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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 12:37PM   |  1 comment
Seraina Rohrer and Patricia Zimmerman at teacher's demonstration on October 2 in Morelia, Mexico. Photo by Helen De Michiel

La India Maria is a contradictory figure in Mexican popular culture.  An indigeneous media figure played by Maria Elena Velasco, La India Maria, one of the most famous figures in Mexico,  is a comic female warrior figure who fights, does karate, and boxes.  She attacks the church, the police, corruption.  A cross between a female Charlie Chaplin and a kung fu warrior princess, she is also one of the most remixed and commented about figures on You Tube for the Mexican diaspora. Her film Ni de Aqui, ni de alla (1988) outsold Rambo III in Mexico.

Seraina Rohrer, Helen De Michiel and I were drinking Mexican coffee in Lilian’s Coffee Shop on Francisco Madero Oriente in Morelia. A panel we had wanted to hear at the Sepancine  Internationale Congresso for film theory was canceled. Rumors circulated that some international scholars canceled due to fears of swine flu or the armed attacks in the Plaza de M. Ocampo when President Calderon, a native of Morelia, had visited. 

Seraina is a Swiss scholar who speaks fluent Spanish and has lived in Mexico. She had been an exchange student in Texas during secondary school, got interested in Spanish there and then ended up  back to Mexico to study.  She’s researching La India Maria and her migration to Web 2.0 on You Tube.  Seraina also works for the Locarno Film Festival, one of the most important European festivals.  

Seraina warned us that an academic analysis of the popular culture reception of La India Maria on either side of the border would be controversial with Mexican film theorists, who like to analyze high art Mexican films rather than works that are popular.  Intellectuals, she pointed out, see La India Maria as the epitome of racist burlesque.  Later, after the panel where Seraina presented, these controversies erupted in full force, with Mexican women film theorists arguing that La India Maria was not an authentic indigenista.  The Mexican government, Seraina pointed out, tends to fund art films for export, and these are the films that scholars like to deconstruct and unpack.

As we chatted in the coffee shop with Madonna's Hard Candy CD swirling out of the speakers hung in the colonial courtyard, we suddenly heard chanting.  We looked out and saw a huge demonstration of teachers, 20 people deep, extending for many blocks. We all went outside.  Madero Oriente  was packed with protesters as far as we could see, chanting, carrying signs about their wages.  Teachers in Mexico earn only about $700 a month. A man  with a hand cart sold fresh squeezed limonada  to the protesters.  Another man on  a bike sold churros.

Earlier in the day on our 7 a.m. walk through Morelia, Helen and I had noticed red and black posters announcing a student demonstration against the neoliberalization of universities  for October 2, followed by a rock concert in the plaza. 

With American feminist scholars Patricia White and Rosa Linda Fregoso, we were invited to a special working  lunch with women from the US Embassy,  Mexican universities beginning to develop film studies programs, and the Mexican Cinemateque. 

We sat with Catherine Bloch, head of research at the Mexican Cinemateque. We asked her about the demonstrations. She said the demonstrations on October 2 commemorate one of the two darkest days in the history of Mexico, when government troops shot and killed student demonstrators in October of 1968.  Catherine was there, marching with her brother. The government wanted to clear Mexico City of student protest in order to pave the way for the Olympics.  They smashed the student movement with guns. 

Catherine told us that no one knows how many were killed that day 41 years ago.  So students, workers, teachers, indigeneous people gather in the streets each year on October 2 not only to remember this day when the government smashed down protesters with violence, but to also protest contemporary issues like teacher's wagers, health care, universities, the government. 

Two day later, Helen and I took a break between the Sepanine Congresso and the Morelia International Film Festival to attend the Lila Downs concert at the Teatro Morelia away from the city center.  Lila Downs is from Oaxaca, of mixed American and Zapotec heritage. 

At the sold out concert, Lila wore a tight, multicolored embroidered dress with fringe, high heels, and red lipstick. She was backed up by a band of guitars, accordion, saxophone, violin and two percussionists in a musical style that mixed ballads, corridos, ranchera, and rock.  Part Frida Kahlo (she did the soundtrack for Julie Taymor’s film of the same name) , part shaman, part an indigenous sensual visual remix of Madonna, Lila Downs has a voice of such power, intricacy and depth that it didn’t really matter that we did not speak much Spanish.
Throughout her performance, Lila draped herself in various pink, orange, blue, purple rebozos with long black fringe, swirling and swaying them in patterns while she danced. Behind her were projections of films made by young Mexican experimental film and video makers.   When Lila walked into the audience, women rushed to the front of the stage to kiss her. We heard screams of “te amo” throughout. Lila’s performance style not only occupies the room, but transports the audience to a place where Mexican traditional music, rock, jazz, indigenous ritual,  and experimental film mix together to generate female power that stuns.

Lila's  last song was called Black Dog. The images behind the band were from the teacher protests in Oaxaca last year, where several were killed. Oaxaca has been a site of struggle for many years. It is one of the states in Mexico with a large indigenous population. Fair trade coffee is grown here. Images of graffiti of teacher’s faces were superimposed on shots of the markets where guava, avocados, oregano piled in pyramids on tables. 

The next morning, Helen and Lila were chatting in the lobby of the Hotel Catedral where we are staying, with its baroque colonial architecture and wrought irons so intricate you can’t see all the details on the first viewing. Helen’s husband knew Lila Downs and her family from Minnesota.  Warm, direct, forceful, Lila explained to us that the Zapoteca have a myth that is thousands of years old that evil spirits return in the form of black dogs.  They believe that the black dogs have infiltrated the government forces. Perro Negro. Black dogs.

Lila’s song is not just a political protest song, but an exorcism of all black dogs through pulsing rhythms, intricate accordion, virtuoso violin,  complex polyphonic percussion, experimental montages of images from Oaxaca and its protests. Lila Downs is woman who, like La India Maria, remixes popular culture, politics, physical strength, and presence to make a space to consider how the power of mujeres is the power of mixtures, crossing and partipation in other worlds. The power of mujeres is the power to fight the perro negro.


1 Comment

I never thought of La India Maria as a subject of film theory, and I can see why it would make many Mexicans (specially from the upper/middle class) uncomfortable. I guess to many of us she represents 'the worst' kind of self-image, an inside (bad) joke that is too embarrassing to have analyzed by a outsider, specially a white outsider. But the way you have described Rohrer's project does make me want to learn more. Perhaps I have been out of Mexico for too long? On the other hand, I do think we need to consider the 'epistemic violence' that Mexicans might feel at having this particular item of dirty laundry examined under the digital light that YouTube shines on the most obscure of objects, those that were intended 'for local consumption only.'

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