In flashback, Esperanza tells her son, a young military cadet, the story of his father. Esperanza falls in love with José Luis Castro, the son of wealthy hacendados. Despite his high-class status, José Luis is an idealistic supporter of the Mexican Revolution and its goal to bring political, economic and social justice to the peasants. His parents reject Esperanza and the Revolution because they threaten the foundations on which their wealth and status rest. The couple secretly marry and their son is born at the outbreak of armed conflict. José Luis joins the revolutionary forces and goes off to fight against the government forces. In his absence, a pair of bandit brothers, posing as revolutionary soldiers, murder José Luis’ father and take Esperanza and her son hostage. José Luis returns to rescue his family but is killed trying to save them.
Two decades after the end of the Mexican Revolution, the wildly successful film by Fernando de Fuentes, Allá en el Rancho Gr Ranch), made its debut in Mexico City on 12 October 1936. Its national and international success signalled the beginning of a robust national film industry and the emergence of Mexican cinema into the global marketplace. Although Hollywood films dominated Mexican and other Latin American screens and US-owned companies controlled a significant percentage of the distribution side of the industry, Mexico realised significant profits by exporting films like Allá en el Rancho Grande. De Fuentes’ film introduced one of the most popular genres in Mexican film history to the world, the comedia ranchera, a Mexican cowboy musical that incorporates elements of comedy, tragedy, Mexican popular music, and folkloric costumes and dances. The comedia ranchera resonated with domestic audiences as well as Mexican migrants in the USA.1 In 1937, just one year after the release of Allá en el Rancho Grande, over half of the 38 Mexican films released were modelled on de Fuentes’ film.
The setting of the comedia ranchera was the prerevolutionary hacienda, a vast tract of rural ranch and farming land – thousands of acres rich in natural resources such as oil and silver that had been expropriated from peasant communities by the government and given to wealthy criollo (Mexicans of Spanish descent) families. The workers who lived and worked on the hacienda were the Indians and mestizo (people of mixed race) who had originally been displaced from the land. The hacienda system was a paternalistic feudalism that governed what were essentially self-contained communities. The peasants worked the land and in return were given food, shelter and protection by the hacendado (hacienda owner). Theoretically free, in reality, the workers were tenant farmers, bound by indebtedness to the hacendado.
During the 1930s, the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) recognised the value of supporting cultural industries in the development of a coherent post-revolutionary national identity. Cárdenas nationalised the film industry, established a protectionist policy that included tax exemptions for domestic production, created the Financiadora de Películas, a state institution whose mandate it was to find private financing for films, and instituted a system of loans for the establishment of major film studios. During his administration, the first modern studio, CLASA (Cinematográfica Latino Americana, S.A.) was built with private money and outfitted with the most modern production equipment available. Film production grew from six films in 1932 to 57 films by 1938 (García Riera 1963: 25). By 1934, there were five motion picture studios in Mexico City: the Compañía Nacional Productora de Películas, Universidad Cinematográfica, México-Films de Jorge Stahl, Industrial Cinematográfica, and CLASA.
Drawing on Mexican literature, theatrical traditions, and contemporary Mexican themes, commercial films were generally conservative in terms of their cinematic strategies and the social and political articulated through their narratives. Whether they were set in historical or contemporary contexts, these films exalted Mexican patriarchy, celebrated the nuclear family, the macho hero, and virtuous and submissive women. The comedia ranchera was one of the more conservative film genres. For example, nationalisation policies instituted by Cárdenas included sweeping land reforms that expropriated land owned by the hacendados and redistributed this land to the huge population of landless rural peasants. However, the comedia ranchera ignored these reforms and, instead, celebrated the pre-revolutionary hacienda system as a pastoral utopia in which the hacendados and his workers lived like one big happy family governed by a patriarchal but caring father. The comedia ranchera may thus be read as a thinly disguised challenge, in the form of a musical love story, to Cárdenas’ social, cultural, and economic transformations.
The box office triumph of these films confirmed a certain public weariness with a revolutionary rhetoric that was now over a decade old. The success of this popular cinema also revealed the presence of a nostalgic longing for the mythical past this rhetoric had created. Films like La boda de Rosario, Juarez y Maximiliano (Miguel Contreras Torres, 1933), which celebrated the reign of the French emperor, Maximilian and his empress, Carlota; Madre querida (Juan Orol, 1935), a film that introduced the melodramatic genre of the sacrificial mother, and La Adelita (Guillermo Hernández Gómez, 1937), a revolutionary melodrama, looked back fondly on the pre-revolutionary Porfirian regime, on the repressive structures of the hacienda system, on the romantic ideal of a populist revolution, and on the centrality of the family and the Catholic Church in public and private life.
The comedia ranchera is not the same kind of film as American backstage musicals of the 1930s, whose narratives were about the production of a grand Broadway production and whose songs and dances were central to story development. In the Mexican musical, songs and dances are presentational. The forward movement of the narrative is brought to a standstill so that a character or group of characters can perform a musical interlude in order to entertain the film audience. The title song, Allá en el Rancho Grande, comes from a traditional Mexican musical genre called the ranchera that originated in the central Mexican state of Jalisco and became widely popular after the Mexican revolution. The lyrics of Allá en el Rancho Grande, like the majority of ranchera songs, celebrate love of country, rural live, romantic love, and socio-political commentary. As depicted in a de Fuentes film, rancheras were performed by mariachi bands with guitars, trumpets, and violins.
