Sor Juana, Today

Ofelia Medina, actress, singer and telenovela star, comes to Sacramento to honor two strong Mexican female icons

Medina in Chipas, earlier this year. The guy with the backpack is Sen. Tom Hayden.

Medina in Chipas, earlier this year. The guy with the backpack is Sen. Tom Hayden.

Imagine if Susan Lucci, better known as Erica Kane on All My Children, suddenly turned up in the colonias along the Texas side of the Rio Grande, raising some kind of hell. Imagine her actually working with the local children, not just appropriating them for some “Look at me, I’m Mother Teresa” photo-op. Imagine her using her fame to tell the rest of the world just how squalid those children’s lives had become because the government, essentially, either didn’t care or actively pursued policies that made their lives miserable.

Of course, that probably wouldn’t happen here. Lucci’s politics are decidedly Republican, and she probably wouldn’t be caught dead traipsing around Gov. George W. Bush’s backyard, pointing out some of the less-positive byproducts of his stewardship south of the border; although parallels can be found, life is a bit different. What we call “soap operas,” the Mexicans call “telenovelas.” And even though the United States and Mexico both have states on their southern borders that have plenty of oil in the ground, private-sector militias in Texas haven’t started training their guns on the natives for sport.

Chiapas, however, is another story. A long-simmering conflict between the indigenous peasants, organized under the banner of the Zapatista National Liberation Movement, and the Mexican government and landowners, has turned the state into a nightmare of poverty and violence. And Ofelia Medina, a 50-year-old actor, dancer and singer, a native of Yucatan, a woman whom some have called the queen of the telenovelas, has been working to bring the situation there to light.

“I founded a fund for the health of indigenous children of Mexico in 1990,” Medina says over the phone from Mexico City. “And since then, I have been working in indigenous communities. In Mexico, we have 56 different cultures, ethnic groups alive. And not in reservations, like the United States, but in very severe, terrible conditions of economic margination and social injustice.”

She claims that no one in the government really cared enough to mount any kind of study, even though she claims that 50,000 indigenous children in Mexico die of malnutrition each year. Her group undertook one in 1990. “We made the first study of these cultures,” she says, “so we would have the percentage of malnutrition [87 percent]. The sickness of children in Mexico is not sickness; it’s hunger.”

Although Medina’s group works with the indigenous, non-Spanish-speaking cultures in what she calls a “non-paternalistic” way, helping them find productive solutions and, to use a conservative cliché, giving them a fishing pole instead of a fish dinner, she’s been branded as an agitating firebrand by at least one authority, the mayor of San Cristóbal de la Casas in the state of Chiapas, who unceremoniously booted the activist Medina out of town. “Thrown out of the state of Chiapas,” she says, laughing. “I was asked to leave in 72 hours, a year ago.” Medina comes to Northern California this weekend. Besides a few side trips to the Bay Area and Stockton, she’ll make several appearances in Sacramento. She will speak at a human-rights symposium sponsored by the California State Employees Association at the Radisson Hotel on Saturday morning.

On Sunday, Medina will host two showings of Frida, naturaleza viva, a Paul Leduc-directed film from 1984 in which she portrays the iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; for her performance she was awarded an Ariel award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the Mexican film industry. (A Kahlo biopic starring the unlikely Salma Hayek hits theaters next year.)

But intrepid film fans curious about the more arty side of Mexican cinema might want to seek out Frida, naturaleza viva. In the film, Kahlo, on her deathbed, watches as her life is depicted in a series of flashbacks.

“It has very few dialogues,” Medina says. “We made the film in the real places. I mean, I lay in Frida’s bed, in her one and only bed. All the paintings are the real paintings. I used some of her dresses. The images are so strong, and maybe some people who do not know the characters might be lost.”

Kahlo needs no introduction; she’s become somewhat of a secular saint in America for the way she endured profound suffering with dignity. Medina encountered Kahlo early on, and was transformed.

“I went to Frida’s study when I was 11 years old,” Medina recalls of her student years. “And I was shocked by everything [about her]—she was so erotic. Then, she was a communist; that was a word that was forbidden to mention. And, since then, I was obsessed by her, and I convinced Paul Leduc to make the film about her.”

Medina assesses Kahlo’s importance thus: “The most important point of her life,” she says, “is the fight against suffering. To me, she was our master into breaking limits, into ‘You think you are tired? You think your are in pain? Wait a minute; it’s just the beginning’ And, ‘How would I like to resist—writing, or painting, or creating beauty, or living your imagination?’ So it is not that she wanted to be free, she was free. She broke limits because of pain, because of suffering. Which, to me, is like a lesson of life."On Tuesday evening, Medina will bring an original production to the stage, titled Sor Juana Hoy. The benefit performance is structured around the writings of another Mexican female icon, Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz, a 17th-century poet, artist, theologian and scholar who lived, in her teen years, as an attendant in the court of Vicereina Do@#141;a Leonor Carreto, the Marquise de Mancera. Later, she left that position to become a nun, because it offered the most attractive situation to an independent woman who wished to pursue life as an intellectual. Medina credits Sor Juana as the first author to write in a truly Mexican voice.

“This is a one-woman show, inspired [by] the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz.” Medina explains. “She was a nun. She was born in 1650, during the [colonial period]. She has this incredible story of being a young girl—at 3, she learned how to read and write, even though she was a girl. And she decided to be a nun, not because of her mystical inclination, but because it [offered] the only possibility to be independent and study. She was a scientist; she was a woman of knowledge and at the same time, a poet.

“She was a very daring character of her time. Octavio Paz did a book about her, named Las trampas de la fe [The Traps of the Faith]; she is a very important figure of our history, and she’s a woman, and she held a very important position for we women in Mexico.”

Medina recorded an album with a mariachi band, Sor Juana Hoy, which used the poetry and sonnets of Sor Juana for its text (it was released in Mexico by WEA Latina in 1996); some of these will be included in her performance Tuesday.

“Through the songs, I try to explain the journey she made,” Medina explains. “She died very young, because she was condemned by the church into burning her library and her instruments, and she was almost condemned not to keep on thinking. She went out and acquired the plague and died.”

An epidemic had befallen the Mexico City convent where she lived, and there Sor Juana died in her mid to late 40s—there are conflicting birthdates.

“It’s a very strong story," Medina continues, "and through these songs, I go into the last words that she said, that she would prefer to consume the vanities of life than consume life in vanities. It’s a very humble interpretation of her poetry into song, and so it can also be comprehended by people who don’t even know about her."