Film

Snakes in the Grass

Jeanne Humphreys’ beautiful home at 210 Harbor Drive, Key Biscayne, Florida had a snake problem, but a recent trip to Jamaica had given her some food for thought. She learned that farmers on the island had introduced the mongoose into the local fauna to fight a snake infestation during the 1870’s. Curly Humphreys’ wife found herself thinking about the snake-killing carnivores one night at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach and innocently broached the subject with her husband’s associate and friend, Johnny Rosselli.

“What do you know about the word mongoose?” She asked Rosselli.

Shocked by the question, the gangster balked. “Are you crazy?”, Rosselli inquired before nearly spilling the beans on the CIA’s top-secret plot to kill Fidel Castro, in which he and Jeanne’s husband, were deeply involved.

“This Castro stuff is OK’d by the G [U.S. government]. We’re not supposed to talk about it”, Rosselli protested. “I can’t believe believe Curly would talk about such a thing.”

Jeanne Humphreys had no idea what Johnny was talking about and, wondered aloud what Castro had to do with the snakes in her front yard. Realizing his mistake, Rosselli asked Jeanne to keep it to herself. “Look, I just fucked up.” He said. “Please don’t tell Curly.”

The plot was the brainchild of then Vice President, Richard Nixon, who was angling for the presidency and calculated that a coup in Havana would get him there. After the scheme was hatched at a National Security Council meeting in the Spring of 1960, Nixon encouraged his military aide, General Robert Cushman, to meet with exiled Cuban militants and put a group together for its execution. Originally called Operation Pluto, the plan’s name was later changed to Operation Mongoose and it called for the invasion of Cuba and the assassination of Fidel Castro along with his top retinue of revolutionaries.

“I had been the strongest and most persistent for setting up and supporting such a program”, wrote Nixon, years later. But, the ragtag collection of exiles didn’t inspire the greatest confidence in the planners, and the decision was made to enlist the help of Johnny Rosselli, Curly Humphreys and a handful of other mobsters from the Chicago Outfit.

PHOTO – Mugshot of a young Filippo Sacco, a.k.a Johnny Rosselli

The Genius

Murray “Curly” Humphreys was the brains of the Chicago mob, otherwise known as The Outfit. His intellectual abilities would help them outmaneuver many a legal problem. But, one particular maneuver was such a stroke of genius, it would be enshrined in the most celebrated film in American history – The Godfather.

“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”, was the phrase crafted by the brilliant, former jewel thief to repel the onslaught of questions by U.S. Senators during the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, known as the Kefauver Committee. Over and over, Outfit members called to testify simply repeated the mantra, to the immense frustration of the dais.

The Committee called eight hundred witnesses in fifteen cities across the country during an eleven-month-long investigation, that resulted in more than 11,500 pages of testimony and must-watch TV. First broadcast in New Orleans, the hearing’s popularity soon drew in the big markets of New York and Los Angeles, among others. The record ratings attained during the 1950 World Series a year earlier were shattered, attracting between 20 and 30 million viewers. Committee Chairman Estes Kefauver became a household name and, at one point, the front-runner for the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination.

Nevertheless, none of the nineteen legislative recommendations issued by the committee’s report were ever implemented, and Kefauver himself, was found to be an avid gambler who was constantly broke as a result. Jewish mob boss, Meyer Lansky, confronted the hypocritical Senator. “What’s so bad about gambling?, asked the infamous New York Commission boss, “You like it yourself. I know you’ve gambled a lot.” Kefauver admitted as much, but revealed his true bigoted motivations in his repsonse: “That’s right, but I don’t want you people to control it.”

Forty-six “contempt of Congress” citations were issued during the hearings over the mobsters’ repeated use of Humphreys’ legal device. Only three were upheld by the courts. An incredible victory for the man who invented ‘Taking the fifth’, immortalized in Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film.

Al Pacino in a still from the film, ‘The Godfather,’ directed by Francis Coppola, 1972. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

The Godfather movie, itself, was a tribute the mob – which controlled most of Hollywood then – made to itself. Paramount producer Bob Evans had the rights to Mario Puzo’s novel and was unceremoniously turned down by MGM president, Jim Aubrey, when he tried to accommodate Coppola’s choice for the role of Michael Corleone – an unknown actor with an “unbreakable” contract with the competing studio, named Al Pacino. Undeterred, Evans sought help from Tinsel Town’s notorious fixer, Sidney Korshak.

