An Ode to the Abuelos of Cinema

The surprise hero in a superhero movie—to themselves, at least, if not the audience—is usually the main character. A radioactive spider bites a teenager and suddenly he’s climbing up walls and saving the day. A soft-spoken scientist is exposed to gamma radiation and transforms into a super strong green giant. In the new DC movie Blue Beetle, out in theaters on Aug. 18, an ancient relic of alien biotechnology crawls up a recent college grad, Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), and gives him a suit of extraordinary armor. But Blue Beetle’s surprise hero isn’t Jaime—it’s his abuela.

We first meet Nana (Adriana Barraza) at the airport with her family, eagerly awaiting Jaime’s return from college. She’s small and unassuming, wearing a green visor and eyeglasses on a chain, her gray hair coiled into two braids pinned neatly to the top of her head. She speaks only Spanish, but her family—Jaime; his dad, Alberto (Damián Alcázar); mom, Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo); sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo); and uncle, Rudy (George Lopez)—understands her perfectly. They just don’t know her as well as they think they do.

Glimmering amidst Blue Beetle’s visceral body horror, flashy fight sequences, and neo-Tokyo cityscape is a deeply relatable sentiment: We’ll never know our grandparents’ whole stories until we ask. They’re repositories of knowledge, both personal and familial. Often, by the time we get to truly know them, they’re older and quieter and defined, in our minds, by those around them: those they’ve created and nurtured. It’s easy to forget that once, not too long ago, they existed as the protagonists of their own lives, unfettered. In Latin cultures especially—so often shaped by recent, sometimes unfinished immigration stories—they are the last links to our family mythologies.

Recent Latin film in the U.S., from Blue Beetle and Chupa to Encanto and Coco, understands that well, introducing characters who are deeply human, abuelos who dredge up clouds of emotions for those onscreen and off. There’s something stirring about seeing avatars of our ancestors choose to share their most closely held secrets—the pieces that make them who they are, which we may never know. The feeling is fuzzy around the edges, like our memories of them, but it almost always makes us wonder: Who were they before us? 

The backstories beneath the surface

“The first half of the story is the grandma that we all know, at least the grandma that I grew up with, the grandma that I remember,” says Blue Beetle director Ángel Manuel Soto. “At the same time, I’m sure I don’t know the totality of my grandma’s secrets. We might have an idea, but I don’t think we really have an understanding of all the sacrifices that our grandparents have to do in order to give us a better opportunity.”

Midway through the movie, the Reyeses—plus Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), a newfound friend of the family—embark on a rescue mission to save Jaime from the clutches of the movie’s villain, Jenny’s aunt, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon). Jenny’s father, Ted Kord, was an eccentric tech billionaire who built superhero gadgets in his free time. The motley crew is flying to the rescue in his “bug ship” (an aircraft shaped like a bug), which contains a closet full of Ted’s old toys.

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“How are we supposed to learn how to use these things?” Milagro asks. The camera cuts to Nana proudly toting a weapon the size of her body, a smug look on her face. “How do you know how to hold that so perfectly?” Milagro asks, shocked. Nana unpins her braids with relish. “There’s plenty you don’t know about your Nana,” she replies with a wink. With her braids free, she’s the spitting image of una adelita, a woman Zapatista soldier of the Mexican revolution.

In his direction, Soto posed the question: How can we share the parts of our grandparents’ backstories that hide beneath the surface? ”By celebrating our legacy of our ancestors and the people that came before us,” he says. “For us, it was very important to show the strength and the power of the females in our families and the matriarchs.”

Throughout Latin American history, women have been integral to both starting revolutions and winning them. “We wanted to honor and show the women that were at the forefront of the liberation movements of Mexico, of the Zapatista women from Mexico,” Soto says. “Or in Puerto Rico, the females that took the lead when men got scared, like Blanca Canales or Lolita Lebrón.”

As the group plots their rescue, the chinks in her grandkids’ perception of Nana crack open further. “I’ve stormed this kind of fortress before,” Nana says in Spanish, almost giddy, to an incredulous Milagro. “One day we’re gonna have to talk about Nana’s revolutionary past,” her mother says solemnly. “Her what?!” Milagro replies. How many of our abuelos were rebels—leaving behind expectations or circumstances or homelands—in another lifetime?

In a later scene, Nana unloads her massive weapon with gusto against oncoming bad guys, her superhero grandson tucked safely behind her. “Down with the imperialists!” she shouts with a manic laugh.

It’s a moment of unadulterated comic relief. It also reminds us that abuelos are people too. We may care for them now, but they were the original caretakers and creators. They each contain, in the parlance of Blue Beetle, a Khaji-Da, an ancient relic full of knowledge and power that feels alien—at least to us. To them, it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Adriana Barraza, who plays Nana, said in Blue Beetle’s production notes (before the SAG-AFTRA strike) that “Nana is really fun. But when she changes this chip in her mind, she’s a superhero too!” (In Spanish, the idiom “cambiar el chip” means to shift one’s mindset.)

“Your own private encyclopedia”

Coco and Encanto both feature abuelas who contain far more than their nietos realize. In the former, named for the titular abuela, Coco seems old, wizened, and silent to Miguel, her 12-year-old grandson. Only after a colorful adventure among his ancestors in the Land of the Dead does Miguel realize that Coco is the key to preserving his estranged great-grandfather’s memory. When he plays the right song for her, she unfurls, singing along and telling stories of their family’s past. To Mirabel Madrigal in Encanto, Abuela Alma is disapproving and uncompromising. In a conversation on the riverbank where Alma’s husband Pedro died, Mirabel realizes that Alma is only squeezing so tight because she’s trying to hold the family together, and afraid of the alternative.

In Chupa—a Netflix fantasy adventure film about a real-life chupacabras—Chava (Demián Bichír), the abuelo of 13-year-old Alex (Evan Whitten), is an enigma. He’s a superhero of sorts: He used to be Relámpago Azul (Blue Lightning), a lucha libre legend, but that piece of him was carefully compartmentalized away—until now. Chava is also the last portal through which Alex can access his past, learning more about where his late father came from.

“Having grown up in a Mexican family, truly what family does [is build] a narrative that helps you identify your place in the world,” Chupa director Jonás Cuarón told TIME in April. “To me, that narrative particularly came from my grandfathers and my grandmothers. They both told me all these stories of where they came from and their own narrative, the narratives of my parents.”

Forty years ago, my dad moved back in with his parents to go to medical school. They’re gone now, but I wish I could ask them: What was he like back then? What was Colombia like back then? What were they like—then and always? Who was the perfectionist architect with hair like mine? The loving mother who hammered sculptures out of metal?

“If you’re lucky enough to have them, then that is like having your own private encyclopedia. Everything,” says Demián Bichir, who plays Chava in Chupa. “They teach you how to transit through life.”

An Ode to the Abuelos of Cinema

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