Beyond the Canvas | Season 2 | Episode 5
We hear from some of Mexico’s most prominent figures, including “Roma” star and activist Yalitza Aparicio and chef Gabriela Cámara. This episode highlights Mexico’s emergence as a global arts center and shares updates on how some of the country’s creative innovators are surviving amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Announcer: This program was made possible
by contributions to your PBS station
from viewers like you. Thank you.
Hi, everyone. This is "Beyond the Canvas"
from "The PBS Newshour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
Now this special episode is entirely focused
on the art and culture of Mexico.
"PBS Newshour's" chief correspondent
for arts, culture, and society Jeffrey Brown traveled
to the country before the pandemic
to see firsthand how Mexican culture is enjoying
a global renaissance.
You'll hear from Mexico's most prominent actors,
filmmakers, chefs, and street artists.
We'll also include an update on how some
of these innovators are surviving amid COVD-19.
Up first, a conversation with Yalitza Aparicio,
whose breakthrough role
in the award-winning film "Roma"
catapulted her to stardom in the Mexican film industry.
The movie sparked a national debate
about racial and social inequities,
and Aparicio has since carved out a new off-screen role
for herself as an advocate for change.
The Mexican cultural creators you're about to meet
were first featured on "The PBS Newshour,"
but tonight, you'll meet them on a new canvas
and maybe see them and their work
through a different lens
right here on "Beyond the Canvas."
Brown: Oscar night 2019.
25-year-old Yalitza Aparicio
from the Mexican state of Oaxaca
made history as the first indigenous woman
from the Americas to vie for the Best Actress award.
Not so many years before, she'd seen
a far less glamorous side of life.
[Aparicio speaking Spanish]
Translator: When I found myself in the reality
of looking for a job, many places
would close doors on me
because of my physical appearance.
The problem was the color of my skin.
In many cases, it's also about your
Brown: In the film "Roma," Aparicio played Cleo,
the live-in maid in an affluent Mexico City household
in the 1970s.
Cleo is relied up by the mother,
loved by the children.
Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who won the Oscar
for Best Director, based the story
on his own upbringing,
but the class and race differences
between family and worker are obvious,
the casually dismissive treatment glaring.
Aparicio, who studied to be a teacher,
had never acted and auditioned on a whim,
but Cuarón saw something in her.
In Mexico City recently, she told me she drew
on her mother's experience.
Translator: From the beginning,
I took it as a personal issue
because my mother was a domestic worker,
and I think it's important that she, too,
knew her rights, but I realized
that she was not the only woman
who was unaware of what she was
deserving of by law, so I think
there's a chance to lift our voice
and raise awareness.
Hola a todos y buenas tardes.
Brown: From film star to international ambassador.
Since "Roma's" release, Aparicio has used
her new celebrity to become a leading activist and advocate
on behalf of indigenous culture the rights of domestic workers.
Translator: For me, it means that I'm
giving a voice and visibility
to causes that are correct in my opinion
or that are necessary in society.
I enjoy fighting for my indigenous community
because I feel proud of who I am
and think that we shouldn't lose
that pride and identity.
Translator: The first thing I saw in the film
was that the situation of the domestic workers
in Mexico in the seventies to the 2000s
had not changed at all.
Brown: Marcelina Bautista came from Oaxaca to Mexico City
at age 14 to work as a maid,
a normal path for girls in her village.
Many years later, she founded Mexico's
first ever union of domestic workers
and on this day led a workshop to educate her members,
who spoke of abuses they've faced.
Actualmente, la ley...
Translator: It is a sector in the labor world
that presents many forms of discrimination
and abuse and violation of human rights.
Many are not paid a salary that they deserve.
They live in a room of a house that's in bad shape,
very humid, no lock on the door.
These female workers have been hit.
Brown: But there has been change.
Last year, Mexico's congress passed a new law
that for the first time gives
Domestic workers basic labor rights,
including a minimum wage,
retirement benefits, and workplace protections.
Translator: Honestly, I felt very powerful
using the movie to tell lawmakers that they are
still not doing their part,
to tell employers that the situation remains the same
and they can no longer feel like they are doing
us a favor by giving us a job.
