How horror film ‘La Llorona’ amplifies the message of Indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Laced with cautious optimism, the firm voice of Guatemalan icon and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum proclaims her conviction that Indigenous people can harness filmmaking as social catalyst.
“Cinema is the synthesis of our reality, but it entails great economic resources, and that’s why it has rarely been at the service of events that touch the lives of real people, and even less so if we talk about Indigenous communities,” Menchú told The Times from the Quiché department northwest of Guatemala City.
A tireless guardian of her embattled homeland’s historical memory, Menchú, a Maya Kʼicheʼ woman, has devoted a lifetime of courageous activism to the defense of relentlessly threatened human rights. She continues to demand justice for the decades-long genocide inflicted against the Central American nation’s Maya population, a gruesome period that reached its appalling peak under the military dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt in the early 1980s.
Registered in indelible images, that communal suffering takes the form of an otherworldly female warrior in auteur Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona,” a movie that reclaims the popular Latin American folktale of a ghostly weeping woman to address this abhorrent episode in the country’s recent past. Menchú has a brief on-screen cameo in the lauded political horror released in the U.S. by the streaming service Shudder earlier this month.
She became aware of Bustamante and his work through an interview in which the director referenced her. “When someone talks about me, it makes me happy because it means that person knows about what I do,” she noted. Menchú reached out and soon the two established a friendship based on mutual admiration.
Impressed by Bustamante’s 2015 debut “Ixcanul,” a drama in the Maya Kaqchikel language centered on a pregnant Indigenous teen and ancient spiritual practices, Menchú agreed to travel to Los Angeles to help promote the film after it was selected as Guatemala’s entry in the international feature Oscar race. Her respect grew when the filmmaker decided to tackle events so deeply personal to her in his latest feature.
“Talking about historical memory and human rights in Guatemala had been taboo for many decades, and anyone who dared to touch these topics had to run great risks, even to their physical safety,” she said. “I’m overjoyed that a young man like Jayro dares to approach them.”
Director Jayro Bustamante sets the story of the ‘wailing woman’ of lore in a Guatemala reckoning with its legacy of violence against Indigenous people.
The kind of broader awareness that a successful and intelligent piece of entertainment can achieve, Menchú believes, is necessary for viable reconciliation. In the years since Menchú received the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, it’s been a struggle to obtain proper international acknowledgment of the horrors that took place under Ríos Montt’s brutal regime.
“It’s been hard to position, let’s call it that way, the crimes against humanity committed in Guatemala,” said Menchú. “The only fully recognized genocides in the world have been those committed against the Jewish people, as if there hadn’t been other similar atrocities elsewhere.” Victims have been asked to repeatedly discuss specifics of what they endured — torture, massacres, forced disappearances, even the eradication of entire communities — for institutions to determine if these merit the genocide status.
At the national level, the moral battle for Guatemala’s soul has required defying ruthlessly powerful and well-connected perpetrators. “They have the intelligence to erase evidence; they have the capacity to intimidate witnesses, victims, judges, investigators; they are able to modify forensic examinations,” Menchú explained. “Making it to the court is nearly impossible, but we have demonstrated that the impossible is possible.”
Seven years ago, on May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years behind bars for genocide and crimes against humanity. However, the country’s Constitutional Court quickly overturned his conviction. “Ríos Montt didn’t go to prison, because of influence peddling,” Menchú declared with certainty.
Still, Menchú has no regrets. She and her allies adhered to the system’s parameters and, despite clashing with its rigged bureaucracy, their efforts resulted in five emblematic sentences that unmasked the masterminds responsible for thousands of deaths. From this harrowing process, Menchú and countless Indigenous individuals emerged with a new sense of empowerment.
“It’s been a very difficult fight. Nevertheless we’ve learned to lose our fear of the perpetrators in order to speak out and come together around a cause for fair justice,” she explained.
A fictionalized version of the proceedings comes to life in “La Llorona,” and that’s precisely the moment when Menchú and many other actual survivors make a thunderous appearance.
Bustamante, whose grandmother was Maya Kaqchikel, didn’t want the trial scene to look exactly like it did in reality. He wanted to avoid criticisms that might distract from the relevance of the sequence. “There was only one thing that I was interested in preserving intact from what actually happened, and that was the position of our Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú Tum. I wanted to have her there as a wink to what the movie represents: a flag for the fight for human rights,” said the director.
Accompanied by her family, Menchú sat behind the wicked general just like she did in reality. For her, this is a project that reflects Guatemala’s collective memory.
“At heart we are human rights defenders, we are social activists, we are people who have worked very hard for the topics the film addresses, and we are very happy to have participated,” Menchú noted. “[Acting] is not my specialty, but it was possible because of the team’s genuine goodwill to include real characters in an extraordinary work.”
“In a country like mine, where we have so few beacons of light, she is a rare lighthouse,” said Bustamante about Menchú’s presence on set. “She is one of the only people who are really weaving bridges between the different Guatemalas that exist today.”
