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September 26, 2010

Intercultural Barriers in Machete

by Neal Trout

Machete is the latest offering by writer / director Robert Rodriguez and his Austin, Texas based Troublemaker studios. Drawing from the highly charged current events surrounding immigration reform and border security, Rodriguez penned this grindhouse film centered on the title character, Machete, a Mexican Federale, who is double crossed in his home country, and, after his family is killed, ends up an illegal worker in the United States. Flash forward to present day, where Machete is hired by a mysterious business man to assassinate a crooked, anti-immigrant senator, John McLaughlin, played by Academy Award winner Robert De Niro. During the assignation attempt Machete ends up being framed, the whole thing setup as a publicity stunt to garner more anti-illegal support. This sets Machete off on a brutal rampage of revenge against his former bosses and their henchmen, including a group of vigilante minutemen, lead by Lt. Stillman, played by Don Johnson. He is helped by Luz, a woman running the Network, an organization that helps smuggle undocumented workers over the border, played by Michelle Rodriguez, and by Sartana, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent trying to stop the Network, whom Machete shows the error of her ways, played by Jessica Alba. In the end Machete is able to stop the men oppressing his people and get revenge on the drug lord who killed his family. Throughout the film there are a number of characters that encounter intercultural communication barriers. We will briefly examine a few examples of this, exploring exactly what these barriers were, and how the characters could have used different strategies to overcome them.

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Towards the beginning of the film there is a scene in which Sartana is observing Luz’s taco truck, which serves as a drop off and pick up point for illegal immigrants. After taking a number of photographs Sartana approaches the truck and speaks with Luz, and it’s clear that this is not the first time both women have sized each other up. An assumption of differences by both women is a serious communication barrier between them. Sartana sees Luz as a criminal, while Luz sees Sartana as a traitor to her race. Another communication barrier is the inherent ethnocentrism in Sartana’s assumption that the laws and moral codes put in place by the government are superior to the natural laws of liberty and freedom preached by “She”, the alter ego of Luz. These barriers put both women at odds and make them adversaries. Once Machete enters their lives he is able to help them overcome these barriers and work toward a common goal. By changing both women’s motivation he is able to help them find a common ground. Before the events of the film Sartana is only motivated by advancing within the ranks of her government agency, no matter the price in human misery, and Luz is only motivated to passively helping people enter the US, not ever taking up arms or being proactive in the struggle against oppression. Machete gives these women a common enemy, and in turn makes them realize their similarities and not their differences. The events of the film ultimately changes both women’s world view, especially Sartana, who realizes that the laws she had previously upheld were unjust. Had both women worked to establish mutual understanding and align their motivations from the beginning then their previous communications would have been much easier and they would have been able to achieve some sort of understanding and working relationship.

Another example of a scene where intercultural barriers are present is when Booth, Senator McLaughlin’s henchman and spin doctor, played by Jeff Fahey, pretends to hire Machete to assassinate the senator. In that scene there are a number of communication barriers that make Booth’s dealings with Machete quite difficult. Booth clearly has a great degree of ethnocentrism. Even though his actions seem to help Machete, and the plight of the Hispanic people, he is doing them for all the wrong reasons; citing the need for cheep, illegal labor to keep profit margins high. This lends itself to another barrier, the assumption of similarity, that greed would motivate Machete to do Booth’s dirty work for him. After a difference in communication codes, where Machete does a shot of tequila, making Booth think he has won the man over when he has not, Booth is forced to change his tactics and implore Machete’s sense of nobility; that if he won’t do it for the money then at least do it for his people. If Booth had lead the interaction with this attempt to change Machete’s motivation then the proceeding communication would have gone much smoother. Another strategy that Booth could have used in communicating with Machete would have been to develop relational empathy, however this would have required Booth to overcome his ethnocentrism. With a change in Machete’s motivation, and a degree of empathy for his people’s struggle, Booth would have been able to easily persuade Machete to do what he wanted.

At its core, beyond the severed limbs, decapitated heads, gunfights, explosions, and gratuitous sex scenes, Machete is a film about the barriers between two cultures. Drawing inspirations straight from the headlines, Rodriguez created a film that was able to explore prejudice, stereotypes, and ethnocentrism in an entertaining manner. It was easy to identify some of the prominent political figures being lampooned, most notably Senator John McCain and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. While I highly doubt that this film will get them to explore new strategies in intercultural communication, it will hopefully inspire others to change their motivation and world views.

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