After sneaking into Wakanda in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Marvel’s merman demigod Namor emerges from the water in the darkness. He startles Queen Ramonda and her daughter Shuri in a rural area of their Black utopia. “Who are you?” the queen asks. “And how did you get in here?”
The Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta Mejía is playing a brown antihero, an archetype that has for centuries been used to demonize men from south of the border. But this brown antihero is resplendent and relatable. How did this Namor get onto the big screen?
It took Black filmmakers to bring him to Marvel, bypassing white gatekeepers who are chronically averse to empowering brown roles. Although Latinos make up 19% of the U.S. and half of Los Angeles, they’re only 7% of film leads and co-leads, mostly criminals and poor people. And while Namor is an antihero, he’s no villain. The audience is shown that he is dangerous, yes, but not because of his race. Instead of the usual dehumanized foil, Huerta’s portrayal elevates a brown body as dazzling and divine.
“This place is amazing,” he gasps as he takes in Wakanda’s splendor. “The air is pristine, and the water!” His wet skin evokes the ghosts of real people who have died trying to reach the U.S. by river or sea. “My mother told stories about a place like this,” he continues, his face crevicing with grief as he delivers the next gut-wrenching line: “A protected land with people that never have to leave, that never have to change who they were!”
The Black director Ryan Coogler’s casting of Huerta was a stroke of genius. Huerta knows the heartbreak of leaving home, of changing to survive. In his new book, “Orgullo Prieto,” or “Brown Pride,” the actor recalls altering how he dressed, walked and spoke to succeed in Mexico, where light-skinned people are overrepresented in positions of power.
“In Mexico, they teach us to be ashamed of who we are,” he wrote in his book, in Spanish. A friend who sought roles for him was routinely told that Huerta looked “too Mexican.” A producer repeatedly called him an “Indio” who should “learn his place.” One woman said his mythical Aztec ruler’s first name, Tenoch, was “the name of a dog.” Contempt for the Indigenous has been ubiquitous in Mexico since the Spanish conquest, which violently imposed an embrace of European customs and features.
The Marvel film offers a vivid flashback to that conquest as Namor, a character inspired by the Maya god Kukulkán, tells Shuri about how his 1571 Yucatán tribe escaped the conquistadors’ smallpox and slavery by ingesting a plant that changed them: into merpeople. He was the first born in Talokan, a new deep-sea civilization. When he visits the surface as a boy, he finds Spaniards whipping Indigenous people in literal bondage.
He burns down the settlement. A Spanish priest gazes up at him in horror. “Sos un demonio,” he says. You’re a demon. “Hijo de Satanás.” Satan’s son.
The moment is charged with the real-world demonization of boys who look like him — the “bad hombres” disproportionately killed by police and deported. They’re “animals,” “rapists,” “illegals.” “Felons, not families.”
The filmmakers don’t intend for viewers to concur with the priest’s hatred. Like Killmonger in the first “Black Panther,” Namor is a cautionary tale against embracing the colonizer’s amoral tactics, but he isn’t evil. He’s driven by trauma and a noble desire to protect his people.
Huerta himself, after decades of experiencing racism and microaggressions, became an outspoken activist against colorism in Mexico. He criticizes the lack of darker-skinned people on Mexican screens. “To invisibilize a group, to criminalize a group, is to condemn it to extermination,” he said in a TEDx talk last year. In his book, he wrote: “What I want is for people to interrogate why there’s only one (or very few) like me.”
The film star grew up in Ecatepec, a residential area outside of Mexico City known for kidnappings and other organized crime. He attributes its problems to aspirational whiteness, which can transmute ordinary greed into violence. Ecatepec is where most of my Mexico-based paternal relatives live, and where my 16-year-old cousin Diego was “disappeared” in 2015. My other cousin and close friend from Ecatepec, Eddie, 27, says watching Huerta’s rise has been inspiring. “People see us as robbers, rapists and bad people,” Eddie told me. “But he’s from our community, and he’s shining so brightly.”
One of Huerta’s first screen roles was as a gardener. Later, he was called to play thieves and thugs. But after his lauded role as an honest cop in “Days of Grace” and his nuanced portrayal of a drug lord in “Narcos: Mexico,” his complexity became undeniable on both sides of the border.
He has used his celebrity to challenge stereotypes and the myth of mestizaje, which denies Mexico’s racism by pretending that all Mexicans are mixed. It erases surviving Indigenous people and their struggles, such as displacement by U.S. industries that plunder their lands — like in the film, in which the U.S. and France seek to loot a rare metal from Wakanda and Talokan.
The film takes place in the Yucatán peninsula, with its cenotes and underwater caves. Filmmakers hired Maya Mexican actor Josué Maychi to play a shaman and teach cast members his Yucatec Mayan language.
But the film also draws from other ancient Mesoamerican cultures. For example, Talokan comes from Tlalocan, an Aztec paradise. This blending does not feel sloppy or uninterested in the groups’ distinctness. It seems careful, like Wakanda’s amalgamation of African influences, imagining what might have become of so many highly sophisticated societies and their exchange of culture had the Spaniards not decimated them.
Immigrants and refugees from the historic region of Mesoamerica, which includes Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, are a majority of the people portrayed by nativists as invaders: those who must be tear-gassed, walled out and halted with military force.
To honor the pre-Columbian roots of the region is an act of defiance against that hate.
Huerta, who has Nahua and Purépecha roots, embodies Indigeneity’s magnificence; in his mouth, the exquisitely pronounced “Kukulkán” becomes the apocalypse of white supremacy.
Colorism among Latinos became a national media story this year after the infamous conversation among Latino L.A. City Council members leaked in October, featuring anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other bigoted comments. Ensuing Black-Latino tensions led some to criticize “Wakanda Forever” for showing a brutal war between Wakanda and Talokan. But in the end, the film’s message is clearly one of Black-brown solidarity.
The message that we’re stronger together comes through in both the film’s plot and its production. It’s about female power as embodied in Shuri, who chooses compassion and coalition-building over violence. “Vengeance has consumed us,” she tells Namor. “We cannot let it consume our people.”
Her moral high ground doesn’t reduce him. It elevates him; she sees an equal. The film’s Black creators shaped Namor with dignity, and Huerta put his soul into the character. Huerta proudly calls himself “prieto resentido,” resentful brown man, a label often used to diminish him. Like Namor, he defies dehumanization. By channeling himself into the role, he transfigures a stereotype. And he robs white supremacists of one of their greatest weapons.