With 500 background actors, the trial was the production’s most logistically challenging segment. But despite the large number of people, Bustamante felt great intimacy during the shoot. Everyone on set behaved with utter respect because they understood the significance of those trials for the victims who testified.
One of those survivors, María Marcos, a Maya Ixil actress seen covered in the traditional tzute as she shares a sorrowful account, asked Bustamante for permission to change her dialogue. She wanted the story on camera to be her own in order for the emotion to come across realistically. “When she read it for the first time, the entire team had a lump in their throat,” said the filmmaker.
Bone-chilling, especially when remains were exhumed and presented to the judges, the trials were unspeakably traumatizing; nevertheless, Menchú sees merit in immortalizing them through “La Llorona” to ensure they are never forgotten. “By reliving them on screen, we’ve made an important statement from something we lived firsthand,” she added.
Symbolically, “La Llorona” grants those affected a poetic retribution materialized in eerie fiction. Profoundly invested and knowledgeable of Maya spirituality, Menchú approves of Bustamante’s decision to have a spirit haunt the conscience of the movie’s stand-in for Ríos Montt. It torments him with the unnerving feeling of being watched — maybe by those he violently wronged.
“I don’t believe the conscience of the victimizers is at peace ... because what happened is not rational or humane. I know that every human being has a conscience, even them,” said Menchú.
For Indigenous actress María Telón, who’s starred in all three of Bustamante’s films including his 2018 LGBTQ+ drama, “Temblores,” blatant racism was commonplace growing up. “People would throw water at us to get us to leave from where we were selling our products. As a young girl I couldn’t understand such hatred,” said Telón. “One day a man started yelling at us, ‘Dirty Indians. You have fleas and lice, we don’t want you here.’ That’s when I understood that they looked at us differently.”
Young Telón rationalized it was better to be quiet to spare herself the hurt of people mocking her. “It was difficult to relate to other people that weren’t Indigenous like me,” she added. Though she had always had an inclination for acting, it wasn’t until her husband died and she needed to support her children that she entered a program that provided food as well as the opportunity to act and assert her freedom through artistic expression.
After debuting in Julio Hernandez’s film “Polvo,” Telón got a call from Bustamante’s production company, La Casa de Producción, which specializes in stories with a social justice component, to star in “Ixcanul” opposite young Indigenous actress María Mercedes Coroy (“Bel Canto”), who went on to play the title character in “La Llorona.”
“The movie opened many doors for me, acting became my life, and it’s through this medium that I’m able to send important messages and showcase my country to the world,” said Telón. “I’ve found good people in my path; one of them is Jayro, who is like my eldest son. He taught me how to write my first words, and more importantly he made me believe in myself.”
Telón had a chance to meet Menchú at a festival screening of “Ixcanul,” and vividly recalls the activist telling her to value her natural beauty and not to ever allow abuse from anybody. “Before, we, as Indigenous women, didn’t know how to defend ourselves, we didn’t know the law, and the language was limiting. Now there are judges and lawyers who speak our languages, and that’s thanks to the support she has given to Indigenous communities,” she said.
Coroy, on the other hand, who was raised and still lives in Santa María de Jesús, Sacatepéquez — an area that has historically had a majority Indigenous population — had an image of Menchú constructed from the negative stories soldiers in her community would spread.
They vilified her as the commander of a malevolent group plotting against the state because that’s what they were told. Many of those Indigenous men who distrusted Menchú had been forced to serve in the military during the Guatemalan Civil War that gave way to the genocide, to abandon their families, and to point their guns at their Indigenous brothers and sisters. Coroy’s own father was one of them.
Through the making of “Ixcanul” and learning about the history of the armed conflict beyond the official account, Coroy changed her perception. “I realized what she fights for and how she’s defended our people. You have to tell the difference between the bad things they tell you about someone and their real actions,” said Coroy. “When I met her and discovered she is walking on the same path I want to go to denounce so many injustices and impunity, that’s when I understood she is a leader.”
Accustomed to bad publicity, Menchú takes the rumors with a grain of salt, and even a bit of defiant pride. “For me it’s a great honor. I’m always joyful when the rumors are so coarse and so simple-minded. They have an ideological objective, of course, which is to intimidate. Sometimes they are very serious threats and I have to protect myself, but in the end it’s an honor that my fight is not over, that they haven’t managed to bury me, and I’m very proud of being famous,” she added.
Corporate mafias operating from prison, she discovered, have orchestrated the recent controversies. One even claimed organized Indigenous people were planning a coup against the current president, Alejandro Giammattei. She knows these attacks are from powerful factions, but the thought of backing down never crosses her mind.
“What can I lose at this point in my life? Thank God I’m already 61 years old and I’ve worked hard all these years; therefore I’ll just keep moving forward.”
An unmovable oak seemingly unfazed by the storm, Menchú refuses to dwell on the barrage of drops coming down on her incessantly and instead remembers the roots keeping her steady. “I’ve learned that a single person can’t change history; a person can play a primary role but doesn’t necessarily alter the course on her own,” she said. “I’m very happy because I know who walks with me, and when I see the number of Indigenous women and men across the continent that support me, I feel very honored. I have nothing to complain about.”
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