Embrace of the Serpent: Cultura Occupying Space

An earlier version of this post appeared at UPLIFTT.

One warm morning in Santa Barbara, California, I coordinated a field trip with my Latino students to see Embrace of the Serpent during the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

As we were waiting in our VIP line with the climbing warm sun far above up and herds of old white folks (predominantly women in their 60s, which is like the main demographics for film festivals), I said out loud, “Come huddle in. It’s time for a history lesson on colonialism to better understand the movie.”

All of my students formed a circle to listen and occupy space.

“We’ll start at 1492 with Christopher Columbus and the idea that he ‘discovered’ the Americas. There were Native American civilizations dating thousands of years before Christ from Alaska to Patagonia. There were scientists, teachers, doctors, and there were thousands of languages and dialects, a variety of sports, unique art and traditions and religions, and countless people.”

As I said that out loud, I notice a circle of ears listening in.

“With that said. We’re living examples of colonialism, where it comes from Europe. Also, known as the West. That’s how we speak English and Spanish, and how there are signs of the holy cross everywhere. Europeans of that time deemed indigenous people as savages for their way of living and punished them for trying to live it.

“Fast-forward it to the time of the Aztec empire and conquistadors in the 16th century. Millions upon millions of Native Americans died by guns, germs, and steel. It was a very bloody time. Pyramids got destroyed and Cathedrals grew. And for the next couple of centuries, colonialism expanded from Mexico City and made its way North. That’s how we have our local streets in Spanish, like Ortega, Micheltorena, and Indio Muerto. And the Santa Barbara Mission is an example of that, too. Also, colonialism was happening all over the Americas as well, all driven by greed of getting more gold and land. ”

I see all my students engaged in the lecture, and all the eavesdroppers. I saw a warm smile of an elderly Asian woman and I noticed an old white guy cringe as well. It felt like I was speaking forbidden knowledge.

A sudden move in the line interrupts my history lesson. We go in and choose aisle 43 and wait 23 minutes early for the movie to begin.

Fifteen minutes go by, and then an elderly lady sits down next to me as if she was looking for me.

“I love the history lesson you told your students. I was disappointed I couldn’t hear the rest of it. Everyone needs to learn history. ”

I thanked her in a kind of amazed speechless awkward way. Then I politely ended the conversation because I needed to give my students the attention instead.

Minutes passed and we all observed the gorgeous silver film.

After watching the incredible movie, director Ciro Guerra graced us with his presence and spoke about the insight of creating the film and how he was amazed nobody has told this epic story before. Also, the importance of telling the story right was the authenticity, as in the research in the writing—from getting their sources from actual indigenous elders who could share the historical stories of that time.

Then we had a film discussion on the movie over some Mexican food.

To not spoil the plot, but to give readers who want to use this film in an educational setting, I say this:

  • It’s teen-friendly. It has no sex scenes. Just cultural nudity and nothing overly violent compared to most action games.
  • It challenges the idea of a “timeline” and reincarnation.
  • You can incorporate World War II with the story behind the rubber tree in “supply & demand.”
  • It’s about colonialism.
  • The character analysis in “motive.”
  • It’s about cultural imperialism.
  • The symbolism of a “serpent.”

Embrace of the Serpent is a phenomenal film that can be used in an educational setting. It’s up in the ranks of such movies like Walkout, Kids, Glory and Stand & Deliver, but it stands alone for drawing a clear contrast between colonizers and colonized. Everyone should see it.


Michael Montenegro. Chicano. Filmmaker. Activist for media diversity.

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