"Maricela" reminds us that face value is not always true value and that behind every story is probably another story--or two or three.
A Salvadoran teen-ager's uneasy adjustment to life in the United States is the focus of this episode of the PBS series "WonderWorks," airing at 8 tonight on Channels 28 and 15 and at 9 p.m. on Channel 50. The KCET and Richard Soto production is a sweet, tender, nicely executed story that falters only in trying too hard for an unnaturally swift, rosy ending.
Thirteen-year-old Maricela and her mother are undocumented immigrants trying to make it in Los Angeles while the father (an unseen, fuzzily explained character) remains embroiled in their homeland's violent struggle. Maricela has been uprooted first from El Salvador and now from her Los Angeles barrio as her mother tries to make ends meet by accepting a job as a live-in domestic for a well-to-do Anglo family.
It is in the suburbs where Maricela faces her most severe identity crisis. She continues to fear discovery by immigration authorities; a teacher in her new school cannot even pronounce her name; although her mother's new employers are understanding and gracious, Maricela is snubbed by friends of their teen-age daughter, Stacy, and ultimately by Stacy herself.
Carlina Cruz, a Salvadoran with no previous professional acting credits, is a real cutie and utterly convincing as Maricela. She is so natural, in fact, that one suspects that she is reliving a portion of her own life. Nice supporting performances are delivered by Lisa Marie Simmon as Stacy and Linda Lavin as Stacy's mother.
In some ways, Nancy Karin Audley's screenplay (from a story by Soto and director Christine Burrill) has universal applications. Despite their contrasting backgrounds, the resourceful Maricela and the indulged Stacy both ring true as tenuously coexisting teen-agers with a common social agenda.
Still, they are separated by an enormous cultural gap that narrows only after both girls begin dwelling less on their differences than on their common denominators. Unfortunately, their eventual embrace seems too sharp a turn and may give the impression that Maricela's problems have vanished with a snap of the fingers.
On another level, the story makes a statement about cultural arrogance. To casual eyes, Maricela's mother is a faceless domestic with hands made only for dish washing and erasing ring around the collar, when in fact she was a math teacher in her homeland.
Stacy's surprised reaction to that information is a subtle lesson in humility that we can all use. In the end, moreover, it is the cultural "misfit" Maricela who has the greatest lessons to teach.