Indios y burros: Rethinking 'la India María' as Ethnographic Cinema

February 4, 2021
In May 2015, India María actress María Elena Velasco passed away leaving behind a multigenerational audience and a legacy of cinematic indigenous representation in her recurring role as a Mazahua woman who was at times a migrant to large inhospitable cities.  Whether hailed as a working-class rural everywoman or demonized as a racist Indian stereotype, cultural critics studied and debated La India María’s place in Mexican culture.  Scholars like Carmen Huaco-Nuzum and Maricruz Castro Ricaldo traced the character’s origins to Mexican Golden Age Cinema’s picaresque characters (i.e. Cantinfla’s peladito and Germán Valdez’s pachuco), while Charles Ramírez-Berg and Carol Clark D’Lugo have attributed La India María’s success partly to Velasco’s darker physical appearance, thereby resulting in a more convincing Native performance to Mexican audiences.  
 
Ariel Zatarain Tumbaga’s recently published essay, "Indios y burros: Rethinking 'la India María' as Ethnographic Cinema," explores the influences of Mexican cinema’s performative conventions of Indianness in the first India María movie, Tonta, tonta, pero no tanto (1972).  The essay recontextualizes the internationally popular India María character within what Fatimah Tobing Rony dubs “ethnographic cinema;” that is, film presenting indigenous people through racial, cultural, and historical difference to a nonindigenous audience, early examples of which are Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! (1932).  Here, the essay challenges the oft-hidden ethnographic pretensions of indigenous film interpretations.  In her extensive work on María Elena Velasco’s career as director, producer, and actress, Seraina Rohrer concludes the India María character to be an Indian stereotype often posited in urban environments “as a contrast to the cultural ‘underdevelopment’” of indigenous people such as herself.  Building on the works of Carlos Monsiváis and Dolores Tierney, the essay further considers persisting colonialist perspectives in cinematic representations of Native Mexicans, as well as anthropological pretensions discernible in Golden Age Mexican Cinema and 1970s Mexican film.  It examines what María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo refers to as “a remedial humanity” in need of correction by colonial authorities, and later, Mexican post-Revolutionary governments.  
 
The essay takes on the question of indigenous intelligence as depicted in film.  As noted by Charles Ramírez-Berg, cinematic indio characters were not only recognizable by darker skin tone, black hair, and white peon-style garb —or traditional huipil or pollera dress and rebozos— but also performatively via conventional submissiveness, a short awkward gait, and weak grasp of the Spanish language, the latter of which insinuates inferior intellect; inferior intellect is further expressed in the term “burro” when applied to rural indigenous characters.  Such Golden Age Cinema and Indigenista movie tropes, largely attributed to the performances of Pedro Armendáriz and Dolores del Río, quickly became the conventions by which to connote indigenous identity in Mexican film.  Golden Age Mexican Cinema movies depicting quaint Native villages invaded by a menacing mestizo modernity often betray ethnographic pretensions not only in submissive physical performances, but also with conventional movie Indio speech which intimated the mental and cultural underdevelopment of indigenous people: quiere becomes “queres”; fue becomes “jue”; misma, “mesma”; etc.  Performed by María Elena Velasco, a dark mestiza actress, such conventions contributed to a racially charged, if popular, comical India character.  But Velasco’s India performance is particularly poignant in Tonta, tonta, pero no tanto’s portrayal of La India María as a Mazahua rural-to-urban migrant who is as out of place in the Mexican capital as a burro in Mexico City.  
 
Additionally, the essay contributes to the debate examining La India María as a potential agent of indigenous and feminist resistance through what Josefina Ludmer and James C. Scott respectively called las tretas del débil and weapons of the weak.  In this first cinematic performance, Velasco interprets Mazahua women’s indigeneity through Virgen María tropes and iconography and a limited rural intellect.  Her resistance to different forms of exploitation in the Mexican megalopolis is based primarily on her ignorance to norms and technologies commonplace to modern Mexico City and is demonstrated through a strategic claim to “not knowing” those very norms and technologies as an indigenous woman. 
 
Larr article can be found here
 
Paper's citation: Tumbaga, A. Z. (2020). Indios y burros: Rethinking “la India María” as Ethnographic Cinema. Latin American Research Review, 55(4), 759–772. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.646

About Author(s)

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Ariel Zatarain Tumbaga
Author of Yaqui Indigeneity: Epistemology, Diaspora, and the Construction of Yoeme Identity (2018). Tumbaga is an educator and researcher of Spanish language and Mexican and Chicanx literatures and cultures. His research interests are in twentieth-century Mexican and Chicanx literature and culture, focusing on the representation of indigenous people. He is also pursuing research on race concepts in Mexico, Latin America in general, and Chicanx society.