This interview is a sequel to “Movies from Another Universe” and “At the Alternate Academies.”
Maria Etxea is the half-Basque, half-Mayan actress from Chiapas who recently became a sensation by winning an Academy Award for best actress. It came as a surprise, because she had been relatively unknown and started late in films. Until she was 28 she worked as a defense attorney in the Chiapan capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez. She had studied law at Georgetown University before returning to Mexico to specialize in criminal law.
At Georgetown she did some work in the theater. After practicing law in Mexico, she starred in Ciudad de Soledad, a Costa Rican soap opera popular in Mexico and Central America. This led to her first film, Revolution in the Days of the Jaguar, and winning the Oscar. Now she is a much sought-after star in film as well as in television.
Our interviewer, James O’Bryan, found her on the set of a high-profile Brazilian film and talked with her about her life in the U.S., her family, and her career in television and films.
Yes, although my English is kind of American. I hope that won’t be a problem.
Surprised? I was shocked! I kept expecting them to say they’d read the wrong name or something. That’s why it took me so long to get to the stage. If the ceremony had been held in Hollywood, it might have come as less of a surprise. But now that Bombay has become the capital of the entertainment industry I was like, “Why would anyone pick me over the legendary Indian actresses I’ve admired since I was a girl?”
Oh, I just had the dream many little girls have of being an actress. It wasn’t like a real goal. No, my first real dream came from hearing my parents talk about the hardships and injustices they suffered after the comet hit North America. My Dad even fled from Spain because Franco used the catastrophe to repress the Basques. They raised me with a kind of idealistic Catholic’s concern about justice and rights.
Maria (laughs): Oh, it was a strict environment all right, but that story is an urban legend. The real story is much more interesting. They expelled him for getting drunk and crashing his car into the law library.
You have to understand that Georgetown is one of the few elite universities left in the U.S. It attracts the wealthy of all stripes. The student’s family was a member of the Texas elite and a Methodist, to boot. He was about the richest American there. The rich students usually flaunted their bicycles or their parents’ Volkswagens. Not him. He and the daughter of the Brazilian ambassador were the only ones on campus who could afford a car. Anyway, many saw the whole incident as a way to inflame Protestant-Catholic tensions in the South.
They did, but not equally. The north became almost uninhabitable for years because of global cooling. The south fared a little better. Texas did better still by selling petrol to the richer Latin-American nations.
Anyway, one of the priests said the student should have been expelled for eating meat on Friday, never mind drunk driving and property damage. Tht priest was an old man nobody ever listened to. However, the statement was blown out of proportion and outraged a lot of people. The governor of South Carolina and the KKK were even saying the priests got the “good Christian boy” drunk and framed him. They advocated burning the place down. Nobody outside of South Carolina paid any attention to that, but Georgetown added some extra security. In the end, nothing was done on either side and the death threats against the priests returned to a more normal level.
Maria (shrugs): That’s the South. In California, it’s different. Defaming the Catholic church is a felony, and killing a priest is an automatic death sentence. Killing a non-Catholic clergyman just gets you life imprisonment, and defaming another faith is merely a misdemeanor. I got in trouble with one of my more reactionary professors by arguing California law was unconstitutional on those points. Not that it matters; California was such a mess after the comet, you know.
Maria (hesitantly): To make a long story short, the law in Chiapas is something of a joke. I know that might sound surprising. To Europeans, Latin America is this rich, just land that benefited from global cooling. That’s not entirely true. The per-capita income in Chiapas is barely above that of the United States. Many of the rural areas are as poor as New England or Russia. The legal system is as corrupt as in pre-catastrophe Mexico. And there’s drugs, Maoist agitation, ethnic strife, and so on. After a while I realized if I really wanted to help my people, soap operas would be a better way to go.
Maria (nods): After a fashion. Look: for the people I grew up with, soap operas meant more than law or politics. Some of the poorest women who watch them can’t even afford television sets. They gather in their boss’s homes or in restaurants to watch the shows. Women dream of a better life where they can be rich and desirable. That may sound shallow, but there’s more to it. The show I did actually led to drives to improve labor conditions and the drinking water in rural areas. In many ways I still think my soap opera work was the most important thing I’ve ever done.
It’s a regular doll and a shaman. The show isn’t Cervantes or anything like that, but it does have positive aspects. My Mom loved it, and it got me to Costa Rica, which is closer to the prosperous Latin-American ideal.
I don’t know how well known they are, but yes, they do have some eccentric beliefs. My Mom believes that the Mayan calendar started in 3114 B.C. when God formed Adam and Eve out of monkeys. She believes that the human cycle will end with the Second Coming in 2012.
My Dad is elderly now. He was a moderate Basque nationalist who escaped after Franco put down a brief revolt in the Basque country. As you know, Franco became so unhinged that the military threw him out in the 60’s, and when democracy returned to Spain in the 90’s, my Dad was too old to go back. He’s much more orthodox than my mother; very pro-Jesuit, since Basques were the main founders of the order. That’s why I went to Georgetown. My Dad also thinks the Basques built Stonehenge and are the only true Europeans. He’s also an anarchist. That gets him into arguments with my Mom, who believes that alcohol should be prohibited and that the Brazilian space program never really happened.
No, not really. I love my Mom, but people understand I don’t go along with her idea the world will end before I turn 50. People sometimes tease me about that, saying my Mom predicts I’ll have a short acting career.
I just laugh and say “I hope not!” Mom kind of likes the idea that the world might end in 2012. In her mind she’ll already be dead by then or in least an old woman ready to meet her maker. And she has had a very hard life. She actually lived at the time portrayed in Revolution in the Days of the Jaguar. So sometimes I even wonder if she’s not actually looking forward to the year 2012.
Maria (laughs): Alas, no. He’s a funny guy and sexy in an odd kind of way. I was engaged at the time, and he was recovering from his wife’s death.
Maria (smiles): I dumped my fiancé. Right now I’m seeing a Brazilian Fantasist.
Yes, but only for other people at times. And others’ opinions don’t matter much to me. Sometimes I get offered stereotyped roles, but it’s not like I have to do things I don’t want to. Anyway, I never saw it as a problem, nor do those I care about.
It’s a romantic comedy set during the reign of Emperor Dom Pedro II. The Brazilians right now are kind of wild about stories set in the Imperial era. It’s weird: a few years ago they wanted nothing to do with it. Anyway I’m kind of the lead actress’s comic sidekick, and I like the part. It’s kind of where I started in Georgetown, where most of the plays I did were comedies.
De nada. Adios.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.