The 2015 movie McFarland, USA is a virtual platón (Spanish for smörgåsbord or buffet) of Mexican-American food. If you like burritos, enchiladas, tacos, etc., you’re guaranteed to salivate while watching it.
McFarland, USA tells the true story of teenagers in a hardscrabble agricultural town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. They divide their time between high school and picking crops, and become members of a cross-country running team that triumphs over teams from more affluent schools.
The movie was filmed on location in McFarland, which had just over 7,000 residents in 1987 when the story took place. The population has almost doubled, to 13,745 in 2014, but it still looks much the same.
McFarland calls itself The Heartbeat of Agriculture. The movie shows citrus groves, tomato plants, cabbages, mounds of almond hulls, and grapes. Blue Diamond Almonds was established in McFarland. ASV Wines, Inc., of Delano and McFarland grows craft wine grapes in many areas in Kern County. Other local crops include cotton, sugar beets, potatoes, and roses.
McFarland, USA includes scenes of seasonal crops, including cabbages, being picked during three weeks of filming.
Runners Thomas Valles (played by Carlos Pratts), the three Diaz brothers – David (played by Rafael Martinez), Danny (played by Ramiro Rodriguez), and Damacio (played by Michael Aguero) – and three other schoolmates rise daily at 4 a.m. They grab tortillas, join their crew chief /father Señor Diaz (played by Omar Leyva), and pick crops until it’s time to run to the start of school at 7 a.m. After school they run back to the fields to pick some more. They run between school and the fields because they don’t have cars.
A young California stoop laborer’s life, then and now, resembles that of Florida farmworkers living in agricultural communities such as Homestead in south Miami-Dade County, Immokalee in Collier County, and LaBelle in Hendry County. The difference is that these young men succeeded as cross-country runners, graduated from high school, and attended college on athletic scholarships.
Their parents typically stopped studying and began picking full time after eighth grade. Even farm laborers who aren’t migrants need their children to help pick. McFarland, USA shows what the families saw as the limits to what their children could accomplish in life, and their reticence to have the children finish school and do anything else beside farm work.
In one telling scene in the movie, Coach Jim White (played by Kevin Costner) gives team members Scholastic Aptitude Test college examination books, which the young men receive with amazement. They had never contemplated college.
Mexican-American culture and food figure prominently in the story. Coach White and his family – wife Cheryl (played by Maria Bello), and daughters Julie (played by Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (played by Elise Fisher) – move to McFarland, arrive hungry, and stop at a local restaurant. They look at the posted menu, which consists entirely of Mexican dishes. One daughter still wants a hamburger, but ultimately everyone settles for traditional Mexican cuisine.
White’s efforts to organize McFarland High School’s running team include a visit to prospective team member Thomas Valles’s home. White is invited to dinner. The extended Valles family and White sit down to a table groaning with food. White protests that he’s being given too much to eat, only to have more heaped on his plate. The fare includes burritos, corn on the cob, enchiladas, tacos, rice and beans, peas and carrots, bread and something that may have had a molé sauce.
White wins over Thomas’s mother. Señora Valles (played by Natalia Cordova) prepares a package of food for White to take home to his family.
To learn more about his team members’ crop-picking life, White spends a day in the fields with the Diaz family and learns how to pick cabbages. At lunch break, the Diaz brothers share their lunch of soft tacos.
The community organizes a car wash to raise money for the cross-country team, and spreads a table that includes many of the Mexican dishes mentioned above.
At the first cross-country competition, refreshments including cookies are set out on a table. Danny Diaz, the rotund Diaz brother, surreptitiously stuffs his mouth with cookies before the race.
Powerful product placement
Twice in the movie, Coach White is offered a bottle of Coca-Cola. It was probably Mexican Coke, which is distributed in parts of the U.S. where demand for it exists. I agree with many people that Mexican Coke in a glass bottle tastes a lot better than U.S. Coke in a can or a plastic bottle.
Mexican Coke is sweetened with sugar, while the U.S. product contains high-fructose corn syrup. Each bottle of Mexican Coke comes in a non-returnable glass bottle with a special label, bearing information in English that is required for it to be sold in the U.S.
Several stores in Miami sometimes carry Mexican Coke. Milam’s Market in Coconut Grove usually has it.
Rite of passage
Food also plays an important role in a neighborhood quinceañera organized for Julie White’s 15th birthday. In Mexican culture, as in Miami’s Cuban community, a “quince” (pronounced quin-say) is a traditional rite of passage to adulthood for 15-year-old girls.
Coach White visits the local neighborhood store and chats with owner Dale Padilla (played by Eloy Casados). White asks for help with planning a surprise birthday party. He’s in trouble because he failed to pick up Julie’s birthday cake.
Señor Padilla involves the whole community. One man barbecues chicken. Women in the community decorate the Whites’ back yard and bring covered dishes to the party, plus a large bakery-made cake and two smaller ones.
McFarland, USA may or may not win Oscars, but it deserves awards for an uplifting vibe and an example of diverse cultures coming together for the benefit of both. Go see it.
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