Its indigenous people are an integral part of Mexican society, but you wouldn't guess it from watching Mexican movies and television, glancing at billboards or perusing the ranks of the nation's political and economic elites.
Poorer, less urbanized and more geographically isolated than the population at large, Indians have endured centuries of discrimination and oppression, despite official policies ostensibly safeguarding their rights.
L.A.-based documentary maker Yolanda Cruz, a Chatino Indian from rural Oaxaca state, has been working to increase not only the number but also the nature of representations of indigenous Mexicans. In movies such as "Sueños Binacionales" (Binational Dreams) and "2501 Migrants: A Journey," the UCLA graduate has attempted to depict the vitality and richness of Indian culture, its resilience as well as its tribulations.
In an interview last week at a Silver Lake cafe, Cruz said she didn't want to make a movie that announced, "Oh, here's another documentary about our tragic life." The 35-year-old filmmaker hopes that her work can draw attention to some of the problems afflicting Mexican Indians, such as the rapid disappearance of native languages, and counter some of the stereotypes surrounding them.
But her wider aim is to humanize her subjects through a cinema that is both intimate and broadly accessible.
"Art is to be shared with everyone, without class, without race," said Cruz, who was raised in a mountain village four hours by car from the popular tourist and surfing resort Puerto Escondido, speaks Spanish, English and Zapotec and became a U.S. citizen a few years ago.
All those impulses come into play in "2501 Migrants," part of the documentary double bill "Native Visions" that will screen at 8:30 tonight at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. The 53-minute documentary chronicles a remarkably ambitious project of Oaxacan painter-sculptor Alejandro Santiago, whom Cruz first met around 2005.
Alarmed by the growing outflow of Indian migrants who'd gone seeking jobs in places like Mexico City and Los Angeles, Santiago decided to construct 2,501 human-like ceramic figures at his ranch studio in rural Oaxaca state. His plan was to use the statues -- which fuse aspects of both pre-Columbian and modern art -- to "repopulate" his native village of Teococuilco de Marcos Perez, in a remote mountain area of Oaxaca that has lost about half of its population to emigration in recent decades.
Segments of the project already have been displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oaxaca city and the Universal Forum of Cultures in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.
"It's very subtle," Cruz said of Santiago's project, "but it's powerful."
The other film on REDCAT's program, Dante Cerano's "Día dos" (Day Two), is a 23-minute documentary video that co-opts and lampoons narrative conventions from advertising, wedding videos and "ethnographic" films to weave a kind of mock-anthropological essay about the second day of a P'urhepecha wedding ceremony.
Cruz said she considers her primary audience for the film to be her fellow Mexican immigrants, including the thousands of Oaxacans living in Southern California. The complex sociopolitics of immigration are beyond the power of any one documentary to fully address.
But Cruz, a fervent admirer of Sergei Eisenstein, said that every immigrant, like every one of Santiago's sculptures, has a unique and instructive story to tell.
"You don't need to know the politics of Mexico to understand the loss that a parent feels for her or his absent children," she said.