Brown: Yalitza Aparicio, Bautista says,
played a special role through her own personal story.
Translator: We many Yalitzas,
and Yalitza, when she is in a space speaking
on behalf of people or issues,
I do think she represents us very well.
Brown: Aparicio is also having another kind of impact here
in changing perceptions of beauty.
In December 2018, "Vogue Mexico" put her
on its cover, a first for an indigenous woman.
I heard of the movie, and she was, you know,
the first indigenous woman to take on this role,
and so I did think, you know,
why not celebrate this?
So, yes, a big part of hit was to break
this kind of stereotype that you think
of, you know, what is a "Vogue" cover girl.
Brown: There was praise and excitement
but also a nasty, often racist
social media backlash
filled with ugly comments.
We still have a ways to go
as far as even, like, the ideals
of Mexican beauty.
In October, we did an indigenous beauty story,
celebrating the beauty of Mexico.
Brown: Yeah, but that's still unusual you're saying.
Yes, yes, but I do feel like
it's something that we have to push forward.
Translator: People are still prisoners
to social circles, where appearances
and socioeconomic status matter.
I really think this is something
that should already be changing.
Brown: Yalitza Aparicio says she now wants to balance
acting and activism.
One of her projects is a push for inclusion
of indigenous languages
in the education system,
languages being lost, students falling behind.
Translator: My job is to give visibility
to these communities and talk about them
wherever I go.
We're working sector by sector.
It sounds very difficult to change a large society
with a long history.
Translator: Yes, it sounds difficult,
and it is difficult to change something
that people have been used to for years,
but that's what it's about.
It's about telling people this isn't normal
and they shouldn't be used to it.
Mexican cinema is another contributor
to the country's prominence as a global arts center.
Mexico's celebrated filmmakers have responded to a nation
hit hard by COVID-19,
raising funds for those who've lost jobs in the industry,
and they remain committed to their craft.
Before the pandemic, "PBS Newshour's" Jeffrey Brown
looked at the success of these Mexican storytellers
and those coming up behind them.
Man: Uno, dos, tres.
Brown: This is the renowned Centro de Capacitación
Cinematográfica, or CCC, in Mexico City.
Today, young students are learning the finer points
of camerawork, audio, scripting, scene building.
It's a school that keeps enrollment under 200
but faces high demand
due in part to the stunning success
and increased international profile
of Mexican directors, 3 in particular--
Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro,
Alejandro González Iñárritu,
who together account 5 of the last 7
Best Director awards at the Oscars.
Man: Some of them, they do want
the expectations, they do want to
win an Oscar or want to be recognized
in the streets or working with champagne
but some of them are really comfortable
with the kind of movies that are made here.
Brown: It's a bit of a paradox--
enormous success for Mexican filmmakers,
the so-called 3 amigos,
but largely achieved after they left Mexico,
and until Cuarón's "Roma" about the life and struggles
of a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City,
none of those recent Oscar-winning films
were set here.
Fernanda Solórzano, one of Mexico's leading film critics,
says the success of the 3 amigos led
to a renewal of Mexican cinema but at some cost.
Solórzano: Many people only think of them
when they think of Mexican filmmakers,
and there is a new generation,
maybe two generations already of filmmakers
that have made good movies,
that don't have that spotlight.
Brown: There's a thriving film culture here
in Mexico City.
We met Solórzano
at the sprawling Cineteca Nacional,
a hub for Mexican and international cinema,
where 10 theaters show films that often
can't be seen elsewhere.
It's also a shrine to the rich history
of filmmaking here
with facilities for delicate restoration
as well as archive vaults that house thousands
of old film reels.
It's a reminder of what's called
the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema
between the 1930s and 1950s after the Bloody Revolution
when the nation's film industry produced
more than 100 movies a year
like Fernando de Fuentes' "Vamanos con Pancho Villa,"
reaching audiences throughout Mexico and beyond,
but at big box movie theaters around Mexico City,
work by Mexican filmmakers can be hard to find.
