August 27, 2021

Rodrigo Reyes Tours '499' Documentary through Mexico, 500 Years after the Aztec Empire

Actor Eduardo San Juan Brena is a Mexican man with a beard dressed as the Conquistador, looking at his reflection in a handheld mirror. He has a metallic helmet and armor, and is wearing a red and brown costume. Image from Rodrigo Reyes’ '499.' Photo by Alejandro Mejia, AMC.

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec capital at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadors and their allies, filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes returned to the locations of his hybrid work, 499.

Reyes screened his film throughout Mexico, with the protagonists in attendance; he also hosted a series of dialogues around the current crisis of violence in Mexico and its relationship to a history of five centuries of oppression. 

Here, Reyes shares some impressions from the journal entries he wrote during the tour which concluded earlier this month.


Returning

Eduardo arrived from Madrid, luminous, full of his tender-hearted magic, and ready to link up with me and travel through Mexico again. It was July 31, 2021, and I was once again walking along the path of Cortés, waking up to the fresh, shimmering rain of the Port of Veracruz, awash in a blooming sunlight that promised a scorching afternoon. We had returned, three years after filming 499, to present the finished film which captures the travails of a Conquistador, played by Eduardo, who is transported from 1521 into modern Mexico, where he is forced to listen to the stories of victims of the wave of violence sweeping through my beloved country. 

We wanted to subvert the commemoration of the 500 years since the fall of the Aztec empire to call attention to the urgent needs of the present. We wanted to get some press and build momentum for the film; but above all, we were anxious to reconnect with our friends who had opened their hearts to this project. 

Jorge

That afternoon, the Conquistador reappears at Mar Adentro, a fabulous bookstore built inside an ancient mansion in the port, with fossilized corals embedded in the walls. The soldier wears a breastplate, looking older and more jaded, ready to listen, once again, to the voices of those calling for justice. In the lobby, I meet Jorge Sánchez, the son of Moisés, a journalist who was kidnapped and brutally murdered at the hands of local government officials. The reason? Moisés published a newspaper and investigated the embezzlement of public funds. He also advocated for urgent community needs, such as sewage and street lighting. 

Time freezes in its dark repetition. Six years ago, Moisés’ body was found cut to pieces inside several plastic bags. His friend, the famous photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, took to the streets to demand answers. Then Ruben himself was murdered while he hid in Mexico City, after being threatened by the State Government of Veracruz. His death shocked the nation and lit fires of protest across the world, yet both of these crimes remain bogged down in a swamp of impunity. 

In stark contrast to the horror, Jorge’s mother shares stories of love and tenderness: how her grandkids are growing up, how much she still loves and longs for her husband, caring for his memory dearly. This act of remembering is her shield against oblivion. Like the immolation of the histories of Native peoples in the pyres of the inquisitions, the silencing of a journalist opens a deep wound of censorship imposed by the fist of silence. For those in power, this erasure is urgent and necessary in order to control who writes our history. 

Actor Eduardo San Juan Breña is a Mexican man with a beard, dressed as the Conquistador. He is standing next to musician Tomás de Aquino, who is wearing a red shirt, a straw hat and glasses, with a beaded suspender. Image from Rodrigo Reyes’ “499." Courtesy of the filmmaker.

Martha

Casa de Nadie means “House of Nobody.” It’s a beautiful, ancient home lodged on a hill in the lush city of Xalapa, Veracruz, surrounded by the high jungle. On the patio, I hug my beloved friend, Martha González. Since January 11, 2011, she has been looking for her son Luis Alberto, who was disappeared together with his fellow police officers in the small town of Úrsulo Galván. Once again, time insists on transforming into a stone, a burden of exhaustion and weariness that presses upon the shoulders and hearts of the searchers—everyday people like Martha— who risk their lives to find answers beneath the Mexican earth, digging for mass graves where they hope to find their loved ones. 

Martha and her friends have given us a map of the extent of this horror. It was they who discovered one of the largest mass graves in Latin América, in Colinas de Santa Fe, a swamp next to a luxury development. They forced the Mexican government to acknowledge the crisis of disappearances by revealing a vast extermination site littered with body parts, many of which remain unidentified. At this moment in Mexico, the reported number of missing people is estimated at nearly 70,000. The real numbers, as people like Martha know, are much higher. The darkness of these disappearances extend beyond Mexico, to Central and South America, and the Caribbean. 

Martha and I hug again. The Conquistador stands under the tropical sun with a talented young musician named Tomás, who responds to the apparition by making music. A fandango circle that distills into beauty all of the contradictory and painful legacies of our histories, rooted in Native, Arab, European and African sounds. 

Sixto

Our van crawls up the steep green slopes of the Sierra Madre, under the awesome, cloud-draped gaze of Citlaltéptel, the highest peak in the country. Sixto Cabrera, a poet and defender of the Náhuatl language, is travelling with us. As we make our way through his strikingly beautiful town, Soledad Atzompa, Sixto tells us about the violence in the region, beset by gangs of narcos and thieves who derail and loot cargo trains, stripping them of absolutely everything—cattle, clothes, and even automobiles. One day, frustrated and angry, the people of the Sierras organized to take justice in their own hands, hunted down six suspected thugs and burned them alive.

