In the past several years, every conversation regarding Latin Americans and the Oscars always leads to the three male Mexican powerhouses that have become household names: Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. This year, Guillermo del Toro, is in the running for The Shape of Water. Outside of those famous creators, plenty of talented filmmakers from across Latin America generated undeniably praiseworthy content this year.
Hollywood is still eons behind when it comes to celebrating the work of US Latinos, but thanks to the Best Foreign Language Film category the odds should be better for people of color from outside the country. The Academy Awards are still an uphill battle with a lot of roadblocks, with a clear Eurocentric bias. The hard work is there. The recognition is not.
But we persevere, and fortunately Latin American women are at the forefront of some of the most captivating Academy Award hopefuls this season – both as performers and directors. A hard-hitting doc done with ethereal allure, a trans woman in the role of a lifetime, a renowned star going back to basics, an accomplished master pushing further in her craft, and a newcomer setting up the basis for a prolific career, are all in the Oscar race and demand to be noticed.
Here are five Latin American women who deserve some of that golden-statuette love for their work in front of, and behind, the camera.
Daniela Vega, A Fantastic Woman
The best performance of the year, by any actress and in any language, belongs to Daniela Vega in Sebastian Lélio’s A Fantastic Woman. Split between dreamlike visions and engrossing drama, Marina – as played by the extraordinary Vega – is an embattled trans woman in Chile whose identity is repeatedly and aggressively questioned throughout her righteous pursuit to mourn the man she loved. Her right to exist as a woman is incessantly under attack by the authorities and the deceased’s estranged relatives, yet, she withstands their misguided callousness with resolute dignity. Her subdued bravery is superlative. Marina avoids falling into their pit of insults and aggravations. Instead, she fights back by moving forward and never relinquishes her humanity. Her life is valid, whether they choose to accept it or not. The hatred spewed at her is silenced by the beautiful strength in her voice. When she stands proud in front of an audience, she asserts that not even the strongest of winds can halt her from marching on. And yes, in case anyone doubts it, it is Daniela Vega singing on screen. In a perfect world, such a triumphant rendition of internalized courage with magical nuances would make her the frontrunner to win the Best Actress award. Make no mistake, she deserves it, whether they choose to give it to her or not.
Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner
Devoid of glamour and sexualized artifice, Salma Hayek delivers her best on-screen performance since her Oscar-nominated turn in Frida (her voice work in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is also notable), in Miguel Arteta‘s massively underrated Beatriz at Dinner – a defining movie for the Trump era. A broken car and an impromptu invitation traps Beatriz, a humble and deeply emphatic Mexican healer, in a wealthy client’s home for an evening among morally reprehensible, culturally inept, super rich white Americans. Hayek constructs Beatriz (whose name she deliberately pronounces in Spanish as Beh-ah-trees) with a sense of tremendous conviction. Her nemesis for the evening is a despicable tycoon who persistently attempts to belittle her. She disregards his condescending behavior and fearlessly tries to sincerely share her worldview. In between uncomfortable humor and head-on clashes between the two polarizing forces, Hayek gives a measured display of her acting prowess. It’s a balancing act comprised of internal turmoil and angry outbursts. Beatriz is forcing herself to remain composed as oblivious entitlement from the other guests becomes more blatant. She is biting her tongue and testing the limits of her patience, and that relatable and unassuming awkwardness is what makes her take on the character so brilliant.
Lucrecia Martel, Zama
One of today’s most celebrated Latin American filmmakers finally completed a new film this year, and it’s just as unconventional as her earlier projects. Lucrecia Martel has only directed four features, all of which have received international acclaim, and there was a nearly decade-long gap between 2008’s La mujer sin cabeza and 2017’s Zama. Understandably, the release of her latest work was highly anticipated by critics and movie lovers alike. Zama is a unique period piece based on Anotnio di Benedetto’s colonial-era novel about a Spanish official stuck in South America. Starring Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho as the title character, this bold look at colonialism enhances its beautifully rendered images with textured sounds. With this artistically singular look at history, Martel reaches a new personal best. The drama was chosen as Argentina’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film. This is the first time one of Martel’s works is selected to represent the country at the Academy Awards. Earlier this year, her debut, La Cienaga, screened at the Academy as part of the From Latin America to Hollywood series with Martel in attendance.
Tatiana Huezo, Tempestad
The Salvadoran-Mexican documentarian has only two feature-length films to her name, and is currently working on her first narrative effort, but she has already made history and has honored the struggles of both of her homelands: where she was born and where she resides today. Huezo’s opera prima, El lugar más pequeño, dealt with the aftermath of the Salvadoran Civil War from the perspective of a small village. Her follow-up, Tempestad, examines the horrors experienced by two women directly affected by Mexico’s brutal drug war. One of them lost her freedom and the other one lost her daughter. Haunting cinematography and the compassionate sensibility towards her subjects’ stories are common denominators in her small but remarkable body of work. She became the first woman to win the Best Director Ariel Award from the Mexican Film Academy for Tempestad. In a surprising but welcomed move, the movie was selected as Mexico’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film. This is only the second time in history that Mexico has chosen a documentary for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Previously the only non-fiction work selected was Torero! in 1957, the first year Mexico submitted a movie in the category.
Ana Cristina Barragán, Alba
Representing Ecuador at the Academy Awards with her first film, Ana Cristina Barragán is a talent to watch. With multiple projects in development, she continues to gain prominence as one of the most interesting cinematic voices from the South American nation. Alba, which won the Lions Film Award from the Rotterdam International Film Festival, is a quiet coming-of-age tale about an introverted young girl reckoning with her mother’s health issues and a non-existent relationship with his father. Visually, it offers intimately shot moments with a delicate color palette. One notable aspect about Barragán’s career is that unlike many aspiring filmmakers from developing countries, she decided to study her craft at home rather than abroad. She enjoys the freedom and possibilities that an emerging film scene like the one in Ecuador can provide. She also has Mexican actress Karla Souza in her corner, as a friend and collaborator, and the two of them plan to work together in the near future.