The night that Yalitza Aparicio almost won an Oscar felt alive with possibility. It was a fiesta. People in Mexico City gathered to watch the awards like a World Cup game. Of course, it’s ironic that Roma, a scathing indictment of Mexican society, inspired the biggest outpouring of Mexican pride since Chucky Lozano scored on Germany. But against my better judgment, I was in the “Viva Mexico” spirit too, rooting for Alfonso and Yalitza to win Best Everything, wanting to prove to America’s most exclusive room of wealthy liberal celebrities that Mexico was in fact sending our best. The first indigenous woman in history was about to win a Best Actress Oscar. That she happened to be Mexican was just the cherry on top.
But that happy ending was not in the script. A Oaxaquena like my grandmother did not end up holding the Oscar that night. Instead, the Best Actress award went to a British woman for playing a queen from England. The Academy has a soft spot for historical British figures. Since 2006, the top acting prizes have gone to portrayals of Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, and King George VI. Needless to say, these are not the sort of roles Yalitza Aparcio will be getting cast in any time soon.
And so, the Academy missed its chance to give the Best Actress award to an indigenous woman for the first time. I’m afraid it’ll be a very long time before Yalitza, or any other indigenous woman, has an opportunity to win the prize again. In fact, my real concern is deeper: after all the Roma buzz fades, after both American and Mexican cinema go back to producing what their usual fare, with their usual roles, I worry if Yalitza Aparicio will ever get a chance at a meaningful starring role again. Over a half year after Roma hit theaters and streaming devices around the world, I wonder: will Yalitza Aparicio act again?
We’ve seen this movie of false promise before. The fairy tale of representation so often ends like this. Breakout performances in inspiring movies lead suddenly to an actor from an underrepresented community being lifted from obscurity. It doesn’t get more like a Cinderella story than Yalitza. She auditioned on a whim and ended up on the cover of Vogue. But instead of Yalitza staying to rule over the castle, I worry she’ll never get invited back to the ball.
So let’s explore the question. Will Yalitza Aparicio act again? She already portrayed the indigenous woman’s “stereotypical” role. She did it so well she has reinvigorated an entire movement of justice for domestic workers. But what’s next? After all, we know Mexican cinema is racist. Partially for this reason, Yalitza didn’t want to try acting at all. Mexican cinema will have to change if it’s going to keep having Yalitza get roles deserving of her. But forgive me if I’ve seen enough Spanish-language media to find that implausible.
Meanwhile in American cinema, despite the historic success of “los tres amigos” in sweeping Best Director categories of late, Latinos have even less progress to show. It’s not that we haven’t made amazing, breakout, films. As far back as 1983, Mexican-American filmmaker Gregory Nava made a heartbreaking family epic starring two indigenous Guatemalan siblings and their journey from civil war to living in Los Angeles while undocumented (“El Norte”, check it out). But then what happened? Does representation success open the doors behind them? So far, not really.
Latinos in the U.S. still simply have a mountain to climb when it comes to the diversity we deserve onscreen. Netflix embodies the frustration of the false start: after an awards season campaign that went all in on Roma, they turned around and pulled the plug on One Day at a Time. Alfonso Cuarón himself has clearly called for more U.S. Latino diversity, which means a lot. But so far a real structural change in Hollywood doesn’t look like it’s coming. Indeed, the first big Hollywood film that looks likely to tackle what’s going on at our border today and feature some positive Latino representation is the latest Terminator.
We can do better. U.S. Latinos have plenty of Oscar-worthy stories to tell. I can think of a dozen just pulling from my friends’ actual family stories. (Shameless self-plug: I have a pitch of my own. If you’re a Hollywood executive type, come find me!) You could even make an American Roma, perhaps about the undocumented domestic workers who make President Trump’s bed. And if those movies were made there’d be plenty of opportunities to give Yalitza her next breakout role.
Of course, though I’d love to see some epic American tales of farmworker strikes, refugees from covert wars, and academic struggles, Latino actors shouldn’t be pigeon-holed either. Actresses like Yalitza shouldn’t be confined to profound works of social commentary or “Latino” films. I want to see more Latinidad in “non-Latino” films, like the Shape of Water or Birdman, all of which were made by Mexican directors. Imagine if when Alfonso Cuarón made Gravity, he had cast Yalitza and not Sandra Bullock. That’s the cinematic world I want to live in.
But for now, looks like we’re stuck in this mediocre one. I’m sure Yalitza will find some roles. In fact at the moment, Yalitza has been the face of Huawei’s Mexican advertising blitz. One could even argue that America’s lack of Latino representation is yet another American blind spot about Latin America that Chinese influence is all too happy to take advantage of. And to be clear: Yalitza should take those roles if she wants. I’m here for her cashing checks.
But I want to see more of her, and women like her, on my screen. I’d cast her in everything. A farmworker balancing her responsibility to her family with her responsibility to a strike somewhere in Middle America. A guerrilla commander fighting a savage war. The President of the United States in the year 2070, tasked with negotiating a peace treaty with an extraterrestrial empire. Every role she’s in should allow brown-skinned Latina and indigenous girls to imagine themselves somewhere new. If it were up to me, one day she would even play the Queen of England. Maybe then they’ll give her the pinche Oscar.
Antonio De Loera-Brust is a Mexican-American writer and filmmaker from Davis, California. He has a degree in film production and Chicana/o studies from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He was a Joseph A. O’Hare S.J. fellow at America Magazine, based in New York City. He is a U.S. politics and international soccer junkie. He loves tacos, history, and the outdoors, and writes about diversity, farmworkers, and politics. You can follow him @AntonioDeLoeraB.