His success has led him to broader horizons, and he has built one of the most attractive images in Mexican cinema over the last few years. Always connected to his origins, the Mexican actor has achieved notoriety and used it to shed light on some of the most urgent challenges we face as a society.
Tenoch Huerta is the man of the hour.
Yes, the 40 year-old Mexican actor, born in one of the most precarious municipalities in the country: Ecatepec, in the State of Mexico. He is the leading man in films and TV series in United States, Spain, and Mexico, playing characters that range from the capo of one the largest drug cartels in the country to a disenchanted young activist in the UNAM protests of 2000.
His face appears on the front page of magazines and his name is mentioned in traditional and digital media, as Tenoch has become not only the poster boy of a new generation of Mexican actors developing both diverse and critically-acclaimed film projects, but also the face of a sector of the population that uses these platforms to talk openly about racism, police brutality, the feminist movement, as well as new forms of masculinity.
His voice does not quaver, it cannot be silenced, despite having been the target of scorn on social media for days at a time. He places his trust in youth and social movements; he defends millennials and inclusive language. He has his finger on the pulse of the issues that matter today.
He is the man of the hour and has reached heights that not many expected of him. His story has been told by media outlets such as the newspaper El País, GQ Magazine, Gatopardo, Expansión, and even the tabloid Quién, as he has inspired thousands of Mexicans with his archetypical story of the kid from humble beginnings who reaches the international spotlight, introducing people to topics that truly matter, such as the representation of Mexicans in telenovelas or the violence against women we experience in this country every day.
His struggle occurs both on and off the screen. Like so many other dark-skinned Mexicans, in December 2019 Tenoch Huerta was chased by a security guard at a store in La Condesa, one of the snobbiest neighborhoods in Mexico City. This was not a random incident. Despite being on multiple Netflix films and series, the security guard assumed he was trying to steal something. When the guard confronted him, he even showed Tenoch how the security cameras were following his every step inside the store.
The actor denounced the incident on Twitter, where he has over 115,000 followers (@TenochHuerta). Almost automatically, as is often the case with his posts, he received a torrent of negative comments: “Resentful,” “Crybaby,” “That’s how things are, you shouldn’t take it personally,” followed by a whole string of stories from dark-skinned people who have been treated the same in similar shops.
The following day, Tenoch was the focus of a report in El País about racism in Mexico, which started a conversation that would later explode on social media and would lay bare the denial of certain sectors and the processes that others deal with when it comes to this issue, which despite everything, has been increasingly present in public discussions.
The actor’s name has been a trending topic on Twitter on several occasions, sometimes due to tasteless jokes or controversial comments; other times, due to sensational news about his career, like the time rumors had it that he would be cast for the Marvel saga Black Panther. However, he’s always triggering racist and classist messages, like those sparked by Yalitzia Aparicio when she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the movie Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón.
Online users who identify with right-wing ideology – mostly, although not exclusively – call other users “Tenoches” when they denounce male violence, racism, and classism on online platforms; in general, the insult is used to refer to anyone who raises their voice against the status quo. The name has been employed by the comedian and influencer Chumel Torres to refer to indigenous people. This prompted the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED, in its initials in Spanish) to organize a talk where the comedian would dialogue with several of the most prominent social media voices on the issue; however, mounting public pressure – which claimed that racism is not a topic for debate or dialogue – led to the cancellation of the event.
The controversy lasted for days, and ended with another talk, this time organized by the civil association RacismoMX called “Racism is not a joke,” which included the participation of Torres and Huerta, as well as the actress Maya Zapata, the writer and academic Federico Navarrete, and the writer and activist Jumko Ogata. There, Chumel Torres defended comedy and apologized, vaguely, to whomever he might have offended. He said he had been raised with politically incorrect humor.
One of the most memorable statements came from Tenoch, who said he had also been raised on the same kind of discourse, but that he was capable of thinking beyond it. “I can start by changing my discourse… we’re paid to create discourses, so we can put a little more effort into it: move beyond easy comedy, which denigrates one group of people to make others laugh. It shouldn’t be like that; it’s 2020 and it’s time to move forward.” Shortly thereafter, Chumel Torres’ show on HBO Latin America was canceled. Hundreds of his angry followers – who accuse anyone complaining as belonging to the “glass generation” – mobbed Tenoch’s accounts to insult him; it’s become a habit with them.
In this talk, and in many interviews, Tenoch has recognized his own racism and classism. He has confessed to having engaged forms of machista violence and that his deconstruction work begins there, by recognizing what he has done that is wrong, and by starting to change, the way many Mexicans have begun to have these conversations in their own homes.
The difference is that his deconstruction is in the eye of the hurricane every single day, and any misstep is subject to jokes, humiliating comments, and categorical statements. He has even received death threats.
“I believe there will be resistance,” he told me in an interview in which we discussed the importance of talking about racism in Mexico.
