The Subtlety of Internalized Racism in ‘La Ciénaga’

As Lucrecia Martel sets the stage for her film, it isn’t long before we start to see one of the themes seep from the characterizations of the family. Martel doesn’t focus solely on internalized racism, but she does shine a light on how it forms within our subconscious minds. 

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In Lucrecia Martel’s directorial debut La Ciénaga, the narrative is not the target, but instead, a view into the lives of a deteriorating group of the Argentine bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is a French term made famous by Karl Marx in the 1800s. Marx used this separating term to showcase the class war; he described working class proletariats pitted against the bourgeoisie, or as Marx mentioned in the Communist Manifesto, “the oppressor vs the oppressed.” 

This word has been used to distinguish two separate social groups dating back to the Middle Ages. Since then, ‘bourgeois’ has come with a connotation. Internalized racism can be found closely behind. In “What Is Internalized Racial Oppression And Why Don’t We Study It? Acknowledging Racism’s Hidden Injuries”, sociologist Karen D. Pyke defines internalized racism as a mentality instilled with racial oppression guided by eurocentrism against one’s racial group. It is a form of racism that happens within the same ethnic group, and can be seen as a form of oppression. She discusses how internalized racism has gone ignored in sociology and how the taboo can be hurtful. In the film, the Argentine bourgeois family possess a racist mentality against their Argentine maid Isabel (Andrea López).

As Martel sets the stage for her film, it isn’t long before we start to see one of the themes seep from the characterizations of the family, primarily the parents Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Gregorio (Martín Adjemián). Internalized racism is both in the background and at the forefront of the film. Martel uses the decline of the backyard pool as both the main setting of the film and a metaphor. An upper-class setting slowly declining is a literal representation of the dysfunctional bourgeois family the film follows. The title ‘La Ciénaga’ is fitting, as it translates to ‘a swamp.’

La Ciénaga is an opening statement for Martel’s filmography, and her unconventional, unique directing style. Her close-up shots are to the point, as both everything and nothing is on the screen. Frustration and aggression spew from the lens. La Ciénaga’s opening scene depicts this. In one shot we have over ten items including wine glasses and wine bottles in a single frame yet there isn’t a clear picture of what is the main focus. Disorentionation is the result. The opening sequence concentrates on the hot sticky weather that only a swamp could emit. This is when we meet Mecha and Gregorio.

When we look at Mecha and Gregorio, their concern about the maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez) stealing the towels could be seen as classist, an example of prejudice towards their working-class Argentine maids. But it’s no coincidence that the skin color of the white-passing bourgeois family is significantly more pale compared to Isabel. We see how Mecha and Gregorio are overcome with colorism: discriminating against people of the same ethnicity because of the darker complexity of their skin color. Even when Isabel is doing her duties at an efficient rate, the pair still manage to blatantly degrade her as they wear their racism on their sleeves. 

During the opening sequence Mecha trips with her wine glass breaking the fall. Shards of glass protrude into her skin. Blood gushes. As Isabel rushes through the house to find a towel she opens closets and drawers. Gregorio, who is fixated on his hair in the restroom instead of his fallen wife, tells his daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) to check what Isabel took from the closet. His demeanor shows his implications. Mecha’s first response when seeing Isabel is commenting on the sudden reappearance of the towels. Mecha couldn’t stay away from her prejudiced comments against Isabel even in a state of blood loss.

Unfortunately, this type of racism is still a modern concept as this mentality can be instilled at a young age. Among many Latine communities, there’s hostility towards people of Afro-Latine descent like in Puerto Rico and Cuba. A good example in Latin American cinema is Juan Padrón’s Vampires in Havana. This 80’s adult animation film is a comedic genre piece but with an outdated factor. Their depiction of one of the Cuban locals follows the racist caricature styles of exaggerated facial features and an extremely deepened voice compared to the white-skinned protagonist of the film. 40 years after the release of Vampires in Havana, this is still an ongoing problem – just consider the recent controversy surrounding the lack of Afro-Latine representation in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Jon M. Chu’s In The Heights .

The stolen towel dilemma in La Ciénaga is a conversation that fizzles out by the end of the first act. Even though the conversation isn’t brought up anymore, the intent on firing Isabel is still on Mecha and Gregorio’s minds. The parents act as if they are better than Isabel and the other Indigenous people. Yet their parenting skills are subpar at best. Their kids are constantly dirty and hurt. Regardless of Mecha’s children, she still manages to critique and comment on Isabel being a party girl because she attends the town’s annual carnival. 

Mecha completely ignores the fact that her son José (Juan Cruz Bordeu) was at the same dance, actually starting trouble. His white superiority complex allows him to disregard his manners and purposely annoy Isabel who was just trying to enjoy the night with Perro (Fabio Villafane). Jose, being the oldest of the children, should have been able to see how racist Mecha and Gregorio are to Isabel. Instead, he follows their antics. At one point Jose tells Isabel to go home even though Isabel was enjoying the company of Momi, despite the fact that Isabel’s duties were done for the day. The other children follow the same tactics by ridiculing Perro at a clothing store in front of Isabel. What seems like a harmless act to Momi and her sisters, is a humiliating moment to Perro and Isabel.

La Ciénaga brought back memories from my upbringing. Most of the common racist sayings within my Mexican community never made it to school grounds. But the kids in my elementary school still had their ways of showing their perception of internalized racism. During class, I remember hearing kids telling others that they are too dark to be considered Mexican so they had to be Black. When the victim would respond with their nationality, laughter ensued. 

There are two common phrases that La Ciénaga reminded me of. The first being a saying I’ve heard within my family used to refer to white-passing Latine babies as “mejorando la raza” which translates to “improving the breed”, or, in other words, improving the race through racial mixing to have lighter skin. There are certain phrases like this that I heard growing up that intentionally never made it into my vocabulary as I saw their insidious effects. The second is a phrase that I heard a lot in passing while visiting Mexico recently and even through the Latine community in Southern California: “No seas Indio/a,” which translates to “Don’t be an Indian.” This phrase is used in regards to someone acting confused or lost. Although these sayings usually come from habit and not intentional ill will, they are harmful nonetheless. They continue to uphold the internalized racist ideals of the bourgeois Argentine family in the film as well as within the Latine community. 

In La Ciénaga, after the Carnaval dispute, Isabel and Perro take Momi and her brothers and sisters to the local river. It’s a nice bonding moment between the family as they hack the waters with machetes to capture fish. Upon getting dropped off, one of the youngest kids looks to the other. The fish hanging on a wire flops in one of the boy’s hands. They mention how Indians would eat anything full of mud and throw the fish to the floor. Isabel picks up the fish and dusts it off and takes it home for a meal. The scene perfectly encapsulates how children begin to form opinions and disregard others’ feelings based on their peers and upbringing.

Although Martel doesn’t focus solely on internalized racism in La Ciénaga, she shines a light on it. The colorism within the family is just a layer that characterizes this dysfunctional bourgeois family. Martel throws in subtle racist scenarios like these mentioned and simply passes over them without going back to them. It may seem glossed over at first. But this is how this form of racism works. By putting them in the background Martel discusses how quickly these scenarios can eventually cause emotional injuries with a disregard to one’s race. As a society, if we don’t give second thoughts about the origins of common phrases and peer ideals, a form of oppression can grow with subtlety.

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