Solórzano: Some reasons, sometimes, they'd
rather pay a ticket to see, you know,
a Hollywood film because they know
that it's going to be entertaining
And they're not sure about the Mexican films,
so that's a thing we have to overcome
Brown: Part of the problem in a country overwhelmed
with violence, poverty, and corruption
is subject matter.
Solórzano: Many people going to a movie
and watching what they see
in the news every night,
so it's hard for people to have a weekend,
you know, like, they want to enjoy, and...
and so it's a tough sell.
Brown: Fernanda Valadez is one filmmaker addressing
the serious issues directly.
A recent graduate of the CCC,
her first feature film "Identifying Features"
won a pair of awards at the Sundance Film Festival.
It's a gut-wrenching story about a mother
in search of her son, who's disappeared
on his way to the U.S.
Valadez acknowledges the challenge of showing films
like hers in Mexico
but is firm about their importance.
Valadez: It's part of our reality.
Film and art in general can be enjoyable in a way.
It's not entertainment but an still be enjoyable
because you have an emotional connection
Brown: She says the success of the 3 Amigos
has paved a path for Mexican filmmakers.
There's now even an expectation at international film festivals.
Valadez: It's like being perhaps an American
that goes to the Olympics, and, "Oh, it's American,
So it's a good athlete."
So for filmmakers if you're Mexican,
"Oh, you must be a good filmmaker
if you're Mexican,"
but then every generation wants to make
something different of course.
It's good for us to think about doing films in Mexico,
and perhaps our generation can change that.
Man: Thank you.
Brown: Mexico's most famous directors remain active,
working on new films
with a new generation already finding its own success.
Another innovator finding success in her craft
is Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara,
who sees food as a powerful force
for social good.
She herself is seen as a force
and was named one of "Time" magazine's
100 most influential people of 2020.
Cámara first spoke to the "Newshour's" Jeffrey Brown
before COVID-19 hit and then again recently
as she was forced to think creatively
about how to successfully operate her restaurants
during a pandemic.
Take it with your hand because it usually breaks.
It's very--it's brittle. It's a tostada.
It's a fried tortilla.
Brown, voice-over: Lunchtime in Mexico City,
time for a taste of a signature dish
of the restaurant Contramar, the raw tuna tostada.
Chef and owner Gabriela Cámara started Contramar 22 years ago
here in Mexico City's Roma District
very far from the coast but with a simple idea based
on her memories of time at the beach.
Cámara: It's Mexican, usually food
that you would associate
with informal eating in Mexico
either in markets
or on a beachside palapa...
which Contramar tried to re-create.
That was our intention.
That was the original idea?
Brown: And that meant everything fresh
as we saw in the kitchen prep before opening--
the tuna loin being cut for those famous tostadas,
oysters also just in from the coast,
various other fish and shrimp,
avocados and mushrooms,
and of course the salsas and limes,
all of it sourced through regular suppliers,
many of them local, who farm or fish sustainably.
None of this was the norm when she started out.
It was never meant to be
a traditional restaurant.
Yeah. I mean, you accept tradition, right?
No, and I embrace it, and I respect it,
and I feel that anybody who wants
to cook Mexican food should know
about traditions in Mexican food.
But...you're using it...
But then you have to do your own thing,
and you have to be creative,
and you have to make sure that if you're
able to use certain ingredients
in successful ways that you can do it.
Brown: Cámara is plenty successful.
Her restaurant is one of the city's
I'm gonna teach you how to make
a few delicious salsas.
Brown: And she's among a handful
of international celebrity chefs to teach
in the well-known MasterClass online education series.
Her cookbook "My Mexico City Kitchen"
is subtitled "Recipes and Convictions."
She is, as she writes, "not your typical Mexican girl,"
the child of a Mexican father, an educator,
and Italian mother, an art historian,
sixties hippies in her telling who loved to eat
but weren't much on cooking.
Gabi, as she was called, spent some of her childhood
in the U.S., and as a girl in Mexico learned
to make her own fresh tortillas.
