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Why the way we talk about Yalitza Aparicio’s journey to the Oscars matters

The Roma actress has been lauded for her style — but she’s also been the target of racist attacks.

Yalitza Aparicio attends the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 24, 2019, in Hollywood, California
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Less than a year ago, Yalitza Aparicio was an unknown preschool teacher from a small town in Mexico. Now Aparicio, who was nominated for Best Actress for her role in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, is a red-carpet regular whose style and unexpected rise to fame often make headlines. Vogue predicted that the 25-year-old actress is “about to emerge as a true fashion icon.” Fashionista called her a “style star to watch.” Her Golden Globes look, a silky baby pink Prada dress, got her a spot on a handful of best-dressed lists, including Glamour’s and the Cut’s. And tonight at the Oscars, Aparicio wore another pastel, princessy gown: a tulle seafoam green dress with a sparkly bodice by Rodarte.

Aparicio is undoubtedly this year’s breakout star. Her life story and red-carpet style are often used to frame her rise to fame as a real-life Cinderella story: A young indigenous Mexican woman gets plucked from obscurity by a world-renowned director, delivers an incredible performance, and then goes on to enjoy all the trappings of celebrity.

This framing, while technically correct, reveals an ugly truth about Hollywood: Despite recent strides made with regards to diversity and inclusion, Aparicio’s newfound celebrity status is still considered extraordinary. In Hollywood, women like Aparicio are considered the exception, not the norm.

Unlike most of her fellow nominees in the Best Actress category, Aparicio has no previous acting experience. (Lady Gaga, the only other nominee with no previous major movie roles under her belt, has the benefit of being an international pop star.) Aparicio’s unlikely stardom has been a point of intrigue since Roma’s release. Born and raised in Tlaxiaco, a small community in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Aparicio studied to be a teacher and had no desire to be an actress; she wasn’t even particularly interested in watching movies, she said in a recent interview with the LA Times, because she never saw people who looked like her represented onscreen. Her father is Mixtec; her mother is Triqui. Neither demographic is particularly well represented in Mexican media, where celebrities tend to be lighter-skinned — descendants of the colonizers, not of those who were colonized — and more than 70 percent of indigenous people live in poverty.

Aparicio only attended the casting call for Roma, she said in interviews, because her older sister wanted to audition but couldn’t do so because she was pregnant. After being offered the role, she reportedly accepted by telling Cuarón, whose movies she had never seen, “I have nothing better to do.”

“I had just graduated. I had to pay back the loans I took to get my degree,” Aparicio said in the LA Times profile, one of the few pieces to challenge the Cinderella story narrative head-on. “I thought, my mother will be proud and I can use this to pay for my expenses.”

Notably, Aparicio is the second Mexican woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category, as well as the first indigenous woman in the Americas to receive the honor.

Aparicio’s story isn’t just extraordinary; it’s groundbreaking. And it’s clear that there are still people who don’t know how to deal with it. Despite the accolades Aparicio has received since Roma debuted at the Venice International Film Festival in August, the actress has also been the target of racist attacks, especially in her home country. Her newfound fame hasn’t served as a shield from the racist vitriol — if anything, her celebrity status has only exacerbated it.

In November 2018, Aparicio posed for a Vanity Fair spread in which she wore beautiful vintage-inspired Gucci and Prada blouses. The response was troubling. “Although she dresses in silk, she’s still an Indian,” one commenter wrote in Spanish. “By trying to be inclusive, [these magazines] only fuck things up more,” said another. “I think they’re making her look ridiculous.” A month later, Aparicio became the first indigenous woman to appear on the cover of Vogue México. In a January interview with the New York Times, Karla Martinez, the editor-in-chief of Vogue México and Vogue Latinoamérica admitted that the racist and classist responses to the Vanity Fair photos made her worry about how people would react to Aparicio’s Vogue cover.

More recently, Mexican actor Sergio Goyri criticized the Academy for nominating Aparicio, whose character in the film he referred to as a “fucking Indian who says ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am,’” for the Best Actress category. Aparicio, for her part, used Goyri’s racist tirade as a teaching moment. “I am proud to be an Oaxacan indigenous woman,” she said in a statement, “and it saddens me that there are people who do not know the correct meaning of words.”

The reactions to Aparicio’s rise to prominence, both positive and negative, are indicative of the discrimination indigenous people face in Mexico and throughout Latin America and the dearth of indigenous representation in movies and other media. Even the “Cinderella story” framing of her discovery by a famous director underscores how unlikely her fame is — not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of complex, dynamic roles written with women like Aparicio in mind. Fans and critics alike have treated Aparicio as a de facto standard-bearer not only for indigenous Mexicans, but also for indigenous women across the Americas. Aparicio is well aware of this.

“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 told the LA Times earlier this month. She made a similar point in a February interview with NBC: “I’m showing off the diversity we have in Mexico. I’m representing this community that is extremely talented, but sometimes, we don’t notice them. I feel this responsibility because I feel the need to represent them in the right form that they deserve.”

Tonight on the Oscars red carpet, she had a similar message for her community in Oaxaca. “Thank you for all the support you’ve given me,” she said in an interview. “I hope I’m representing you with dignity.”

So what comes next? In a February 20 interview with ET Online, Aparicio revealed that she has received “a lot of offers” for new roles. “But because of the timing,” she said, “I haven’t been able to commit to anything because I want to make sure I give it my all.”

Hopefully Roma is just the beginning for her. But until Hollywood begins supporting — and casting — more indigenous women, Aparicio will be forced to carry the weight of representing a large, diverse group of people on her own.

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