Film successes and contemporaneous Mexican racism

Yalitza Aparicio at the Oscars.

By: Mariana Mora*

The figure of Yalitza Aparicio opened a debate about racism in Mexico, but Yalitza is not the answer to combatting racism in the country.

Although many will say the opposite, Roma does not unmask the underlying racism that supports the privileges of a minority sector of Mexican society, that role fell to the actress that plays a Cleo. The film naturalizes, instead questioning, the role assigned to the domestic employee (maid); although it would seem that the family supports Cleo, she is supported as the domestic employee who dedicates her entire life to taking care of their needs. Cleo never confronts or criticizes her environment; to the contrary, she fulfills her chores in a disciplined way and accepts her way of life. By the same token, the scenes show clearly, not the essence of an indigenous woman, but the good vibes and generosity of the Mexican middle class (“look at how well they treat their employee.”)

Crude racism leaps out when a body is outside of its assigned place (being indigenous in the city is equal to being a domestic employee or its equivalent). The fashion magazine Vogue publishes the actress’s image on its cover. Among the parade of the rich and famous of Hollywood, Yalitza walks on the red carpet at the Oscars accompanied by her mother, a woman who was a domestic employee for an important part of her life and whose principal language is Triqui. She becomes a star instead of the simple background of a telenovela (soap opera). The backlash borders on the violent, in attitudes, comments, yes, even morbid, which operate implicitly or explicitly to remind you of your “real” place.

The magazine Hola also puts her photograph on its cover but it’s a Photoshop version that approximates her complexion and figure to determined parameters of beauty and whiteness (she can only belong that way). At other times the racism is disguised as an infantilizing towards her person. A reporter interviews her during the Oscars using the tone that one usually uses when addressing a child: How does it feel to fulfill the dream that every girl has of being Cinderella? And, how nice that you are accompanied by your “mommy.” Others use jokes that point to the supposed innate ignorance that a woman like her surely has. Jimmy Kimmel asked her: Did you know what Netflix was, although you didn’t know who Cuarón was? And still others, celebrities as well as mere mortals of the social networks, comment with a good dose of amazement that how is it possible that a “pinche india” (fucking Indian) has been nominated as best actress at the Oscars.

Reactions like these have been the source of mass comments, as much in defense of the actress as to continue pushing her towards the place where she “belongs.” But reactions to the figure of Yalitza are also expressed in an opposite sense; they uncover a collective desire and hunger for recognition. A few weeks ago, the Oaxacan collective Lapiztola captured her image in a mural painted in black and white from the scene where she is in bed contemplating Fermín, the character portrayed by the actor Jorge Guerrero. It’s an almost mythical version of Yalitza, it now decorates a building in the Las Peñas district of Iztapalapa, as a reflection of the expectations generated and deposited in her persona.

We cannot understand the phenomenon of Yalitza outside of the historical conditions in which Roma sees the light of day. It’s a context marked by a defensive nationalism versus the xenophobic, racist anti-immigrant wave of the Trump wall and his detention centers. It’s also marked by the so-called Fourth Transformation, which is based on the message that the previously inaccessible –which historically has been prohibited to the type of family to which Yalitza belongs– is now accessible. On December 1, Los Pinos became a popular park for the enjoyment of all Mexican families, the photo (also published in Hola) of the former first lady La Gaviota posing with her daughter at the side of the stairs, replaced by a photo of parents with their children who take a “selfie” in the same place. Call it “miscegenation reloaded” or the return to State multiculturalism, that still needs to be defined, but the Fourth Transformation is fed in part from that genuine desire of millions of people that have been systematically treated with contempt –as if they were ignorant, or children, or too dark to truly be included in la society– that they can be someone. An orphan wish in search of an image to adopt.

That’s the seductive trap of the figure of Yalitza. The ideology of the mestizos as well as the multicultural policies, especially in their neoliberal facets, open the doors of social inclusion promising a promotion in exchange for correct individual decisions (“I marry someone with light skin to improve the race; if I study a lot and achieve entering a good university, I am going to be someone in life.”) They confuse individual success with a change in basic social conditions, which resist being transformed by creating small drops of people that manage to get ahead, “being someone” as if everything depended on a sum of well-executed strategies. By the same token, charging anti-racist responsibility to the figure of Yalitza makes up part of the same machinery of racism that hides its structural gear behind individual successes and attitudes.

Without a doubt you must celebrate Yalitza’s talent and achievements, but she is not a lifesaver. Nor does it fall to her to carry that responsibility on her shoulders. Don’t confuse the celebration of a well- deserved success with the necessity of a profound debate about the racism that sustains the Mexican middle class, a debate that must go beyond the screen (in its double meaning) and the fashion magazines; it must go beyond the after-dinner talks that abounded in these days. If the Mexican middle class does not confront its (historically) racist position, there will be no film or Oscar nomination that saves it.

* Professor and researcher of Ciesas–CDMX (Mexico City)


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



One Comment on “Film successes and contemporaneous Mexican racism

  1. Pingback: CHIAPAS SUPPORT COMMITTEE UPDATE | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

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