June 13, 2023
Adapting Austen: Sense and Sensibility and From Prada to Nada
One of my favorite transpositions of English literature into a Latinx setting is the 2011 film, From Prada to Nada (dir. Ángel Gracia). It’s a modern-day Sense and Sensibility, set in Los Angeles. The film begins with sisters Nora (Elinor, played by Camilla Belle) and Mary (Marianne, played by Alexa PenaVega), who live with their father in their mansion in Beverly Hills. Their mother has already passed away, and everyone in the family is Mexican, or Mexican-American. Mary is fashion-obsessed and materialistic, and Nora is focused on her career, an aspiring lawyer. At the outset on their father’s birthday, he dies suddenly, and at his funeral, their half-brother, Gabe (John Dashwood, played by Pablo Cruz), they didn’t know they had arrives, along with his cruel white wife Olivia (Fanny Dashwood, played by April Bowlby). They find out that their father was in bankruptcy, so the sisters sell their portion of the house and its belongings to Gabe and his wife, and they go to live with their Aunt Aurelia (Mrs. Jennings, played by Adriana Barraza) in East LA. Her neighbor is Bruno (Colonel Brandon, played by Wilmer Valderrama), who later becomes Mary’s love interest only after she gets involved with as Rodrigo (Willoughby, played by Kuno Becker), the handsome and dishonest graduate student instructor who ignites Mary’s passion when teaching Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Nora falls for Edward (Edward, played by Nicholas D’Agosto), the brother of Gabe’s wife and later Nora’s boss. All things come to the surface at the engagement party for Edward and Lucy (Lucy, played by Karla Souza).
Fidelity critics will no doubt be disappointed. Gone is Jane Austen’s witty narrative voice and in its place is the dynamic city of Los Angeles, offering the commentary on characters as they move throughout its neighborhoods. The genre is shifted entirely to comedy and light-hearted, feel-good, rom-com storytelling. The father’s seeming coldness toward Gabe is forgiven when Nora and Mary discover their father’s stack of letters that he had written to Gabe, which were returned unopened. At the engagement party, they give Gabe the letters, and a tender moment occurs when we see Gabe begin to read them in solitude in his late father’s study.
Written by Fina Torres, Luis Alfaro, and Craig Fernandez, the script satirizes how wealthy people view those who aren’t—and vice versa—including those from their own cultural and national background. Upon learning about her loss of fortune, Mary comically laments to her friend, “No high protein diet. Poor people only eat carbs.” When the sisters arrive at Aurelia’s, Mary is frightened by the neighborhood, and Aurelia quips, “You are on the other side of the border.” Los Angeles is filled with such borders, between neighborhoods, languages, socioeconomic levels, and generations. In the opening segment and during the montage as the sisters drive to East LA, there is an image of the street sign where Sunset Boulevard becomes Cesar Chavez Avenue—the portion of Sunset between Figueroa and Main that was renamed in 1994.
Nora and Mary do not speak Spanish at the outset, and the film charts their growing desire to learn. Both young women have lost the Spanish they learned when younger, and the sisters have recollections of “that Pedro guy” (Pedro Infante) and the “Dolores river lady” (Dolores Del Rio). Mary sings along to the lyrics of “Cielito Lindo,” a popular Mexican folk song, but doesn’t know what the words mean. In fact, several versions of “Cielito Lindo” play throughout the film, not just to dramaturgically establish Mexican culture through sound, but also to serve as a through line: it is the song that the mariachi band plays as the sisters dance with their father, only for him to collapse and die at his own party, and it is the overlay soundtrack that sets the mood on their first night at Aurelia’s. The music is both within and outside of the world of the film.
Their experiences of grief and falling in love bring the sisters back to their culture. Mary and Nora grow up in a house with a father (and servants) who speak Spanish, yet they do speak Spanish, a common language shift from first to second-generation Latinx. Learning Spanish is one part of the coming-of-age story for both sisters: there is the desire to speak to their (bilingual) relatives, the people in the community, retaining memories of their deceased parents, and eventually their love interests. After meeting Rodrigo and reading Lorca’s play, Mary says she finds “Mexican culture intoxicating.” Mary learns enough Spanish to speak to Gabe at the engagement party, and although the viewer does not hear her speak Spanish to Bruno, it is implied that she will attune to his bilingualism. Nora is shocked when Edward, who is white, greets the janitors in Spanish. Nora says, “You speak Spanish?” and he replies lightly, “Of course, I grew up in LA.” She must learn as well, to live in her community and the city of Los Angeles in general.
