By RICARDO CASTILLO
First, let me offer a sort of introduction:
Back in October, Pulse News Mexico ran an article that talked about advertising analysis titled “Racism in a bottle of beer.” The article, written by marketing analyst Julia Castillo (full disclosure, she is my daughter) told the story of the scam of an ad agency that publicizes Indio beer. The criticism was regarding a T-shirt, which in order to appeal to white, upper-class Mexican consumers, had the allegedly cute print on its cover of “Pinche Indio.” This phrase was, of course, and will always be a combination of slur words that best describe Mexican racism.
Now, I’d like to take the concept one step further in describing the current trending topic, which takes the racist slur straight into the swamp: “Pinche India.” This phrase is doubly offensive because it offends a woman and denigrates indigenous Mexicans.
Here’s a bird’s eye view of the racial reverberations that Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s film “Roma” (which could easily been subtitled “Pinche India”) had on Mexican society in recent weeks:
Is racism in Mexico well portrayed in Oscar-winning “Roma”? President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) on Monday, Feb. 25, the day after the Academy Awards, said he’d not seen the film, nor had he had the time to watch the Oscars, but acknowledged he agreed with Cuarón:
“I’m totally in agreement with him,” the president said when asked about the movie during his early morning press conference. “Mexico, unfortunately, still has a lot of racism.”
While promising to watch “Roma” when he got a chance, the president explained “I didn’t see the Oscars ceremony because I go to bed early.”
“Roma” is a partially autobiographic story in which filmmaker Cuarón tells the story of the maid and indigenous woman (the original, he says, was named Libo, but in the flick, she is called Cleo) who became his friend and nanny while living at the Roma neighborhood in Mexico City as a child. Cuarón says he wanted to pay homage not just to his own former nanny and babysitter in the 1970s, but also to all the hardworking maids and live-in staff of native origin who work for Mexican middle-class families.
In finding a real star for his film, Cuarón did several castings. From the film, we can now tell that he was not merely casting an actress, but putting into practice the tactic called “typecasting,” which involves finding a person, not necessarily a professional actress, that fits perfectly into the role because of their physical appearance.
While typecasting the role of Cleo, Cuarón was visited by Yalitza Aparicio, who, for the most part, fit the looks of his former nanny Libo perfectly. He found out too that Aparicio was not a professional actress, but moved with ease and had limited but good diction. She worked as a kindergarten teacher and, of course, was an aspiring actress. He hired her to play the role of the suffering indigenous Mexican maid and her misadventures. Aparicio indeed fit the physical part of the character perfectly.
And so she was pitched to serve as the maid to a middle-class woman portrayed by Marina de Tavira, a professionally trained actress.
After the film was premiered internationally on Netflix, it became evident that this was not going to be (despite soundtrack misgivings) typical of made-in-Mexico films, but was destined for bigger audiences. Then, the big bang burst: Yalitza Aparicio was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.
The nomination unleashed all hell on Mexico’s theatrical, television and film scene. All of the great divas just could not believe how a low-class “pinche India” was set to rub elbows with all of Hollywood’s great stars on the red carpet show at Dolby Theater .
For all of these Mexican glamorous actresses, she was not merely a “pinche India,” but also an ugly one. One well-known Mexican actress, Laura Zapata, couldn’t hold back the fact that she – and all pro actresses in Mexico, for that matter, Zapata used an old Mexican refrain: “The luck of the ugly girl is the envy of the pretty one.” (“La suerte de la fea, la bonita la desea,” in Spanish rhyme.)
Other actresses, like soap star Isaura Esinoza, thought nominating Yalitza for an acting Oscar was an “exaggeration” on the part of the judges, and film star Anna de la Reguera criticized the fact that she “looked very bad in the very pretty dresses” she was wearing for photo sessions.
In terms of acting, Yalitza got a clobbering from just about everyone since “la gata” (gata, a female cat, is another slur word for a Mexican maid or servant) did not do any real acting because throughout the whole film all she said was “si señora, no señora” to her boss. That’s not acting, they claimed. It must be said that kindergarten teachers get a great training in performing in front of children – puppetry included – as acting is the greatest teaching tool for little ones.
There is one scene in “Roma” where Cleo tells a man she went to bed with that she is pregnant. He rejects her violently. telling him “get out of here, pinche India.” That was good acting on her part. Good enough for an Oscar? Some thought so.
At the end of the story, there is one final major villain, a crappy soap opera actor named Sergio Goyri, who got videoed – by his own wife, of all people – blasting the hell out of Yalitza when she got the nomination. In the video, which soon went viral, he asks how in the world a “pinche India” could get an Oscar nomination if she couldn’t even act. The result was that Goyri fit perfectly the role of soap opera villain he often plays on screen, but he also got temporarily suspended by Telemundo for his racist slur. If the villain wanted attention, he sure got it.
In the end Yalitza showed up on the night of Sunday, Feb. 24, exactly where nobody seemed to want to see her: inside the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. She did not win an Oscar, but Alfonso Cuarón got two for his work – best script and best foreign movie – with another one for cinematography, which was in black-and-white.
Not surprisingly, Aparicio finally gained great recognition among Mexican American actors and actresses who understood perfectly the type of discrimination she had been subjected to in Mexico, and perhaps, in the United States, since it was an experience they are all too familiar with.
“She’s a magical ,brown-skinned woman,” said one Chicano studies professor at the Channel Islands State College in Camarillo, California. “My students can’t stop talking about her.”
In a general response to all those who insulted her, Aparicio just said: “I am proud of being an Indian from Oaxaca and it embarrasses me to hear people who don’t know the correct meaning of those words.”
As for the future for Aparicio, it can be said that it is uncertain since it is one thing to land a typecasted role and another to win may require acts of histrionics.
But for sure in Mexico, all her detractors are green with envy. And I can’t forget the verse of a great Greek poet who said: “There are eagles who in one wing flap get to the top of the mountain; there are little birds who wiggle their wings their entire life, and never even get midway.”
Yalitza is now where every Mexican actress wished she was, and – lo and behold – all thanks to being typecast as “a pinche India.”