Ratas, Ratones, y Rateros: Making a National Cinema in a Divided Country

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí

This week I will be focusing on Ecuador and specifically its most accomplished auteur, Sebastian Cordero. Finding books on Ecuador that were written in this century was kind of hard though so forgive me if my scope is not as vast as other weeks.


Ratas, Ratones, y Rateros (1999) tells the story of a young Quito native, Salvador, who has to deal with the arrival of his cousin, Angel, a former convict from Guayaquil. When they realize that an assassin is after him, they try to run away but Salvador soon realizes he has to distance himself from his cousin.

The War Between the Sierra and the Costa

Map of Ecuador

The history of Ecuador can be seen as a history of the conflict between the Sierra region which is represented by Quito and the Costa region which is represented by Guayaquil. Guayaquil was founded as a commercial link to Spain and was always tied to the international market. At independence, the Costa region contained less than 20 percent of the national population. Nonetheless, it represented the most dynamic force in Ecuador’s economy. But Quito was always the administrative center of the country. An intense rivalry between the cities was born and dominated nineteenth-century politics. The first president of the new republic of Ecuador, Juan Jose Flores, was a major figure of the Quito elite.

He was conservative, religious, and killed all dissidents. In 1834, his biggest opponent was Jose Vicente Rocafuerte y Rodríguez de Bejarano, a member of the Guayaquil aristocracy. He orchestrated a coup and when his term came to an end in 1839, he returned to Guayaquil where he was the provincial governor for many years, but the Costa residents still had to deal with Juan Jose Flores who had returned to the presidency. There was an insurrection in Guayaquil and an Anti-Flores group, the Marcistas, was formed. General Jose Maria Urbina would emerge as the major figure of this movement. 

Gabriel Garcia Moreno

During the 1850s and 60s, Urbina and his archrival, Garcia Moreno, would define the dichotomy–between Liberals from Guayaquil and Conservatives from Quito. As president, Urbina freed slaves, favored the Guayaquil business class over the Quito landowners, and diminished clerical power. Garcia Moreno, on the other hand, was the father of Ecuadorian conservatism and though he was born and raised in Guayaquil, he had married into the Quito aristocracy. He increased Quito’s power and emphasized the importance of the Catholic Church. The liberals came back into power in the early 20th century but the country quickly devolved into a plutocracy run by the bankers of Guayaquil. These alternating but equally corrupt administrations fueled animosity between the regions. As the century went on, religion played less of a role in the divisions between regions but the economies were still fairly different with Quito being fueled by the oil industry and Guayaquil by the banana industry. To this day, the rivalry between regions is alive and well.

Class and Regionalism in Ratas, Ratones, y Rateros 

When Sebastian Cordero made his debut in 1999, he was working in a cinematic wilderness. Ecuador had yet to create a thriving film industry so Cordero’s film was viewed as a statement on Ecuadorian nationhood. The film does a good job of dissecting the regionalism that exists in the country. For Cordero, these differences seem to be merely superficial. Cordero does not vilify the people of the Sierra or Costa region. He sees the fluidity of good and evil among the different classes and regions of Ecuador. Differences like these are aesthetic and superficial in the film. Angel, the symbol of Guayaquil, sports a bright yellow Barcelona SC jersey (the most successful soccer team from Ecuador based in Guayaquil) and bleaches his hair so he is a platinum blonde. In the industrial and gray city of Quito, he stands out with his exotic, coastal charm. But when it comes to questions of good and evil, Salvador and Angel swap roles freely. 

Ratas, Ratones, y Rateros

At the beginning, Salvador is very innocent, but he quickly shows how capable he is of criminal activity when he kills the assassin that is after Angel. Angel then takes a turn at being the good cousin when he promises to clean up the body. This period of good favor ends when he reveals to Salvador that he was not able to get rid of the body. Like a seesaw, the roles of heroes and villains switch effortlessly from moment to moment. This is also true of class differences in the country. Salvador’s cousin, Carolina, and her friends are as far away from Angel’s world as they can possibly be. That does not stop Carolina’s friends from getting involved in Angel’s criminal underworld when he seduces them with the allure of a shiny new gun and more money. The rich may act like they are above the criminal activity of the lower classes of Ecuador, but they can easily turn to crime. Cordero establishes that the divisions in Ecuador are not at all that deep. The people of Ecuador can go from hero to villain at the drop of a hat. While regionalism and classism are huge issues in the country, these differences are merely superficial.

The Women of Ecuador

Ratas, Ratones, y Rateros

While almost every character in the film gets to switch roles freely from moment to moment, women have very rigid and unflinching roles. Mayra, Salvador’s romantic interest, is a victim of his Madonna-Whore complex. When she reveals to him that she had previously had a romantic fling with his cousin, Angel, he is unable to move past it. Never mind the fact that just the other day, he had had sex with a prostitute. In fact, the only time women are shown having sex in the film is in a brothel. The other respectable women like Carolina and Mayra seem not to be allowed to engage in such a dirty practice. While Salvador has issues with women in his romantic life, Angel seems to infantilize all women. Throughout the film, he dotes on his mute grandmother but never treats her with the respect any elder deserves. He treats her like a child. She is never treated as someone who has lived a full life and has the wisdom to match. Angel keeps her on a pedestal but forces her into the role of a childlike woman. I believe that the rigidity of these women’s roles is a comment on the situation for women in Ecuador. The women in this film are never allowed to flow from role to role. Even the slum residents can kick it with the rich in this film. Women are not given that same mobility.

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