María Candelaria and Mexico’s Complicated Racial History

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María Candelaria (1943) begins when a young journalist asks an old artist about the portrait of a naked Indigenous woman that he has in his study. In flashback, the story of the woman, María Candelaria, is told. Rejected by her own people for being the daughter of a prostitute, María is protected by her lover, Lorenzo Rafael, and the two face many obstacles, including saving enough money to get married. Through a series of disastrous misunderstandings and cruelty, María ends up dead, with the painting as the only reminder of her existence.

We’ve seen in the 1920s and 1930s how Latin American countries got their start and became formidable rivals to Hollywood. This quality and success, however, did not lead to widespread international acclaim and acknowledgment, that is until 1943 when María Candelaria was released. It won prizes at major festivals like Locarno and Cannes and starred Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican star of Hollywood, in a triumphant return to her home country after her American career had begun to wane. It also cemented the techniques and ideas of the Mexican School of Cinema, arguably creating the first national aesthetic in Latin American film. The major figures of this school included director Emilio Fernández, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, writer Mauricio Magdaleno, and editor Gloria Schoemann. 

Emilio Fernández and Gabriel Figueroa

Their cinema synthesized Hollywood melodrama and Mexican muralism (by way of Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México!) into an indigenist national mythology. Fernandez studied John Ford films which led to a preference for chiaroscuro lighting and composition in-depth, something that Figueroa had also learned as a student of the cinematographer Gregg Toland, of Citizen Kane fame. From Eisenstein, whose rushes and stills from ¡Que viva México! Fernández and Figueroa closely studied, the team adopted the framing of indigenous subjects as organic elements of the natural landscape, though not the film’s dialectical montage within and between shots, or its Marxist historiography. This created a wholly new kind of cinema in Mexico.

We see this synthesis very clearly in María Candelaria. The first scene quickly cuts between ancient Mexican sculptures and then to the face of an Indigenous model in an art class. This is a clear call back to the opening sequence of ¡Que viva México! in which the faces of indigenous sculptures contrast with quick cuts to modern Indigenous Mexicans. The two films use these methods to romanticize the natural beauty of pre-Columbian Mexico. While certain filmmaking methods and ideologies are heavily influenced by Eisenstein, the characters are pure John Ford. María Candelaria and her lover, Lorenzo, seem like two long-lost members of the Joad family. Their plight is honorable. All they want is to live a simple life on their own land but forces greater than their own like the gossip of a town and the cruelty of the rich conspire against them.

María Candelaria

The two represent Fernandez and his contemporaries’ complicated view of indigenous people in their modern society. María and Lorenzo are incredibly honorable people. They are not depicted as indigenous people usually are, as hateful criminals. Any criminality that they engage in, is actually forced on them due to circumstance. When Lorenzo steals from Don Damian, it is only to get quinine to treat María’s malaria and to get her a wedding dress. They also represent the struggles of indigenous people across the globe. Because of the shame of María’s mother’s profession, Lorenzo feels that they should move somewhere they can finally be free. María is hesitant. In a powerful scene, she picks up the soil and declares that it is theirs and they should never leave. María’s lonely strength and honor make her the ideal beauty of Mexico. The painter in the film describes her as someone who had the beauty of princesses of pre-colonial Mexico. María is the glory that was Mexico.

This depiction, while positive in some aspects, leads one to see the indigenous people, however, as a relic of the past that has no place in our modern world. María and Lorenzo are noble savages. For how good María is, she is incredibly naive and needs other nicer and smarter white men to help her through life. When Lorenzo steals the medicine and the dress and is subsequently arrested, María is caught entirely by surprise. The fact that she got a new dress so suddenly from Lorenzo never set off any alarm bells for her. While María’s naivety is charming, the other indigenous peasant’s naivety and atavism are violent and destructive. 

It is these people who kill María in the end for destroying the collective honor of the town when they see the painting they wrongly believe she posed nude for. But it is the Mestizo character in the film, Don Damian, that is the source of María’s troubles. He won’t allow her to get married and hoards medication that the State has given out for everyone. As a Mestizo, he is confused in his role. He is not a noble savage or a benevolent white man so he handles power clumsily. He has only learned the greed of capitalism unlike the good-hearted white men of the story. The priest and the painter are unquestioned in their benevolence. Unlike the villagers, these men don’t believe in curses and unlike Don Damian, they wield their power with generosity. The Priest uses modern thinking and philosophy to teach the villagers to accept María even if her mother was a prostitute. The painter also provides María with medicine and work, but the motives of his generosity are unfortunately not critiqued by Fernandez.

María Candelaria

The painter often appears to talk down to Lorenzo and tells him if he had just let him paint María before, he would never have gone to jail. When María later runs out of their painting session because she does not want to appear nude, he decries that this attitude that indigenous people have towards modernity is why they will never have money or civilization. Though the painter is depicted in a good light, he sees María as an object from a time gone by whom he can exploit to create meaningful art for the nation. Though it is his painting that causes her death, he never takes the blame for it. He considers it an extremely unfortunate incident but does not appear guilty. The painting itself integrates the ideas of the day on race, specifically, La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race, 1925), a book-length essay by then–secretary of education and presidential hopeful José Vasconcelos. 

“On the surface,” writes Joanne Hershfield, “Vasconcelos appeared to hail the mestizo as the ‘quintessential Mexican.’ He wrote of the coming of a new age wherein a fusion of races and classes in Latin America would culminate in the creation of a mestizo race, or what Vasconcelos called the “cosmic race.” However, while proclaiming to celebrate Mexicans’ racial mixture, Vasconcelos’s thesis promoted the notion that this new race would emerge as a result of a “cleansing” of indigenous blood through European intermarriage. Vasconcelos’s ideology of “fusion” (shared by many of his contemporaries) was thus actually a thinly disguised conviction that Mexico’s pre-Colombian roots should and would eventually be whitened into extinction.”

María Candelaria

This is why, in the end, no matter how beautiful and sweet María is, she must die, and the painting must live on. That painting which had the head of Dolores del Rio (considered European in Mexico) and the body of an indigenous woman, is the ideal of the cosmic race, not the least bit like the mestizo, Don Damian. This transformation from the Mayan princess to the ideal of the cosmic race was what the film had been building towards from the start. Early in the film, María’s portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe falls, and the frame breaks. Later, we see her praying to and seemingly posing as the Virgin Mary. When she dies, Fernandez poses her lifeless body to resemble Mary. There shall be no more Guadalupe and there shall only be Mary. María’s death and, in effect, the death of all indigenous people like her can propel the future diluted generations towards modernity.

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