Connecting with a fictional character on screen is a remarkable thing. The feeling of being represented is like a large sigh of relief upon the realization of your own visibility. Finally, somebody sees me! And not only that, now everyone who has seen the film/TV show has seen me too. I exist. And I don’t say this as if I was doubting my own existence. At the age of 5, I’d like to think I had acquired a good understanding of object permanence. But this moment is one of utter validation and kinship. It is a reminder that you are not alone.
This realization coming at such a young age is momentous as well. When in your youth, you tend to find similarities before differences, and you only find differences once you are conditioned to. I only realized my big curly hair made me different from my other peers once I was bullied for it. And obvious things that tend to separate us as we grow, like race and gender, don’t seem to be that obvious. Which makes sense when I admit to finding so much solace in the Spy Kids character, Juni Cortez.
But before I go any further, I must say that it is my white privilege which has given me several opportunities to connect with characters on screen. Spy Kids was truly a revolutionary film in the fact that it was several kids’ first introduction to Latinx culture and characters, other than maybe Dora the Explorer. This movie gave so many children the opportunity for feeling represented on screen, which is likely an opportunity they were never given before. Robert Rodriguez really did that with Spy Kids.
Strangely enough, this film gave me a connection too, based on several different factors and ultimately, made me love the movie even more. I have seen the entire franchise more times than I can count, but I want to watch it once more, and rehash my relationship with the character Juni.
What Makes Spy Kids Great
This movie (and the entire franchise) is so much fun. And this is not an argument as much as it is a fact. With its imaginative and expressive spirit, and hints of dadaist filmmaking, Spy Kids truly is one of a kind. I think that is what attracted so many of us to this film growing up; we have never seen anything quite like it. And what made it even more special was its connection to kids.
Nothing is as expansive as a kid’s raw imagination and this movie did not shy away from this feat. But rather, it embraced it. It created on screen characters and villains that look exactly like what we would have created in our old preschool drawings. In addition, Spy Kids created characters that might be looked over by others (adults), and illustrated that they were unbeatable forces to be reckoned with. Kids were the heroes of the story, the capable ones who could save the day. This movie was the escape from reality that we have all been drawing up for years without really knowing.
I can honestly say, I have never seen a movie as fearless as Spy Kids. It is a movie so unafraid to connect with kids, to represent diversity, to playfully mix the violence of action tropes with an undeniable youthful charm. And I’m not one to ever refer to an internet review on Rotten Tomatoes, but the Critics Consensus for this film is right: Spy Kids is “A kinetic and fun movie that’s sure to thrill children of all ages.”
And speaking of online film reviews, I must bring up how bewildering it is to see that this movie is so divided. Critics generally give high praise, but the audience score falters and falls at a rotten 46%. I pulled up the site expecting the opposite – that critics would do what they did best and give a children’s movie a lower rating just because it was for children. And everyone I have ever discussed this movie with loves it. My inability to think of this movie as anything less than amazing may be written off as blinding nostalgia. The VHS copy of this movie definitely got a lot of use in my house, but the fact that I had such a deep connection with this film growing up makes it hard for me to imagine someone watching this and not connecting with it in some way. And what was my connection you ask? Well…
Just Call Me Juni
There are several different aspects of Juni that really made me feel connected me to him, but first and foremost, his sibling status stood out to me. In the Cortez family of four, he was the youngest – and so was I. And in terms of familial relationships, mine seems pretty similar to this fictional family as well. Much like Juni, I had one older sister, who was only older than me by a couple of years and also, way cooler. Therefore, I was, unfortunately, the lame little sibling. Another important aspect of having an older sibling is that whenever you play make believe as a kid, the older sibling always has first choice on what character they wanted to play, and my sister always choose Carmen. So even if I always liked Carmen and identified with her more, I would still have to be Juni. But Juni’s relationship to older sister Carmen, which was of hestitational dependence, felt very similar to me. But at the end of the day, if I was going to kick ass and save the world with anyone, I would want it to be with my sister. And like the Cortez family, I would risk my life for my own family.
Another trait of Juni’s that struck me was his clumsy nature. Throughout the movie, his sister constantly calls him “butterfingers” as a way to make fun of his clumsiness. I saw a direct parallel to this in my real life since I was a very clumsy child, known by my family for breaking everything I touched. So much so that my family coined the nickname “Hurricane Emily” and I’m only realizing now, as an adult, how much this name stuck with me.
This brand of clumsiness that was given to me as a child has given me an overwhelming sense of incapability. If you are told enough times that you are going to break something, you start believing that to be fact instead of simply chance. I myself was convinced I would break everything I touched, so I stopped touching, so to speak. Overall, this trait made me feel powerless.
But Juni refused to feel powerless, he was clumsy AND capable. I might have thought these traits to be mutually exclusive, but they are not, and Spy Kids taught me that. When you are a child, you should feel like the world is at your feet. That you can do anything or be anything you want and nothing will hold you back. Clumsiness is a trait that can take that away from you. Spy Kids does not buy into this though. It is a movie that believes so strongly in kids and their overall ability to change the world.
Some other more aesthetic ideals implanted in the character that made me feel connected were things such as the band-aids on his fingers and overall unique look. First, these band aids relate back to my clumsiness but they also really reflect my overall aesthetic as a child. I always had a lot of band-aids on. After every little scratch or bump, I would put on a band aid and every time my parents scolded me for being wasteful. Juni puts bandages on his fingers to cover his warts, in hopes that they will keep them from rubbing, allowing them to heal faster. I put band-aids on to help heal as well. But I also put them on as a shield, to let people know that despite being hurt, that I would push on. It was the only way I felt in control of my clumsiness. Juni stamping himself with these colorful band-aids but continuing to be strong and save the world was exactly what I was trying to say when I put on band-aids.
Another character trait of Juni’s was how unique he looked. Although casting did a great job disguising him within the family, he definitely stood out. With his curly hair and very white complexion, Juni is sort of the black sheep of the Cortez family. He knew this too, since it was a big insecurity of his throughout the film. Despite the occasional joke, I never was very insecure about not being a part of my family. But this didn’t stop me from feeling a little different that everybody else, especially my peers. I mentioned earlier that I have big curly hair and that was always my main identifier. Nobody in my family, or even in my school, had hair quite like mine. Juni, despite looking very different from the rest of his family, is a Cortez, and no one will tell you otherwise. On a bit of a sappier note, this movie really pressed the ideal of family and its importance. Family is not about your relationship as determined by blood, but bond. And the bond of family is unbreakable. Despite his differences, Juni is not only accepted, but embraced by his family.
This all comes back full circle to my original point of connection and the desire to feel like you belong. I felt represented by Juni but I also felt akin to him because he was so much more than a character. He felt real. And not only that, but Juni belonged to a family. Since I felt connected to Juni, maybe, just maybe, that meant I also belonged too.