Invisible. Unassuming. Background. That’s what Latinx folks are often relegated to on-screen.
The Valet appears to portray its Latinidad in that way. The titular character is the hardworking valet Antonio, played by Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez who also produces the film. Coming off his performance as choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos in last year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner CODA, Derbez couldn’t have picked a more different character. Antonio is a quiet man who doesn’t rock the boat, while Bernardo owned all the rooms he was in, the product of a forceful and ambitious personality.
Antonio, on the other hand, isn’t the type of guy who makes things happen, but rather who has things happen to him. And that’s where we meet him—he’s largely invisible, someone rich people throw their keys at without making eye contact. He’s getting divorced, the mother of his child Marisol Nichols’ Isabel having grown tired of his passivity. He misses her but doesn’t know how to start winning her back. Oh, and he lives with his mom. Then fate intervenes as some of Los Angeles’ rich and powerful use his accidental appearance in a paparazzi photo to hide an affair.
As The Valet progresses, the film bucks stereotypes, taking care to explore Antonio’s world and honor his perspective. Take the valet stand, for example, which functions as the water cooler at his job site. Antonio may fade into the background but his co-workers do not. They’re a Greek chorus of sorts, weighing in on the customers and stories of the day. And they’re varied individuals: Antonio’s brother-in-law Amaury Nolasco’s Benny is a man with a big presence, a natural-born leader. Gentefied’s Carlos Santos provides comic relief. Derbez is the gentle presence in the background. These men aren’t interchangeable, and their very presence together on-screen shows that Antonio isn’t the only form of representation for Latinx people or those in helping professions.
In Anglo films, a grown man living with his mom would be a sign that he’s a loser, a “failure to launch,” as they say. But not in The Valet. Here Antonio’s living arrangement while he goes through divorce shows how dedicated he is to his family, how much he loves and honors them. The late great Carmen Salinas plays his mother, and she resists types too. She’s not meddlesome or controlling, chaste or over-nurturing. Rather, she’s a hard-working woman who’s developed a cross-language romance with her landlord and who loves and regularly brings together her adult children.
When she passes, Antonio eulogizes her, the only time in the film he speaks for a prolonged period and fully owns the frame. So perhaps it is not that Antonio is so passive but rather that he refuses to seek out success in the ways our capitalist society wants him to. He is certainly not motivated by money. He turns down several opportunities to cash out from his chance celebrity encounter and appears to have no big career ambitions—he doesn’t love parking cars but he doesn’t dream of something else either. He rides his bike to work, and when it’s stolen, he only wants to replace it, not upgrade it.
Of course, he does pay a penalty for his refusal to play. His wife wants something different for herself and, after leaving him, hooks up with the ultimate go-getter: the realtor on all the local advertisements. The Valet makes it clear, though, that this is a matter of personal preference and generally lets both Antonio and Isabel seek happiness unjudged. Indeed, by the end, Isabel reaffirms to herself what she wants, and Antonio finds someone who better shares his priorities.
Those priorities are family, decency, and kindness. So, yes, Antonio is unassuming, but that doesn’t make him less deserving of happiness. And his lack of power moves doesn’t define our community but rather points to its diversity.
In the end, The Valet presents a warm and thoughtful representation of Latinidad that gently nudges its audience to evaluate their own values and how they play out in the world.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade