Maybe you’ve heard of the Netflix film Chupa from the firestorm around its title. While it’s an awkward choice —especially for a children’s movie— Mexican-born director Jonás Cuarón insists the name was purposeful.
“There was an innocence in (main character Alex) naming the creature ‘Chupa,'” he told Latino Rebels.
You see, Cuarón —son of Alfonso Cuarón and filmmaker in his own right— set out to “build a story about a Mexican American kid who travels to Mexico and encounters this creature. A lot of his journey is reconnecting with his culture. He’s a kid that doesn’t truly speak Spanish, and he is going to learn Spanish.”
The multiple meanings of “chupa” are apparently lost on Alex, a sign of his youth and cultural ignorance.
But I’m not sure I buy it. Frankly, I wish they went with “Chupy” or really anything else, because the name aside, Chupa is a pretty fun family film, one with echoes of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Indiana Jones.
Part of that is the boy-befriends-creature plot line, something Cuarón says attracted him to the screenplay. “There’s something so magical about the way kids interact with creatures,” he said. “I really wanted to play that up in the development.”
But it’s also evident in the camera angles, how Cuarón shoots the Mexican desert and skyline like we saw the background in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. “Every single frame in Chupa is an homage to Spielberg, that ’90s Spielberg,” explained Cuarón, adding that Christian Slater’s villain character is based on the Jurassic Park bad guy, Sam Neill.
I do wish he’d pushed it further, using a muppet or really any real physical object rather than CGI for the creature. But I guess nostalgia can only go so far.
For his part, Cuarón comes by his ’90s obsession honestly, sharing how he spent the pandemic watching the movies of his childhood with his kids, like the aforementioned Spielberg titles and earlier films like The Goonies and Gremlins.
Chupa is undeniably different from those titles, though. “All those movies that I grew up admiring, they were really fun because they showed the possibility of magic. But it always was in a context that I didn’t recognize,” said Cuarón. “It always was in the U.S. with characters that I didn’t identify with. So it was really fun to have the possibility to ground one of those types of movies in the Mexican context.”
The result is a celebration of Mexican culture, family, and magic. Cuarón remembers growing up around the time the chupacabras legend developed first in Puerto Rico and then spread throughout Latin America. For the non-Latinos reading this, the chupacabras is described as a scaly creature —though some say it’s more dog-like than reptile— about three to four feet tall that sucks the blood of goats.
The chupacabras has since become a thing of horror, but Cuarón sees and portrays the mythical animal differently. He remembers the sense of wonder the myth gave him as a child, the possibility of a new creature being found in the world filling him with the sense that magic truly existed. And it’s that possibility that infuses Chupa along with a celebration of Mexican culture and family.
The film opens in the ’90s with Stateside Alex (Evan Whitten) being teased about the Mexican food in his lunch at school. Bullied and bereaved of his deceased father, Alex is in need of some help, so his mom sends him back to Mexico to connect with his roots.
There, his abuelo, played by the Oscar-nominated Demián Bichir, starts nudging him to learn Spanish. Soon Alex meets cousins who also help him along in his journey—although the older one does him a disservice by not fully explaining what “chupa” means, or at least steering him in another direction.
In Chupa, la cultura is punk rock and luchador, plus the standard family-first orientation. Waxing poetic, Cuarón says, “Family is who carries your narrative of who you are.”
And that’s why Alex’s journey takes him to his abuelo and primos. In Mexico, he discovers the chupacabras, but he also figures out how to have pride in who he is, thanks to family members who are simply being themselves in all their Mexican glory.
It’s a nice lesson, particularly for U.S.-born Latinx kids who never seem to be the heroes of the story. In Chupa, we see a Mexican American boy go from shame to triumph, and all it takes is a little magic and a lot of love.
Chupa is available on Netflix now.
Cristina Escobar is the entertainment reporter for Latino Rebels. She is also 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