Saturday, March 06, 2010

Yolanda Cruz: Reel Chatino Women Have Nerve

Olga García Echeverría

I'm not really sure if real women have to have curves (I know some flacas who are pretty chingonas), but in my opinion female filmmakers, especially indigenous female filmmakers like Yolanda Cruz, have to have a lot of nerve.

Film, afterall, has traditionally been a male-dominated field, and when we consider the historical representations of indigenous people in the media, such as the stereotypical savage or the noble indian, we can appreciate the challenges faced by contemporary filmmakers like Cruz.

Yolanda, though, isn't one to feel limited by past or present. Like many visionary artists, she's about cultivating and creating, even in times of economic crisis and even within a field where far too often the voices of women of color are excluded. With seven award-winning films to her name, the last of which is a feature-length documentary, Yolanda's proven that she's not intimated by the industry and that she's serious about increasing the representation of indigenous people in the media.

Born in a Chatino community in the mountainous region of Cieneguilla, Oaxaca, Yolanda has been defying traditional gender roles since her early years. “As a child, I was taught certain gender-specific things, such as embroidery, knitting, and cooking. At the time, the idea was that these things would help prepare me to be a good housewife, but I wanted more than that."

Although the treatment of women in Mexico is definitely an issue, Yolanda makes it clear that it is not always the case that women are oppressed. "There were four girls in our family. Although my father always wanted a boy, which he eventually got, he taught us girls not to limit ourselves because of our gender. He pushed us to do non-traditional things too, such as work on his car. I was also surrounded by a lot of strong women in my family and community. I actually didn’t feel limited by my gender. If anything I felt stronger about the issue of class.”

When Yolanda was six, her family migrated from her home village to the city. She notes that although the people in the city were also from indigenous backgrounds, many were second generation and had lost many of their indigenous roots, such as language. "In Mexico, there is a lot of discrimination toward indigenous people, especially against those who retain their native language and customs. More than anything I think this discrimination has to do with ignorance. When I first arrived to the city, I had to create my own space and let others know that they couldn't mess with me. I had to break-out of the negative stereotypes that others had of me and prove them wrong.”

Yolanda also broke away from traditional expectations by becoming a filmmaker. “I grew up in a culture where the goal, especially in regards to education, is to get a good job that pays for life’s immediate needs. Art isn’t necessarily that type of job. But I wanted to be different. For an indigenous woman to choose a career in filmmaking is a challenge because as it is there aren’t many female filmmakers out there.”

Yolanda first got involved in film during her college years. “As a student I was involved in theater and photography and that eventually evolved into film. For me, film was a much more active medium than photography. I wanted something interactive that could be used as a tool for organizing and giving voice to the community that I belong to."

Yolanda's chosen medium has definitely proven effective. Her first student project at UCLA, Entre Sueños, a short film about an indigenous woman seeking her identity, was chosen for the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.

Another short, Sueños Binacionales, focuses on indigenous Mixtec immigrants who have been migrating to California for over 30 years and Chatinos who have been immigrating to North Carolina for the past 10 years. Yolanda's also covered stories on the self-empowerment of Mixtec women who have created their own mini-credit union and on a group of indigenous women who are organizing the exportation of the nopal catus to the United States. Regardless of the specific topic, Cruz' has consistently represented indigenous people in authentic and rarely seen ways.

When asked how she decides on what stories to produce, Yolanda shared that she's a big believer in destiny. "Rather than me choosing the story, I feel as if the stories find me." Take her film Genati’za (The Visitors). That story came to Yolanda unexpectedly while still a student at the UCLA School of Film. At the time she was part of a Oaxacan organization and the vice-president of that organization invited her a party he was hosting in Oaxaca. "I decided to go and thought ‘why not film it?’ I was originally interested in capturing the fiesta and exploring why this man would spend money on a town that he no longer lived in. But I discovered so much more as the film evolved—cultural issues, abandoned towns, grandmothers who could no longer communicate with their grandchildren because of the loss of language.”

Although potential stories can arrive rather organically, there are other important things to consider as well. "I pay attention to how I feel about a potential story or film. Is it fundable? What potential impact can this film have? Is it a story that will not be told if I don’t tell it?” Definitely, Yolanda has told a series of stories via film that might have otherwise gone unheard/unseen. As her website notes, she has shared these stories with audiences around the world in such prestiguous places as "Sundance, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Park La Villette in Paris, the National Geographic All Roads Film Project and the National Institute of Cinema in Mexico City."

Her most recent film, 2501 Migrants, is her first feature-length documentary. 2501 Migrants documents the artistic journey of Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago as he creates a monumental installation of 2,501 life-size clay sculptures. The sculptures are representative of the emigrants who have left Santiago's home village of Teococuilco to work in the North.