“Especially the elites, because their hegemony and power is rooted in the idea that they were born to rule… Fortunately, the response from people has been very positive, although there are always bots that I attract because of my public stances against right-wing politics, or trolls that keep calling me names like ‘Indian,’ ‘naco’, ‘negro’ , or ‘resentful’ so they can tell the world that racism doesn’t exist in Mexico… But to be honest, I don’t lose sleep over it.”
Looking for a voice
In March of 2021, Tenoch Huerta finished filming a full-length movie he had been working on for several years, invited by Andrea Martínez Crowther not only to act, but to codirect and coproduce.
To make this story a reality, they both launched a Kick-starter campaign in 2020 to raise funds on their social media platforms. In the middle of the pandemic. They didn’t begin filming until 2021, roaming Mexico City’s streets in the middle of the night with Mexican photographer Alejandro Mejía, who won the Golden Frog Award at the 2020 Camerimage Festival in Poland, which recognizes the best cinematography from around the world.
For the actor, this film was a gateway to a new stage of his career behind the cameras.
When he did this interview, Tenoch was in his car, in Mexico City, in the middle of shooting.
He says that this is Andrea’s project, something that pains her, touches her, affects her: “She’s telling her experiences. She invited me to get on board. It’s been complicated, from telling the story, building the idea, to making scene proposals, building narratives, drama… On the set, the one in charge of one part of the decisions is Andrea; I take on part of the responsibility for building drama in certain moments, guiding Andrea with the acting, that sort of thing,” he said.
To use a soccer metaphor, Tenoch gave Andrea the decisive assist for her to score the goal and tell her story: the story of a woman facing a terrible loss, but who through love, which takes her by surprise again in her golden years, manages to rebuild herself.
“It was an opportunity to learn, to play another position I’m interested in, now more than before. I would have liked to direct; it had been my intention for several years, but I felt I had nothing to say. I had no voice, I lacked real personal discourse, and when you have nothing to say, what you’re really saying is: ‘Look at me.’ I don’t like that ‘Look at me.’”
Tenoch has something to say now, and most importantly, he is learning how to say it.
“I want to direct a movie. In fact, there’s a group of production companies that have been working on a project and, if everything goes well, I could end up directing it… But I can’t say too much because it’s not a reality yet. There are many stories I would like to produce, others in which I would like to act; I’ve had this animated short film script for many years on myths and belief in myths, which I would love to do. I have a lot of stuff bouncing around in my head all the time; I would be lying if I told you I wanted to do a specific type of movie or talk about a single subject; there are so many different stories, different perspectives. At the end of the day, it all comes down to making beautiful things, creating beauty, which is one of our best qualities as human beings.”
In a previous interview I asked Tenoch if his combative attitude had gained him enemies or shut down opportunities for important projects. He said no, that in the places where he wanted to gain entry, those things didn’t matter, and that if I was referring to Televisa or a similar company, he was vetoed anyway for having appeared as an extra on TV Azteca years ago.
He said this in a calm voice, because lately he has been able to choose the projects he gets involved with, and most of them exist on the margins of the two big Mexican TV companies.
At this point in his life, with Hollywood within his reach with one hand, and his own independent projects in the other, Tenoch looks at film and television from different angles.
“The problem is, even if the government patronage disappears and financial support is obtained through other mechanisms, there’s no guarantee these funds will be available next year, which compromises the continuity of so many projects. It’s this project continuity that has allowed Mexico to generate the wave that we’re all riding, which has led platforms such as Netflix and Amazon to look to Mexico not only as a production setting, but as a source of stories, directors, actors, staff, makeup and wardrobe professionals, drivers… They’re realizing that they don’t need to import people from the United States,” he explained.
The disparity in terms of budget and production volume in both countries is abysmal, which is why the United States has more experienced and technically proficient people. But at the creative level, and in terms of project resolution, Tenoch argues that the raw materials are here. In response to this, public funding should emphasize continuity.
“Mexico still produces a lot, but we’ve had the same problem for a decade: the only exhibitor in the country promotes just one type of cinema: Hollywood, the same old narrative, the same romantic comedies that paint a picture of Mexico that is nothing like what we see every day.
“I laugh when productions include people who say: Mexico City will be the main character of this story, and everything happens in La Condesa. La Condesa is a very pretty neighborhood, but it’s one-of-a-kind, because anything beyond the Roma and La Condesa neighborhoods looks entirely different. If you go to the outskirts, it’s nothing like La Condesa. So these productions are not being pluralistic; they’re talking about a tiny segment of Mexico City’s population, not even 2 percent, and they want to present it as if that were the face of a city, the country even. These narratives are very shortsighted, in my opinion, myopic really.”
One of the biggest problems filmmakers have encountered in Mexico is that the largest exhibitor in the country is also the largest distributor and promoter, and even producer sometimes. This means that they own the field, the seeds, the trucks, and control the entire market, the entire production chain.
In spite of this, Mexico is in good cinematographic health. Tenoch is aware of this, but he’s not interested in mass-produced romantic comedies, which are inspired by American romcoms and thereby work to perfection in neighborhoods such as La Condesa – or its counterparts in Guadalajara: the Americana, Providencia, and Ladrón de Guevara neighborhoods, as well as other sites like Puerto Vallarta and Chapala’s tourist enclaves.
