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Claims to authenticity are poisonous. Within every mass, big or small, there are minorities and outliers. Yes, it can be important for minority communities to earn recognition as a whole, but efforts to homogenize are both futile and destructive. Those pushed out or excluded from communities for failing to adhere to behavior norms one way or another (this can include you too, even if you don’t know it), may have a hard time understanding what pieces of culture they can or cannot include in their personal identity.
I grew up here in California and consider myself culturally Mexican and Chicano, but what this means is far more vague. I have created a self-identity that incorporates aspects of the already voluminous “Mexican culture”, just as you have undoubtedly formed an identity out of the diverse cultural influences you grew up around. A Mayan calendar hangs on my wall opposite a poster depicting the cover of Le Petit Prince (a french children’s novel everyone should read). I am multitudinous.
Which brings me back to Guacamelee!, a metroidvania style platformer on PSN that offers a damn fun adventure with a few neat tweaks to the formula. The game is heavily inspired by Mexican popular mythos and iconography. Mariachi music plays in the background, chickens roam about the town, the game’s skeletal dimension looks like a Dia de los Muertos diorama, and the protagonist is a brawny mask-wearing Luchador. Without a doubt, Guacamelee! is charming.
Yet while I enjoyed the game, I kept getting asked if I found the game offensive. Was I mad at the developers for creating a game set in a cultural landscape that, to the majority of the team, was foreign? Had they exploited my culture?
Honestly, I don’t know. The concept of cultural ownership is strange to me. As far as I see it, the music of Mexico belongs to the world, as all music does. The sights, sounds, and festivities of the small pueblito where my family is from means something special to me. But if I took you there, drove you through farmland and forest, and walked you into the old stone church at the center of town or showed you the worn down arcade cabinet I played obsessively during my stays there, I believe you would fall in love. Culture is unique in that its shareable yet simultaneously subjective.
With that in mind, the question is one of care. Does Guacamelee! celebrate or ridicule? When it comes to humor, it can actually be hard to tell. Juan Aguacate, the main character, has a comically terrible name (yes, aguacate means Avocado). His sidekick, Tostada, is no better. It’s tongue in cheek humor though, and the game is full of it. Many of the jokes, unless you are familiar with Spanish or even Mexican lore will be lost on you. Carlos Calaca, the undead villain, also has a pun name (Calaca means skeleton, mostly associated with figurines). The goat man, Huay Chivo, is a mythical beast in Mexican lore.
For the most part, these references are worth a chuckle. On one hand, this is simple humor. Some characters are named after food, like the Hamburgler. It can make you smile, and that’s alright. On the other hand, some of the jokes seem to target Americans who find humor in Mexican caricatures with names from a Taco Bell order. In California at least, a common stereotype associates Mexican with food (a stereotype born of socio-economic conditions), which some may see mirrored in Guacamelee!'s many puns.
X’tabay is a particularly strange inclusion in the game. The female villain, temporary lover to Calaca, is the first boss players face in the game. The foundational lore of X’tabay is rooted in the story of a succubus-like goddess or demon. While this mythology is particularly old, the figure of a traitorous and lustful woman has a long and sordid history in Mexican culture. Most notably, Malinche, a real woman who was blamed for many years for ultimate conquest of Mexico, remains a powerful icon that carries with it X’tabay’s connotations of sexism in Mexican culture. The cultural significance of Malinche is immense and deeply contested. Not surprisingly, Malinchista is still used as an insult against those who stray too far from Mexican culture.
So here I am, a Malinchista, playing a game made in Canada, by a team mostly comprised of Canadians, laughing at a farcical luchador who gets his powers from a talking goat. I am certainly not against the idea of culturally diverse teams designing experiences that celebrate cultures not necessarily or entirely their own. Still, the game’s treatment of women, particularly considering gender politics in Mexican culture, I find more troubling.
Am I offended? I don’t know. That’s the wrong question to ask. Reactions to cultural portrayals are deeply personal. We are better off asking what does the game do right? What does the game do wrong? And is the game made with care?