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Though Aparicio didn’t win the Oscar, she is still a beacon of hope, a symbol of what indigenous representation could potentially be.

By Ruby Mora

Yalitza Aparicio has had a bright spotlight on her since her notable breakout role in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film, “Roma”. The film has gained much acclaim since its release and won three Oscars at this past weekend’s 91st Academy Awards, for Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Foreign Language Film. It was also nominated for seven other awards, including for Yalitza Aparicio as Best Actress. As the first indigenous woman to ever be nominated for this award, Aparicio is already breaking barriers.

“I know that everything that I am doing- if I do something wrong, they might think we are all that way. So I have to take good care of that image, our image,” she stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Her place in the spotlight is extremely significant, especially as part of the film industry where a valid demand for better representation of marginalized communities continues. Aparicio doesn’t represent all indigenous individuals, nor should she be forced to, but with her being in the spotlight, the white gaze will automatically attach these responsibilities to her, as it has always done to people of color in similar positions.

Aparicio, who is of Mixtec and Triqui descent, was studying to become a preschool teacher Tlaxiaco, Mexico when her sister pushed her to audition for Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film. She was chosen for the role of Cleo, who is inspired by the director’s former nanny, just after finishing her degree. Since the release of “Roma”, she has garnered immense praise for her role, but this comes alongside anti-indigenous and classist comments. Recently, Sergio Goyri, a White-passing Mexican actor, criticized Aparicio’s Oscar nomination during a conversation that was posted to Instagram, calling her a “f*cking Indian.” Goyri later apologized for his comments, saying, “It was never my intent to offend anyone. I apologize to Yalitza, who deserves [the Oscar nomination] and much more.”

“I am proud to be an Oaxacan indigenous woman and it saddens me that there are people who do not know the correct meaning of words,” Aparicio said in a statement after Goyri’s comments. It’s not surprising that anti-indigeneity and colorism are so prevalent in Mexico. Even fellow Mexican actresses allegedly attempted to hinder Aparicio from being considered for an Ariel Award, Mexico’s prestigious film academy award. Rosanna Barro, the guest coordinator of the Mexican Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences (AMACC) tweeted: “I found out that there is a chat of Mexican actresses who are organizing to ask the @AcademiaCineMx that Yalitza Aparicio is not considered for the Best Actress of the Ariel list, it is the most mediocre, pathetic and vile thing I have ever heard.” Although after this news spread, various film critics denied this, but the AMACC did not comment on this alleged petitioning. Their silence only shows their complicity in the situation.

Mexico has a long history of discrimination against the indigenous population because of their skin tone. In “Shades of Skin: class warfare and indigenous pride in Mexico City,” Ann Binlot explains the beginnings of the concept of lighter skin as the ideal in Mexico. “The attitudes towards skin color in Mexico started with the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire during the 16th century. That’s when lighter hues were introduced and the mixing between the white conquistadors and the indigenous populations began. Like many third-world countries that were colonized by Europeans, white became defined as beautiful, while dark became less attractive,” she states. White-presenting/lighter-skinned Mexicans now own the vast majority of the most luxurious homes and amenities while indigenous communities are typically considered lower-class, especially in the country’s capital of Mexico City. Mexican media falls along similar lines, having white-presenting/lighter-skinned Mexicans as the wealthy and “beautiful” primary focus, especially in their coveted telenovelas where the majority of the actors and actresses are white-presenting and uphold a heavily dated stereotype towards indigenous peoples and dark-skinned latinxs. Usually, the only people present who look similar to Aparicio are cast as the help of the lighter ones. These stereotypes are comparable to the ones that much of U.S. media embraces about people of color. Netflix, the same streaming platform where “Roma” premiered, created a reality series called “Made in Mexico” that centers around a full cast of all white-presenting Mexican socialites.

Yalitza Aparicio in Vogue México

Though Aparicio didn’t win the Oscar, she is still a beacon of hope, a symbol of what indigenous representation could potentially be, and with that comes an entire community in awe of her and thankful for her presence in spaces normally filled with white and white-presenting faces. Her being featured on the cover of Vogue México really solidified this, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response, especially given the magazine’s history of typically only having light-skinned individuals featured on the cover, some who were not even considered Latinx. Aparicio is striving to make representation of folks who look like her the norm, and although there has been a gradual increase in representation for marginalized communities in US media and beyond, there are still forces pushing back against further progress. The same way these forces exist, there will continue to be more and more that will fight for the representation that marginalized communities deserve, and Yalitza Aparicio is one such force for indigenous Mexicans.

Ruby Mora is a freelance writer and music photographer whose writing focuses on pop culture, identity, anti-racism, and feminism with a Latinx perspective. Her work can be found in Bitch MediaPhiladelphia Printworks Zine, and Rock On Philly