But language is only part of way the film signals a renaissance of the sisters’ Mexican identity. When Mary meets her handsome instructor, she tells him, “I’m American. And Mexican. Mexican-American,” altering her answer because she knows he is Mexican, but when she meets Bruno—whom she has no romantic interest in—she says, “I’m not Mexican.” She continues to shift her pronouncement of ethnic identity; when the cholas come to her house and call Mary “white girl,” as a defense mechanism, she whispers her reply, “I’m Mexican.” Eventually, she proudly claims, and embraces, her Mexican identity. When Olivia comments that Mary and Nora are late to the engagement party that is held in the sisters’ former house, Mary replies, “I’m Mexican,” to which Gabe laughs. The house is now entirely remodeled, and Mary exclaims, “Our house is gone forever.” Mary’s relationship to her heritage is entirely remodeled and gone forever is the denial of it that she had while living in the Beverly Hills mansion.
Nora does not hold such staunch division within her; she embraces her Mexican heritage. When Aurelia hosts a party for El Grito (Mexican Independence Day), Nora comes to the party in traditional dress, wearing a white and brightly colored Indigenous dress with a large falda (a China poblana dress). Mary is wearing a short, tight dress that does not align with the holiday. The engagement party signals their transformation, and melding of their cultures, backgrounds, and personalities. Mary wears a cocktail dress that the seamstresses who work for Aurelia create for her, adapted from a (white) fashion magazine. Instead of simply purchasing what is designed by white fashion houses as she had at the outset, Mary and her community alter the design and make it their own. Nora too must find her style, and the montage of dresses that she tries on ends with a look befitting a young woman who has experienced the first glimpses of passion. Nora’s coming-of-age is of learning to love, both Edward and herself.
The film had a limited release in January 2011 and was released on Blu-ray and DVD that May. Even with its short run, I was thrilled to see so many Mexican television stars act in English. I had never heard Pablo Cruz, Kuno Becker, Karla Souza, or Alexa Ayala—the father who dies while dancing on his birthday at the beginning of the film—act in English. When the film was released, Valderrama was mostly known as the comedic-exotic Fez on That ‘70s Show (1998-2006), and aside from small roles and appearing in a few music videos, this was his (re)debut, just as PenaVega was known for her role as the daughter in the SpyKids movies and here she wears stilettos and mini dresses. Camilla Belle, having modeled for Vera Wang, Teen Vogue, and a host of other fashion magazines, plays the sister with unkempt clothing and hair. Among the film’s virtues is its commitment to offering Latinx and Latin American actors the opportunity to play against their established type, and in many cases, act in their second language.
The film embraces the diversity within the Latinx community in LA, and a range of what Latinx can look like, and sound like. The film shows the cultural division that permeates the city, played out in micro through the two suitors. When Edward drives Mary and Nora’s belongings from their old house to Aurelia’s, he parks the moving truck on the wrong side of the street. Bruno immediately points this out, and Edward shrugs “I’m sorry,” not understanding why someone like Bruno would be telling him what to do or why allegiance to such trivial laws would apply to him. He literally is on the wrong side of the city, for him, and the disrespect he shows has to do with ethnic stratification, and racism. At the party for El Grito, as Edward walks in, he hits Bruno’s shoulder accidentally, and again they have a near-silent run-in. The way that Latino men and white men move through physical spaces is laid bare. Edward’s assumption that he can take up space on his own terms is called out in these instances in the film, and he too experiences a trajectory of growth. Additionally, Nora meets a group of Latinx janitors on her daily bus ride to work, and they tell her they were fired and not paid fully for their work. She brings their case, pro-bono, to Edward, and initially he is surprised and reticent to welcome them. He is romantically interested in the Mexican-American Nora, but Mexican janitors who she met on the bus, and who cannot afford to pay his legal fees, are akin to Bruno telling him what to do; they are working-class, and of no direct interest—romantic, financial, or authoritative—to Edward. Only because he is in love with Nora does he take on the case, and he wins it for the janitors against the white company owners. It too is a coming-of-age for Edward, as his shift from representing corporations to fighting for people leads him to Nora, and eventually they marry and live in East LA across the street from Aurelia.
It is the city that gives this film its wit. The tableaus it paints pay homage to earlier Austen films; for example, Mary looks out through the window after her accident, mirroring Kate Winslet in the 1995 film (directed by Ang Lee). And the film pays homage to LA through using its emblems materially and as metaphor; Bruno decorates the party with Birds of Paradise—the flower of the City of Los Angeles—and it becomes the symbol of him and the community. When Mary goes to him at the end, she brings one, and with that, she expresses her love for him and Los Angeles as well. Rewatching the film again recently, I am reminded of how my hometown of LA can function as a cinematic narrative voice through its images, sounds, and splendor.
 No, this isn’t a sequel to the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada (dir. David Frankel), though one reviewer mistakenly thought it would be and was quite disappointed.
 Valderrama employed an accent to play Fez, a character whose cultural and national identity are never revealed, and whose accent is not based on a specific linguistic inflection. In From Prada to Nada, he uses his natural voice.