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20 years later, and Spy Kids is still a benchmark for Latinx representation in blockbusters

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Mar 31, 2021, 7:34 PM EDT (Updated)

Twenty years ago this month, Spy Kids combined a James Bond-like tale of espionage and crazy gadgets with colorful aesthetics straight out of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The film, a cult classic, marked director Robert Rodriguez’s jump from indie darling to mainstream Hollywood success story. More importantly, the film's portrayal of a multicultural family remains a benchmark for Latinx representation in Hollywood blockbusters — even if only one of the main characters is played by a Latinx actor.

Siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez (played by Alexa PenaVega and Daryl Sabara) are regular kids dealing with regular pre-teen problems like school bullies, sibling rivalry, bed-wetting, and discovering that their parents are international super spies — you know, typical kid stuff. From the get-go, Rodriguez makes it clear that this is a Latinx household. There's the Cortez last name, calling family friends "uncle," the Día de Muertos-style calaveras used as bride and groom figures for the parents' wedding cake topper, the adobe brick house like those found all over the Southwest, and the Latin-inspired, guitar-heavy score. Even something as simple as shooting the film with the same sort of yellow filter that many Hollywood productions use to signify that the story takes place in a Latin American country tells us everything we need to know about this family. 

Except Rodriguez goes even deeper and makes Spy Kids a U.S. Latino experience. The Texan filmmaker, who was born in the U.S. but is of Mexican descent, has said in the past that he drew inspiration from his home life, and named several characters in the film after his own relatives — his uncle Gregorio was an FBI special agent, while his brother's name is Juni. The kids don't really speak Spanish, except for a couple of lines of dialogue, using it as a sort of code when something cool happens. Meanwhile, Carmen is shown to be embarrassed by her incredibly long and very Latinx-sounding full name (Carmen Elizabeth Juanita Echo Sky Brava Cortez).

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the casting of the film, which is severely lacking when it comes to true representation. (Of the Cortez family, only PenaVega and Danny Trejo, who plays Uncle "Machete," are of Latinx descent. Antonio Banderas is a Spanish actor.) Still, Spy Kids felt like a huge milestone in a Hollywood film for how much it accomplished at a time where Latinx stories were all but invisible in the eyes of Hollywood.

Last year during a San Diego Comic-Con @ Home panel, Rodriguez opened up about how hard it was for him to convince studio executives to even make the family Latinx. He ended up winning them over by arguing that "you don't have to be British to enjoy James Bond. By being more specific, you’re being more universal," which is exactly why Spy Kids works. The film's focus on such a specific experience brings out the universal themes at the center of the story, like its focus on family unity and children having to take care of each other. Both Carmen and Machete are the elder sibling, and they resent their parents for forcing them to take care of their younger brothers all the time. Though this is a common part of Latinx households and culture, any kid can relate to feeling responsible for their sibling even if they don't want to be. 

That's why Spy Kids remains such a special film in terms of Latinx representation. Even if the casting isn't exactly up there, Rodriguez weaves in Latinx culture into the film in a way that makes the kids feel both distinct yet broad. Carmen's family issues feel very much part of the Latinx experience, but she is also just a kid who doesn't feel comfortable in her family and wants to get away and make her own name, as she admits to skipping school to head to the city, and apparently also running off to Belize. You don't have to be Latinx to watch and enjoy Spy Kids, and them being Latinx isn't essential to tell a story about kids who are also spies, but it adds an emotional context to the film that enriches the viewing experience. 

Hollywood is still severely lacking when it comes to Latinx representation, particularly when it comes to creatives, as annual diversity reports continue to prove. But things are starting to change. In 2019, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, featuring the first bi-racial superhero to front a feature film, and also the first Latinx superhero in a movie. Warner Bros. is supposedly working on a Blue Beetle movie, which would be the first DC film starring a Latinx superhero. Though Spy Kids isn't strictly a superhero film, it proved that there was a hunger for kids of color to see themselves on the screen. Even 20 years later, Robert Rodriguez's first blockbuster hit can teach us how to make a story feel universal by diving into the specificity of its culture.