I asked Cámara, who by the way never had
formal training as a cook or even worked in a restaurant
until she opened her own,
what Americans get wrong about Mexican food.
Mexican gastronomy is so wide
that I think that what you have
in the United States is a few things
that have made--have made their way there
Yeah, but just one little aspect of it.
But I think it's broadening greatly
in the past years.
But it's not just Taco Bell anymore clearly, yeah.
It's very much more than Taco Bell now,
and, you know, even in places that
are far from the border, it's much more
than Taco Bell.
Brown, voice-over: Cámara has been part of that change,
opening a restaurant called Cala in San Francisco in 2015.
In the meantime, she's watched Mexico City become
a foodie and culture destination.
Art and food in Mexico is wonderful.
It has to do with globalization
and social media and the awareness
of how much richness there is in Mexico
when it's so close to the United States.
You go back and forth across the border.
You know how Americans look at Mexico.
I'm coming from a news program.
We're usually here reporting on--not food.
We're here on drug cartels, violence, corruption.
Totally, and that is all true.
But it's also true
that Mexico is culturally
extremely more rich than most Americans realize,
and I feel that this fascination
with Mexican food also has to do
with the fascination of the few people
who have discovered it and then feel
they want to share it to the world
or they want to share it with the world
or their world.
Brown: At the same time, Cámara is keenly aware
that the economics of food and agriculture
have a deep impact on inequities in her country.
We have a destroyed country
where we can't find good heirloom corn
produced in regions that historically
have been producing corn since time immemorial.
And that's gone away?
And that's been really damaged
in the past 40 years, and we're importing
a lot of corn from the United States,
we're importing industrialized corn
that isn't as nutritious,
and it doesn't give people
the opportunity to work.
People have had to migrate to the cities here
or in the United States.
So you see--I mean, there's a direct tie
between food and migration for example?
And well-being of the population
of a country in general, yes, absolutely.
I never imagined being an activist,
and now in my career as restauranteur,
I realize how much activism I do
in every day of my just normal work.
Brown: The pandemic dramatically disrupted
Contramar's business of course
and Mexico's entire food industry.
I reached Cámara remotely
months after our original interview.
But never had we had to organize ourselves
in the ways that we have had to do it
in the past months.
That's been a good challenge for us
because we've had to learn things we didn't know,
we've had to think about things in ways
that we hadn't thought about,
and we've had to adapt,
which I guess is the real lesson
from all of this, and I think that one
of the extraordinary things about this time
is that we will have to make solidarity
a real trait among the restaurant community
because everybody's so much striving
to make it individually that we're needing
to find ways in which to support each other
as an industry.
Brown: Opportunities and continuing challenges
for her restaurant and her country's
larger food culture.
Our journey concludes in the capital of Mexico City,
where neighborhoods are dotted with colorful murals.
Mexico's rich tradition of public art
started with a trio of muralists in the 1920s.
It spread around the world, even finding a place
on gallery walls in New York.
Jeffrey Brown traveled to Mexico City
before the pandemic to witness how street artists
are making use of contemporary and ancient symbols.
Brown: In Mexico City along bustling streets,
and giant walls of low-income housing,
signs of a vibrant public art scene.
Woman: The art movement of the world is street art.
Brown: Cynthia Arvide is author of "Muros Somos,"
or "We Are Walls,"
a look at this rebirth of Mexican street art.
The artists here, she says, are part of a generation
largely exposed to public art online,
influenced by international graffiti stars like Banksy.
Some of their themes are distinctly Mexican--
colors, pre-Hispanic symbols and imagery,
local plants and animals.
Some focus on the country's problems--
drugs, violence, poverty, and corruption.
Arvide: Mexico is definitely a country of contrasts.
You have these vibrant colors
side by side with this really grim,
violent society, and it's happening,
it's alive with all of the good,
all of the bad,
all of the in-betweens,
and I think artists,
they feed their art from that.
Brown: But muralism here also looks
to an extraordinary past
and one of the world's great art movements.
It began a century ago at the end
of Mexico's Bloody Revolution when a new government
looking to unite a fractured nation commissioned
the likes of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco,
and David Alfaro Siqueiros
to help create a sense of shared identity.
