From Prada to Nada is a 2011 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that tells the story of the Dominguez sisters, Nora (Elinor) and Mary (Marianne). After their father dies, the girls relocate from their Beverly Hills home to the East Los Angeles abode of their Aunt Aurelia. This move prompts the Mexican-American heroines to reexamine their ethnic identities, which makes them a kind of mirror for Latin American audience members and others who may be undergoing their own ethnic self-explorations. At the same time, this adaptation provides Austen readers a window into Latin American culture.1
At a 2011 panel on the film that I organized at the University of Southern California for my college freshman and South Los Angeles high school students, Craig Fernandez (the author of the original screenplay draft) disclosed that this adaption was first conceptualized when he was asked to identify a classic literary text that could be modernized to tell a contemporary Latina story. He explained that Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, with its focus on women leaving their ancestral home, had several parallels to the experiences of Latin Americans living in Los Angeles. In a recent phone interview, I asked Fernandez to elaborate on these connections, and he explained that the Dashwood women’s having their home taken away by an interloper has a certain synchronicity to his own experience as a Chicano growing up in California, being made to feel that he did not belong.
The film’s ability to resonate with Latinas is an important consideration of any analysis of the film, as Latinas—not Austen readers—were the target audience (Fernandez, Interview). From Prada to Nada was not widely released; instead, it came to only 300 theaters located in the American Southwest (Interview). Fernandez was drawn to adapt Sense and Sensibility in particular, above Austen’s other novels, because the male characters are in the background (“eye candy,” as he calls them). Fernandez wanted to focus on a woman-centered story to honor strong women like his mother and grandmother and as an antidote to Mexican machismo culture.
Like most films, this project went through many iterations, including the revision of Fernandez’s original screenplay by two additional writers. And yet the final version reflects Fernandez’s original resolve to use Austen’s story to highlight the dangers of Anglocentrism for Latin communities, and, in the process, to emphasize Austen’s critique of England’s patriarchal system—especially prominent in the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s novel highlights how the Dashwood women are disadvantaged by England’s patriarchal culture, which eventually leads to their movement from Sussex to Devonshire. As the film tells a parallel story of the Dominguez sisters’ physical displacement from Beverly Hills to East Los Angeles, From Prada to Nada highlights the damaging effects of Anglocentrism on the Latin American community as a whole, as well as the specific challenges faced by Mexican-Americans who, like the Dominguez sisters, have internalized Anglo culture. The film celebrates the richness of the city’s diverse heritage, emphasizing the Latin American influence on the architecture, the art, and the language of Los Angeles, while also highlighting the systematic racism Latin Americans face in different work environments.
As in Sense and Sensibility, Nora must re-evaluate her “resolution” and “self-command” over her feelings towards Edward (SS 298), and Mary must “overcome an affection” for a womanizer in order to eventually “give her hand to another” (429). In this version of Austen’s narrative, however, in order to find their respective happy endings, the Dominguez girls must also learn to appreciate the importance of Latin American culture on the fabric of Los Angeles by embracing their Mexican heritage.
Austen’s first chapter
The first chapter of Sense and Sensibility highlights how the Dashwood women are disadvantaged by England’s patriarchal culture, eventually leading to their displacement from Sussex to Devonshire. In the first few paragraphs, Austen rehearses the choices the old Gentleman made that led to the impoverishment of the Dashwood women. After the old Gentleman’s sister died, “he invited and received into [Norland Park] the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it” (3). This passage highlights the old Gentleman’s choice to keep inheritance through the male line of the Dashwood family. Later in the same paragraph, we learn that this living arrangement was a happy one for the old Gentleman, who enjoyed the company of the children (that is, the novel’s heroines), who are referenced several times:
In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence. (3)
This information about the old Gentleman’s comfort in his last days is important; it shows that his decision to leave Norland Park to the girls’ half-brother was not based on any kind of ill-will that he had towards the girls. The Dashwood women were simply victims of gender bias—there is nothing they could have done to ingratiate themselves more with the old Gentleman.
The narrator’s critique of the old Gentleman becomes clearer in the second paragraph, as the dire financial situation of the Dashwood women is presented in stark contrast to their half-brother’s wealth. The narrator carefully details how John Dashwood benefits from generational wealth three times over, while his half-sisters wait for handouts. First, he is “amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large”; second, “he added to his wealth” through his marriage; third, he inherits the Norland Park estate that the Dashwood women currently call home. In contrast, we are told that the Dashwood girls’ fortune “could be but small” because “[t]heir mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal.” The narrator directly calls out the unjustness of the old Gentleman’s decision to leave Norland Park to John Dashwood: “To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters” (4).
