Mexican Cinema: Pedro Navaja
In 1978, musicians Rubén Blades and Willie Colón released their collaborative LP, “Siembra,” to critical acclaim. The Panamanian and the Puerto Rican American artists combined catchy, danceable Latin rhythms with devastating lyrics exposing the harsh life on the streets of the Bronx, an area concurrently suffering massive problems with crime and poverty. Although the album was written with the New York City borough in mind, the music and Spanish language lyrics caught the ears and resonated with many listeners throughout Latin America. In particular, the song “Pedro Navaja” became a top hit in the Hispanic world, with its ultra-cool description of a tough street pimp and the story of his tragic end, Blades’ vocals gliding over sparse, insistent congas that gradually build into a full salsa jam.
The themes presented in the hit song feel applicable to any crime-filled megapolis, thus it comes as no surprise when the inevitable film version of “Pedro Navaja” opens with the skyline of Mexico City over the familiar conga riff. We are introduced to the titular character, a charismatic and dashing kingpin pimp, as he awakens to the start of another afternoon.
One of the elements that is most striking to a first time viewer coming from the anglo/gringo world, is how much the film from 1984 visually appears to be out of a much earlier time, with clothing styles, jivey lingo, and just a general vibe that would not be out of place in an American film of ten years earlier. Indeed, if the entire plot line and all its characters were magically replaced with African American actors and moved to the Bronx in 1974, nothing would seem that different. Replace the salsa soundtrack with a funk one, and the transformation is complete!
In fact, we have a specific word in English to describe the genre of movie that “Pedro Navaja” would be, if there were these superficial changes: Blaxploitation. For those who are unfamiliar, Blaxploitation describes an ethnic subgenre of films that emerged in the USA in the early ‘70s, which were aimed at African Americans. The topic is problematic, because while on the one hand these films can be lauded as the first American film genre made largely by and for a community of color; on the other, the films tended to reinforce racial and gender stereotypes by exaggerating life on the streets and in the ghettoes, often with anti-hero pimp or pusher characters.
Like a classic of Blaxploitation, “Pedro Navaja” features a glamorized depiction of the life of a pimp, complete with hot babes in skimpy clothes who profess slavelike devotion to their man, sharp threads like wide hats and matching three piece suits, lots of knife fights (which always and inexplicably seem to happen in the middle of packed dancehalls), and big, flashy cars. Pedro himself is personified by actor Andrés García, who was a leading sex symbol in Mexico at the time. It was good casting; the handsome and muscular García exudes masculinity and sexiness- a key element in maintaining the viewer’s affection throughout a movie in which he treats women like children at best and possessions at worst. I feel like the real life Andrés García might not be too far off from his character’s level of machismo; his Imdb.com page notes under his biography that he is the father of 16 children (no note on how many mothers spawned this brood), has survived both a helicopter crash into a lake and an assassination attempt in Venezuela, and defeated prostate cancer. Of special note is the following statement: “He was the first and only man who risked his life daring to ride Lemon, Bull, Blue and Tiger sharks in the open ocean thirty years ago.” Qué macho!
In the end, the movie attempts to make up for having a criminal as its protagonist by giving Pedro the karmic comeuppance that would be expected. I’m not giving anything away here- if you are at all familiar with the song (and I hope by at this point in reading this, you have given it at least a listen or two), you know that things do not end well for Pedro Navaja. Interestingly, the movie was not made with the input of Rubén Blades, and not so suprisingly, he was not happy about it. He recorded a follow up song called “Sorpresas” (“Surprises”) in which it is revealed that Pedro is alive and well, and continues the story in a different direction than the film takes.
Overall, “Pedro Navaja” makes for very entertaining viewing for aficionados of cult cinema, and especially Blaxploitation, who would like to see Mexico’s take on the same vibe. It is not always the easiest movie for a Spanish-as-a-second-language speaker to understand word for word, as the dialogue is thick with heavy, outlandish and outdated slang. I have the hunch that this slang comes across to the native Spanish speaker the way that “jive talk” from 1970s films does to an English speaker; my Mexican companion who watched the film with me commented on how even he found the style of dialogue funny and sometimes difficult to understand. But the plot is not hard to understand, even with the mediocre Spanish speaking abilities; it’s all about those outfits and the salsa soundtrack and the showy knife fights, anyways! And even though the film ends by punishing its protagonist for his transgressions, you get to ride along for cheap
thrills on his dark journey through the criminal night in Mexico City.