Two years after her historic Oscar nomination for “Roma,” Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio has yet to star in another movie, but she’s found another way to stay busy: In the midst of throwing her support behind efforts to support the indigenous film community in Mexico, Aparicio has become one of the country’s foremost activists for its historically marginalized people.
Cultural spaces — including movie theaters — have historically been inaccessible for indigenous communities across Mexico. By and large, these spaces tend to concentrate in major cities and, and more importantly, economic inequality makes them financially off-limits for most. But as the country begins to reckon with its centuries-old issues of race and class affecting the vast majority of the population, individual towns have launched enterprises to bridge the gap and function as local windows into the world at large.
One such project is Cine Too, in Guelatao de Juárez, Oaxaca—the birthplace of Mexican president Benito Juárez—a small Zapotec community of about 500 people located in the state’s northern mountain range. Founded in 2016 by indigenous filmmaker Juan José García Ortiz, this one-of-a-kind, one-screen, 75-seat cinema stands as a beacon for exhibition in the region (where the nearest multiplex is 60km away) and serves as educational center fostering the next generation of indigenous filmmakers.
Notwithstanding its pivotal significance, resources at Cine Too are tight. Operations are funded through sales of snacks and refreshments at its café/concessions stand. Forced to close its doors amidst the COVID-19 crisis, its future was put at serious risk. To survive, Cine Too—which takes its name from the Zapotec word “too,” meaning enchanted or sacred—joined forces with three other independent film venues around Mexico for a fundraising campaign entitled “Ayuda a que las pantallas sigan brillando” (Help Keep the Screens Shining), which received public endorsements from figures of the caliber of Guillermo del Toro, Gael García Bernal, and Oscar-nominee and Oaxaca native Aparicio.
The “Roma” actress, who was recently invited to become an Academy member this month, has been using her large social media presence to pledge her support for Cine Too, in addition to donating to its cause. Through her breakout role in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 hit and the massive media attention it garnered, the actress and activist became a vital voice for indigenous people in Mexico and beyond. As such, she said in a recent interview, she believed that extending access to cinema for communities that have long been cast aside is a purposeful step towards including them in society at large.
“It’s important to save these spaces because they reach places where the arts are often not accessible,” she said, speaking in Spanish by phone from Mexico City. “I come from a community where there’s no movie theater, and as a consequence the population, especially the children that grow up those communities, has less of an interest in the cinematic arts. [Cine Too] has the possibility to reach these children and provide an opportunity to instill in them the passion for cinema and teach them about this art form.”
While the media narrative surrounding indigenous people has been limiting at best and problematic at worst, Guelatao has charted a different path. Since the ‘80s, locals have pioneered an approach to local broadcasting that edifies its own people. Over the years, the autonomous town — governed under its particular regulatory systems — has run its own radio stations, a TV channel, and even a photography workshop. Needless to say, the addition of a screening space was a natural continuation to their mission.
These informational and artistic outlets have created an alternative to the mainstream discourse on national networks, where dark-skinned Mexicans and others with indigenous features have always been denied positions of power and are relegated to stereotypical roles, often associated with a lower socioeconomic status, in favor of white talent. Harmful misrepresentation on such large scale and for numerous decades has contributed to the perpetuation of injustice and prejudice.
“In Mexico, you are discriminated for having skin like mine, when in reality the majority of the population has this same pigmentation,” said Aparicio. ”We have normalized such discrimination. And while mass media occupies a very important role, at the same time they have really damaged our society through the negative subliminal messages they broadcast regarding class and race.”
In response to that tendency, it has become an imperative for many in Mexico to expose audiences to diverse points of view and more accurate forms of representation from a young age. According to Guelatao filmmaker Luna Marán, a member of the cultural committee Agenda Guelatao, which oversees the Cine Too’s activities, a key factor in its creation were the 200 children and teenagers that live there.