The narrator returns, in the third paragraph, to the girls’ close relationship with the old Gentlemen to contrast it with that of John’s son, whom the old Gentleman saw on “occasional visits” to Norland (4). The narrator’s satiric attitude towards the four-year-old is in full form, as she describes the child’s “attractions”: “an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise.” These are the traits that “outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters” (5). Again, Austen’s narrator reinforces the idea that the close relationship between the Dashwood girls and the old Gentleman is irrelevant compared to the strength of the old Gentleman’s bias towards male heirs. The paragraph concludes with a summary of the resulting economic disaster for the girls: “He meant not to be unkind however, and, as a mark of his affection for the three girls, he left them a thousand pounds a-piece” (5). This sentence punctuates the fact that something so central to the girls’ survival—economic stability—was not considered by the old Gentleman. In leaving the Dashwood women financially destitute, he was not consciously acting maliciously: he simply did not give their economic situation any thought.
Austen’s other novels (like Pride and Prejudice, for example) feature entailed estates, but the entail is presented to us as a matter of fact—something that has already happened in the past so that now the characters must make decisions accordingly. In Sense and Sensibility Austen does something different; she provides insight into the old Gentleman’s decisions, and she makes them look negligent. The old Gentleman knows the difficult financial circumstances of the Dashwood women—and the financial advantages that John Dashwood already has in hand—when he decides how to bequeath his money. But the cultural norm of male inheritance is so internalized that the old Gentleman never considers an alternative.
The Dominguez and Ferris families at Casa Bonita
Just as Norland Park is central to Austen’s first chapter, Casa Bonita (beautiful house) in Beverly Hills is an important centerpiece at the outset of From Prada to Nada. During the opening credits of the film, the girls are driving up to the Spanish style home, with the name prominently displayed on Spanish tile. The film’s opening scenes soon establish that the girls’ mother is dead (through a conversation around her portrait—perhaps in a nod to the 1995 film Clueless, a retelling of Emma), and they also show the sudden death of the girls’ father. Nora and Mary do not know about the existence of their half-brother until he shows up at their father’s funeral, at which time their Aunt Aurelia explains that their father had an affair before Nora was born.
In this version of Sense and Sensibility, the John Dashwood character is not the sole heir of the house, as happens in Austen’s novel; he is not favored over his sisters because he is a man. As in Austen’s novel, however, the girls are soon thrust out of their family home by interlopers after a short time of living together in uncomfortable circumstances. Shortly after Mr. Dominguez’s funeral, we find out that “the will says [Gabe and Olivia, the John and Fanny Dashwood characters] get a third of the assets.” The lawyer also informs the Dominguez family that the will is meaningless because Mr. Dominguez is bankrupt; “he was a risk taker” who was “not prepared for the economic crisis.” Olivia offers to buy Casa Bonita because the couple “resells homes for a living.” Although Gabe invites his half-sisters to “stay with us if you want to,” Olivia shows she is not thrilled with this plan, quickly adding, “until you are ready to go.” For a short time, the family home connects the Dominguez and Ferris (Ferrars) families. The living arrangement does not last long, however, as a conflict ensues over lunch, prompting Nora to decide it is time to pack up and leave. Mary and Nora drive to their aunt’s house in East Los Angeles.
Instead of focusing on the unfairness of a patriarchal system that favors unworthy male relatives, the beginning of the film focuses on the half-siblings learning about each other during the short time that they live together. Although Olivia is as “narrow-minded and selfish” as Austen’s Fanny Dashwood (6), Gabe is a good guy who is in search of a relationship with the dead father he did not know. His eventual move away from his white, racist wife and towards his newfound half-sisters is part of Gabe’s growth during the film, mirroring the girls’ movement towards their Mexican roots.
The Dominguez sisters move to East Los Angeles
Like Elinor and Marianne upon their move to Barton in Sense and Sensibility, Nora and Mary display very different attitudes towards their new socioeconomic positions on their move to East Los Angeles. Both Nora and Mary are sad to leave their Beverly Hills home, just as “[m]any were the tears shed” by the Dashwood women upon leaving Norland (32). But just as Marianne laments, “‘Dear, dear Norland!’”—assuming that the house “will continue the same” (32)—Mary clings to her ideal of Casa Bonita. Mary refuses to acknowledge the East Los Angeles neighborhood as her own, going so far as to have the Willoughby character regularly drop her off at another Beverly Hills home where she pretends to live. And when Casa Bonita comes on the market, Mary tries to convince him to buy it in the hope that they will live there together.