I had the opportunity to see 2501 Migrants a few months ago when it screened at the Redcat in Los Angeles. The film was beautifully shot and the subject matter was highly intriguing. What type of a crazy artist embarks on the task of making 2501 life-size statues? There was something surreal about watching these clay figures being sculpted and cooked, as if the missing emigrants were being resurrected in Santiago's workshop. As a poet, I'm still pondering the many metaphors of Santiago's art. His sculptures are not only representative of the missing people in his village, but also of the emigrants in pueblos throughout Mexico. If you're in San Diego, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles, screenings are headed your way, so don't miss out on the opportunity to see this film. Information on upcoming screenings is listed at the end of this blog.

In regards to 2501 Migrants, Yolanda says, “I was very lucky with this film. The primary focus of the film was art and everyone loves art, so it was very well funded. The film is doing very well and I’m grateful because I’ve gained a lot of experience and I’ve also proven myself as a mature filmmaker. Sometimes people may question ‘who wants to see this documentary on these indigenous people?’ but there is an audience out there that is very interested. I’ve had a very good response and more and more I believe the world is changing. In my films I don’t want people to just sit back and observe. I want them to question how they are a part of the film, how they too are a part of the culture being presented. It’s been very important for me to represent indigenous communities in my films in non-stereotypical ways and this is what I'm attempting to do in my work repeatedly."

In regards to future projects, Yolanda is interested in doing something with indigenous languages. "In particular, I’m interested in women who are raising kids and what they do to get by. In the meantime, I’m working on finding 2501 Migrants a home and I’m currrently doing the film festival circuit. One thing is to finish a film, but there’s a whole other level of work related to getting the film out there for people to see.”

While talking to Yolanda about filmmaking, I couldn't help but ask her what she thought of Avatar. I know, lame. But earlier in the week, I came across a interview of Michael Moore where he identified Avatar as a war movie about Iraq and applauded it. A few months ago, I was also surprised to read that the indigenous President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, had given the movie a thumbs up for its depiction of colonization and its representation of the destruction of nature. Here's what Cruz had to say about Avatar. "Well, I think it’s a beautiful film. It does have a typical Hollywood formula, in the sense that there has to be war and lots of explosions, but it is a classic story of colonization. There is the problem that the movie depicts that typical idea that we’re all going to be saved by some White guy. I don’t see it as my fight to protest, though. It’s somebody else’s fantasy, not mine. I can appreciate the beautiful elements in the film, but in the skeleton of the story there are things that are pretty predictable.”

When asked if there was anything else she'd like to share about herself or filmmaking, Yolanda responded: “I would like to add that it is true that we are going through some financial hard times right now. In relation to film, I often say ‘funding first and then the idea.’ However, I encourage other artists to not be afraid. I have learned this through experience. Despite all the current challenges, it is possible to make film at this time and we shouldn’t allow money to limit us. I encourage others and myself to make mistakes, to take risks, and to create.”

Spoken like a true film warrior. Adelante Yolanda! We appauld your work and look forward to your future projects.

*Pictures in this blog posted with permission of Petate Productions.
Related Websites and Upcoming Screenings

To learn more about Yolanda Cruz and her films, visit

To become a fan on Facebook, visit

To learn more about 2501 Migrants and view a trailer of the movie, visit

To learn more about Alejandro Santiago's project 2501 Migrants, visit

Upcoming Screenings of 2501 Migrants:

On March 14th, 2010, 2501 Migrants will be screening at the 17th Annual San Diego Latino Film Festival. For more information, visit

On April 7th, th 2010 the documentary will also screen at the Women Hold up Half the Sky Film Series in Washington D.C. For more information, visit

Here in Los Angeles, you can catch 2501 Migrants as part of the month-long Oaxacan celebration of the birth of Benito Juarez, Mexico's beloved first and only indigenous president. The film is scheduled to screen on March 14th at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, CA, but rumor has it that due to recent rains several of the scheduling for the month may have changed. For updates on the screening, you can call (310) 895-5649 or check your local El Oaxaqueño newpaper.


Viva Liz Vega! said...

Thank you Olga1

Anonymous said...

Cool. I look forward to seeing her movies.

carlosixx said...

2501 Migrants is the best movie about clay migrants ever!

Liz Raptis Picco said...

Felicitaciones Yolanda! It's great to hear of fathers pushing their daughters to explore the male world. Inspiring on many levels. I look forward to taking my sons to see your movie.

r-atencio said...

I just saw your film on Santiago's project. Wonderfully done. Just the right combination of story and drama. I will be telling about it on my blog