“He never heard of the schmuck, either.”, recounted Korshak to Evans about how he dealt with the reluctant Aubrey. “I asked him if he wanted to finish building his hotel.”, said Korshak. The thinly veiled threat was enough for MGM to release Pacino from his contract and allow him to play the part, which would establish him in as one of the biggest names in the business.

A Fucking Hoofer

The Outfit’s incursion into the entertainment industry had begun after the end of Prohibition forced them to find other rackets to grow and launder their fortunes. The movie business, with its massive budgets and licensing opportunities, was the perfect vehicle. But, before film, the mob had taken over the music industry and bankrolled many of its brightest stars. Frank Sinatra was, perhaps, the brightest of them all.

The mob not only made Frank Sinatra, but also saved his career when it was foundering in the early 1950’s. Despite his marriage to Hollywood A-lister, Ava Gardner, Frank’s bid to jump-start his career again by getting a part in Harry Cohn’s upcoming movie, “From Here to Eternity”, was falling flat with the producer, who wanted a real actor for the part. “You’re nothing but a fucking hoofer”, Cohn told the desperate crooner, who immediately appealed to his mob buddies for a helping hand.

In a scenario similar to the one, that would play out years later between Korshak and MGM’s Aubrey, Johnny Rosselli came to Frank’s rescue and made Cohn an offer he couldn’t refuse. The movie won a total of eight Oscars, with Sinatra taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor and a new professional lifeline.

Meanwhile, things were picking up over in Havana, Cuba; the very place where Sinatra’s career had been launched. Santo Trafficante, Jr. was making a killing in the revamped casino business in Havana, in league with dictator Batista, who made Trafficante’s partner, Lansky, “adviser on gambling reform”.

PHOTO – Mugshot of young Frank Sinatra

The Commission boss soon opened a casino inside the iconic National Hotel, designed by Igor Plevitski, who also designed The Biltmore in Coral Gables. Six years earlier, a historic meeting between the biggest mafia bosses took place at the legendary hotel. Yet another pivotal moment also dramatized in The Godfather, when the heads of all the families gathered at the National to discuss something that was left out of the classic film – their participation in a highly classified, CIA-sponsored operation. Just before the mob summit, Frank Sinatra landed in Havana with two million dollars in a suitcase for the CIA’s point-man, Lucky Luciano.

Charles “Lucky” Luciano was recruited by CIA-precursor, OSS in 1942 to ostensibly safeguard New York harbor from acts of sabotage by the enemy axis. After being convicted to 30 years in federal prison for running a prostitution ring, Luciano was approached by undercover OSS agents , the precursor organization of the CIA, and offered a deal, that would mark the beginning of a far-reaching partnership between the U.S. government and the Sicilian and Italian-American mafia.

An argument can be made, that the CIA was created for the sole purpose of managing this partnership, which involved the creation of secret militias financed by world-wide heroin trafficking, called Operation Gladio.The meeting at the National Hotel in Havana was made to convince the Gambinos, Genoveses, Accardos and other top mafia families to get into the narcotics game, many of whom considered a dishonorable endeavor, and help Uncle Sam “fight communism”. The money Sinatra delivered to Luciano in Havana was part of a down payment he intended to distribute among the guests.

PHOTO – Hotel Nacional de Cuba view towards the Malecón in Havana, Cuba

The Wrong Cuban

Cubans were becoming part of America’s collective consciousness, thanks in large measure to the “I Love Lucy” show, which featured the bongo-playing Ricky Ricardo, Lucile Ball’s real-life husband and the sitcom’s producer, Desi Arnaz.

Arnaz is credited with inventing the multiple-camera sitcom method, which made his production house, Desilu Studios, one of Hollywood’s most successful, at the time. In 1959, Arnaz had another hit on his hands. The Untouchables, a show about fabled law-enforcer, Elliot Ness and his mobster-chasing adventures, ran for four years on ABC and became one of television’s classic shows. But, the Italian-American community did not take well to the portrayal of their culture on the series and it drew special ire from the real crime bosses, who went after the producer.

Desi’s childhood friend had been none other than Sonny Capone, the only son of the legendary mob boss, Al Capone. It was Sonny who first complained to Arnaz about the problem he had stirred up, but Arnaz insisted he was the best person to make such a show because of his own personal connection to the subject matter. From there, the issue only escalated and Sam Giancana, nominal head of the Chicago Outfit, sent Frank Sinatra to talk some sense into the Cuban.

The conversation between Arnaz and Sinatra ended with the singer storming out and pulling all of his productions from of Desilu Studios. Outraged, Giancana dispatched two of his henchmen to remove Desi Arnaz from this earth. Al Capone’s widow, Mae, stepped in to call off the hit and Ricky Ricardo was spared.

