Saturday, October 10, 2015

East-side Sushi: Challenging Traditions

I love a good foody movie. Yummy!  But this festival favorite transcends the usual foody fare with its timely themes.

East-side Sushi” shows a Mexican-American family making their own way in Oakland, California.  They don’t get any handouts (despite what the corporate media would have us believe).  The little family works hard at two jobs just to eke out a living.  Working long hours is killing the old man, but he has no choice. The company keeps lowering his pay and increasing his hours.  At 4 a.m. every morning, Juana drags her sleeping daughter (Kaya Jade Aguirra)  along as she and her father do food prep for their fruit cart.  Juana’s (Diana Elizabeth Torres) integrity is apparent as she selects the best fruit. She offers a quality product, rather than skimping by using bottled lemon juice just to make a little more profit.

What I especially love about this film is how writer/director Anthony Lucero uses Juana’s actions to drive the story.  When Juana happens on to a sushi restaurant looking for help, she impulsively applies. She has grown bored of working prep for Mexican restaurants and making the same old tacos. She is ready for a new challenge.  She is hired because she can carry a fifty pound bag of rice, but she soon proves herself with her expert knife skills.  She has never even had sushi, but she quickly adapts to the new culture.

At home, her father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) keeps insisting that she get a normal job working at a Mexican restaurant and do what’s best for her daughter.  She reminds him that she always does what is best for the family.  She goes on, “Sometimes I think you are happy with working and never succeeding.”  Her father has been taught to stay in his place.

It is her own skill, moxie, determination, la fuerza, and talent that allow her to rise above her "place" in the restaurant world. She studies independently - learning the Japanese names of the various kinds of sushi and following sushi making tutorials online.  It is only when she can’t figure out how to make the sushi rice stick, that she asks a sympathetic sushi chef for advice.   She experiments on her unsuspecting family (who are mystified by this strange foreign food – raw fish!), making innovations that her family will enjoy.

She finally finds the strength to stand up to the discrimination at the restaurant and demand the promotion she deserves – to be hired as a sushi chef.  “I’m trying to have an opportunity like everyone else. I deserve an opportunity like everyone else. You know, behind every great restaurant there are great Latinos in the back, in the kitchen, hidden, preparing the food, making you look good.  Well, I don’t want to be in the back anymore."

She calls them on their excuse that “it is tradition” that only Japanese are sushi chefs - when two of the chefs are Chinese and Korean.  She calls them on their sexist traditions. “Sure you say women can’t be sushi chefs because their hands are too warm - that their perfume affects the taste of the food” - while one of the male chefs smells like an ash tray.

When Juana challenges racist and sexist traditions by pursuing her dream and standing up for herself, she is an inspiration to everyone around her: the Japanese hostess, the Latino prep cook, her wide-eyed daughter, her traditional father, and eventually even her boss. The result is a delicious blending of two culinary cultures at, "East-side Sushi."

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal