Santa Muerte and transgender sex workers in Mexico

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‘I rode “The Beast” as research for my film’

maxresdefaultDiego Quemada-Díez as told to Stephen Woodman

Back in 2002, I was living by the railroad tracks in Mazatlán on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

I started talking to migrants who were passing through town and I was deeply moved by their stories. It struck me that they were heroes who were putting their lives in great danger for the sake of their families. I wanted to share their stories. I hoped that by giving voice to migrants through film I could help generate dialogue, empathy and understanding.

The screenplay to my feature film “The Golden Dream” was based on over 600 testimonies I had gathered over the course of seven years.

I decided to concentrate many of those testimonies into a group of three teenagers traveling on the freight train through Mexico that migrants call “La Bestia” (The Beast).

Juan, the lead character, sets off on the journey believing in the western model of progress and the American Dream. He’s accompanied by Chauk, a Tzotzil Mayan boy who speaks no Spanish. I wanted to portray Juan learning from Chauk, and adopting his different outlook towards people and the environment. People always want to change indigenous thinking and behavior, so I wanted to portray this process happening the other way around.

The dynamic was largely based on my own experience of learning from Chak, an indigenous Mexican who is a very good friend of mine.

Through the third character Sara, I introduced the drama of migrant women and sexual exploitation. Several studies show that the majority of female migrants are raped en route to the United States. During my interviews, one woman told me that when she was a little girl her mother disguised her in order to allow her to continue the journey. I was shocked by that detail and I decided to include it. Sara wraps a bandage over her breasts and hides under a baseball cap. In an attempt to survive, she has to negate her identity and become someone else.solorzano01-600pix_0

We filmed in chronological order so the actors would actually have an experience instead of simply acting a part. I learned that method from my mentor, the British director Ken Loach.

For the seven-year research process I traveled through Mexico visiting various migrant shelters. I also went to Guatemala and the United States.

In Los Angeles, I visited various deportation centers for children. They call them homes, but they are much closer to prisons.

I also visited meat-packing factories in Denver, Colorado. I wanted to include them in the film because it’s dangerous, tough work that only migrants will do.

Researching the film was very dangerous at times. On a few occasions, I survived being kidnapped or shot. In Sinaloa, a drug dealer called Vitamina thought I was filming him. He approached me, put a gun to my head and said he was going to kill me. Finally he let me show him footage which convinced him I was not filming him at all. He eventually let me go and said next time I better talk to him first.

I learned that day that you always have to talk to all the locals and let them know what you’re doing.

I included a similar scene in the film as a kind of homage to Vitamina. If he hadn’t have let me go, I wouldn’t be here today.

Later, when we filmed the movie, I already knew which areas to avoid. We would always hire locals and let everyone know what we were doing. That way, the filming process went quite smoothly.

Getting the film funded and accepted was no easy task, but I kept persevering. Finally, I was invited to Cannes to present the project to different industry professionals at L’Atelier. In the end, people were impressed by the amount of research and the photographs. I was finally able to present the film at Cannes a few years later.

I’ve had to push for the finished film to be distributed in the United States and it still hasn’t been seen as much as I would like. I think it is vital to show the point of view of migrants right now.

Globalization has taken jobs abroad, so I understand that people want to protect their livelihoods and local economy. But it’s important that people realize that migrants are not criminals.

 Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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New tequila and mezcal regulations upset local producers

The heart of the agave plant (Photo omarsan via Flickr)

For under 200 pesos ($10), visitors to the picturesque Mexican town of Tequila can purchase a fitting souvenir from the hawker stalls lining the roads: a three-litre wooden barrel labelled as tequila. Yet the drink inside is not Mexico’s national spirit, but an illicit concoction of distilled sugar cane and hangover-inducing additives.

Read the complete article at the Financial Times.

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Magic and melancholy in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo

A cycle rickshaw, Aracataca (Photo Stephen Woodman).JPGFrom the moment my bus rumbles to a stop outside Aracataca station, I have the sense that an entire sleeping village is rising from my memory. The scorched streets, rusted tin roofs and dusty almond trees—I instantly recognise it all from my imagination.

Read the complete article at Travel Mag.

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The women transforming Mexican cinema

Women directors are still a rarity in Hollywood.  A new investigation by film industry site the Wrap discovered that two of Hollywood’s major studios, 20th Century Fox and Paramount, have no films by female directors scheduled to come out between now and 2018.

In Mexico, the situation is decidedly brighter. According to the “Statistical Yearbook of Mexican Cinema,” by 2007, women directed around 10 percent of annual productions. By 2015, this figure had reached 25 percent, almost triple the percentage of women directors in Hollywood.

While women directors in Mexico still face great hurdles, the numbers suggest that the country’s cinema industry is heading in the right direction. Although Mexican cinema has often had women protagonists, stereotypical Cinderella figures and femme fatales have typically displaced more three-dimensional characters. Few film critics doubt that fresh female voices and gender diversity bring artistic benefits to cinema.

But women in leadership roles may also boost financial performance. According to Cinepolis, Mexico’s major movie theater chain, 52 percent of cinema-goers are women, compared to only 48 percent of men, so engaging with female audience members is vital for the industry.

In this context, a few women directors, such as Maria Novaro and Patricia Riggen, have achieved commercial success both home and abroad.

Novaro’s debut feature “Lola” from 1989, tells the story of a single mother played by Leticia Huijara, who is forced to sell her clothes to provide for her daughter in an earthquake-ravaged Mexico City.


Novaro was among the first generation of female Mexican filmmakers. Her five-feature directorial career reflects the increased participation of women in film studies programs and education as a whole.

It also reflects the government policies of Presidents Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both administrations were keen to benefit from the prestige of a thriving national cinema and actively encouraged women’s involvement in the industry. Under this patronage, women filmmakers like Novaro were able to secure state support and eventually make moves in the commercial sector.

In today’s environment, female filmmakers may be uniquely placed to capitalize on skewed box office statistics, as Mexican studios look to tap into the lucrative U.S. market, which already provides 60 percent of revenue.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, women make up more than half of total cinema-goers. Yet the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film says women directed only nine percent of films in 2015, and for the top 100 grossing films of 2015 females comprised only 22 percent of protagonists.

patricia-riggenGuadalajara-born Riggen is one of Mexico’s most successful Hollywood crossover filmmakers, having directed stars such as Antonio Banderas, Patricia Arquette and Eva Mendes. Her greatest commercial success to date was this year’s Christian family drama “Miracles from Heaven.”

Riggen burst onto the scene in 2007 with “Under the Same Moon,” which received a standing ovation at the Sundance film festival as well as good commercial distribution in the United States.

The film centers on Rosario, a Mexican migrant played by Kate Del Castillo. Rosario works as a cleaner in Los Angeles to support her son and mother in Mexico. Unlike most immigration films, the issues are explored through the perspectives of a loving mother and her hopeful young son. “We are used to immigration films that are very dark and depressing, and are cruel,” Riggen says. “I wanted to make a film that migrants would like.”

When asked whether the plot was based on a real story, Riggen answered: “There are four million Mexican migrant women in the United States who have been forced to abandon their children, so ‘Under the Same Moon,’ is based on four million real stories.”

Riggen’s extraordinary success should not obscure the obstacles she was forced to overcome.

“I’ve worked really, really hard and had to fight a lot,” she says. “It’s not just the film industry, it’s a worldwide thing. It’s the culture of the world to doubt women.”

While only a handful of female directors have moved into the commercial film sector, many others, such as Tatiana Huezo, have forged successful careers in independent film.

The Salvadorean-Mexican Huezo is a product of the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), a prestigious Mexico City film school. Her upcoming documentary “Tempestad” (Tempest) has received glowing reviews.

The documentary tracks the parallel journeys of two women whose lives have been torn apart by the corruption and injustice of modern Mexico. Miriam travels from a violent jail in Matamoros, northern Mexico, where she was imprisoned for “people trafficking” without a single shred of evidence.

Adela works as a clown in a traveling circus. Ten years ago, her daughter, Monica, vanished without trace.

Film critics have identified Huezo and Natalia Bruschtein, a fellow CCC graduate, as the leaders of an exciting new wave of documentary filmmaking.

U.S. critic Matt Turner says that in Mexico, “all eyes are on documentary, and most of the nation’s pre-eminent new documentarians are female.” 234229

Elisa Miller, another CCC graduate, was the first Mexican woman to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for her 2007 short “Ver Llover” (“Watching it Rain”). Last year, she released her second feature film, “El placer es mío” (“The Pleasure Is Mine”), a tense drama about an urbanite couple who try to start a new life in the countryside.

Like Huezo, Miller’s films foreground female experience and challenge the conservative status quo that still dominates Mexican mass media. They also reference and portray the many levels of violence that vast numbers of Mexican women face on a daily basis. In a country where six women are murdered every day and 44 percent have suffered domestic violence, it is not surprising that female directors want to lend a voice to victims.

“I’ve been criticized for being a feminist. I’ve even been categorized as provocative. But someone has to do this,” Miller says.

 Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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As Catholic priests are killed in Mexico, questions and tensions rise

Weapons seized from criminal gangs are displayed before being destroyed by military personnel at a military base in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 12, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (RNS) Even in a rural Mexican community that has grown accustomed to the news of brutal killings, the abduction and murder of a popular Catholic priest has triggered profound shock and outrage.

The bullet-ridden body of the Rev. Jose Lopez Guillen was found Sept. 24 on the highway outside Puruandiro in the western state of Michoacan, a region plagued by violent conflict. The 43-year-old cleric had been abducted from his home in nearby Janamuato five days earlier.

Read the complete article at Religious New Service.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Folk Saints

Anyone who has visited a Mexican botánica, or spiritual store, can confirm that the country doesn’t lack for saints or spiritual iconography.

A wide variety of religious statues are typically on offer, along with an eclectic array of potions, herbs and other mystical products. While spiritual symbols like the Virgen of Guadalupe are officially recognized by the church, others are grass roots figures who exist outside of formal religion. Such folk saints have an even greater appeal to many Mexicans. Unmediated by the priesthood, they are often seen to act in a more direct way in the lives of their devotees. Here, is a summary of five of Mexico’s most famous folk saints. 

Santa Muerte


The divine skeleton, Santa Muerte, is by far the most popular folk saint in Mexico. Often described as a narco-cult because of her popularity among the country’s criminals, Santa Muerte in fact has a much broader appeal. The cult has been described by religion expert Andrew Chesnut as the fastest growing devotion in the Americas. The saint is typically depicted in a bridal dress holding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. Followers make offerings such as candles, flowers and fruit, although more eccentric offerings such as bags of cocaine and rifles have also been reported. Altars are typically found in the homes of devotees, although authorities have permitted the construction of a few public shrines.  

One such Santa Muerte site has sprung up in Las Juntas neighborhood of Tlaquepaque. Every Sunday, an ordained priest celebrates Mass, despite the fact that the devotion is condemned as satanic by the Catholic Church.

Juan Soldado

picture2In life, Juan Castillo Morales was a convicted child murderer who was executed in Tijuana in 1938. In death, the Mexican private became known as Juan Soldado (Juan the Soldier) and he inspired devotees to proclaim not only his innocence but his holiness. 

Although Soldado’s wife testified that he had murdered eight-year-old Olga Camacho Martínez, rumors soon spread that Soldado had been framed by a superior officer. 

Certainly, the evidence against him was patchy. His trial lasted a single night, there were no witnesses to the crime and police did not even check his fingerprints against the evidence.

Nevertheless, Soldado was sentenced to die by the cruel practice of ley de fuga (law of flight) and was told he could escape to freedom across the border if he managed to avoid the firing squad’s bullets. Inevitably, he was shot multiple times in the back and died on the scene. 

Whether Soldado was guilty or innocent is in many ways beside the point. His popular canonization is an appropriate symbol for very turbulent times. The border town of Tijuana had been devastated by the Great Depression, the end of U.S. alcohol prohibition had hit tourism and the church had lost touch with many of its devotees. 

Into the void steps the poor, young Soldado – martyred by the authorities as he tried to escape to the border. Fittingly, he has become the unofficial patron saint of undocumented migrants.

Jesús Malverde 

The folklore hero Jesús Malverde is still relatively unknown outside of Mexico, although “Breaking Bad” fans may recognize his signature necktie and moustache after a porcelain picture-3bust with his likeness appeared in the hit TV series.

While Malverde’s historical existence is not properly verified, he was reportedly a bandit from the coastal state of Sinaloa who was captured and hanged in 1909. To make an example of him, authorities denied Malverde a formal burial and his body was left to rot until a pile of bones fell to the ground. Sympathetic locals threw stones over these remains and made petitions to his soul. After numerous reports of miracles, Malverde acquired a saintly reputation. He is often referred to as the “generous bandit,” or the “angel of the poor,” and like Santa Muerte, the devotion has taken particular hold among Mexico’s poor and marginalized. 

Niño Fidencio 


Throughout the 1920s and 1930s thousands flocked to the village of Espinazo in the dry northern state of Nuevo Leon to visit the famed curandero, or folk healer, Niño Fidencio. 

Known as “El Niño,” (the boy) because of his high-pitched voice and youthful appearance, Fidencio attracted pilgrims from across the country and beyond. He learned of his healing vocation one day in 1927 as he sat exhausted under a pepper tree in the city. Today, the tree remains an important site of pilgrimage to devotees. 

Following the vision, Fidencio began receiving visitors and offering healing remedies but never charged for his services. He famously performed operations without anesthesia, making – allegedly painless – incisions with a shard of broken glass.

Physically and mentally ill patients gathered around El Niño in such numbers that a temporary encampment sprang up to accommodate them. Crowds sometimes spent weeks waiting for treatment in “el campo del dolor,” or encampment of pain. Even President Plutarco Elías Calles visited El Niño for treatment. 

Following his death in 1938, streams of pilgrims continued to visit Espinazo and the official Fidencista Christian Church was formed in 1993.

Virgen de la Bala

Regarded by many adherents as the antithesis to Santa Muerte, the Virgen de la Bala (Virgin of the Bullet) is a gold-coated sculpture that has attracted devotees in the crowded virgen-de-balaMexico City district of Iztapalapa.

Standing at only 30 centimeters in height, the sculpture was credited with miraculously saving the life of a woman in the 17th Century. A violent Spanish husband tried to shoot his wife after accusing her of infidelity and she grabbed the sculpture for protection, where the bullet lodged. 

“In reality, she should be called the ‘Bullet-proof Virgin,’” says art historian Nain Alejandro Ruiz.

Owing to the legend, the image has inspired particular devotion among women in Iztapalapa, which the National Commission of Human Rights identifies as the district with the highest rates of rape and violence against women in Mexico City.

Many see the Virgin as a protector of the innocent. “If bad people have Santa Muerte, we have our Virgen de la Bala,” said Iztapalapa resident Hermelinda Hernández. 

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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Filmmakers set focus on the US-Mexico border


Alondra Hidalgo sees her first lead role in a feature film as a political project as much as a personal one. The Mexican actress stars alongside Gael García Bernal, one of Mexico’s most recognisable faces, in Desierto, a thriller about a group of migrants stalked by a racist American sniper as they attempt to steal across the US-Mexico border.

Read the complete article at the Financial Times.

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‘I organized Canelo’s first-ever fight’


Rigoberto Alvarez, the brother of Tapatio boxing world champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, as told to Stephen Woodman.

I was born in Guadalajara in 1978, but we didn’t stay long. My family would travel from town to town as my father tried his luck setting up an ice cream business. After years of moving, we finally settled in the tiny town of Juanacatlán. It was a nice childhood. I have six brothers and a sister and I am the oldest sibling. After school, we all worked selling ice pops and ice creams. Me and my brothers would play-fight all the time, sparring each other in the bedrooms and the patio. To us, the whole house was a boxing ring. 

In 2000, I started boxing professionally. After a few successful fights I set off for Tijuana, hoping to kick-start my career. I soon found out that it wouldn’t be that easy. I didn’t have the right promotion and I couldn’t support myself.

At this point, I wanted to quit boxing. I drove back to Juanacatlán. It is a 30-hour journey, so I was exhausted by the time I arrived. As soon as I got home, my brother Saúl asked me for the gift I had promised. “Where are the gloves and helmets you told me you were going to bring?” he said.

“They’re in the car,” I answered and threw him the keys so I go inside to speak to my family.

Some 20 minutes later, he arrived with about ten kids he’d got together from the neighborhood. 

“We want to put the gloves on and box,” he said.

I helped him and another kid, who was a bit bigger, put the gloves and helmets on. At that point, I had no idea what I was about to see. Without ever having boxed before, Saúl started throwing accurate, powerful punches. Within seconds, the bigger kid was in tears. I stepped in to stop them, but the kid said no, he wanted to carry on. Saúl was only 11 at the time and a kid of that age shouldn’t be able to punch like that. He had this look of pure concentration on his face, he could block shots and he had the right idea. It completely surprised me.

“God this is a great gift that you’ve given us,” I remember saying.

After the fight, I asked Saúl If he really wanted to box.

 “Yes, I want to be like you,” he said. 

“No” I said, “If you start training every night you won’t be like me, you’ll be much better than me.”   

Every day after that, we would train in the street and punch a heavy bag in the ice cream shop. 

After a few amateur fights, I took him to the Julián Magdaleno gym in Guadalajara, which had already produced three world champions. It was there that we met Chepo Reynoso and his son Eddy, who gave Saúl his nickname “Canelo” (from the Spanish word for cinnamon). Eventually they became his full-time trainers.

In Guadalajara, we turned up for a qualifying tournament for the Junior National Championships. None of the officials had even heard of Juanacatlán. They wouldn’t even look at Canelo. Three times we asked, and three times we were turned away.

On the fourth visit, a commissioner took pity on us and finally gave us a chance. “Let us fight the best in his weight class, we’ll win and we’ll leave,” I told him. 

The opening bell rang and Canelo surged forward. He forced his opponent onto the ropes and delivered a string of stinging blows. In the second round, Saúl connected with a powerful uppercut and his opponent crumpled to the floor. The gym was silent as the referee stopped the fight. No one applauded. Who was this redhead from a town nobody had heard of?

In the street outside, the commissioner stopped us and signed Canelo for the championships. He won silver on his first try and gold on his second. Canelo turned professional at just 15 years of age. 

Since then, he has gone on to beat some of the world’s best boxers: Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto and Amir Khan. 

When I’m asked if I’m surprised that Canelo has reached these heights, I always say no. 

The Las Vegas fights, the belts and the fame. I saw it all in that little fight in the street outside my house. The officials who dismissed us for being from a small town never imagined what I now know. Talent is found everywhere, including where you least expect it. 

I myself became world champion in 2010 but I retired the following year so I could focus on training. At the moment I’m running a gym in Tlaquepaque. It’s great for young people to train hard with me instead of wasting their lives on the street or in gangs. And who knows? One of these kids might become the next Canelo.

 Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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‘I’m a transgender sex worker’


Betzy Ballesteros as told to Stephen Woodman

When I was 14 I came out to my parents as gay and transgender.

My mother reacted badly. I left my family home and we stopped speaking for four years. 

I started wearing makeup and taking hormone pills. I also went to live with a friend in a different part of town. 

To support myself I took to the streets as a sex worker. There were about 100 transgender women working in Guadalajara at this time. There was competition between us but also a sense of community. 

Some areas for street work are more dangerous than others. The area around Plaza del Sol is the best paid but most violent. In the ten years since I started working, five of my close friends have been killed in that area. 

The most recent murder occurred in December 2015. I was standing on the corner with five other sex workers and a black Chevy Suburban pulled up to ask about prices. We told the driver the price and he asked me to get in. I opened the door and sat in the passenger seat. Strangely, he turned round and said: “You know what? Please don’t be offended, but I actually prefer your friend.”

He was very polite. So I said: “No problem.”

I called my friend Flower over and she took my place in the car.

During the five minute drive to the motel, I don’t know what happened between them, but Flower was found dead in an alley with an ice pick in her body. I think they must have fought, but she was a very calm person. It was such a surprise because she wasn’t aggressive at all.

The police turn a blind eye to violence against the transgender community. No one has ever been arrested in connection to any of my friends’ deaths.

Of course, I was terrified going back to work, but I had to be back on the corner the very next day. I have no one else to support me so I can’t stop working. 

On the streets, most sex workers use cocaine and crystal meth. Many are addicts. The vast majority of the clients also use drugs. I would say that most are married and most have money. Clients near Plaza del Sol tend to be the richest. In that area, many are lawyers, doctors or businessmen.

After ten years, I’ve started advertising on the internet more and staying off the streets. You earn better money that way, but I think the dangers are just the same. I’ve had friends who have been attacked in their homes by clients. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky and I haven’t experienced that myself.

I now mostly work from home. All of the neighbors know what I do and no one seems to mind. In my free time, I see friends and visit family. After falling out with my mom for four years, we started speaking again and we’ve become quite close. 

I’ve also been on a few tours across Mexico. It is common practice for sex workers to move from state to state. You attract more attention when you’re a new arrival in town. The most I’ve earned from a tour is 55,000 pesos (US$3,000) for six weeks work.

There aren’t many options for transgender women outside of sex work. I wouldn’t have much chance being hired to work in a supermarket or restaurant. 

I do know a few transgender people who have set up salons, but most work the streets. 

At the moment, I am saving so I can pay for more surgeries. After I’ve undergone those, my plan is advertise on an exclusive website for transgender sex workers. That has been my goal for some time now. 

I know I’ve been lucky to survive when so many friends are gone. I put it down to supernatural protection. I keep a shrine to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in my house and I pray for her support on a daily basis. She has kept me safe and provided work. In exchange, I leave her offerings such as wine, beer and honey.

The vast majority of transgender sex workers follow Santa Muerte. Many people say it’s satanic but I think it depends what you ask for. 

I believe in God but transgender women are not normally allowed in the church. One time I went to Mass with a group of transgender friends. The priest stopped in the middle of his sermon and demanded that we leave. 

Even though being transgender makes me a target for abuse, I wouldn’t change my identity for anything in the world. For all the arguments with my family and despite all the friends I’ve lost, it wouldn’t be possible for me to stop living as a woman. 

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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