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Maria, Full of Grace (2004) tells the story of a poor girl working in a rose factory in Colombia. When she gets pregnant, she realizes she will need much more money so she decides to become a drug mule. After a tense plane ride to the US, one of her coworkers is killed and she decides to leave this life behind and stay in the US.
Narcoviolencia & US Involvement
In the 1980s, drug trafficking became a major business based mainly in Medellin, Cali, and Bogota. By 1984, Pablo Escobar’s wealth was notorious as he had even bought himself his own zoo. The Colombian Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, finally decided to take him down but was killed, presumably by Escobar. This sparked a 10-year war between the rival drug lords of the country. This violence intensified between 1989 and 1990 as presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán was gunned down. Car bombings and kidnappings became very common, but after Escobar’s death in 1993, the nature of cartels changed entirely. cartelitos”. Around this time, many more Colombians immigrated to the US. A change in the 1991 Constitution made in an effort to open up the country allowed Colombians to hold dual citizenship and vote in elections even if they were abroad.
That, coupled with the increase in privatization during the Gaviria administration which left many Colombians without a safety net as well as the ongoing narco-violence led to a sharp uptick in immigration. Today, there are about a million Colombians living in the US, with many having settled in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City.
As the century drew to a close, Colombia was becoming an anomaly. Other countries like El Salvador and Peru had ended their wars with guerrilla groups. When President Pastrana Arango was elected in 1998, he made peace talks with the FARC a priority. He authorized a safe zone in the southeast so the military would no longer operate there. It was meant as a sign of goodwill, but the FARC, unfortunately, ended up using the region to store their weapons and their victims. This alarmed the US and Pastrana was able to convince them to give him a $1.35 billion aid package known as “Plan Colombia”. This meant Colombia received the most foreign aid from the US after Israel and Egypt. This money allowed Pastrana and later President Uribe to push back the FARC through military force and revert to more American labels. The FARC were no longer political actors but terrorists. Unfortunately, this money also gave the US quite the superiority complex as well.
Maria: The US Pawn
While this film was written and directed by an American, I believe that it earns its place in Colombia’s film history since its star, Catalina Sandino Moreno, is the only Colombian to be nominated for the best actress oscar. It is important to note that both of Maria’s jobs in the film are directly tied to the United States. The rose industry is an export supported by the US in order to replace coca production as a major part of the economy. On the other hand, 90% of cocaine consumption comes from the United States. The film posits that Plan Colombia is not working out. Even with this factory job, Maria feels the need to become a drug mule. This is in part because of the working conditions at the factory. Since the 90s, union membership has steadily decreased in Colombia due to US influence and it’s clear that Maria’s boss does not respect any of his workers. When Maria throws up at work, he does not let her take a break and instead makes her clean up the flowers she threw upon. When she first meets the narco bosses, they are sweethearts compared to her former boss. They seem to treat her with respect and when she feels sick from swallowing the drug pellets, they massage her stomach to make it go down smoothly. Neoliberal policies may create more industries, but not making workers’ rights a priority does not solve the drug problem.
Holy Mother Maria
The title of the film alone should tell you that there are religious metaphors in this story. Maria is an unwed mother seeking refuge for her and her unborn child. This film exists as an explanation of Maria finding her own grace and power through her baby. When she goes through the airport, TSA believes she is a drug mule but when they try to confirm her status through an x-ray, they find she is pregnant and they are not allowed to x-ray pregnant women. In that moment it was not her bosses that saved her, but her child. Her journey parallels the Holy Mother even more as the film goes on. After another mule, Lucy is killed after a pellet bursts in her stomach, Maria leaves and goes to Lucy’s sister’s house in Jackson Heights, the only address she knows. When Lucy’s sister finds out, Maria is kicked out and thus she is denied her room at the inn. She wanders around and really finds her footing. On her own, she makes sure that Lucy has a proper burial and she gets an ultrasound to make sure that her time being a mule has not hurt her child. In the end, she decides to stay in the US, but not at Lucy’s sister’s house or back in Colombia. She is going to make her own life for her child free of dependence or exploitation. Her baby saved her with the x-ray and now she knows that she has to save her baby away from this madness.