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The Perez Family (1995) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

raul dorita carmelita cuba

Principal social theme: immigration

Goldwyn Pictures. R rating. Featuring: Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Anjelica Huston, Chazz Palmintieri, Trini Alverado, Celia Cruz, Diego Walraff, Angela Lanza, Ranjit Chowdhry, Ellen Cleghorne, Vincent Gallo, Jose Felipe Padrone, Bill Sage, Lazaro Perez. Written by Robin Swicord based on the novel by Christine Bell. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Edited by Robert Estrin. Music by Alan Silvestri, Arturo Sandoval, and Jellybean Benitez. Produced by Michael Nozik and Lydia Dean Pilcher. Directed by Mira Nair. Color. 112 minutes.


The Perez Family is set against the backdrop of the 1980 exodus from Cuba when Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to allow a large number of people, including political prisoners, criminals, and other detainees, to emigrate in a ragtag flotilla of boats, some barely seaworthy. The U.S. government granted most of them asylum. Popularly called the Mariel Boat Lift, this event electrified the Cuban community in Miami, where most of the refugees headed. This film concentrates on a group of immigrants sharing the last name Perez who pose as a family in order to receive a lower number on the list of those seeking American sponsors.


The film opens with a surreal, dream image of Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina) and his family. He is dressed in a white suit, watching his closest relatives walk into the sea. He awakens suddenly in a Cuban jail. He is dragged out of his cell by guards, who throw him down in the prison yard, threatening to shoot him. The scene switches to a television report about the release of political prisoners in Cuba. Carmelita (Anjelica Huston) watches the television in her luxurious home in Coral Gables, Florida, hopeful that her husband will be released. They have been separated for twenty years; she and her daughter, Teresa, were able to escape to America while her husband was imprisoned by the Communist regime. Elsewhere in Cuba, a young, beautiful sugarcane worker, Dorita Perez (Marisa Tomei) asks her supervisor if she can be permitted to join the boat convoy to America. A free spirit, she describes herself as resembling Cuba, “used by many, mastered by none.” Raul and Dorita meet on one of the boats. They comment about how common the last name “Perez” is in Cuba. Raul tells her he looks forward to seeing his wife again after twenty years, and Dorita says how she looks forward to freedom in America. When they near the coast of Florida, Dorita jumps off the boat and swims ashore. The refugees gather on shore and are briefly questioned by American immigration officials. They are then transported to the Orange Bowl, where a refugee camp is set up.

Back at Coral Gables, however, Carmelita’s brother, Angel Diaz, tells her that Raul has not been released, and he will never be able to come to America. In truth, Angel wants to keep her apart from Raul. He was initially responsible for Raul’s arrest by the Communists. For years, he has been pocketing the money that Carmelita has been sending for her husband’s benefit in prison. He does not want his twenty years of deceit to be exposed. Raul expects his wife to show up at the Orange Bowl to meet him, and is disappointed when she does not appear. Dorita, noting that he has not heard from her in over two years, suggests that she might have died. The manager of the refugee camp tells Dorita that as an individual, her number in the sponsor list is fairly high, but if she teamed up with other family members, they would be assigned a lower number. She becomes depressed when he tells her that John Wayne, her favorite film star, is no longer alive. At a camp film show, she sees a guard who resembles John Wayne and befriends him. He agrees to take her out on a date to a disco dance hall.

Carmelita becomes friendly with John Pirelli (Chazz Palmintieri), a federal agent doing research on the Mariel refugees. He and Carmelita are attracted to each other, and he asks her out on a date. Feeling she will never see her husband again, she agrees.

The refugees at the Orange Bowl learn that they will be transferred in a few weeks to a military base in the Midwest. Dorita persuades Raul to pose as her husband in order to get a lower number. She then persuades Felipe Perez, a streetwise young teen refugee, to pose as their son, and a mute elder to pose as Raul’s father. The new “Perez family” is quickly sponsored by a Catholic mission, and they are provided work selling flowers on a busy street. By chance, Raul sees a newspaper advertisement for a furniture store featuring Angel, his brother-in-law. When he visits the store, Angel calls the police, claiming he is an impostor posing as Raul. He tracks down Carmelita’s address, but observes her flirting with Pirelli outside her house, and he lacks the confidence to approach her. Felipe gets in trouble with a loan shark, who kills him when he cannot pay off. Raul and Dorita are heartbroken, as if they had lost a real son. Dorita has fallen in love with Raul.

Angel sees them selling flowers on the highway, and tracks him down at the mission. He visits Raul there and warns him to stay away. Raul finally realizes that it was Angel who had him arrested in Cuba. Angel’s girlfriend, a popular singer named Luz, is angry that he is trying to keep Raul and Carmelita apart. Conspiring with Teresa, they arrange to have Carmelita and Raul attend the same dance at which Luz is hired to sing. Luz plans to make a surprise announcement from the stage reuniting them. Their scheme does not work exactly as planned, because Angel sees Raul at the dance and tries to shoot him. Instead, a guard shoots Angel, and Carmelita and Raul are finally reunited. Teresa is delighted to talk with her father, but Carmelita is hesitant. When alone, they talk honestly. Carmelita had been almost a child bride when they married, but now has to admit that she had even forgotten how her husband looked. Raul praises her for raising their daughter so well, and he is happy to see how American she is. They both reach the conclusion that too much time has passed for them to resume their marriage. Raul returns to Dorita, with whom he has fallen in love, and Carmelita feels free to continue her relationship with Pirelli.


The Perez Family is essentially a tribute to the vibrant Cuban American community in southern Florida. The film magnificently recreates the flavor and spirit of the community, laced with humor as well as tragedy. The title, of course, can be taken on many levels. Many of the refugees are named Perez, a very common name, so it almost serves as a metaphor for the boat people themselves. It also refers to the artificially constructed family that Dorita creates to save them from being shipped to a military base out of the area. Finally, it stands for the broken original Perez family, whose unity withered away due to the passing years as well as the poisonous influence of Carmelita’s brother. Yet, in Teresa, the family continues as another generation, this time fully Americanized.

The film itself has numerous side plots, such as Felipe’s attempts to be a hustler and make money, which end in his death by loan sharks. Then there is the mystery of Papi, the old man who continually climbs trees and flagpoles. It turns out that he thinks he can catch a glimpse of his homeland, Cuba, if he just manages to climb high enough. The new refugees love America, but are also traumatized by their past. For one brief moment, they are afraid they are going to be shot when they arrive at the Orange Bowl. Dorita personalizes Americans in the image of John Wayne. When she learns he is dead, she runs sobbing to Raul, saying her hero is dead just like Elvis Presley. Raul, hopelessly out of touch with recent events, mutters in response, “So many political assassinations.” Later, as he grows more perceptive, Raul overhears two old-timers discussing the past, claiming it never got so hot in Cuba. He tells them he just came from Cuba, and it gets as hot. Then he looks around at the stores and the people and observes that Cuba is actually here, too. The Perez Family provides an excellent glimpse into the Latino heritage blending with American culture to become renewed and invigorated.

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