Stereotyping in the Films of la India María*

By Rohrer, Seraina | The Journal of Latino - Latin American Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Stereotyping in the Films of la India María*


Rohrer, Seraina, The Journal of Latino - Latin American Studies


María Elena Velasco originally invented the character of La India María, an indigenous woman of the Mazahua people for the theater. She portrayed one of the many Mazahuas who came to Mexico City in the 1960s in order to make a living by selling fruit, candy, trinkets, and requesting alms on the streets of the capital.1 María Elena Velasco has declared on different occasions that the primary goal of her character was to entertain. She wanted to point out social injustices in Mexican society only on a subtle level (Rohrer 2008).2 In 1972, La India María had her first appearance on a TV show called Siempre en domingo. She won the hearts of the TV audience with her comic performance and her naive admiration for the host of the show, Raúl Velasco.3 During the same year, she also appeared in a TV program called Revista musical Nescafe as one of the main features of the show.

Between 1972 and 1999, María Elena Velasco played La India María as the starring role in 15 feature films. After restricting her contribution to acting in the early films, she later wished to be fully in control of her character and therefore started directing, and subsequently producing, her own comedies (Rohrer 2008). All the films were highly successful at the box office. Ni de aquí, ni de allá, a comedy about La India María crossing the border to the United States, was Mexico's most successful film in 1988, outranking box office hits such as Rambo 3 (Tsao 1990, Ricalde 2004, 197). Alongside her film career, La India María appeared in several commercials (mainly for Maggi and Nescafe). She recorded three albums of Mexican folk songs.4 La India Maria also taped an audio recording to inform Mexican emigrants to the United States of their legal rights. For several years, she toured with her theater sketches around Mexico and the United States, where she performed mainly in theaters for Latino audiences (Rohrer 2008). Until today, La India María and her films continue to be highly popular with working-class Mexican audiences and immigrants living in the United States - as statistics of movie rentals and audience ratings prove (Arbelaez 2001, 642). On the other hand, the films of La India María have tended to be dismissed by film critics as reactionary and ethnically discriminating (Ricalde 2004, 196).

This paper examines different aspects of La India María as a stereotype. The diversity of her appearances in mass media (TV, cinema, and commercials) as well as other cultural contributions (theater, music, education) will be considered. However, the main focus is on her films.

Theoretical Framework

Before sketching out aspects of stereotypical representation for the character La India María, a brief overview will position this essay in its theoretical framework. "Stereotypes" and "stereotyping" have given rise to discussions in various academic fields for decades. In social sciences (psychological and sociological perspectives), in literary studies, cultural studies, and film studies, different approaches and interests contribute to the discourse, and there is a diversity of concepts around stereotypes. For this article, notions of the representation of Otherness (cultural studies) and characteristics of stereotypes in film will provide the theoretical framework. This analysis is rooted in the assumption that real and mediated experiences are always structured into schemata, which are not one-dimensional or isolated constructs, but are organized by the human memory into so-called emerging networks (Varela 1993, 94). Like schemata, stereotypes are connected to characters, activities, or situations. They can be defined as standardized reductions of traits. Media stereotypes underline a certain set of traits, some of which might correspond with lived experiences. Or, as Joshua Fishman puts it: there might be a "kernel of truth" (cited after Berg 2002, 16). Filmic representations again are a selection of traits that best suit the medium and stress certain facets. …

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