The road to Tlaxiaco is long and serpentine, up a rugged mountain covered with pines.
Locals were curious about us the moment we set foot in the tianguis, the bustling market held each Saturday in the central plaza.
“We’re here about Yalitza Aparicio,” I told Rosa Maria Hernandez, 60, who was busy selling black mole and chicken soup.
She and the other women working nearby instantly smiled and let down their guard.
“Oh, of course,” Hernandez said with affection. “La Yalitza.”
Two thousand miles away in Los Angeles, Yalitza Aparicio is a celebrity, the Oscar-nominated star of “Roma” who has been hitting the red carpet with the likes of Lady Gaga and Tom Hanks.
Before she left her hometown, she was just a girl like so many here with cinnamon skin, Mixteco and Triqui roots, dreams of becoming a preschool teacher.
No one imagined that one day a big movie director would pluck her from the crowd.
Times photographer Gary Coronado and I arrived in Tlaxiaco without notice and with a simple premise: to explore how Yalitza’s fame has affected her humble hometown.
I began filling my notebook the moment I boarded the plane from Los Angeles to Mexico City.
My seatmate, a stylish Mexican woman with blond highlights, said to me: “Why’s everyone making a big deal about this girl? She was just a maid in a movie. She didn’t do anything special.”
My next flight into Oaxaca put me next to a council member from the state’s capital. He spoke to me for nearly an hour about how much Yalitza’s indigenous roots had rocked Mexico’s racial, class and socioeconomic core.
“She opened the door to all the ugliness we Mexicans carry just beneath the surface,” said Luis Silva Romo. “You could easily fill a book.”
To some, he said, what mattered most was: What is she going to do with her fame? Will she lose herself in the glitz and money? Will she reach back and help her people?
In Tlaxiaco, there was little such scrutiny.
Most people had not seen the movie. There are no theaters here and there’s limited access to Netflix.
Still, on the eve of the Oscar’s, Tlaxiaqueños were rooting for their hometown girl.
They were aware of the criticism — from trolls on social media, from other Mexican celebrities. They've called Yalitza “India,” her skin “burned,” her nose “smashed.”
“It hurts,” said Nancy Cortez, 25, an architecture student who sells steak tlayudas at the market. “It hurts because she looks just like me.”
Most girls in Tlaxiaco smile @ the sound of Yalitza’s name. La Yalitza they say w/ affection. They know there’s criticism across Mexico. They c it on TV. They call Yalitza “India”, her skin “burned”, her nose “smashed.” It hurts says Nancy Cortez. It hurts b/c she’s just like me. pic.twitter.com/AWj70EYKKY— Esmeralda Bermudez (@LATbermudez) February 6, 2019
In recent months, journalists have flocked up Yucunino mountain hoping to uncover any personal details about Yalitza’s life.
They visit her grade school, high school and college. Also, the three-room preschool where the 25-year-old taught for three months after filming the movie.
If you venture down the dusty road that leads you out of Tlaxiaco hoping to find Yalitza’s mother, sister, brothers — you won’t have much luck.
The corrugated metal shanty where she lived recently with her family has been empty for nearly two weeks, said next-door neighbor Geronimo Silva.
Outside, Christmas tinsel still hangs from a shrub, the wind whistles in the hillsides and stray dogs roam about. The piñatas the family has always made to get by sit unfinished in the backyard.
Yalitza’s sister, Edith Martinez Aparicio, later told me her family doesn’t want any more media attention. She’s also signed a contract for an upcoming project she wasn’t at liberty to discuss.
At this point, few in town believe the girl up north “making movies with the gringos” will ever come back home.
Since Yalitza left, she’s come back only a couple of times, said Miguel Martinez Oseguera, director of Tlaxiaco’s Casa de la Cultura.
Martinez Oseguera is a longtime friend of the star’s family. He helped the “Roma” crew set up the casting call where Yalitza was a final, last-minute candidate.
“She’s a very simple girl,” he said. “When she comes back to town, I see her out on the plaza eating chicharrones from her favorite stall.”