The girls’ different approaches to transportation are another feature of the film that shows the different pace at which the sisters assimilate to their new economic class. Upon her husband’s death, Mrs. Dashwood sells the horses and, “at the earnest advice” of Elinor, also “dispos[es] of her carriage” (30); Nora leaves her Prius behind in Beverly Hills and begins taking the bus to work. On the first day of Nora’s bus commute, Mary warns her not to “sit in the back of the bus. You will get killed!” Nora’s response—“By who? A commuter?”—suggests that she is comfortable straightaway with the other workers on the bus. In contrast, Mary has a very hard time when Aunt Aurelia trades Mary’s BMW and Prada purse for some cash and a more practical used vehicle that will “take you to the same places.” Just as Marianne “refused to submit” to the idea that she could not accept Queen Mab from Willoughby (68), Mary has a very difficult time adjusting, telling her aunt that “they will turn me away” when she shows up to her old haunts. It takes her almost the entire film to get used to her new situation, an adjustment that is only evident when she jokingly asks one of her father’s former employees, “What do you think of my new ride?” as she pulls up in the driveway.
Although Nora has a much easier time becoming accustomed to her new socioeconomic status, both Dominguez girls have much to learn about Latin culture. Fernandez explained that he wanted both Nora and Mary to be “culturally as white as possible” at the beginning of the film (Interview). At first, both Nora and Mary display ignorance—and in the case of Mary, antagonism—towards their Mexican heritage. For example, in one of the earliest scenes, when Mary enters Casa Bonita as it is being prepared for her father’s impending birthday celebration, she looks with disgust at the mariachi band and exclaims, “What is this? Tijuana?” Later, as Mary drives Nora to their aunt’s house for the first time, she says, “I am scared, Nora. We are going to get shot!” Mary expresses a good deal of fear of East Los Angeles. Upon arrival, she refuses to get out of the car. While she sits, too scared to approach her aunt’s front door, Bruno (Brandon) wrangles up some of the children in the neighborhood to unload her bags. She assumes that they are stealing from her. When she asks Bruno, “Are you homeless?” he responds matter-of-factly in one of my favorite lines of the film: “No. Are you?” Although they have not yet been formally introduced, Bruno likely knows all about their business, as he lives right across the street from their talkative tía, who is inspired by Mrs. Jennings’s gossipy ways in Sense and Sensibility.
© 2011 Pantelion Films
Nora learns Spanish
By the time Mary enters the house, Nora is already happily installed at the table, eating churros. Nora desires to assimilate to her new way of life, including her Mexican community. She begins reading up on the neighborhood, informing Mary that “this neighborhood was Jewish, then Japanese, then Mexican.” But despite her eagerness to learn, Nora does her own share of stumbling. Her first morning in her new home, she tries to help her aunt prepare breakfast. But because she has grown up with servants cooking her meals, she cracks eggshells into the pan and causes fires to erupt. Still, Nora expresses her desire to contribute: later that morning, she announces her plan to defer law school to get a job at a law firm.
Unknowingly, Nora takes a job in the law office of Olivia’s brother, Edward Ferris, whose firm focusses on corporate law. On her daily bus commute, Nora gets involved with a group of janitors, and she eventually convinces Edward to take up their premature dismissal cause as a pro bono case. Nora’s first conversation with the women on the bus highlights her ignorance of the Spanish language, an important motif throughout the film. When she explains that she does not speak Spanish, one of the women exclaims, “You live in Los Angeles and not speak Spanish?!” The next time we see Nora on the bus talking to the same women, Nora is learning the word for mop in Spanish (trapadores). When she brings the group to the law firm where she is working, Edward enters the conference room and immediately starts greeting the women in Spanish. A surprised Nora questions Edward—“You speak Spanish?”—and he responds, “Of course, I grew up in LA.” Eventually, Nora learns the language, too; at one point Mary calls her “quite the Dictionario” when she is able to translate some of the lyrics in their father’s favorite song.
But more than showcasing her knowledge of culture, the lines about the Spanish language being the language of Los Angeles underscore From Prada to Nada’s larger point about displacement. The legacy of the Spanish influence on Los Angeles is clear, for example, in the food, in the art, and in the naming of places—including the name of the city itself (Los Angeles is the city of angels). The multiple references to Spanish as the language of Los Angeles counters the common Anglo-centric rhetoric insisting that Spanish speakers are foreign language speakers. The film calls into question what a foreign language is, who defines these terms, and on what grounds. Edward’s ability to speak Spanish—and his acknowledgement that the language is something Los Angeles locals should know—shows he is an appropriate future partner for Nora.
