Swimming Against The Current

Swimming Against The Current

From time to time I will post writing assignments from my various classes, back dated to the date of writing, but always tagged under Higher Ed. This assignment was a final essay from my Global Sexualities in Modern Culture class

The film Contracorriente begins and ends with the pairing of a life about to start with a life that has just ended. The antagonistic entity that simultaneously connects and divides these events are the traditions, and culture of the fishing village based on the principals of their Catholic religion. Therefore, In the film Contracorriente, Director Fuentes-Leon uses the character Santiago’s presence in the village, as a metaphor for the stages in which the character Miguel, denies, bargains, expresses depression and finally accepts his repressed homosexuality. I will discuss this thesis within the framework of intersectionality, identifying the ways in which not only Miguel’s sexual orientation, but his very identity intersects with the domination or control of the religious and cultural norms of his village.

We begin with the impending birth of Mariela and Miguel’s child, juxtaposed against the death and burial ritual of offering to the sea, the body of someone who has just died. Santiago is there, but only on the fringes of Miguel’s life, embodying the concept of outsider across several points of intersection; within Miguel himself, Miguel and Mariela’s family, as well as the larger family of their church. We see clearly the hostile culture in the village toward gay men. In this case culture being the attitudes, customs, and beliefs handed down for generations of Latin, macho, male, Catholic fishermen. The village culture clearly is not one to easily accept change or anything that is different. With this culture in mind, one can begin to understand the meaning of the film’s title; that Miguel’s love for Santiago runs directly counter-current to that culture.

At first, Miguel denies even knowing Santiago. In fact Santiago exists for Miguel only outside of his home, his work and his church, never physically crossing the thresholds of these heteronormative spaces. Heteronormative in this case meaning the almost unanimous opinion in the village that heterosexuality is the only normal sexual orientation, and the only way to fit in. Miguel’s denial of Santiago correlates to his denial of his homosexuality. In fact, the way Santiago is discussed, shunned and denied by the villagers, only worsens Miguel’s fear of coming out. This suggests that even if a gay man had a chance of being accepted into this culture, he would never feel as though he quite belongs.

One of the most respectful things that director Fuentes-Leon does is to portray these two men as virile, and masculine, as opposed to the stereotypical, effeminate, comical, or lecherous gay characters we see all too often. He reserves the stereotypes for the minor characters, leaving room to develop the humanity in the main characters. I’m reminded of a line from our textbook, Studying Sexualities, where after a discussion of bland and simple stereotypes, the authors say “What is key here is how the stereotype is offered to us, what kind of representation we are viewing and what kinds of stories they are telling.” (Richardson, Smith and Werndly 64). Contracorriente has a message, but at its heart, it is a love story.

Though they spend most of their time together making love, Santiago and Miguel have a vicious fight. This fight is a literal translation of Miguel’s battle with his feelings, the aftermath of which leaves him drunk, exhausted, depressed and naked on the shore. This event may have led to Santiago’s suicide/death, which would represent a last ditch attempt by Miguel to theoretically kill the feelings that threaten to ostracize him from the only culture he’s ever known.

Despite his attempts to return to his heteronormative life, Miguel’s love for Santiago, like Santiago’s spirit, refuses to die. His feelings are stronger than death itself it seems. Even though he is dead, Santiago appears to Miguel, invisible to everyone else. He is finally able to cross the sacred thresholds that he could not before. The camera allows us to see what Miguel’s community cannot, his open love for Santiago. We see the literal coming out of Miguel as he leaves the unfinished house at Santiago’s urging. With Santiago’s help, Miguel can begin to accept his homosexuality at least to himself, signified by holding hands as they walk through the village, and in teaming up to win a hand of poker. Having made a sort of bargain with the devil, Miguel enjoys this magical relationship that allows him to be out while really being in, but this causes only torment for Santiago.

Miguel’s bargaining stage ends as he tells Santiago that he found his body a while back, but tied it to a rock. (More evidence of denial) He then promises to offer Santiago’s body to the ocean, thereby allowing him to rest in peace. In order to do that though, Miguel must take possession of Santago’s body, even going so far as getting permission from Santiago’s family.

The film ends the way it began, with a birth and a burial at sea. Santiago’s body being offered to the sea, and Miguel being reborn into a life out of the closet, thus liberating himself as well as Santiago’s spirit. Much like the literal translation of the film’s title, ‘against the current,’ the influences of culture, and the religion-centered life in this fishing village caused Miguel to feel like he was being pulled under.

Santiago, and later his ghost, helped guide Miguel’s journey to acceptance of his sexuality. And while not everyone in the village will accept him, he has at last accepted himself. Even so, he knows he will always be swimming against the current.

At the beginning of this course, I considered myself a relatively accepting person, open to anyone’s idea of what love, sexuality, and identity meant to them as an individual. I find now that I had a lot to learn on that front, especially in how to address people with the right pronouns. I have enjoyed being exposed to new forms of media that I probably would not have chosen myself. And I have been happy to learn from my fellow students, in the discussions that took place at the beginning of the semester. Thank you Dr. Creel Falcone!




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