action I really disagreed with, but this got me bad.
It’s really easy to make art about one-off political campaigns, be it organizing a Ford plant or integrating interstate bus lines, or about the political evolution of major figures. It’s harder to dramatize internal struggle absent a movement or the signals of history.