This land belongs to no one.
Like the butterflies traveling through the United States from Canada to Mexico, Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) decided to migrate too. He went to pursue his education in biology, finding himself in New York City as a lead scientist working with CRISPR to map the genome of the monarch. Doing so connects him back to Michoacán’s forests of insects looking like the leaves of a tree and spiritual belief that each butterfly was the soul of an ancestor since passed. There was comfort in that thought as a child since both his parents had died while he was very young. He and his brother (Noé Hernández‘s Simon) were there, narrowly escaping a similar fate, and that horror has marked them. It drove one to leave and the other to stay.
Writer/director Alexis Gambis is very intentionally pitting them against each other not as adversaries, but two sides of the same coin. His Hijo de Monarcas [Son of Monarchs] posits the question so many of us ask when it comes to our heritage, one pitting ethnicity versus nationality in reductive and often emotional ways. Is Simon the better man for staying? Is he a truer Mexican? These are loaded queries steeped in the same exclusionary ideas that have caused issues with borders to become so enflamed of late. Does it really matter when the place he calls home is so much different than it was ten years prior? The mine that flooded and caused his parents death is reopened. The trees have been burned. The butterflies have dwindled.
That doesn’t conversely mean Mendel is better by default, however. He can say he ran towards opportunity. Others will counter by explaining how he really ran away from duty and identity. Both are simultaneously true and false because one doesn’t exist without the other. To say Simon held fast to who he is means he ran away too. From opportunity. And he might be forcing his own children to do the same in hopes they pursue careers and lives that don’t seem like pipe dreams—regardless of whether Mendel’s fantasy came true. We are all battling who we want to be with who we could be; trading blows with our own guilt and regret. These brothers still share the same blood. They still embrace the same love.
Gambis doesn’t shy away from the fact that his story takes place during the Trump administration, but he doesn’t overtly make it a catalyst for where his characters go. It’s merely one of many factors that immigrants of all backgrounds must face in this country. His old friend Vincent (Gabino Rodríguez) even turns the GOP line that Mexicans are “animals” around, reclaiming it with a spiritual twist. Because wouldn’t it be great to be a lion or a bear? To freely roam this earth without worrying about whose property we’ve entered by way of survival? Mendel has always wondered where humanity would be if it had the ability to fly. Maybe we would finally be at peace to do and go wherever we please. Migration would become life.
The metaphors between Mendel and his work are many. Beyond travel, there’s also the notion of shared memory and evolution. The former comes by way of a story about a mountain that was once in the middle of Lake Superior. It hasn’t been there for millennia, but the butterflies still stop and turn around before going through as if they were told it remained. The latter is introduced via the act of changing genes and learning about where the insects’ color blueprint resides. Think of it as the colors of your people’s flag. Are you born with one set that stays dominant for the rest of your life? Or can it be changed as your life progresses towards new adventures? Can you possess more than one?
Mendel’s journey ultimately leads him to realize the answer is “Yes.” Just because he lives in New York doesn’t mean he’s forsaken Mexico. He has friends who speak Spanish (Gambis talks in the press notes about Latin American scientists being a fast-growing section of the US population) and studies a creature from his childhood. As much as he’s discovering what it means to be a butterfly, he’s also searching for what it means to be human. Maybe part of it is the beautiful thought that his parents were reborn with wings or perhaps it’s just the inevitable projection of his work onto our own DNA to figure out what matters most when it comes to who we are as a species. Color (flag or skin) surely isn’t it.
What makes us special is our desire to follow our hearts. Whether they take us somewhere new or keep us right where we started, our choices are ours to bear. There is no betrayal even if it might feel like some exists from the outside. Mendel didn’t betray Simon. Mendel’s friends taking a job in another state didn’t betray him. And none have betrayed their ancestors. If anything, they’re honoring them. Mendel’s grandmother opened his eyes to the magic of science and was surely his biggest champion when he decided to leave. That it’s her death that finally gets him to come home after so long could be construed as one last gift for him to try and make amends with his brother … and himself.
It’s a powerfully dramatic exploration of who we are through the eyes of someone forever trapped straddling an invisible line between worlds that aren’t so far apart. Gambis punctuates it with constant glimpses into the past to show us how Mendel was always questioning things as a boy, using death as an entrance into discovery while Simon wielded its resulting pain as an excuse to build a wall around himself. Huerta is fantastic in the lead role, struggling with purpose, love, history, and more during a year of big changes that ask Mendel to choose whether to accept them as occasion for celebration or lamentation. Nothing is set in stone. Nothing is permanent. Rather than promise an ending, evolution actually seeks to deliver a new and hopeful beginning.
courtesy of WarnerMedia OneFifty