Songs featured in comedia ranchera do not always specifically refer to the narrative; instead, the lyrics express the feelings of particular characters, articulate romantic yearnings, or convey a longing for the feeling of belonging to a community, most often the community of the ranchera. The opening scene of Allá en el Rancho Grande, for example, presents a grand fiesta or party that includes all the inhabitants of el Rancho Grande, including the padrone and his family and all the workers and their families. A mariachi band plays the title song, which expresses a ranch hand’s fond reminisces of a love affair on the big ranch where he lived. In a later scene, one of the ranch hands requests a song from Cruz and she sings a well-known Canción mixteca that articulates the longing for the pastoral provinces celebrated by the comedia ranchera: ‘How far away I am from the place where I was born, an immense nostalgia invades my thoughts and finds me so sad and alone, like a leaf in the wind.’ 2 Occasionally, a particular song will develop a narrative plot point as in the scene in the cantina where Jose Francisco, the ranch foreman, engages in a singing dual with Martín, a ranch hand, and discovers that the reputation of Cruz, his sweetheart, has been compromised by the attentions of his best friend Felipe, the owner of el Rancho Grande.
Allá en el Rancho Grande envisioned a mythical agrarian paradise and celebrated hispanismo, the rallying cry of an unlikely alliance of right-wing land-owning groups who opposed post-revolutionary reforms, and the Catholic Church and Catholic peasants who resented the new regime’s anti-clerical position and opposed its socialist programmes.3 Needing a people who could personify hispanismo, its proponents found them in los altos de Jalisco, the isolated northwestern mountain region of Mexico whose inhabitants were devoutly Catholic, anti-Cárdenas, had never intermarried with Indians, and played mariachi music.
The hero of hispanismo was the charro as exemplified by Tito Guízar, who stars in the role of José Francisco, and was a well-known popular singer who had a successful career in music in the United States, and Jorge Negrete, the aspiring opera singer who became the first Mexican ‘superstar’, when he premiered in the comedia ranchera, Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes! (Joselita Rodríguez, 1941) and who starred in de Fuentes’ 1948 remake of Allá en el Rancho Grande. The charro, originally an expert horseman on large landed estates owned by families of Spanish heritage, was a symbol of Hispanic masculinity, light-skinned, handsome, and respectful of the celebrated inherent divisions within Mexican society. Mexican cinema relied on earlier depictions of the charro introduced in nineteenth-century novels and the orquesta tipica (national folkloric orchestra) popularised in the early twentieth century. Although the Mexican charro was only a ranch hand, his role was to protect the workers against the powerful hacendado or ranch owner. However, he was also required to uphold the patriarchal hacienda system that kept classes, races, and genders in their places on el rancho grande.
How was it that such a reactionary genre achieved domestic and international success? García Riera suggests that it was because Mexican as well as Latin American audiences adored characters with ‘humble origins, big peasant-style skirts and hair bows, and virile-filled workers as mates’ (1995: 130). The box office success of films like Allá en el Rancho Grande, Bajo el cielo de México (de Fuentes, 1937), La Zandunga (de Fuentes, 1938), Nobleza ranchera (Alfredo de Diestro, 1938) and La tierra del mariachi (Raúl de Anda, 1938) at home and abroad convinced Mexican producers that they had stumbled upon a safe and lucrative product.4 In addition, the popularity confirmed the role the cinema played in the reconstruction of Mexican nationalism. The film’s cinematography, photographed by Gabriel Figueroa, who would go on to become the premiere cinematographer in Mexico, its cast of characters, its acting style, its use of popular songs, its mise en scéne, and its stars set the standards for the immediate future of the Mexican film industry.
1. De Fuentes directed a remake of Allá en el Rancho Grande in 1958 that starred Jorge Negrete, a contemporary of Guízar.
2. Que lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido, inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento, y al ver me tan solo y triste qual hoja al viento.
3. See Marjorie Becker, Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán Peasants, and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995; Alan Knight, ‘Weapons and Arches in the Mexican Revolutionary Landscape’, in Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent (eds), Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico, Durham, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 24–66; and Jean Meyer, The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People Between Church and State, 1926–1929, London, Cambridge University Press, 1976.
4. For a few years, the comedia ranchera was the most recognisable, and thus exportable, Mexican film genre. García Riera notes that ‘of the 38 Mexican films produced in 1937, over half were folkloric or nationalistic.’ (1995: 131).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Mexico. Production Company: Lombardo Films. Director: Fernando de Fuentes. Producers: Fernando de Fuentes and Alfonso Rivas Bustamante. Screenwriters: Fernando de Fuentes, Antonio Guzmán Aguilar and Luz Guzmán De Arellano. Cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa. Music: Lorenzo Barcelata. Cast: Tito Guízar (José Francisco Ruelas), René Cardona (Felipe), Esther Fernandez (Cruz), Margarita Cortés (Eulalia).]
Desirée Garcia, ‘The Soul of a People: Mexican Spectatorship and Transnational Comedia Ranchera’, Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2010, pp. 72–98.
Emilio García Riera, ‘The Impact of Rancho Grande’, in Paulo Antonio Paranaguá (ed.), Mexican Cinema, trans. Ana M. López, London, British Film Institute, 1995, pp. 128–32.
Emilio García Riera, El cine Mexicano, Mexico City, ERA, 1963.
Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896–1988, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982.
Olga Najera-Ramírez, ‘Engendering Nationalism: Identity, Discourse, and the Mexican Charro’, Working Paper No. 3, Santa Cruz, CA, Chicano/Latino Research Center, University of California, 1993.
Aurelio de los Reyes, Medio Siglo de Cine Mexicana (1896–1947), Mexico City, Editorial Trillas, 1987.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.