Mary speaks her mind
As I mentioned before, Mary has a much harder time adjusting to her new life than does Nora. In this way, she is much like Austen’s Marianne, who speaks what is on her mind in her new neighborhood, even when doing so is inappropriate. For example, consider Marianne’s response to Sir John when he accuses her of setting her cap at Willoughby: “‘I abhor every common-place phrase by which wit is intended; and ‘setting one’s cap at a man,’ or ‘making a conquest,’ are the most odious of all. Their tendency is gross and illiberal; and if their construction could ever be deemed clever, time has long ago destroyed all its ingenuity’” (53). Marianne displays a reluctance to embrace her culture’s clichéd language, much as Mary is initially uninterested in learning her family’s Spanish language (and reading Spanish literature).
In criticizing his language, Marianne also shows that she is ungrateful to Sir John, despite what he has done to support his distant relatives. Mary displays similar ungrateful behavior towards her aunt. When her aunt discusses preparations for an upcoming Independence Day (El Grito) party, Mary makes it clear that she does not want to invite her boyfriend (the Willoughby character) to attend. Her aunt calls her out on her rudeness, accusing her of being ashamed of her family. Mary does eventually relent and invite her boyfriend, but this parallel between Mary and Marianne’s rudeness to their family members who are taking them in and caring for them is clear.
Mary’s tendency to speak her mind is also highlighted in other ways in the film. For example, upon her first walk around the neighborhood with her aunt and Nora, Mary makes unsolicited, rude comments regarding the make-up of two women walking by her on the street. Her aunt corrects her, saying, “You need to make friends a new way.” And when Bruno assists Mary with the used car that her aunt has arranged for her to drive, instead of thanking him Mary tells him not to steal anything. When he asks, “Do you think all Mexicans steal?” Mary insists that she would not know because “I am not Mexican!” Just as Marianne is dismissive of Colonel Brandon’s kindnesses, Mary is unappreciative of the ways in which Bruno looks out for her when she first arrives in the neighborhood. Not until she unexpectedly reunites with the two women she has earlier insulted and Bruno intercedes does Mary show any appreciation towards his kindness, mumbling “thank you.” This scene is also the first time we hear Mary mutter, “I’m Mexican,” when the women call her a “white girl.”
© 2011 Pantelion Films
Mary’s Mexican identity
Mary’s eventual willingness to embrace a Mexican identity is an important theme in the film. We get the most insight into her initial understanding of her ethnic identity in an early conversation with Rodrigo Fuentes (Willoughby). He is the teaching assistant for Mary’s English class. When he asks her if she is Mexican, Mary says, “No, my parents.” To his question—“OK, And what are you?”—she responds, “American, of course! Well, and Mexican; so Mexican-American. American-Mexican; my dad was more Mexican.” As their romance continues, Mary tells Nora that she needs to learn Spanish; she now finds Mexican culture “intoxicating” because Rodrigo is “so Mexican, and Dad would have loved him.”
© 2011 Pantelion Films
At a party at Casa Bonita, Mary discovers that Rodrigo is married (he had disappeared on her for weeks, telling her that he had to go back to Mexico) and that he intends to purchase the renovated Casa Bonita for his wife. In a frenzy, Mary drives away in a rainstorm, crashing her car—a predictable plot point for Austen’s readers, as we are told early in the film that her mother had died in a car crash (and, as in Austen’s novel, Mary and her mother are much alike).2 As with Marianne’s “twilight walks” in the “wildness”—“where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest” (346)—Mary’s sensibility results in a serious, life-threatening injury.
When Mary returns home from the hospital, she finds that Bruno, once again, has taken care of her. This time, Bruno, who is an artist, has built a beautiful ramp for her wheelchair. It does not take long for Mary to wheel herself across the street and discover Bruno working with the children in his backyard, teaching them how to paint a mural in the style of his mentor, the Los Angeles muralist Judy Baca (whose work is featured in the film). While Marianne turns to “music and reading” for healing (388), Mary learns from Bruno about the role that art plays in telling the community’s stories.
© 2011 Pantelion Films
In Sense and Sensibility, John and Fanny Dashwood are both irreparable; Fanny is presented as the worst of the pair due to the negative influence she has on her husband. In chapter 1, the narrator laments, “Had [John Dashwood] married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was. . . . But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself;—more narrow-minded and selfish” (6). In the film, Gabe’s move away from the influences of his racist, white wife and towards his family is an important parallel story to Nora’s and Mary’s journeys to embrace their Mexican roots.
