Imagine waking up one morning to discover that all Latinos in California have vanished.
No Mexicans. No Guatemalans. No Hondurans. No Argentines.
The state is in a panic. Fruits and vegetables are rotting. Your favorite newscaster is missing. The nanny does not show up. The Border Patrol has nothing to do. People who miss their Latino friends hold vigils with signs saying, "Come back, amigos."
Is it the Rapture? Were Latinos kidnapped by aliens?
This is the setting for "A Day Without a Mexican," a decidedly politically incorrect independent film by first-time feature director Sergio Arau. The film's theme has already aroused controversy, with complaints resulting in removal of one promotional billboard announcing, "On May 14 there will be no Mexicans in California."
Arau and his screenwriting partners, Sergio Guerrero and Arau's wife and star, Yareli Arizmendi, were not intent on making a political statement. They wanted to make a comedy with an edge.
"I think you can say far more with humor," said Arau, who is also a cartoonist. "I think this is more of a comedy, but the dramatic moments are what makes the comedy stronger."
The film, to be released on a limited basis in 40 Southern California theaters Friday, is the first film made in the U.S., in English for an American audience, entirely by Mexican production companies.
It will also be the first U.S. theatrical distribution venture for Mexican-based Televisa Cine, the theatrical arm of the Mexican television chain Televisa.
For years, the Mexican-based television conglomerate has been trying to break into the U.S. Latino market, said Mike Doban, general sales manager for Televisa Cine's Los Angeles office. The company hopes eventually to release up to six or seven films annually for the U.S. Hispanic audience.
"Everybody knows it exists," Doban said. "But there really hasn't been a sustained effort to capture that audience."
There have, however, been several attempts to reach out to the Hispanic moviegoing audience by other companies, with mixed results. Last year, Venezuelan television media empire Venevision released several Spanish-language films, but none did well at the box office.
Hollywood studios have tried to tap into the market as well.
Some, such as 20th Century Fox's romantic comedy "Chasing Papi," did not fare well at the box office. Others, such as IFC Films' "Y Tu Mama Tambien," saw great success, grossing more than $13.6 million in March 2002. Also, "Empire" brought in more than $17 million in the winter of 2002 -- a hit for Arenas Entertainment. Arenas has not released a movie since then but has acquired the Mexican film "Nicotina," starring Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), coming out on a limited basis June 25.
Regardless of how "A Day Without a Mexican" does at the box office, its voyage to the big screen was arduous.
The theme of missing Mexicans may seem familiar.
In 1965, playwright Douglas Turner Ward wrote "A Day of Absence," a dramatic comedy that explored the potential political, social and economic consequences if all black people vanished. In the play, which was performed around the U.S. in the late 1960s, whites in a small Southern town wake up one morning to find their black "help" has disappeared.
But Arau and Arizmendi say they never heard of that play. They say they were inspired to make their short film with a similar premise in the aftermath of California's Proposition 187, which passed in 1994 and sought to deny illegal immigrants health care and schooling for their children.
Later, on a trip to New York, they noticed street posters declaring "A Day Without Art" to call attention to the effect AIDS has had on the art community.
They say they were also inspired by their own experiences as immigrants in the United States and how they were perceived by Americans.
"I came here and I was paralyzed for like two or three years because I was in a serious depression," said Arau, who is the eldest son of director Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate") and who immigrated to the U.S. in 1993.
"Suddenly you are the minority, and you don't speak the language and you don't exist."
The couple found a surprising ignorance among some in Hollywood.
"An actor friend of ours from Venezuela told us a story," recalled Arizmendi, who starred in "Like Water for Chocolate," the film on which she and Arau met. "He went for an interview in Warner Bros., and as they were talking, the executive said, 'Where are you from?' Our friend said 'Venezuela' and the executive said, "Oh, what part of Mexico is that?' "
After a few minutes of shocked silence, during which it became apparent that the executive was not joking, the actor replied, " 'Well, actually, it's further south. It's another country,' " Arizmendi related.
Bringing all of these experiences together, they made their short film -- mockumentary style -- in 1998.