WIHM—La Jaula de Oro (The Gilded Cage): The Political Possibilities of Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Border Horror

“Keep breathing, just like that,” whispers a blurry, steely eyed Betty (Barbara Crampton). Screams and muffled feedback enfold her sweet, yet jarring whisper. “Just one more push… It’s a beautiful baby girl!” chuckles Crampton while we are immersed in a subjective shot. The eyes we’ve borrowed are Marisol’s (Martha Higareda), a Mexican woman whose second attempt at crossing the Mexico-US border seems to finally find a happy ending. Her companions, Guatemalan boy Ricky (Ian Íñigo) and hardened Santa Muerte devotee Santo (Richard Cabral), have disappeared. In a blurry wink, her baby has been born and she wakes up clad in a neat yellow dress with matching brogues. She hears herself speaking perfect English, a skill that seems to have appeared by magic. Finally, safe and sound. As Betty and Marisol stroll with the baby through an impeccable suburban landscape in the eve of the 4th of July, the dirt roads that saw Marisol’s traumatic border crossing have become well-manicured green lawns bathed in golden sunlight. Her newborn baby slumbers in the stroller, neighbours in pastel outfits wave and smile beneath the streamers of small US flags garnishing the streets. “So many paisanos,” she expresses in disbelief ––despite of her white passing demeanour, fitting this already whitening fantasy. Before her, the US is the land of plenty, welcoming of diversity but eerily perfect. Soon enough, the US anthem is played on the speakers, and a piercing sound announces an imminent blackout ––next day begins with a jolt. Progressively, the town becomes a grotesque exaggeration of abundance, righteousness and white bread status quo, a sinister Groundhog Day. Brogues, smiling neighbours, beautiful landscapes. Ricky and Santo seem to have forgotten who they are, clad in new appearances and new, robot-like mannerisms.

Singing the Mexican national anthem, Marisol tries to awaken Ricky; reciting a Santa Muerte devotional prayer, she manages to make Santo remember who he is. Identity and cultural resistance, coded as undesirable difference by way of discriminatory political discourse, here function as a tether to reality as they discover that this mirage is a carefully crafted virtual display. In reality, the people in this flawless town are tied to slabs, kept as guinea pigs in an anonymous laboratory. “It’s amazing what the human body can accomplish if we give it no other choice,” quips Attwood (Creed Bratton) to his assistant Thomas (Shawn Ashmore) as they contemplate the real state of Marisol, still pregnant, defenceless while she’s kept in this lysergic virtual loop. In their words, this induced numbness is a “charitable” alternative that keeps the immigrants “out of the American dream.” Eventually, and in an undisputed exercise of agency, Marisol manages to circumvent her hi-tech induced state, as the 4th of July extends with fire cracking glory and she goes into labour on the slab, rocking the simulation and breaking the hallucination to set the rest of her companions free.

This is Culture Shock (2019), first full-length, bilingual feature by Gigi Saul Guerrero, part of Hulu and Blumhouse’s anthology Into the dark. The Mexican-Canadian director, writer, actress and producer founded Luchagore Productions alongside Luke Bramley and Raynor Shimabukuro in 2013. Since then, her directorial and narrative voice has transcended the short film format and transitioned to series (La Quinceañera, 2018) and soon, into a second feature produced by Eli Roth (10-31, currently in pre-production). Importantly, the vibrant and gory universe around her creative endeavours is undetachable from Mexican cultural references and idiosyncrasies, providing a reflection around identity, nationality and their negotiations in fraught contexts of trauma and displacement, often featuring the border as a place of permeability that allows for such negotiation.

Perhaps predictably, Culture Shock plays with the binary of the dirty, underdeveloped south and the idealised sense of northern wealth. However, this recognisable shorthand emphasises the cost that dreaming exacts, rendering a grim outcome where the border becomes a site of rape, abuse and exploitation. Ultimately, aunque la jaula sea de oro, no deja de ser prisión: “a cage of gold freedom does not hold,” as famed norteño ensemble Los Tigres del Norte sings in painful melancholy, about the experience of displacement and prosecution for those who succeed in the perilous enterprise of crossing the border only to be reduced to second class citizenship, trapped by the perennial risk of deportation.

Crucially, Culture Shock centers the experience of Marisol, as her body is thoroughly inscribed with the trauma of border crossing ––the child in her womb is the product of rape during her first attempt to get to the US, her assailant the man that lured her with promises of a better life. This focus renders her survival all the more provocative. She breaks her virtual entrapment by giving birth, embodying the wildest xenophobic fears of automatic citizenship to children born in US territory. This gesture encapsulates the penchant for revenge and symbolic negotiation, which is pervasive in Saul Guerrero’s work. From the lavish carnage of revenge in Día de Los Muertos (2014) to the sinister vindication of Santa Muerte in Madre de Dios (2015), I argue that cultural resistance highlights the political nature of her filmmaking.

Saul Guerrero’s Culture Shock provides an interesting negotiation of the figure of the immigrant. The excess with which the characters and environments are conveyed overwhelm the viewer: Crampton’s cold and robotic Betty, the suburban bliss of the 4th of July celebration against waving red, white and blue, the comically shady Mexican traffickers that pass their deeds as good will in a news report. This excess subverts the cultural milestone of the 4th of July as a nationalistic banner of exclusion and fills the suburban landscape with bodies of colour ––the urban fantasy of the white flight devoid of minorities is seized, even if for a fictive moment of bliss. Tellingly, this is a temporary mirage of virtual reality recreated in an uncanny loop where the immigrant body is exploited with “humanitarian” impunity. They are all in deep slumber and yet, experience a carefully created passage of the American dream –because, as George Carlin once said, you’d have to be asleep to believe it.

This particularity reads as a reference to the rhetoric of guardianship and faux-humanitarianism that these bodies invite in xenophobic political discourse. Family separation or mass deportation across the board become measures that claim to be done in the name of “what is better for them.” The mass feeding and farming of immigrants in the horrific context of Culture Shock rattles the viewer with a reminder of the extreme cruelty behind the self-effacing tone of these statements and underscores the disposability and ‘killability’ of the immigrant body.

While the American dream is provided to them as a virtual mirage, the bodies of undocumented immigrants remain a dehumanised bargaining chip for political negotiation between Mexico and the United States. The painful journey goes from South and Central America and passes through the barbwire of a seemingly welcoming Mexican territory only to be met with contempt and violence. In the context of this state of urgency, horror becomes a rich site of negotiation. As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote with relentless poetry, the border remains an open, gaping wound (herida abierta) that continues to pulsate through Latin America as a product of US expansionist enterprises and neo-colonial interventions. It is in this context that Saul Guerrero’s work appears at its boldest. It questions the nationalist idea of the border as a gash in the body politic through which the “foreign” can contaminate, tarnishing ethnic “purity.”  The political urgency of horror appears unmatched in Saul Guerrero’s portrayal of border crossing experience, undetachable from exploitation and down-right animalisation of undocumented immigrants.

The concern with the border permeates her short films leading to Culture Shock in different ways. The borders of the body, of the possible, of land and culture are expressed in their rawest forms. What is more, Gigi Saul Guerrero establishes with clarity that the border, geographical or figurative, becomes a character in several of her narratives –– hence the much larger set of circumstances that I imply in characterising her work as border horror. The open definition and relevance of the border in Saul Guerrero’s work transcends, inviting philosophical concerns of great pertinence, as I discuss at length in Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming 2020).

Importantly, Saul Guerrero’s concern with the border and the immigrant body is constant in her work. A case in point is this The Cull (2018), a chronological and thematic predecessor of Culture Shock. Written, edited and directed by Saul Guerrero, The Cull imagines a dystopian, nationalistic purge during the 4th of July, bluntly establishing its pertinence with the opening shot: a poster that reads “Keep America American.” Targeted by two crazed southern men from the United States, a Mexican middle-aged woman suddenly becomes the victimiser by killing her assailants. However, this five-minute short film is far from being a straight-forward revenge narrative. The woman and her two young sons are forced to perform selective suicide in order to decide which of them will get the needle with the antidote to an unnamed curse. The shots linger for a while on the set and the facial expressions of the characters in what suggests a thorough meditation over the representation of this opposition, relevant as ever in times of Trump. Ultimately, both citizens and immigrants play the roles of victims and victimisers, a fitting allegory about the impossibility of vindication in Trump’s US.

Significantly, displacement and exploitation of the racialised immigrant body, forced by the underlying cause of economic precariousness and unequal distribution of wealth, is rendered evident since her first short film, Dead Crossing (2011), in which undocumented Mexican immigrants attempt to cross the border into the United States only to be foiled by zombies. The thread also connects to her most awarded short film, El Gigante (2014, co-directed with Luke Bramley), where the destiny of the immigrant body is to be used for spectacle in a forced lucha libre match from where he cannot emerge victorious: he is to be made into taco meat by the sinister family that has kidnapped him in the border. Both films focus on the victimisation of the immigrant body, underlining the connection between the production of wealth and the inherent racial hierarchy that makes oppression, economic and otherwise, endure. While in Dead Crossing the exploitation of Latin American labour workers is translated into the literal consumption of the coloured body by zombies, El Gigante takes it to the realm of cannibalism, underscoring the disposability of the racialised immigrant body with utmost rawness. Thoroughly, Saul Guerrero re-frames the grim possibilities of immigrant body to negotiate and re-imagine their fate while never forgetting that a cage of gold freedom does not hold ––or can it?

by Valeria Villegas Lindvall

Valeria is a Mexican ghoul living in Sweden. She is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at University of Gothenburg, where she is currently conducting research about Latin American horror film with a feminist focus. She is also part of the editorial board for MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture.
She has two forthcoming book chapters. One in Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism and Genre (ed. Dr. Alison Peirse), about Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Latin American female monsters, and another in Screen Bodies in the Digital Age: Violence, Voyeurism and Power (ed. Dr. Susan Flynn), about the horrors of the digital screen in Issa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam (2018).
You can follow her on Twitter at @morenadefuego

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