Yalitza Aparicio forces Mexico to acknowledge racism and class division
Yalitza Aparicio was the first Mexican Indigenous woman to be nominated for an Oscar - Photo: Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS

Yalitza Aparicio forces Mexico to acknowledge racism and class division

25/02/2019
15:55
Newsroom & Agencies
Mexico City
Reuters
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The majority of Mexicans celebrated Yalitza and “Roma”, as it finally put an indigenous woman at center stage but many others discriminated her

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The film “Roma” chronicles the life of a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico. It has put the country's distinct class, ethnic and racial divisions on the spotlight, leading to mixed reactions to the indigenous woman cast in the starring role.

Yalitza Aparicio, who was nominated in the Best Actress category in the 2019 Academy Awards, has appeared on the cover of VOGUE Mexico, Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, has attracted over a million Instagram followers and has been praised by many, but she has also suffered discrimination and racism.

With her bronze skin and short stature, the 25-year-old woman from a poor indigenous family in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, has become a symbol of pride for many. She is the opposite of the women and men with European features who dominate Mexican television and film industry.

Unfortunately, Yalitza's leap to fame and success, after her powerful portrayal of a young domestic worker in “Roma,” which was directed by Alfonso Cuarón and awarded 3 Oscars, have also exposed how deeply racism, discrimination, and prejudice are ingrained in Mexico.

The most recent incident took place a few weeks ago, when a soap opera actor attacked her with crude, racially-charged language, one of many offensive remarks following her Oscar nomination and just last week when society magazine Hola! featured Aparicio on its cover, the actress’ skin was lightened.

And although Hollywood has been forced to confront its lack of diversity amid #OscarsSoWhite criticism in recent years, Mexico’s film industry has yet to turn the mirror on itself.

“We’re uncorking this racism that we’ve been carrying around for centuries,” said Itza Varela Huerta, a post-doctoral researcher studying indigenous and Afro-Mexican groups at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology in southern Oaxaca.

“When we’re with an indigenous person, it’s always: she doesn’t know anything, she can’t do anything, she’s not pretty, she doesn’t know how to act.”

Aparicio, with roots in the Mixtec and Triqui indigenous communities, is part of the nearly one-quarter of Mexico’s population of some 120 million people who are indigenous, according to government data.

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Racism, Discrimination, and Stereotypes

Carlos Cubero, head of academic projects at Mexico City’s Museum of Memory and Tolerance, says “Roma” has forced Mexicans to confront glaring social inequalities, both from the theme of the film itself and the reactions it has triggered, which has included outpourings of admiration for Aparicio.

Ideally, he said, the public will persist in self-reflection even after the spotlight on “Roma” fades.

After soap opera actor Sergio Goyri was caught calling her a “fucking Indian” in a video, Aparicio responded that she was saddened that people did not know “the correct meaning of words.”

Also, others accused Aparicio of not having talent at all and simply playing a version of herself.

“She didn’t act! That’s how she is!” former television host Elsa Burgos de Siller said on social media. “You get an Oscar with a performance that has nothing to do with you, a ‘Monster’ for Charlize Theron, but not a Yalitza being Yalitza.”

The assumption that all women who look like Aparicio also act like her domestic-worker characterCleo” from “Roma,” quiet and submissive, is troubling, said Citlali Fabian, a photographer who focuses on indigenous culture in Oaxaca.

She explains that Mexicans embody contradiction: they celebrate the achievements of their distant indigenous ancestors but at the same time, they discriminate their contemporaries.

“We’re proud of coming from the Aztecs,” she said. “But call me Indian and it’s a damn insult.”

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Confronting Racism in Mexico

Today, Mexico’s President denounced racism in Mexico, a day after the “Roma” emerged as a big winner at the Academy Awards.

Last night, Alfonso Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar for his semi-autobiographical film “Roma,” which told the story of an indigenous domestic worker.

The movie also won awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Cinematography, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador fielded several questions about “Roma” at his regular morning press conference.

When asked if he agreed with Cuarón that Mexican society is plagued with racist prejudice, the President said: “I completely agree. Unfortunately, there is a lot of racism in Mexico.”

López Obrador, who in the 1970s worked for the Indigenous Affairs Bureau in his home state of Tabasco, has vowed to give priority to the poor.

Cuarón has explained that the film emphasized the divided nature of Mexico’s social structure, sparking off a much-needed discussion on racism and domestic worker rights.

“It’s a moment in which the country has recognized itself as a racist country,” he said at an event in Los Angeles last week.

Roma” brought many issues besides racism into the spotlight. Mexico, where the class division is quite evident, domestic workers have no rights and are often underpaid and mistreated but after the film was released, the Mexican government announced work to grant rights and benefits to domestics workers.

In his acceptance speech, he thanked the Academy for recognizing a movie centered around an indigenous woman, saying her character represents the “70 million domestic workers in the world without work rights.”

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The importance of representation

In Mexico, where blond actors and actresses dominate the screens, Yalitza was a breath of fresh air not only because of her acting but because millions of people were finally represented. Yalitza is not only an Oscar-nominated actress, but she is also a role model for women of color and she has set an example for indigenous girls, who will realize that they can achieve anything they want and that racism and discrimination can't stop them.

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