“Pepe’s” Tale is A Cinematic Journey into Latin American Identity, Migration, and Colonialism’s Shadows

Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias unveils “Pepe” at the Berlinale, weaving a narrative around the death of one of Pablo Escobar’s hippos in Colombia to explore themes of identity, migration, and the legacy of colonialism in Latin America.

Exploring Complexity: “Pepe” and the Multifaceted Narratives of Latin America

In the heart of the Berlinale, Dominican director Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias presents “Pepe,” a film transcending the simple story of a hippopotamus brought illegally to Colombia by infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Through the lens of Pepe’s life and death, de los Santos Arias crafts a narrative that delves deep into complex issues such as identity, migration, and the enduring impacts of colonialism, not just in Colombia but throughout Latin America.

“Pepe” emerges from a fascinating real-life tale from the 1980s, where Escobar imported four hippos to his Hacienda Nápoles estate. After Escobar’s demise, these “cocaine hippos” were left to fend for themselves, with Pepe eventually leaving the herd and becoming a target for local authorities due to perceived dangers. This narrative backbone of the film serves as a springboard to explore broader questions of existence, belonging, and the intricate mosaic of Latin American identity.

The film challenges viewers to consider the plight of an animal, or “ghost,” lost in a world where language, culture, and identity seem alien. This metaphor extends to the human condition, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America, where diverse cultural influences and histories create a rich but complex tapestry of identities. De Los Santos Arias questions the notion of a singular identity, suggesting instead that we are composed of multiple, overlapping identities shaped by heterogeneous experiences and influences.

Fluid and Contested: Latin America’s Identity

Latin America’s identity, especially in the Caribbean, is portrayed as a fluid and contested space, where notions of belonging are not tied to a singular idea of territory, except among indigenous communities. The director’s reflection on the region’s struggle with cultural identity echoes a broader conversation about the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing process of defining oneself amidst globalization and migration.

From being an invasive species to becoming a part of the Colombian landscape, Pepe’s journey mirrors the stories of migrants and the diaspora in Latin America. It raises questions about integration, acceptance, and creating a collective “us” from the disparate “them.” The filmmaker posits that understanding and empathy can transform the unknown “other” from a mythic adversary into a recognized and valued part of the community. This transformation is symbolic of a broader need for tolerance and coexistence in a world increasingly divided by xenophobia and intolerance.

Moreover, “Pepe” addresses the cyclic nature of colonialism and migration, drawing parallels between historical movements of people from Africa and the Americas and contemporary migration patterns. The film suggests that colonialism and Eurocentrism have trapped societies in a circular prison from which death—or, metaphorically, the transcendence of Pepe’s ghost—might be the only escape.

De Los Santos Arias uses the film’s narrative to critique the lack of imagination in political theory and philosophy when envisioning new worlds. The death of the hippopotamus becomes an allegory for the political and philosophical stagnation in addressing the remnants of colonialism and the challenge of imagining alternative futures.

Beyond the Hippopotamus: A Profound Exploration of Latin American Identity

“Pepe” is not just a story about a hippopotamus or the peculiar legacy of Pablo Escobar in Colombia. It is a profound exploration of identity, belonging, and the historical and contemporary forces that shape the societies of Latin America. The film invites viewers to reflect on their identities, the nature of cultural heterogeneity, and the potential for tolerance and coexistence in a region marked by the scars of colonialism and the vibrant tapestry of its diverse cultures.

Also read: The Real Story Behind Netflix’s ‘Griselda’: From Cartel Leader to Myth

Through this cinematic journey, de los Santos Arias contributes to the ongoing dialogue about Latin America’s place in the world, challenging audiences to reconsider their perspectives on identity, migration, and the complex legacy of colonialism. “Pepe” thus stands as a significant work in the canon of Latin American cinema, offering insights into the region’s past and present and the possibilities for its future.

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