Romántico is a relatively short documentary that reverses the traditional American immigration tale. When the film opens, its subject, a mexicano named Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, is busking for change by playing cantina music at Mexican restaurants in San Francisco. To this viewer, his life looks pretty miserable. He’s been gone from Mexico for three years; his only connection to family are calls made from a pay phone on the street. His living arrangement is a tent-like structure in a crowded apartment, and his musical partner Arturo has a serious drinking problem. In order to supplement his income, he also works days at a car wash. Shortly into the documentary, Sanchez heads back to Mexico for a “visit” that appears quite permanent.
Sanchez is reunited with his two daughters, wife, and his severely diabetic mother in Salvatierra, but returning to Mexico creates financial burdens for his family. Though his earnings in the States were quite small, money he wired home provided a decent living standard for his family. Now in Mexico, he earns a small fraction of that money playing in various mariachis and selling “nieves” (snow cones) on the street. The film never delves into Sanchez’ internal life about all this. He’s never asked how he really feels about being back in Mexico. And from this standpoint, he’s a slightly cold subject. But perhaps some hints are revealed through his music, which Sanchez belts out deeply.
Overall, I found this film very sad. Though plucky and often optimistic, Sanchez’ struggles are depressing. Whether it’s his struggles with his family–his mother was a double amputee because of her diabetes–, his alcoholic musical partner, or his indecisiveness over whether to live in Mexico with his family or illegally cross into the United States in order to support them. What the film shows about the border is also sad. At one point, Sanchez seeks advice about how to get a visa to come back to the US legally. He gets an earful of impossibilities: prove you have property, prove you have a stable income, prove you have a financial reason to come back (to Mexico). It’s one of the most emotionally overwhelming scenes in the film. But luckily, the movie keeps returning to the music, and that is something to celebrate.