You can still see it in spectacular form
at the Ministry of Public Education,
where Rivera painted thousands of square feet
of frescos in the mid-1920s,
highlighting a world of workers,
domestic life, conflict,
and continued political volatility.
Man: They are sort of part of a debate.
Brown, voice-over: At another mural mecca, San Ildefonso,
we met art historian Renato González Mello.
Once Mexico's national preparatory school,
this is home to Rivera's first commissioned work
as well as a number of Orozco's key works,
including one called "The Trench,"
depicting revolutionary soldiers.
Translator: The murals are historical paintings.
Historical paintings are still considered
the highest form of art,
and when this project began,
they were obviously thinking about explaining
what the new order was.
They represent a part of society
that had never been represented officially,
that had never appeared in paintings
or photography, nothing,
that had been excluded from the national image.
Brown: By the end of the 1920s, mural commissions in Mexico
and the big 3 painters moved north,
where they began to influence a generation of U.S. artists.
That became the focus of a major exhibition
at the Whitney Museum in New York,
now reopened after being closed during the pandemic.
"Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists
Remake American Art" has some 200 works.
Curator Barbara Haskell.
This show proves that the Mexican artists
had the most profound influence,
far exceeding the French, during these two decades.
Absolutely. They allowed American artists
to get a new conception of what art was,
that art was something social, that it wasn't
just about form and color,
that it really had to relate to people's lives,
it had to tell stories that were accessible and modern.
Brown: Diego Rivera famously created a 27-panel mural
in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts,
funded by Edsel Ford.
José Clemente Orozco received his first U.S. commission
in 1930 at Pomona College in California.
He painted a dramatic image of the Greek Titan Prometheus.
Nothing like it had been seen in the States,
and his work the caught the eye of a young Jackson Pollock.
Jackson Pollock sees this...
And he changes his work.
Brown: Pollock also attended a workshop in New York led
by David Alfaro Siqueiros,
who encouraged unconventional techniques,
an influence of style but also subject matter
as here in a large painting
by the American artist Charles White.
Haskell: The idea that the muralists had presented
indigenous, rural population as being the bedrock
of Mexican identity, that became--
Changing Mexican history gave him an idea.
Exactly, so Charles White, the idea that
you would insert African-Americans
into the sweep of American history
was something revolutionary.
No one had ever done that.
Brown: Back in Mexico City, today's street artists
are also influenced by the past greats.
Edgar Flores, known as Saner,
first saw an image of Orozco's "Trench" as a boy
printed on a Mexican peso.
He didn't know it was from a mural
until he saw the real thing.
Translator: They took me to San Ildefonso,
and there was that mural--
impressive, large, with other colors,
and it was very dramatic.
Brown: Today, Saner's own work can be found
on walls around the world,
including his hometown
of Mexico City.
He wants to explore political and social issues of his day,
he told us, in a way that is positive and public.
Translator: Public space is very sacred for me.
It's a bit like that muralism I learned
from Diego Rivera and others.
You can criticize, but you also have to advance.
What are you going to change?
Not only complaints. Instead, share solutions.
Brown: Big problems, big solutions,
and very big art.
The momentum among all the Mexican cultural innovators
you've heard from tonight is undeniable.
Join the conversation on our web site:
and find more "Canvas" arts stories on "The PBS Newshour."
I'm Amna Nawaz.
For all of us at "The PBS Newshour,"
thanks for joining me here on "Beyond the Canvas."
We'll see you soon.
Next time on "Beyond the Canvas"...
Somebody asked me on Twitter recently
"How do you come up with this [bleep]?"
The answer is it's not me who comes up with it.
It's the human race over the past 4,000 years.
Nawaz: Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood
and other writers making an impact.
Leo Dan: ♪ Te he prometido ♪
♪ Que te he de olvidar ♪
♪ Cuanto has querido ♪
♪ Yo te supe dar ♪
♪ Solo y herido ♪
♪ Así me dejas ♪
♪ Sabiendo que mañana ♪
♪ Iras con otro al altar ♪
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