Print Edition - 2019-02-22  |  Life & Style

‘Roma’ star’s unlikely road from mountains of Mexico to Hollywood

- YEMELI ORTEGA, TLAXIACO (Mexico)

Feb 22, 2019-

Yalitza Aparicio once was a newly qualified pre-school teacher living in a dusty mountain town in Mexico. Now, the 25-year-old is the star of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and an Oscar nominee—a fairy tale marred by racist barbs the indigenous actress has encountered along the way.

Aparicio—who is part Mixtec and part Triqui—grew up in Tlaxiaco in the southern state of Oaxaca, home to about 40,000 people. She had never even seen a movie on the big screen until she was 15 and went on a school trip to Puebla, a city some 350 kilometers (220 miles) away.

Tlaxiaco closed its only movie theater years ago, explains Miguel Angel Martinez, who runs the small city’s tiny cultural center. Even then, it had only shown films that had screened everywhere else years before. The theater’s demise was hastened by the advent of pirated DVDs, a flourishing black market that at least brought more up-to-date movies to Tlaxiaco. Now, in an open-air market next to the church and clock tower, a stall advertises Roma on sale for 20 pesos, or one dollar.

In the film, Aparicio plays an indigenous nanny living with a family in Mexico City—a tale drawn from Cuaron’s own childhood in the 1970s. In real life, Aparicio grew up in a tiny house among flowers, chickens and cows, before becoming Cuaron’s unlikely on-screen muse.

Racist insults

Since bursting onto the big screen, her performance has been lauded from Europe to the United States, and her face has appeared on the covers of prestigious magazines.

She is the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a best actress Oscar. But with her newfound fame has come a wave of racist comments on social media, and even some from fellow actors.

Sergio Goyri, a 60-year-old Mexican soap opera star, was caught on camera criticizing the Academy for nominating an “Indian”—using a vile profanity. Other actors have questioned her talent, sparking indignation from Cuaron.

“Yalitza is one of the best actors I have worked with. It is wrong and racist to think that she is only playing herself,” he said. “It sets such huge limitations on a woman, just because of her indigenous background.”

Mixed response at home

But even in her hometown, Aparicio’s work has often received a lukewarm response. “I don’t like the movie, and I like her performance even less. It’s all very trite,” said Rogelio Lopez, a seller of costume jewelry.

Others in Tlaxiaco are more supportive. “I really want her to win an Oscar,” said Catalina Chavez, a 39-year-old artisan. “I’m very proud that she is representing us—as women, as indigenous people, as Mexicans, as country people and as domestic workers, as so many things!”

Gladys Morales, a 24-year-old who went to school with Aparicio, says she admires the down-to-earth way her former classmate has coped with the international limelight.

“I was here in December [for New Year’s festivities]. I saw her just walking with her mom. They were doing some shopping,” Morales said. “Everything here is as simple as ever.”

Aparicio has defended herself against “offensive comments,” saying she hopes “we are done with this idea.” “I personally always thought I could never be a part of this [showbiz]. It all seems like a fairy tale because all my life, I have been seeing women who didn’t look like me on the screen,” she told reporters.

‘Not here for the casting call’

So how did this humble young woman reach the peaks of cinematic glory?

That in itself is a fairy tale of improbable casting. In April 2016, Cuaron put out a casting call in Tlaxiaco and other towns to find the lead actress for Roma.

Martinez, the cultural center head, said he thought the role would go to Aparicio’s older sister Edith, as she has a “magnificent singing voice” and is “very talented, outgoing, with a lot of charm and charisma.”

The two sisters went to the casting call together, and Edith threw herself enthusiastically into the session, which consisted of a photo shoot and questions about her personal life.

But the casting official insisted that Yalitza also part. “I didn’t come for the casting call. I only came to keep Edith company,” Yalitza said, according to Martinez.

But Edith “took her by the hand” into the test. She quickly found herself cast in Roma without even knowing who Cuaron was, said Martinez.

“She was a ‘virgin’ for these sorts of things—that’s what allowed her to act so naturally,” he said.

— © 2019 Agence France-Presse

Published: 22-02-2019 10:55

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