03 · 1 · 21

‘Indigenist’ Mexican Cinema

By: Rafael Aviña

Portraits of Mexican indigenous peoples have been present since the beginnings of Mexican cinema, in a vision that is at times paternalistic, folkloric, ethnographic or documentary-style, as seen in the short films Desayuno de indios (1896, Gabiel Veyre and Claude F. Bon Bernard), Casamiento de indios en Zapotlán (1907, Salvador Toscano) and Danza de los indigenas de Teotihuacán y de las pirámides (1920, Manuel Gamio). Generally speaking, Mexican cinema from the 1920s engaged in a curious aesthetic process that aimed to capture the joy and the tragedy of indigenous life; the image of the indigenous face. An attempt to throw light on a landscape that was at once both known and unknown, in a country that was eminently rural and indigenous.

The naivety of the first stories about this ‘new’ indigenous theme – works like De raza Azteca (1921, Guillermo “Indio” Callas and Miguel Contreras Torres), El indio yaqui (1926) or Raza de bronze (1927, both directed by Indio Callas) – was undermined when, at the dawn of the next decade, the Russian filmmaker Sergei Mikáilovich Eisenstein, arrived on Mexican soil. Hoping to re-tell the mysterious story of the indigenous peoples of that unknown land, Eisenstein started work on his fascinating but ill-fated project Que viva México! (1931).

During Eisenstein´s stay in Mexico, he unwittingly inaugurated a school of filmic thought for a whole generation of new filmmakers interested in the artifice of light and framing, directly influencing directors like Fernando de Fuentes, Chano Urueta, Arcady Boytler, Adolfo Best Maugard and, particularly, that famous duo of Emilio “El indio” Fernández and Gabriel Figueroa, who would end up creating an indigenous Mexico of mythical proportions, one that could only exist in their imaginations and that was fuelled by nascent cultural nationalism in Mexico. The first echoes of Eisenstein´s influence can be seen in 1934 in Carlos Navarro´s film Janitzio, starring Emilio “El indio” Fernández and Maria Tereza Orozco, as well as in Redes (Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel), which featured real-life fishermen from Alvarado, Veracruz. The films were photographed respectively by the Americans Jack Draper (who was based in Mexico) and Paul Strand.

Emilio “El Indio” Fernández en Janitzio, de Carlos Navarro.

Armando Vargas de la Maza’s El indio (1938) was an altogether more violent affair. Based on a successful indigenous novel by Gregorio López y Fuentes, the film tells the story of the cruelties committed by a Spanish landowner against the indigenous peasants who work in a sugar mill and who are defended by a free indigenous man, played by Pedro Armendáriz. Something similar happens in Mala yerba (1940, Gabriel Soria), based on the play by Mariano Azuela and starring Lupita Gallardo as a demure indigenous woman who is assaulted and raped by a landowner from Jalisco. In contrast, La india bonita (1938, Antonio Helú) stars comical, naïve indigenous heroines who would provide an atypical model for Dolores del Rio and María Félix in later films like María Candelaria (1943) and Maclovia (1948), both directed by Emilio Fernández.

In spite of the precents set by “Indio” Calles and Contreras Torres, the other “Indio”, Emilio Fernández, would take on the mantle of Mexican indigenous cinema as his own personal patrimony, exploring the paradigm of the pure, noble being. This was often in opposition to the characterization offered in later independent films, or in ethnographic documentaries, as well as in some works from the Echeverrista period, which saw the indigenous person as a subjected, exploited being. This, in turn, coexisted with the stereotype of the ´devious native´.

Miguel Inclán, for instance, created the character of the ‘indio ladino’, in love with the young indigenous María Candelaria, in the film of the same name. In the last episode of Canasta de cuentos mexicanos (1955, Julio Bracho) Jorge Martínez de Hoyos plays a rogue indigenous man who tricks a pair of American tourists. One of the most interesting roles taken on by Pedro Infante – for which he won the Golden Bear in Berlin – was the indigenous Tizoc (1956, Ismael Rodríguez), a skilful but naïve hunter from the Oaxacan mountains who is in love with Maria Félix. In direct opposition was the Indigenous character of Corachi, played by Jaime Fernández in Tarahumara (1964), a film in which director Luis Alcoriza shows enormous respect for the people he is depicting. Or the character of Animas Trujano from the film of the same name (1961, Isamel Rodríguez), played by the Japanese actor Toshino Mifune – a devious and drunk zapotec man, determined to become the town´s butler. Or the intriguing story by Roberto Gavaldón that stars Ignacio López Tarso as the indigenous Macario (1959), who makes an alliance with indigenous death (Enrique Lucero).

Macario (1959), Roberto Gavaldón.

Other examples of this alternative cinema, which discovered the sensitivity of the indigenous universe, can be seen in films like: Raíces (1943, Benito Alazraki) and El brazo fuerte (1958, Giovanni Korporaal) – written by Juan de la Cabada, both films photographed by Waler Reuter – or El despojo (1969, Antonio Reynoso), shot by Rafael Corkidi in the arid valley of Mezquital and based on a story written by Juan Rulfo. Also in perceptive documentaries that show the marginalization of indigenous people: Los que viven donde sopla el viento suave (1973, Felipe Cazals), a film that denounces overcrowding and misery in a community of Seris in Sonora. Also in Juan Perez Jolote (1973, Archibaldo Burns), based on a book by the anthropologist Ricardo Pozas, about the exploited and alienated Tzotzil community in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas. The racist classism of Mexican society can be observed in dialogue from La bienamada (1951), a lesser known film from Emilio Fernández, in which a dark skinned Mexican teenager is nicknamed “aboriginal” or “indigenous”.