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'Luzia' is Cirque du Soleil's valentine to Mexico

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The dazzling show can evoke pride in anyone with ties to Mexico, but it's hard to think of this as typical escapist fare.

OK, OK — we get it people: you love Mexico. Everyone it seems loves Mexico nowadays!

“Coco,” the Pixar animated feature, is a massive global hit — and has an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is also nominated, for "The Shape of Water."

And now Cirque du Soleil is the latest to prove that “Mexico” — that is, as an idea and as a concept — is one of the hottest global brands out there.

The Cirque show, “Luzia,” is meant as a valentine to Mexico, a “waking dream” or “evocation” of a place the producers call a “monumental country.” It is a remarkable display of acrobatics and technological feats, but as a testament to how Mexico is marketed and re-packaged to the exterior world, “Luzia” can also end up feeling a bit hollow, a bit restrained.

Now, rest assured that all the visual codes you’d expect to be used in invoking Mexico are there: marigolds, agave, hummingbirds, the Monarch butterfly. Also brass instruments, masked wrestlers, explosive flowers and papel picado galore.

A scene from Cirque du Soleil's "Luzia."
Matt Beard
A scene from Cirque du Soleil's "Luzia."

Between “Coco” and “Luzia” — what a turnaround! My parents’ generation remembers how in this country it used to be that being associated with anything Mexican was the last thing you wanted in any situation. Today, the whole country is browning, at least according to demographic data, and it’s happening whether Donald Trump or his supporters like it or not.

So, in a way, there is almost nothing safer than “invoking Mexico” in a venture as costly as a state-of-the-art touring circus like the Cirque de Soleil.

Indeed, “Luzia” could have afforded itself some room to be even more Mexican-ish, especially in Southern California. The music is guided in more up-tempo moments by the familiar techno flavor of Tijuana native sons, Nortec. But it still has that overbearing, kind of neutral electronic beat that is a hallmark of any Cirque soundtrack.

And for lovers of Mexican culture, there is perhaps no more effective trope used in this production than that of, yes, the Weeping Woman, or La Llorana.

The archetype is represented in “Luzia” by singer Majo Cornejo. She anchors the show vocally, singing from beginning to end. There is soul in her arching alto, but also at times it feels like a bit of sadness resides there.

I’m not talking about in Cornejo, personally, but in the sense that her singing comes close to invoking a sense of melancholy to the ear of anyone who feels any kind of emotional connection to Mexico.

And that could include retired Canadians with decades of nesting in Jalisco, or wealthy aristocrat Mexican-born millennials cavorting in New York City.

A scene from Cirque du Soleil's "Luzia."
Matt Beard
A scene from Cirque du Soleil's "Luzia."

Because — have you read any news in the past decade? Hundreds of thousands of ordinary civilian Mexicans and other nationals have died or been “disappeared” as a result of the anti-cartel drug war. “Luzia” makes no reference to this. And arguably, it shouldn’t. It’s meant as a pleasant escape from the mundane, as all circuses have, all through millennia.

But by presenting itself as an homage to Mexico today, "Luzia" adds to a troubling string in recent cultural productions marketed to Americans that, bit-by-bit, suggests: Mexico the brand is becoming more important than Mexican lives.

I looked at the show's credits and noticed that the Mexican government’s tourism and brand-promotion agency is a major sponsor of “Luzia.”

Messaging is everything when you’re trying to attract foreign investment and feed Mexico’s ever-hungry tourism industry. The head of Mexico’s external national marketing campaign is a senior-level position inside the Mexican president’s office.

So while I feel a certain admiration and even pride when watching “Coco” or “Luzia,” I can’t treat them as typical escapist fare. For anyone who’s lived in Mexico in recent years, there’s no escaping some ugly realities. If we’re to enjoy spectacles like these — and feel a sense of cultural pride in seeing how all audiences can embrace them — shouldn’t that sense of connection extend to the pursuit of human rights and justice and peace?

One of the songs performed by Cornejo in “Luzia” is called "Cierra los ojos" —  Close your eyes. Actually, it’s time to keep them wide open.

Journalist Daniel Hernandez is the editor of and author of the non-fiction book, “Down & Delirious in Mexico City.”

“Luzia” continues at Dodger Stadium through Feb. 11, and then moves to the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa starting Feb. 21.

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