'Pelo Malo' Is A Rare Look Into Latin American Race Relations A new Venezuelan film explores racism and homophobia through the experiences of 9-year-old Junior, who drives his mother up a wall in a quest to straighten his thick, curly "pelo malo," or "bad hair."
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'Pelo Malo' Is A Rare Look Into Latin American Race Relations

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'Pelo Malo' Is A Rare Look Into Latin American Race Relations

'Pelo Malo' Is A Rare Look Into Latin American Race Relations

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pelo malo means bad hair in Spanish. The term is commonly used in Latin America and is now used as the title of a film from Venezuela that tackles racism and homophobia. NPR's Jasmine Garsd begins her report about the impact of "Pelo Malo" with this description of its central character.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Junior is a 9-year-old living in a poor neighborhood in Caracas. School is about to start, and he has to have his picture taken. Junior, like many Venezuelans, has European, indigenous and African ancestry. He becomes obsessed with straightening his thick, tight curls. And he tries everything from blow dries to applying gobs of mayonnaise. That last attempt drives his mother, a struggling widow, insane.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PELO MALO")

SAMANTHA CASTILLO: (As Marta, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She threatens to cortarle el pelo - cut his hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PELO MALO")

SAMUEL LANGE ZAMBRANO: (As Junior, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Pelo Malo" is a rare look into identity politics among Latin Americans, where racism is often a taboo topic. Mariana Rondon is the film's director. She says the term pelo malo is common currency.

MARIANA RONDON: (Through translator) The origin of the term is very offensive. It's very racist. But it's also true that in Venezuela, we're so mixed that in every single family, there is someone with bad hair. We joke that the second-most profitable industry after oil is hair straightening because everyone here wants to have straight hair.

GARSD: In Venezuela, hair relaxing is mostly a woman's obsession. And that's where Junior's relationship with his mom takes a darker turn. She becomes haunted by the idea that Junior's quest for straight hair means he's gay. She even goes to his pediatrician.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PELO MALO")

CASTILLO: (As Marta, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Spanish).

CASTILLO: (As Marta, speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He sings. He brushes his hair all day, she tells the doctor. I want to know if he's marico - gay.

RONDON: (Through translator) The initial goal of the movie was to talk about identity - who we are, how we see ourselves. I felt like at the time, Venezuela was in this moment in which it was essential that we start respecting each other's differences.

GARSD: The movie is set sometime after 2011. President Hugo Chavez has been diagnosed with cancer. And Venezuelans are uncertain about their future. While Junior is trying desperately to hang onto his hair, the television is broadcasting his countrymen shaving their heads in solidarity with the ailing president. The film is very Venezuelan, but many Latin Americans can relate to it. Bianca Laureano is the founder of the LatiNegros Project, a virtual space that aims to discuss history and current events in the Afro-Latino community.

BIANCA LAUREANO: Oh, yeah - all the time. I have family members who I've never met before. And I'll meet them for the first time and, you know, part of the conversation will be, like, I don't like your hair the way that it is.

GARSD: Laureano says, while she wishes the movie had gone more in depth, she thinks it's representative of a sea change in how Latinos discuss race.

LAUREANO: I think what I definitely see an increase of is people who identify as Afro-Latino speaking out and saying, this is who I am. I'm here. You can't erase me. This is my story. We take part in this as well.

GARSD: In the film, Junior's fate is not clear. And audiences are left with the question as to what will become of him as an adult. Director Rondon says that question gives her hope.

RONDON: (Through translator) You are asking about the future. I'm glad you are asking that. It means you know there is a future for us. And there is a possibility perhaps that things won't be the way they've always been.

GARSD: Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington.

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