“I like romantic comedies, but I don’t believe we do them well here in Mexico; some are good, but most of them are poorly done because of idiosyncrasies: they are a carbon copy of American romcoms, which work well in Anglo culture: they’re funny because they relate to language, the rhythm of speech, the way people construct, experience, and make their world and their ideas. But when we extrapolate it to Mexico and our culture, it doesn’t work.
“A romantic comedy like those we have seen by the dozen in Mexico, try to make it in Cabeza de Juárez and it won’t work. On the outskirts of Mérida? It’s not going to make sense, because it’s alien to the idiosyncrasies. I am not interested in pretending I belong to a culture that’s not mine. I’m interested in talking about my culture, how I experience and see it, how I construct my life based on my personal experience in this country, where I grew up and the vantage point that life taught me.”
In spite of it all, Tenoch celebrates the diversity of visions that have driven directors such as Carlos Reygadas and even Michel Franco, the director of the controversial film Nuevo orden.
“There are many things happening in Mexico: new narratives, new approaches, right or wrong, with ideological or racial bias or not, but there is a great diversity of narratives and storytelling. Why should we copy the narratives of stories that belong to Anglo culture?”
“I want to tell different stories”
Given his achievements and this moment when his career is clearly taking off, I asked Tenoch if he ever dreamed he would become a film director or producer in a country like ours, and he replied that to begin with, he never even dreamed of becoming an actor.
“In my case, it happened by accident.”
It’s a story he’s told many times; it all began when he was studying journalism at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
“I became an actor because my dad pushed me; because I had a professor, Carlos Torres Torrija, who pushed me; because my family encouraged me to go to auditions, because life and collaboration, as well as the care, love, and trust of many people have put me in the position where I am today. I’m the product of a collective, the result of the sum of efforts and wills of many people who have put me where I am.
“I did not make myself; I made my decisions, yes, but a lot of other people took part in these decisions, and I think it’s idiotic to indulge in this individualistic fantasy that you can achieve things if you want them hard enough; visualize it and you will make it happen. No way! If you don’t have your crew around you, forget about it. If I hadn’t had parents who were there for me, a father who worked and a mother who could stay home taking care of her kids in an environment like the one I grew up in, in circumstances like the ones I experienced, I don’t know what would have become of me. I don’t know if I would’ve become an actor.”
In other words, the dream is collective.
The truth is that Tenoch never dreamed of becoming an actor because, in his childhood, there weren’t many brown-skinned actors, and when they appeared onscreen, they were robbers, rapists, kidnappers, and in the best-case scenario, domestic workers, never playing leading or powerful roles.
“I didn’t see myself on the screen. How could I dream of being an actor? Much less a director or producer… It’s more a question of life, my circumstances, the day-to-day, and the need to tell other stories, that’s what drives me to tell different stories. I want to be useful to society!” he laughed.
This issue of representation is something he has talked about openly, shoulder to shoulder with stars like Yalitzia Aparicio and Joaquín Cosío, who have been cast for international productions, playing roles that other kids (living in the outskirts, outside the capital, brown-skinned kids) can relate to. Other kids who, with luck, will be able to dream of becoming actors.
“It wasn’t until I saw Luis Fernando Peña in Amarte duele: he was dark-skinned, from Balbuena, and was with the cute girl in the movie, and miraculously he did not rape, or hit, or assault his family. Luis Fernando Peña, with this character, taught many of us to dream, and we started to relate to him.”
Playing leading roles in other countries, directing his own projects, and encouraging new generations of actors and actresses from diverse backgrounds: now, yes, Tenoch dreams big and he dreams far.
“But the only dream, at the end of the day, is to be at peace: at peace with life, with myself, with my decisions and the people around me, the good and the bad. If I can find peace in this medium, good; if I find it somewhere else, so be it. I think about my daughters: I want to see them grow, see them succeed, not because they have to rise above other people, I just want to see them smile at the end of their days, because they have a solid foundation. I want to hug my family, hug my people. To be healthy and at peace.”
As Caro Quintero in Narcos: Mexico, or as Blue Demon in the eponymous film, as Emiliano Zapata in the series El Encanto del águila, or as Lupe Esparza in Days of grace (the character that landed him in Cannes in 2015), Tenoch Huerta has made a name for himself as an actor, but has also made his voice heard, representing Mexican men who are concerned about their context and the people around them. Despite being well aware of the political climate around him and the public scrutiny he is subjected to every day, he has used his platform to convey messages of hope and compassion.
In one of the metaphors he used, his teacher and mentor Carlos Torres Torrijas told him that his road to becoming an actor would not be easy, and when a good director put him in the game five minutes before the end of the match, he had to score the winning goal.
Tenoch managed to do that. He didn’t miss the shot. The ball crossed the goal line and hit the net. The first match was over, and he was the star of the game. The man of the hour.
If he had to define one moment in his career, it would be his next match, with the entire pitch at his disposal, 90 minutes to leave millions of fans breathless, those on his side and those on the other side. The next great game of his life.