“In our region, the ritual of going to the movies doesn’t exist like it does in the city, but by having this cinema we are developing that culture of going to a specific place to watch films communally,” said Marán in a phone interview from Guelatao.
Cine Too’s screening programmings cater to Guelatao’s distinct needs and consist of three main programs: one designed to entertain the grade school kids (many of whom live at the local boarding school) with family-friendly works from around the globe; another focused on high school students that uses audiovisual storytelling to reinforce topics discussed in schools—especially those related to the environment, indigenous identity, addiction, and sexual education; and a third one acting as a commercial cinema that shows about two new Mexican releases, both fiction and documentary, per month.
For an à la carte experience, a library of about 900 films is also available. Families can walk in and ask staff to project a specific title for them on the big screen.
However, the project aims to be more than just an effective exhibitor. For aspiring indigenous filmmakers in Guelatao and surrounding areas, Cine Too serves as a professional and creative platform thanks to initiatives like the Campamento Audiovisual Itinerante (Itinerant Audiovisual Camp), where emerging voices receive mentorship from established artists; JEQO, a self-managed program dedicated to feminist communitarian cinema; and Cine Too Lab, a breeding ground for indigenous stories that follows them from their inception to post-production. In the last two years, 15 projects have been supported via Cine Too Lab.
“Cine Too has become the epicenter for many young indigenous people who want to learn how to make films,” said Marán. “There’s a big difference between being an spectator watching a movie and learning how to make movies, making them communally, and then being able to project the finished movies at your local cinema for all the people in your community to attend.”
It’s a full circle cycle of development, production, and collective appreciation, for and by this indigenous community. Maran’s own debut feature “Tío Yim” — a documentary about her estranged father, Zapotec musician leader Jaime Luna — screened at Cine Too last year. Her personal film was also the only Mexican selection at the BBC’s LongShots online festival.
“We are providing a space where we as indigenous people can tell our own stories from our perspectives, first for us and then to share them with the world,” Marán said. For now, due the overwhelming success of the “Ayuda” campaign, Cine Too is safe. But that situation could change depending on how long the public health crisis lasts.
Aparicio’s ascent to international recognition ignited an undeniable paradigm shift within Mexican society. Her accomplishments as a proud indigenous woman, gracing the covers of the most prestigious magazines for the first time and sharing red carpets with the film industry’s elite, evidenced the sheer ugliness of the country’s violent racism, and set the stage for conversations that were previously dismissed to be had more openly by those directly affected.
Today, a year and a half after “Roma” won three Oscars and propelled her into the mainstream, Aparicio continues channeling the monumental impact of her career into every decision she makes. She is being extra careful about choosing her next part.
“My objective in my career is to give visibility to all of us who have been kept in the dark for so long,” she said. “The acting projects I’m working on are moving slowly because I’m putting all my efforts in not being pigeonholed because of my appearance.” However, she was seeing a general move in the right direction. “There are many people who have the disposition to help change things,” she said. “We’ve had enough of people being typecast in certain roles or characters based on the color of their skin. We have a complicated job, because these things can’t be changed overnight but hopefully we can show people that the only limits are within us.”
In May, Aparicio penned a New York Times op-ed on these issues, and in recent weeks she has engaged in public discussions with renowned Oaxacan singer Lila Downs and fellow Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta (“Güeros,” “Sin Nombre”) about the effects of the media in the opportunities afforded and denied to Mexicans of color. She has met with Mexican lawmakers to discuss the issues related to domestic workers in terms of basic rights as employees, and was recently part of a campaign to demand protections for domestic workers during the pandemic.
Aparicio said that it was only through such constant advocacy — paired with substantial policy changes and efforts that empower disenfranchised people — that she believes a meaningful transformation can occur.
“Wherever I go, I’ll always be proudly representing our indigenous communities,” she said. “I’m conscious that every step I take may open doors for someone else and at the same time it’s an opportunity for society to realize we are part of it and that we are here.”