Olivia does not support Gabe’s desire to explore his connections with his father. She complains, for example, about his spending so much time in his father’s office, where he watches films in Spanish that his father enjoyed. Moreover, in contrast to her brother and her husband, Olivia does not speak Spanish. Her resistance to Spanish is emphasized when she engages with the construction workers she hires to impose her Eurocentric vision on Casa Bonita. To a bilingual construction worker Olivia speaks English at a ridiculously slow pace using exaggerated movements—assuming that he would not be able to understand her if she spoke normally. She looks and sounds nonsensical, and her racism towards the workers is clear when she refers to them as “lazy” in the same scene.
© 2011 Pantelion Films
When Nora and Mary return to the recently renovated Casa Bonita for a party, the transformation is represented by the new sign featuring Grecian columns that has replaced the Spanish-style sign featured in the opening credits. The Spanish-speaking employees still work there, but they are now wearing uniforms that one of the employees, Carmina, tells the girls in Spanish makes them look like “circus monkeys.” We soon discover that Mr. Dominguez’s office is the only portion of the house that has not been transformed into something that, according to Mary, looks as if it could be featured on MTV Cribs. Gabe tells Mary he had to fight Olivia for this room—a fight that is part of Gabe’s journey towards finding his roots.
The party scenes show Gabe and Mary drawing closer to one another. When Olivia tries to stop Mary and Gabe from sharing “more family secrets,” Mary says in Spanish, “They are secrets of the Dominguez family, which is not your family.” Gabe quickly mistranslates Mary’s statement to Olivia, hiding its true meaning. This pivotal scene shows Mary embracing the relationship with her half-brother and her new Spanish-speaking skills while foreshadowing Gabe’s eventual split with his racist wife. Mary also helps Gabe in his journey, passing along some unopened letters that show their father had tried to communicate with him. Shortly after this scene, Gabe announces to Nora that he and Olivia are divorcing. His intent to continue his relationship with his newfound half-sisters is clear: he shows up to the hospital when Mary is sick, and he attends Nora’s wedding in the final scenes of the film.
© 2011 Pantelion Films
By the end of the film, neither of the girls ends up living at Casa Bonita, which is presumably purchased by the Willoughby character. But that is just as well, because Nora and Edward end up in the house next to Aunt Aurelia, and Bruno is already happily installed just across the street. Part of the happily-ever-after for this film is leaving Beverly Hills behind for the more vibrant East Los Angeles neighborhood. Here, Nora can set up her law practice serving the Mexican community she now embraces as her own. Significantly, Edward’s proposal includes a ring attached to a house key. He also insists that Nora co-sign the deed to the house. Given Austen’s focus on the Dashwood women’s lack of money, property, and agency, I think Austen would appreciate Edward’s insistence that his wife is a legal co-owner of the home.
© 2011 Pantelion Films
When the Dominguez sisters learn to embrace their Mexican culture—their family, their new neighborhood, their Spanish language—they get the happy endings they deserve. But just as Austen’s ending for Sense and Sensibility is uneasy, this story’s ending is not without its complications. In Austen’s novel, Elinor marries a man who courted her while he was engaged to somebody else; Marianne settles awfully quickly for a man she has resisted throughout the entire novel. Similarly, the cultural push and pull that this film explores is not wholly resolved at the end. As the mural behind Elinor’s wedding celebration suggests, there are still lingering questions about identity: “Soy Mexicano?” (I am Mexican?); “Soy Americano?” (I am American?); “Soy?” (I am?). These are questions that Mexican-Americans are constantly negotiating; they will not be resolved in the time it takes to watch a feature-length film. That said, in using Austen’s novel to highlight Latin American stories in Los Angeles, From Prada to Nada offers new windows and mirrors into both Austen’s novel and contemporary Latin American communities.
I wish to thank Craig Fernandez for speaking to my students about From Prada to Nada in 2011 as well as for taking the time more recently to speak with me again about the film. I am also grateful to Persuasions editor Susan Allen Ford and the anonymous reviewer of this essay for their helpful suggestions for essay revisions. Thanks, also, to the JASNA–CWNY Region for their feedback on a draft of my AGM presentation.
The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.
1In “Curriculum as Window and Mirror” Emily Style emphasizes that children should see themselves in the books that they read—as well as the related concept that books offer windows into other worlds for children.