Mexicos Favorite American Vigilante

Illustration by Bob AulAsk a group of twentysomething Mexican Americans if they grew up watching Charles Bronson movies, and heads hang low. Eventually, someone shamefully allows that, yes, his parents rented all episodes of the Death Wishseries, that a family night out on the town during the mid-1980s involved watching the latest Bronson bloodbath on the big screen, and that his mother thought the helmet-coiffed actor was the handsomest screen Adonis since Ricardo Montalbán. Relieved that they are not alone in embarrassment, everyone soon sheepishly admits the same, and conversations shift toward the sharing of favorite Bronson bits.

The grim-faced performer, who passed away on Aug. 30 at age 82, maintains an earnest following throughout the world because of his career-long portrayal of expressionless psychopaths. Bronson-love in Mexico and her American colonies, however, approaches the hagiographic—and not just because the actor's crumpled mug allowed him to half-believably portray Mexicans or half-Mexicans in such movies as 1960's The Magnificent Seven (Bernardo O'Reilly) and 1968's Villa Rides (Rodolfo Fierro) and Guns for San Sebastian (Teclo). The Bronson canon's gallery of urban warriors enraptured the Mexican cinematic imagination like little else during the late 1970s and early 1980s and persists today despite the rise of stars even more violent.

The Mexican cult of the man born Charles Buchinsky is everywhere. Spanish-language channels broadcast such Bronsonian symphonies of mayhem as The Valachi Papers, Mr. Majestyk and The Evil That Men Do during prime time almost weekly. Video stores in heavily Latino neighborhoods know to shore up the Bronson catalog and still find themselves constantly out of stock. And if there aren't any Bronson flicks around, many Mexicans will settle for the next-best approximation and rent a narcopelícula. This geysers-of-blood film genre that emerged during the mid-1970s—not coincidentally the same era that Bronson established himself as a major film draw throughout the world—is Mexico's most popular type of movie, consisting of little more than Mexican actors assuming Bronson's shoot-first, shoot-later wrinkled archetype. In fact, narcopelícula's most famous presence, 82-year-old Mário Almada, has a career trajectory similar to Bronson's. Neither man hit his box-office stride till after he was 50, and both made the same gleeful-vengeance film again and again even when the plot had the septuagenarians mowing down men a third their age. A bonus: both had the same fabulously sagging mustache.

So why the Mexican obsession with Bronson? One can approach the question via a psychocultural perspective and argue that Bronson embodied a sort of hyper-machismo embedded in the Mexican male mind that determines an hombre's worth by how well he protects the women in his life. Mexican men are attracted to the Bronson characters, then, because his roles involve the failure and redemption of such a philosophy. Remember, Manhattan businessman Paul Kersey in the Death Wish films became a trigger-zealous guy only after the murder of his wife and the rape of his daughter, which stained his honor. Kersey regained his testosterone by killing man after man after man.

But let's cut the grad-student babble. When I was a child my parents took me to the Orange Drive-In to watch Bronson flicks, their hands covering my eyes during the most violent scenes. Watching Bronson zip down opiated thugs was one of the few times my parents and their Mexican friends ventured into the English-speaking world—rains of bullets, after all, don't need subtitles.

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