American actress Lucille Ball (1911 – 1989) (as Lucy Ricardo) and her husband, Cuban actor Desi Arnaz (1917 – 1986) (as Ricky Ricardo) talk in an episode of ‘I Love Lucy,’ Los Angeles, California, September 21, 1954. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

As it turns out, the mob had been worried about the wrong Cuban. Fidel Castro was about to turn the mob’s Havana dreams into a nightmare as his revolutionary forces ousted Batista and his entrenched elite. With Eisenhower riding out the last year of his Presidency and more worried about how his legacy would be affected by starting a conflict 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, Castro caught a break.

Nevertheless, the calculation regarding Castro seems to have changed among the real policy-making circles of America, and Castro’s sudden take-over of the island was seen as more of a boon than a detriment to U.S. designs for the rest of Latin America.

Cuba, after all, had no value besides that of a playground for the rich. In terms of natural resources, for instance, it was hardly worth the trouble to invest any kind of man-power to the goal of regime-change, even if such efforts were comprised of disposable mobsters and Cuban exiles. On the other hand, having a communist boogie man they could wave around as a warning to those in the continent who dared to dream of self-determination was much more valuable.

The Snake Pit

After the fiasco in the Caribbean, the upper echelons of the mafia saw the writing on the wall and made the necessary adjustments. Trafficante, Jr. cut a deal with the new island boss and gave Castro a piece of the bolita proceeds, a street-level gambling racket up and down the U.S. east coast. In contrast, Johnny Rosselli would go down with the ship.

Rosselli, like many of his Italian-immigrant brethren, dreamed of becoming full-blooded Americans. For him and his ilk, legitimizing their fortunes and joining the ranks of the “upperworld”, or the realm of sanctioned wealth creation, was also part of that aspiration.

He considered himself a patriot and his sincere commitment to anything the “G-men” would ask of him bore this out more than once. As far as Rosselli was concerned, he had reached the dream. Narrowly escaping fire from Cuban forces and twice having to jump out of speed boats during failed CIA-missions in the Caribbean, Rosselli had the war stories to prove it.

The era of the “Goombahs”, however, was coming to a close. The new RICO laws were successfully used to dissolve the crime family model in the United States. Rudy Giuliani, future Mayor of New York and Italian-American son, was the first and most prolific prosecutor of the mafia under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970.

In 1976, Filippo Sacco’s decomposing body – Johnny Rosselli’s real name – was found in a 55-gallon steel drum floating near Miami, Florida after he had been called to testify before the Church Committee for a second time about who had killed Kennedy. As it turned out, Johnny Rosselli had a snake problem of his own and would have been better served by following his friend Curly’s advice all those years ago and taken “the fifth”.

The real scope and implications of what Rosselli was lending himself to, through his participation in the anti-Castro plot and other deep state operations probably escaped him and other members of the Outfit who were a part of them. Ultimately, they were pawns in a covert war that continues to this day, under different guises and with different players.

Role Reversal

If you would have carried out a poll in early November of 1963 about who was most likely to be assassinated that month between the President of the United States and Fidel Castro, the final tally would have likely tilted toward the latter. The fact that the bearded, cigar-smoking revolutionary remained in power for another five decades should tell us something.

The Cuban exile community blames Kennedy for the failure of the Bay of Pigs. But, it is clear that a decision had been made by more powerful, invisible players to keep Castro in power. The same ones who made the decision to remove Kennedy, and his entire mob-connected family, from it.

PHOTO – Fidel Castro surrounded by showgirls in Havana, Cuba

The scramble for power between the time of JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation almost a decade later, was real. America’s post-war superpower status was seriously threatened by the Arab oil embargo. The Vietnam war and other internal strife had frayed the social fabric of the country.

Concurrently, Operation Gladio was unraveling in Europe and the usefulness of the CIA’s partnership with the mafia was becoming a liability. Luciano’s Sicilian networks and their affiliation with CIA-sponsored right-wing terrorists were being exposed by Italian law enforcement and attracting unwanted international attention. The whole house of cards was starting to come down and it would have, had it not been for the operation’s success in Afghanistan, where the Soviet military was exhausting itself fighting Gladio-financed Mujahidin led by one Osama Bin Laden.

Despite teetering on the brink of collapse, “anti-communism” was still fungible currency in American political theater, which could be traded for lowering protectionist barriers and other obstacles to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fidel Castro, as a gatekeeper for an economic embargo that destroyed the lives of the Cuban people – not to mention a clear and present “nuclear threat” to the region, represented a valuable hegemonic tool for these same interests.

