It was during an idle summer when he was 17 years old that Tenoch Huerta Mejía attended his first acting workshop. His father had signed him up, and just as he had been playing football since he was 5 years old for fun, he thought of acting as just another hobby, not as a possible vocation.
“Becoming an actor was as crazy as it was for me to become a professional football player from Mexico,” Huerta said by phone from a moving car in Mexico City. “You can’t dream about what you can’t see. I didn’t see people with my skin color on the screen.”
But now the 41-year-old Mexican star from the city of Ecatepec, on the outskirts of the Mexican capital, has parlayed that first contact with the dramatic arts into a burgeoning career that landed him the role of Namor, the ruler of the fictional Talokan’s underwater kingdom, in the superhero epic “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
Representing her international breakthrough, the performance has won praise from critics. For The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney praised Huerta’s “scowling demeanor and portly physique in the role”, while David Sims of The Atlantic praised how the actor infuses the character with “great dignity”.
For as long as Huerta can remember, the Mexican film and television industry has seen itself “as if it were made for Scandinavians,” as he put it. The productions mostly feature white Mexican or Latin American stars, while brown-skinned performers like him are relegated to subservient, criminal, or generally derogatory roles.
Fortunately, even when he was not included in the narrative, he was heartened by his father’s unwavering trust. When he asked his father why he had signed him up for acting class, his seemingly ambiguous response struck a chord.
“He told me: ‘I saw something in you,’” Huerta recalled. “For me, the meaning of that sentence was that my father was seeing me completely, that he had his eyes on me always.”
Long before Marvel Studios put wings on his feet, Huerta had earned his accolade, working for more than 15 years on both sides of the border on acclaimed independent titles like “Sin Nombre,” “Güeros” and “Son of Monarchs.” .
Even so, Huerta admitted that he often suffered from impostor syndrome as a result of the hostility faced by brown-skinned actors in the Mexican entertainment industry. The fact that she hasn’t received a formal acting education from a major institution didn’t help either.
A defining moment came when Huerta was cast as the lead in the thrilling 2011 thriller “Days of Grace,” directed by Everardo Gout. To prepare for the demanding role of a police officer who gets lost in the violence, Huerta enlisted in the Ecatepec police academy without his fellow cadets knowing that he was investigating.
The visceral performance not only earned Huerta his first Ariel Award for Best Actor (the Mexican film academy’s equivalent of an Oscar), it convinced him of his own talent.
“That movie changed my life because it was where I first saw myself as an actor and I started to build my life around the fact that I was an actor,” he said. “Before that I couldn’t see it.”
Gout, who had first worked with Huerta on a video clip several years earlier, sees his friend’s rising profile as a personal victory.
“I am very happy about everything that is happening with Tenoch right now,” the director said by phone. “Finally, other people are seeing what I saw in him about 15 years ago. His success validates all my decisions to fight to have him in many of my projects ”.
One such battle occurred when Gout was hired to direct “The Forever Purge,” the 2021 installment of Universal Pictures’ hit franchise in which Huerta played a costumed hero.
“I told the president of Universal that my actor was Tenoch and I refused to see anyone else until they proved to me that there was someone better than him for the character,” Gout said, adding: “Luckily it worked and they didn’t.” .
He said what Huerta brings to every project, no matter the size of the role, is inner beauty and generosity to other actors.
“His performance as Namor is great because it gives the character his own identity,” added Gout. “He always has the same smile and the same way of talking, so he grounds the character in something tangible: real humanity.” (The two are collaborating again on the Netflix series “American Jesus.”)
In “Wakanda Forever,” director Ryan Coogler witnessed both Huerta’s devotion to the process while learning the many skills necessary to play Namor (the actor couldn’t swim before being cast) and the seriousness of his presence in the screen.
“I was working in two non-first languages, English and Yucatec Mayan, while performing prosthetically 15 feet underwater,” Coogler said via voice memo. “He is a true chameleon and one of the most impressive actors I have ever worked with.”
Off-screen, Huerta is an outspoken anti-racism activist who uses his platform to demand reparations for brown-skinned Mexicans, whether they identify as indigenous or not. He related deeply to the pride with which Namor embraced and protected his Mayan origins.
“I am the son of Mesoamerican civilizations, although my veins have blood from many parts of the world,” said Huerta. “In terms of my identity, culturally and emotionally, I am tied to, shaped and in sync with my history, with my heritage.”
The actor’s given name, Tenoch (pronounced teh-NOTCH), which he shares with a 14th-century Aztec leader, comes from the Nahuatl language and translates as “stone prickly pear.” The name, the actor believes, is evidence that his father saw his Mexican identity as inseparable from his indigenous base. “Since you’re Mexican, I’m going to give you a Mexican name,” Huerta’s father told him.
The prevailing racism in Mexican society, Huerta said, is the living consequence of the cultural genocide that European colonizers perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Through the intercultural mix, they tried to break the ties of the population with their indigenous ancestors.
“They taught us to be ashamed of our brown skin, to despise the brown, to mistreat the indigenous people, to be ashamed of our ancestors, and I can’t stand that anymore,” said a passionate Huerta. “There was nothing wrong with us. They did not have to force us to speak Spanish. They didn’t have to try to westernize us.”
He addressed these issues in a book intended to empower young readers. Launched earlier this year, “Orgullo Prieto” uses personal anecdotes, both as a victim and perpetrator of discriminatory behavior, to explain essential concepts of anti-racism.
For “Wakanda Forever” to feature brown-skinned indigenous characters with supernatural abilities living in a fascinating realm allows anyone who connects with Huerta’s principles to finally feel respectfully represented. The film also challenges media companies and artists from Latin America and beyond to rethink their representations and the inclusion of people of color in their projects.
“The success of this film overturns the arguments of racists and white supremacists in Mexico and everywhere who claim that brown skin doesn’t sell or that representation doesn’t sell,” Huerta said. “It’s beautiful to see ourselves represented in a different way.”
On social media, particularly Twitter, Huerta is the target of racist attacks every time he shares his views on social justice. The release of “Wakanda Forever” has exacerbated that. His vitriol, he said, proves him right.
“The entire anti-racist movement is a train that has been gathering momentum for 500 years. Those hate tweets are like BB pellets trying to stop this train,” Huerta said. “I’m about to release one of the most anticipated movies of the season, do you think those comments have stopped me?”
The actress Yalitza Aparicio, Huerta’s close friend, agrees. Similarly, she has been on the receiving end of racist vitriol ever since she drew attention for her Oscar-nominated role in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.”
Huerta and other interpreters of “Wakanda” from Mexico such as Mabel Cadena and Josué Maychi “have the opportunity to inspire the new generations so that they realize that our differences in heritage, social class or skin color are not limiting”, Aparicio said. “I hope that other projects continue to include great people who represent with dignity all that we Mexicans are.”
Embodying a divine Mesoamerican character in a Marvel movie has given Huerta one of her greatest satisfactions. When her 9-year-old daughter, who rarely watches her movies, saw her likeness in the Namor Funko Pop figure, she validated her entire career in a single instant.
“She told me, ‘Dad, you’re an actor now! There is a Funko of yours,’” Huerta recalled with a scandalous laugh.
“Hate stays with those who hate, and we exercise our ability and right to be happy,” he said. As the indigenous filmmaker Luna Marán says, she added: “’May happiness be our best revenge.’”