Teófila, armed with courage, the first Indigenous woman film-maker in Mexico

Teófila is the Ikoots woman who armed herself with courage and became the first Indigenous woman filmmaker in Mexico.
  • Her documentary from 35 years ago warned that the refinery would contaminate the sea and do away with fishing.
  • It hurts her that technology has changed human beings and that they don’t think about their culture.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca (pagina3.mx). Teofila, the Ikoots woman who comes from the sea, armed herself with courage to work freely, and without intending to, she became the first Indigenous woman to make a film in Mexico.

That was 35 years ago and Teofila Palafox Herranz continues breaking the mold by sowing the seeds for Mareña (Ikoots or Huave) women to fight and raise their voice and, by so doing, continue to create.

Today, at 64 years of age, she is proud to be part of the culture of the Ikoots people of San Mateo del Mar, although she recognizes that there is still resistance to accept that women have rights.

But she is also saddened that in these times technology has changed the mentality of human beings and that they aren’t valuing culture, nature and what is important for the community and gives it identity.

Seeing the documentary again after 35 years, it hurts her to confirm that the prediction that something bad was going to happen in her community with the arrival of the “Antonio Dovali Jaime” refinery, came to pass.

The water was contaminated which ended fishing, the livelihood of San Mateo del Mar. 

Despite the pandemic, Teofila accepted the invitation to the event “Native Language in Indigenous Cinema and Film: Women Creators,” which took place with the celebration of International Native Language Day, put on by the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI in Spanish).

She accepted because she wants officials to turn around and see women artisans and support their community projects.

She says it is because, “As women we are fighting by bringing ideas about how to move forward. This is because San Mateo del Mar was a fishing area, but recently there isn’t any fishing there. Times have changed. Fishing is no more; everything is changing and it’s necessary to make a living.” 

She remembered the adversity that she has had to endure for being a woman and living in an Indigenous community such as Ikoots. 

There, in San Mateo del mar “Women aren’t recognized; we are very isolated and far from the city.” 

Teófila Palafox Herranz is a filmmaker and Ikoots textile artist, recognized as the first Indigenous woman to create a film in Mexico. 

She is from San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca. She was born on the 28th of December 1956. 

She started her career under the umbrella of the First Indigenous Cinema Workshop in 1985, which she helped organize as president of the Women’s Association of Artisans in San Mateo del Mar, in collaboration with a team of cinema instructors. 

Teófila, her younger sister, Elvira, and another five master weavers participated in that project. 

As a result of the workshop, Palafox filmed the documentary Leaw amangoch tinden nop ikoods (The Life of an Ikoots Family). It was a pioneering work for Indigenous cinema that has been celebrated by critics for the unique perspective that it gives by portraying the everyday life of the Mareño people.

In video format, her film Las Ollas de San Marcos stands out; it was filmed in 1992. 

It is worth mentioning that the work of Teofila Palafox has been presented in various film festivals, among which the Festival International du Film d’Amiens, France, and the Native American Film and Video Festival of New York, stand out. 

In a phone interview, Teofila mentioned that interviews still make her nervous, but she agreed to share how she became a filmmaker:

“My lineage is of artisans. My mother taught me, my sisters, my daughters, and other artisans the  technique of the lap loom.” 

“We started this cinema project 35 years ago. We made a movie and we did it as women” 

“We learned to direct documentaries and document village life, its people, its culture, its language, its crafts, its music and everything you can see in the traditional fiestas.

“It’s the least we could do to preserve the language that we speak, and we learned to make natural dyes and today we have textiles with natural dyes,” she says. 

She says, “In my time, 35 years ago, it was very hard for a woman to work freely because there were a lot of issues around women not being able to work. However, we armed ourselves with courage to work on this project and with the group of artisans we worked hard and were able to make this account that is called a documentary.”

“Now we were invited to present this movie and we are very pleased because today we are no longer in the same situation. The town has changed; there has been a lot of change. The youth aren’t  the same as before and we invite the youth to keep working for our culture. It is something that we have inherited and that some people don’t have anymore.”

Back then, she said, “we tried to show the refinery of Salina Cruz. We already knew that it was going to harm us; now we are in a place where life is very expensive because of the refinery, and not everyone works there. Life is expensive. And the refinery has polluted the sea and the air with its smoke and our voice is there, in the documentary.” 

With satisfaction, she now confesses with pride that she has taught her culture to her three children–two women and one man-and her eight nieces and nephews. 

Her daughters not only know how to weave, one of them works in Indigenous education and teaches the Huave or Ikoots language. Teófila says “I am proud that my children carry on the culture of the people who came from the sea.”


The original published by Página 3 in Spanish is  here. Translation provided by the Chiapas Support Committee.

Interview with Teófila Palafoz Herranz (with English subtitles) as part of the On Transversality Conference 2020.

One Comment on “Teófila, armed with courage, the first Indigenous woman film-maker in Mexico

  1. Pingback: Teófila, armed with courage, the first Indigenous woman film-maker in Mexico – indigenista love diaries

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