Sleep with the Fishes

The mob developed Hollywood’s proof of concept and built the industry’s SOPs. Today, the CIA and the Military Industrial Complex exerts direct control and oversees the messaging of almost every theater release; especially in the superhero/comic movie genre, which is little more than war propaganda.

The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ricky Ricardo are two sides of a false dialectic. Nuclear annihilation or Merengue; starvation or dinner with Ethel and Fred. The ‘TV-fication’ of America allowed simple yes/no narratives to be delivered right to the viewers’ prefrontal cortex.

Today, the ‘Internetification’ of America is bypassing even this step in the flow of perception and taking it straight to the limbic system, where discernment is an afterthought and the need for a narrative is eliminated altogether.

Much of the research for this article comes from Gus Russo’s fantastic account of the Chicago mob scene in his book The Outfit – The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America

Spoiler Alert – This piece is only for those who have seen Roma. If you haven’t yet experienced Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and most acclaimed motion picture, I recommend you do so in a movie theater, before you consider watching it on television. I will not get into the Netflix distribution debate in this article. There are already more than enough takes about this issue.

A Strange Place

The film is enigmatic. Cuarón achieves visually captivating moments throughout the two hours and change he prepared for us. From painstaking recreations of 1970’s Mexico City streets, to sweeping sequences and arresting cinematic frames, that we’re sure to continue seeing years from now. But, the choice to go monochrome creates an unnecessary distance between the story and the viewer.

Color is not incidental in a place like DF (Distrito Federal); it is part and parcel of everyday life. The color is still there in the film, but one has to have already seen it to recognize it.

The movie takes place in the neighborhood my mother grew up in. My aunt lives there, in the same two-bedroom apartment, to this day. “La Roma”, as it’s more popularly known, is a place I know as if I had grown up there myself, even if reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The only permanent abode I ever knew. A bastion of stability in the otherwise centrifuge of chaos that was my life.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo and Marco Graf as Pepe in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

Only those of us who are from there can see the pinks and the greens and the blues. We can see the multi-colored tiles of the opening shot. Beyond this, we can see the real stories being told through the lens of a semi-autobiographical work by a director who emerged out of that same, colorful, primordial Mexican sap.

Through his personal story we find the story of all Mexicans. What follows is an interpretation of these stories, from my own personal perspective and perched on a precipice at the edge of the universe.

La Colonia – The Allegory of the Still Birth

The correct translation of neighborhood in Spanish is “vecindario”, but in Mexico City, the term “colonia” is an official designation representing a specific area within the huge metropolis. The relationship is similar to that between counties and cities in America. Nevertheless, the word also carries the more familiar, political definition.

The colonial theme is inevitably present throughout Cuarón’s film, whether he intended it or not. Aparicio’s character, Cleo, is an indigenous servant in a criollo (European-descended people) household. Aparicio, herself, is a real-life actor in the ongoing colonial drama that Mexico continues to live. The state of Oaxaca, where she hails from, remains one of the country’s most indigenous regions.

Classism is rampant in Mexico. The rich and upper middle classes segregate themselves both physically and culturally from the rest. The media, especially, is guilty of projecting a completely false image to the viewing public. If you were to judge the Mexican population by the people cast in its television shows, you’d likely assume most of the country is blonde and blue-eyed. The pernicious influence of the “Telenovela” genre and other cultural Trojan horses have contributed to a widespread, and largely subconscious pathology of self-hatred in the mostly dark-complexioned Mexican population.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

The oft-repeated, quasi-historical myth of “La Malinche” is the archetype Cleo embodies in the film. She is a bridge between the natives and the foreigners. It is the foreigners who comfort her when her offspring is born dead. And this is the first allegory of Roma:

She tells us, herself, that she did not want the child to be born. Her destiny is to clean Borras’ shit off the garage floor. Borras is the master’s dog’s name, which loosely translates from the Spanish to “Erase”. Her people will not go on.

Children of the New World – The Allegory of the Astronaut

The astronaut theme comes up several times throughout the movie in the context of youthful imagination.

In one example, he shows us two children playing astronaut. One wears a space-man costume with all the bells and whistles, “exploring” a swampy part of his extended family’s beautiful, sprawling property somewhere in the country. The other, wandering about in a dirt-poor area on the outskirts of Mexico City as if in zero gravity, wearing an improvised space helmet fashioned out of a bucket. Just before this, we see a man shoot out of a canon and land in a net – a scene, which followed a frame of the Hollywood classic “Space Cowboys”, in something of a homage to Kubrick’s famous montage in “A Space Odyssey”.

