On February 24, 2019, at the Oscars ceremony, Yalitza Aparicio’s name will be read along with four others as nominees for Best Actress. As an Oaxacan of Mixtec and Triqui heritage, Aparicio will join Keisha Castle-Hughes as the only indigenous women nominated for a Best Lead Actress Academy Award. Since starring in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, she has appeared in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair and W Magazine and on the cover of Vogue México. Her journey has not been perfect, but amid the barrage of offensive commentary that has shadowed her success, Aparicio has remained graceful and focused on the empowering potential of her visibility.
Evaluations of representation often become caught in tactics of counting (how many women and people of color are included) or binaries of positive versus negative representation (is the character sufficiently respectable or breaking enough stereotypes?) To some, Aparicio’s personal achievements and ascension to global recognition has already broken barriers. To others, her performance insufficiently challenges stereotypes because she’s only a “faithful servant,” or she fails to become a full person. Among film critics, the quality of Aparicio’s performance has been lauded, but how should we approach the newcomer’s burgeoning success and visibility?
On Sunday, many of us will delight at seeing Aparicio on screen just as we shared in her joy at being nominated. Indigenous children may, unlike a young Aparicio, feel buoyed by seeing the actress on a global stage, instead of disillusionment with the worlds they see depicted on screen. Within celebrations of Aparicio’s big break and ensuing accolades, we can also take this opening to critique a system that limits the opportunities for indigenous groups and other people of color at all stages of the filmmaking process and that uses exceptionalism as a veil for its rotten foundation.
Since Roma’s Oscar buzz began its journey, the discomfort of those who view Aparicio as an interloper, or in other reductive (and offensive) terms, has been almost as central to news coverage as the young Oaxacan actress’s rise. Not all have been supportive, and the acclaim surrounding Aparicio has attracted its share of maliciousness. When Aparicio graced the pages of Vanity Fair in November of 2018, racist and classist reactions polluted the celebration.
Then, in February, it was credibly documented that a group chat comprised of Mexican actresses had designs to lobby the Mexican Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences (AMACC) to exclude Aparicio from the Ariel Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars. According to documentarian María José Cuevas, the conspiratorial chat was fueled by arguments that Aparicio is not a “real” actress. The incident was shortly followed by denials from those accused of partaking in the messages and clarification from the AMACC that they had not received a request to exclude Aparicio from the competition nor would such a request affect the Ariel selection process.
Less than a month after Oscar nominations were announced, a viral video showed telenovela actor Sergio Goyri disparaging Aparicio in a discussion about whether she deserved a nod from the Academy. Goyri, apparently unaware that he was being recorded, spouted anti-indigenous insults and diminished Aparicio’s performance as exclusively servile. In his apology the next day, Goyri claims that he did not mean what he said but that it came out amid a heated argument.
A careless social media stream or cabal of actresses organizing against Aparicio may not have been meant as public attacks, but they reveal something more insidious: the machinations that flourish behind closed doors.
Aparicio, for her part, has been steadfast, expressing her pride in being an “Oaxacan indigenous woman.” She knows she’s moving against a tide of stereotypes and skewed opportunities, but Aparicio has been fighting the public’s expectations for longer than the last few months. Before she was a rising movie star, Aparicio had to fight to be considered more than her gender, her skin tone, her economic class, and more than a servant. Why are so many determined to keep Aparicio in her place?
When confronted by press, a repentant Goyri claimed that, despite his racist comments, he was not racist. “A proud Mexican cannot be racist,” said Goyri. This kind of post-racial thinking is integral to the mestizo national identity I described in a previous piece. Patronizing and folkloric depictions of “the Indian,” while central to Mexican national identity as a symbol, became inextricable from views of indigenous people as backward and stuck in the past. This allows mestizos to believe themselves to share in indigenous heritage and yet maintain racist and narrow views about those they perceive as too indigenous.
Mestizaje was really about whitening and “modernizing” indigenous groups, metaphorically and not. In the 20th century, policies of “indigenismo” sought to assimilate and acculturate indigenous people, who were thought incompatible and an impediment to a modern nation. For Mexico, indigeneity was confined into certain boxes of labor and identity: often feminine, rural, and outsider. This informs the bigoted perceptions of Aparicio as not a real actress or undeserving of acclaim for playing a servant.
Because of this history, indigenous women have often perceived as threats or out of place in urban settings and other public spaces, and this extends now to fashion magazine covers and the red carpet, especially if they do not conform to Western and Eurocentric ideas of beauty. It’s no wonder Aparicio’s presence causes discomfort to those who understand themselves according to ideas about who was allowed in which spaces and in what capacities.
As we celebrate with and for Aparicio, we should also account for how her acclaim was contingent on vetting from Alfonso Cuarón, a white Mexican director. Her current celebrity means she is desired for magazine covers, but not the way she actually looks, as evidenced by photoshopped portraits where she appears with considerably lightened skin. The praise and recognition Aparicio has received, while well-deserved, does not amount to a change in the very system that makes her nomination a miracle: the distribution of roles and who writes them, the politics of casting, the demographics of gaffers, grips, and producers, and how it all gets funded. It is a victory according to someone else’s rules.
Still, at the Oscars, I will be rooting for Yalitza Aparicio. I will be rooting against those like Sergio Goyri, those who seek to exclude Aparicio and people like her, and internet commenters who cannot bear to see an indigenous woman in the spaces they have deemed beyond her reach. And I will be rooting for a critique of Hollywood and media racism that does not end at award shows.