I decided to watch Nosotros lo pobres, directed by Ismael Rodríguez, and one of the most popular films of the Mexican Golden Age of Cinema, mainly to improve my Spanish. I had no idea what to expect, and for the first half-hour, I found the aesthetic stagy and artificial. It felt like a movie written by a member of the Mexican bourgeoisie, someone who had studied film in Hollywood, and then decided to apply what he had learned to the slums of Mexico City. Compared to Los Olvidados, a contemporary film about the Mexico City slums by the brutal, cynical genius Luis Buñuel, Nosotros los pobres felt like sentimental schmaltz. As the film progressed, however, I began to realize that underneath the surface was a reality every bit as desperate as the one Buñuel portrayed, that the plot hinged on the kind of incident everybody in the working class knows all too well, but which rarely, if ever makes into the cinema of any country.
Pedro Infante, the star of Nosotros los pobres, was a matinee idol of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Here he plays Pepe “El Toro”, Pepe the Bull, a poor carpenter, and a single father trying to keep his head above water in the the slums of Mexico City. The 1940s in Mexico were a time of rapid urbanization, and many of Mexico City’s poor were only a generation or two removed from the village. Pepe’s neighborhood, where he lives with his paraplegic mother “La Paralitica” and his adopted “Chachita”, feels like a small town transplated to the capitalist megalopolis. His neighbors, who include Celia, a would be girlfriend, a pair of drunks nicknamed La Tostada and La Guayaba, a beautiful insomniac played by Katy Jurado – who you will almost immediately recognize from Amreican films like High Noon —and a mysterious consumptive prostitute named named “La Tisica”, not only know one another. They all seem to share a common past, to have unspoken ties that bind them together, almost in spite of themselves. What exactly is La Tiscia’s relationship to Pepe the Bull? What happened to Chachita’s mother? We immediately dismiss the gossipy rumors by La Tostada and La Guayaba, who think he killed her, but it’s clear that Pepe is hiding something from his daughter.
Pepe’s life begins to unravel after a rich lawyer hires him to do repairs on his house. When the lawyer, who also has designs on Celia, begins to write Pepe a check for 400 pesos to pay for the wood he will need for the job, Pepe asks for the money in cash. Pepe, like so many poor people, like me for several years in the 1990s, doesn’t have a bank account. He keeps his money in a hole in the wall of his tiny workshop behind an icon of a saint, and, of course, it’s stolen right out from under La Paralitica’s eyes. Since she can’t move, and can’t speak, all she can do is roll her eyes in desperation when Celia’s vindictive stepfather, who Chachita accidentally tipped off to the location of the hiding place, puts his hand in the wall and pockets the 400 pesos. This begins a chain of events that will unravel all the secrets of Pepe El Toro’s secretive life. Pepe is unable to pay for the shipment of wood, he has to send it back. He also looks like a thief. After all, he made a point of asking for cash instead of a check. He has to find a way to get 400 pesos quickly, or go to jail for embezzlement. Pepe’s problems don’t stop with his professional life. After Celia takes Chachita to the cemetery on the “day of the dead” to visit her late mother’s resting place, a strange woman accidentally reveals to Chachita that the grave contains, not a grown woman, but a ten year old girl. Chachita realizes that her father, or at least the man she thought was her father, had lied. But why? Are the rumors about his being a murderer true? La Paralicita, the only character in the film who knows the truth, both about the theft and about the circumstances of Chachita’s birth, cannot speak. Chachita’s real mother, on the other hand, is closer than anybody but La Paralicita and Pepe know.
It was when I realized that La Tisica the consumptive prostitute was Pepe’s sister and Chachita’s biological mother that I began to understand the greatness of Nosotros lo pobres. If La Paralicita had to watch helpelessly as Celia’s stepfather stole the 400 pesos from Pepe, then La Tisica has had to endure an even greater agony. For over a decade she’s had to watch her brother raise her daughter, to whom she has not been able to make herself known, lest she taint her only child with the stigma of having a sex worker for a mother. Even though Pepe is a sympathetic character, and he feels for his sister, he and La Paralicita nevertheless both collude in keeping La Tiscia locked up inside a purgatory. Like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, La Tiscia is a living ghost, condemned by the hypocritical conservatism of Mexican Catholicism to live on the same block as the family with which she’s allowed no contact.
In his song Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen talks about “having debts no honest man could pay” and about how he “met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.” After Pepe goes to a moneylender to borrow the 400 pesos and is rejected because he has no collateral, he finds that guy who wants him to do him a little favor, Ledo, the local crime boss, who emerges from the shadows like Satan with an offer. Pepe did not get the 400 peso loan, but he did get an offer of a job for 15 pesos, which he accepted. This gives him access to the moneylender’s house, which Ledo proposes they rob together, and split the money. Pepe indignantly refuses, but for Ledo, the goal was never really to split the money with Pepe, but to set him as the fall guy.
Pepe, poor single father, debtor, one step away from going to jail for embezzlement is the perfect fall guy. After Ledo robs and kills the moneylender and Pepe discovers the body, Pepe is sent to jail for murder. Alone, without protection, and now responsible for Pepe’s debt of 400 pesos, Chachita and La Paralicita watch as debt collectors come to their home, and confiscate all of their positions, right down to the old woman’s wheel chair. If all of this sounds melodramatic to you, then you would be correct, but it’s only the beginning. I won’t spoil the ending of Nosotros los pobres, except to say that it’s one part reconciliation, another part heartbreak. On the way there, Ismael Rodríguez piles one melodramatic convention upon another, takes it all so far over the top that at some point the film, like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, becomes almost indistinguishable from the climax of a grand opera. Nevertheless, in spite of itself, it’s realistic.
It all started because a poor man in the slums didn’t have a bank account.