Underneath, these instances speak to a very particular form of classist indoctrination prevalent in Mexico City’s private schools, in particular. Social status signaling is cliche among school-age kids everywhere, but in Mexico this sort of peer pressure takes on a deeper meaning, encompassing the country’s unique relationship to its only neighbor to the north.

Clothing is often at the center of these contests of social acceptance. Wearing a national brand of shoes or jeans instantly relegates you to the bottom of the social ladder. American brand names, conversely, propel you to the top. ‘Hecho en México’ is only for “nacos” – a derogatory term for the dark-skinned lower classes.

I had a front-row seat during my elementary school years as both witness and participant of this grotesque dynamic. Attending one of the city’s top private schools alongside the children of rich foreigners or high-ranking politicians, we were the kids with links to the “otro lado”. We took shopping trips across the border and had family in the United States. We wore our American brand name clothes to school and compared our American school supplies. We had Trapper Keepers and collected Garbage Pail Kids. We listened to Duran Duran and The Thompson Twins. Belting out the words to “El Rey” and other classic, truly Mexican Rancheras was only done after a few Tequilas.

The allegory of the astronaut represents the negation of self through the pursuit of the unattainable. Cuarón reveals a subconscious reality, that afflicts the upper classes in Mexico. A profound racism rooted in self-loathing and false identification with a different culture.

Bastard Machos – The Allegory of the Dead-Beat Fathers

Visiting my great aunt’s house in La Roma was, at once, entertaining and terrifying. Her son, my second cousin, had an inclination for mechanics and a bit of a prankster streak, which expressed itself in fun ways, like a pulley system he’d made to open the front door of the house from upstairs and frighten anyone who came knocking. The real hair-raiser, however, was in a room on the second floor where a life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ stood in full catholic regalia on an altar surrounded by candles. The figure had been sculpted by my great grandfather after “supposedly” having a religious epiphany on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo and Jorge Antonio Guerrero as Fermín in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

The skepticism came directly from the women in the family, who seemed to doubt the sincerity of the man’s spiritual awakening and, rather, believed it was a momentary lapse in an otherwise steady pattern of drunkenness and adultery.

Mexican “machismo” is a world-famous stereotype, which is often accompanied by images of large hats and long mustaches. But, there is a much more mundane face to the pervasive reality behind the caricature.

On my mother’s side of the family, men were hard to find. My own grandfather had two families, simultaneously. He would only “visit” my grandmother in her two-bedroom Roma apartment every weeknight after his pediatric practice. She would make him supper and they would watch the “novela” together. Once the soap opera was over, he would wash up in her tiny bathroom and leave to spend the night with his other family. He seemed completely content with this arrangement and never appeared to have a shred of self-consciousness about it. To me, it was completely normal. I never thought to question why he was just coming in the evenings for a short while and leaving. Only later did I find out what a pathetic man my mother’s father was. My grandmother’s humiliation had become a part of her personality, so I never noticed that, either.

The absent father figure would manifest itself down the generational line in different ways. And it certainly isn’t exclusive to my family.

In the film, the chain-smoking father who abandons his family provides the inciting incident from which the rest of the story unfolds. The huge car, that barely fits in the car port, symbolizes the inflated sense of the Mexican male ego, too unwieldy to be part of a balanced family unit. When he leaves them, it is in a Volkswagen Beatle. But, his estranged wife still has to drive around in the massive vehicle, battering it as she comes to terms with her emotions and, finally, beaching the enormous four-wheeled animal.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, Marina de Tavira as Sra. Sofía and Fernando Grediaga as Sr. Antonio in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

Cleo’s love interest embodies the unfortunate archetype of the Mexican macho, as well. But, he also represents the larger context of the conversation. He tells us his story. How “martial arts” saved him from a dissolute life; a metaphor about the Mexican military and the thousands of young, disenfranchised men who make up their ranks. This is apparent when Cuarón makes him one of the plain-clothed gunmen chasing the activists through the furniture store – a scene, which makes little sense unless we consider the totality of the character’s symbolism and the actual history of state repression during those years in Mexico.

The allegory of the dead-beat fathers is the story of Mexican maleness. It is the historically ambiguous relationship with power, that stems from a 500-year old identity crisis borne out of the still unresolved trauma of colonialism.

Interpreter’s Disclaimer

Art, once it is completed, renounces ownership. The artist has no more say about how his or her work is seen, absorbed or interpreted than anyone else. I do not ascribe any of the above to the director’s original intentions or ideas when making his film. It is simply what I saw, as I saw it.

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