A look at indigenous women in Mexican cinema

At’ Anii’ (Your Lover) is a film completely in the indigenous Teenek language. Image posted on Instagram on the film's official account.

Mexican women — specifically, Mexican women of indigenous heritage — are gradually taking the leading role they deserve in movies in their country and across borders. We'll discuss three specific cases.

But first, what can we say about Mexicans who have gained international recognition in film in recent years? A lot! In strictly commercial terms, work by Mexicans has been consistently recognized in the last decade. We can discuss the writers and directors Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”, 2013; “Roma”, 2018), Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”, 2014; “The Revenant”, 2015) and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”, 2017), whose works have received awards in Hollywood, in Europe, and at all the festivals where they have been screened. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has received nominations and awards for almost every project he has worked on since 2005, deserves a special mention.

A milestone in Mexican cinema

In this context of Mexican presence and success in the “seventh art”, the participation of women has not been highlighted… until now. Carmen Martínez starred in the feature film “At’ Anni'” (2019), the first film to have all dialogue in the indigenous Teenek language (also known as Huastec, spoken in small regions of San Luis Potosí, Veracruz and Tamaulipas in eastern Mexico).

Carmen Martínez was chosen for the role despite having a very different profession: law. The website Wipy profiled her:

¿Quién es Carmen? Una abogada y madre originaria de la comunidad de Huehuetlán, ubicada en la Huasteca Potosina. Su lengua materna es el Tének y aprendió el español conforme fue creciendo.

Carmen acudió al casting cuando tenía 22 años. El director de la película, Antonino [Isordia], en una declaración para la revista Vogue mencionó que, la cultura Tének es muy sensual y que cuando la vieron llegar para audicionar pensaron que era perfecta para el papel.

Who is Carmen? A lawyer and mother from the community of Huehuetlán, located in Huasteca Potosina. Her native language is Teenek and she learned Spanish as she was growing up. Carmen auditioned when she was 22. In a statement for Vogue magazine, the director of the film, Antonino [Isordia], said that Teenek culture is very sensual, and that when they saw her arrive at the audition, they thought she was perfect for the role.

Although “At’ Anni'” (“The Lover” or “Your Lover” in English) has not debuted in commercial theaters, it has been screened at festivals (including the Guadalajara International Film Festival) and is already drawing international attention. In fact, in June 2019, Vogue Mexico published an interview and photos of Carmen Martínez.

Remembering our screening in San Antonio. Very grateful to the city administration represented by Mr. Edyuenary Gregorio Castillo Hernandez and all of his people who supported us to make the screening of AtAnii such a success. See you soon, San Antonio!

Beyond acting

“Arcángel (“Archangel”, 2018) is a short film directed by Ángeles Cruz, who is from the Mixteca region in southwest Mexico. The website Sopitas says the following about Ángeles, who also acts:

Ángeles Cruz lleva años dentro de la industria del teatro, televisión y cine en México. Estudió la licenciatura en actuación en la Escuela de Arte Teatral del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes […] fue nominada por la Academia Sueca como mejor actriz en 2014 y recibió en 2013 la Diosa de Plata y un Ariel por su primer trabajo como directora.

Ángeles Cruz has been in the Mexican theater, television, and film industry for years. She studied acting at the School of Theater Arts at the National Institute of Fine Arts […] she was nominated by the Swedish Academy for best actress in 2014, and in 2013 she received the Diosa de Plata and an Ariel [Mexican film awards] for her first film as a director.

The website Proceso highlighted Ángeles Cruz's short film awards:

‘Arcángel’ ya cuenta con el Coral del Festival de La Habana, Cuba; Mejor Película Narrativa Corta en Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival, San José, California; Prix Revelation en el Festival de Cine Latinoamericano de Toulouse, Francia; Mejor Cortometraje en el Ismailia Film Festival, Egipto, y Mejor Cortometraje de Ficción, con Patrocinia Aparicio y Noé Hernández como Mejor Actriz y Actor, en Enfoque Film Fest de Puerto Rico. Además, alcanzó la presea a Mejor Cortometraje Mexicano en el Festival Internacional de Cine de Hermosillo, Sonora.

‘Arcángel’ has already won the Coral Award at the Havana Film Festival, Best Narrative Short Film at Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in San José, California, Prix Revelation at the Toulouse Latin American Film Festival, Best Short Film at the Ismailia Film Festival in Egypt, and Best Fiction Short Film, with Patrocinia Aparicio and Noé Hernández as Best Actress and Actor, at the Enfoque Film Fest in Puerto Rico. It also won Best Mexican Short Film at the International Film Festival in Hermosillo, Sonora.

Local news source El Imparcial said that the film touches on the theme of vulnerability in old age.

Thanks to @fichermosillo My love and gratitude always to Patrocinia, @noehernandez7519 and the whole crew who made it possible with their talent, professionalism, and dedication. @lola_ovando @carbscorrea@yaaviko @feliphotograf @filomarino @llogurt @acelo_ruiz @alendrey @tatismaganda @_cascas @jennymendozagarcia @imcine #myriambravo @pablo_marquez79 @kokoxuxp César Palafox, Chili and many more. Thank you ??

A problematic success

Some media sources have suggested that more attention has been paid to another Mexican film actress, Yalitza Aparicio. Or is it that the attention Yalitza has received has served to raise awareness of indigenous women in film? That's up to the critics and industry analysts to decide.

The reality is that since the award-winning feature film “Roma” premiered on the streaming site Netflix, much has been said and written about the performance of Yalitza Aparicio, who is also indigenous, from Oaxaca. There has been criticism of the digital retouching of her photos (some say it made her skin look lighter), as well as the relevance of her appearances at glamorous industry events like “red carpets” and awards ceremonies.

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A post shared by Yalitza Aparicio Martínez (@yalitzaapariciomtz) on

These and other controversies can be linked to the theme of the film, which deals with classism and the role of domestic workers in Mexican society, among other issues.

The website SDPNoticias discussed the criticism:

Desafortunadamente para la actriz, las fuertes críticas peyorativas en redes sociales no han cesado desde que la película del director mexicano empezó a acaparar los reflectores de los principales festivales de cine en el mundo. Ahí está el caso del actor Sergio Goyri, quien hace unos días fue grabado en video refiriéndose a la actriz como ‘pinche india’ por su actuación en la película. ¿Envidia?

Unfortunately for the actress, the strong pejorative criticism on social media has not stopped since the film by the Mexican director began to take the spotlight at major film festivals around the world. There is also the case of the actor Sergio Goyri, who was recorded a few days ago referring to the actress as ‘pinche india’ (a ‘damn Indian’) for her performance in the film. Envy?

The reactions to these women's success in film across borders are varied and complex. Why are they being recognized now when they weren't before? Why are we talking only about those who make it to the international level and not those who work daily within their communities? And so on. The truth is that here are three examples of indigenous women who have worked to excel in an environment in which many others fail, so their stories, as well as their efforts, do not go unnoticed here at Global Voices.

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