Mexico’s ‘Black Panther’ star is fighting racism at home

In Hollywood, he is the rising star of the sequel to Black Panther, the first major black superhero film. In his native Mexico, Tenoch Huerta leads a battle against racism on screen. The 41-year-old wants to use his growing fame to break with the tradition of casting Indigenous Mexican actors in the roles of thieves and villains.

Huerta plays the character of Namor the Sub-Mariner in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, joining a small club of international Mexican stars such as Salma Hayek, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

The road to Hollywood was riddled with pitfalls for Huerta, who hails from a working-class suburb of Mexico City.

“Like thousands of dark-skinned people, names were called to me” like “dirty Indian,” he wrote in his new book “Orgullo Prieto” (Brown Pride).

“Mexico is a country that is racist and denies it,” he added.

Huerta said it is a myth that Mexico is now a mixed-race country where skin color is unimportant.

“So we deny the cultural and linguistic diversity of all indigenous nations, Afro-descended communities, Asians,” he wrote.

Huerta, who also played notorious drug dealer Rafael Caro Quintero in the Netflix hit Narcos: Mexico, criticized the mindset “which puts white, modern, Western, on a higher level.”

Even before “Black Panther”, Huerta was the figurehead of “Poder Prieto” (Brown Power), a collective of actors who feel discriminated against because of their origin and the color of their skin.

“We’re only given characters of delinquents, domestic workers or the poor,” says Christel Klitbo, 40, who is of Danish, African and Lebanese descent.

Aware of the powerful influence of the media, Huerta said he and the other group members see a “compelling need to change racist narratives and practices that have been normalised, reproduced and perpetuated in the audiovisual industry”.

Huerta hopes his performance in Black Panther – which also stars Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents – will help her fight.

“The perception changes when we have these black actors of clear indigenous descent in positions of power and influence who are kings and great warriors,” he said.

Huerta would also like to see changes in broader Mexican customs, such as the popular saying, still heard in some households, that daughters should marry a white man to “improve the race”.

While endorsing anti-racism laws, Huerta avoids commenting on the policies of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s party, which has pledged to restore the “dignity” of indigenous peoples.

“I believe that the demands of the indigenous peoples have not been met. But this is an issue that doesn’t concern me because I’m not indigenous,” he said at his book launch on Friday.

“As a simple outside observer, I believe we could do more and better,” he added.

According to the national statistics agency INEGI, there are 23.2 million people over the age of three who identify themselves as indigenous in Mexico, which corresponds to 19.4 percent of the population.

In the first national survey on the subject in 2O17, about one in five Mexican adults said they had been discriminated against in the past year mainly because of their skin color.

And three quarters of the indigenous population felt undervalued by Mexican society.

“We are a new link in a chain that goes back 500 years. All battles have been the same for 500 years,” Huerta concluded, referring to the Spanish conquest and the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521.

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