In October, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the classic Cuban-American film, El Super, followed by a conversation with the film’s screenwriter and producer, Manuel Arce Riocabo and GC Professor of Sociology, Sujatha Fernandes. The film, made in 1979, is now recognized as one of the great Cuban films of all time, alongside Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. The film was based on Iván Acosto’s play of the same name and featured many of the original actors from the stage play.
Much like its characters, El Super occupies a unique and underrepresented position in cinema, situated in between two countries (Cuba and the US), two languages (Spanish and English), and two generations (first-generation and second-generation immigrants). The film largely revolves around the contradictions and impasses of Roberto’s position as a Cuban-American exile and an overworked superintendent of a building in Harlem.
In a telling scene midway through the film, a government inspector comes to inspect Roberto’s building. Because he does not speak fluent English, Roberto must ask a friend to act as a translator. In this encounter, the condescending, administrative English of the inspector is unintelligible to Roberto, while the conversation between Roberto and his friend can’t be understood by the inspector, who does not speak Spanish. The only communication that is transmitted is in the selective translations of the friend, which leave out much of the meaningful information on either side of the class, language, and racial divide. The film instead highlights this moment of surveillance and scrutiny, which seems to suggest that Roberto, by virtue of his position and that of the person doing the reporting, never had a chance of passing the inspection.
The plot is centered around Roberto and his wife Aurelia’s pain as exiles and their nostalgia for life in Cuba, particularly a different set of values than that of their daughter Aurelita, who is a sexually active senior in high school. Through a rather amazing set of performances, the film presents a dynamic portrait of varied Cuban-American immigrant experiences, including other friends and family members. Ultimately, the film tells a rarely foregrounded class narrative about the precarity of maintaining a life through various kinds of maintenance work, both physical and affective, and a narrative of exile about a kind of loss that can never fully be mourned.
Prof. Fernandes, who organized the event, is one of the faculty co-leaders of the Narrating Change, Changing Narratives working group of the Mellon Seminar for Public Engagement and Collaborative Research, which works to shift how narrative has historically been used to exclude certain stories, voices, and positions, especially those of migrant and domestic workers, and instead to work with those who might be silenced or occluded, especially at sites where they speak to and narrate their own stories and struggles. This event was the second film screening of the fall 2015 semester organized by Fernandes, the first of which, The Hand That Feeds, paired a documentary about restaurant workers organizing at a bagel shop on the Lower East Side with migrant workers reading their poetry.
In the discussion following the screening, Riocabo memorialized many of the people involved in making the film who had recently passed away. He also elaborated on the economy that made the film possible, by working in commercials and editing the film with money made filming Julio Iglesias in concert, and reflected on the ongoing relevance of the film.