Indigenous communities throughout Mexico suffer from a lack of opportunities and basic civil rights, and are surrounded by a vortex of violence that sucks them into the abyss of erasure and exploitation. Customs, culture and languages get lost in the violent push and pull of the current, dragging youths like Sixto’s children into an asymmetrical assimilation in overpopulated Mestizo cities. 

Outside of the dance hall in Soledad Atzompa, the Conquistador stoically awaits the audience. Night falls while I listen to Sixto’s reflections, his wisdom and hopes for his community’s survival. Suddenly, we are graced with the sight of an extinct volcano as it breaks through the clouds for a brief moment, its mantle of snow awash in the fading light. 

Actor Eduardo San Juan Breña is a bearded Mexican man dressed as a Conquistador. He has a metallic helmet and armor, and is wearing a red and brown costume. Image from Rodrigo Reyes’ “499.” Courtesy of the filmmaker.

The Shadow of the Conquistador 

Along the road we discovered that violence has many faces in Mexico. The Conquistador lives within us: in the three extortion attempts that we faced at the hands of police officers from different units; in the shame that Sixto endured for speaking Náhuatl; and in the words of indigenous scholar Rafael Chiquito, as he described the humiliation of being indigenous in the town of Cholula and the rejection felt by the Native communities living on the skirts of the Popocatéptl volcano.

The Conquistador also appears in the words of my niece, in Cuernavaca. She had to stop working as a journalist. “I am so glad that your film can say all of these truths, because I can’t; I am too afraid.” Above all, his ghost endures in the vast indifference that has become a reflex in our emotional muscle memory across Mexico. The shadow of the invader looms within us, feeding off of our silence and intolerance. 

Shelter

The Conquistador watches as La Bestia slithers over its steel pathway, carrying a metallic load that hides from view the battered and stubborn shapes of our migrant brothers and sisters. We are in Apizaco, Tlaxcala, watching the cargo train roar past the Sacred Family Migrant Shelter, an oasis amidst an odyssey of a thousand perils. Residents I met three years ago are long gone; all of them have continued their way to the north. 

I witness the passage of time, discovering new murals that cover the walls with flowers and uplifting words, in the huge yellow tarp that now shades the patio from the rains, and above all, in the enormous amount of people in Apizaco. The population crisis, like so many others, has intensified. The tide of exodus rises and boils, prophesying a desperate future that will test all the borders and divisions of our planet. Nevertheless, the movie screen rises inside the tarp as our brothers and sisters begin to commune. The light of the projector flickers under the cold night air of the highlands and the film begins. Finally, when the chapter on migration begins, with vibrant images of the shelter and a previous generation of migrants, smiles appear, laughter rings through the patio and comments spring forth, weaving together complex feelings of seeing oneself reflected and recognized. 

A masked audience gathers under a yellow tarp to watch Rodrigo Reyes’ "499" at the Sacred Family Migrant Shelter. There is a projector setup. Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Fátima and Lorena

From the moment I met señora Lorena Gutiérrez, I have felt that if everyone in the world could listen to her story, it would be impossible for the wall of indifference to stand against the atrocity of femicides. It has been six years since Fátima Quintana, Lorena’s daughter, was murdered by her neighbors. Six long years of corruption and revictimization at the hands of local authorities. Lorena continues fighting on the front lines, calling for justice with her broken, tireless voice. 

Fátima would have turned 18 this year and with her memory grows the wound of violence, encompassing much more than the bloody moments that led to her death—echoing across the days, grinding down her family and enveloping the women who continue to fall prey to this cloud of deprivation in Mexico, at the rate of 11 per day. I hug señora Lorena with affection, knowing that there is little I can do to heal her wounds. It’s uncomfortable and a big part of me, like so many of us, wants to close my heart and run away from all this pain. It is frightening to look into this mirror of absolute brutality, but we should be even more frightened by the prospect of being complicit through our silence, of becoming complicit with their horror. 

Tenochtitlan

Under a scintillating blue sky that flies above a mantle of lush white clouds, the Conquistador appears in the heart of Mexico City. He stands in the Zócalo plaza, facing the Cathedral to the north, the National Presidential Palace to the east, and in the middle, a funky replica of the Main Temple of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. In the far corner stands the ruins of the real Main Temple, in dire need of roof repair, patiently waiting to protect its treasures from the summer rains. I wonder if I am the only one sensing the urgent need to pay attention to our present, in the midst of so much symbolic posturing. I shake it off and the crew and I invite everyday Mexicans, right off the streets, to talk candidly about these 500 years—all on Instagram Live. We ask them, What has this history brought us? Are we perhaps better now? What challenges are we facing as we head into the next half of a millennium?

As we speak to the people, I realize that this return trip was neither just a litany of tragedies, nor a morbid fascination with disaster. It was a journey mapping the tenacious resistance of Mexicans, and their demand to be heard. From Veracruz all the way to Tenochtitlan, I witnessed the inner light of our many friends, the real people at the core of 499, magical beings who conjugate weariness with hope. 

Today, at the end of these 500 years, I look back on this trip through the present history of my country. With this journey, the film pressed its shoulder against the doorway of time, to help disrupt the eternal return of violence to this land. 

May we have the courage to risk listening, at last, to our victims. 

PS. I am deeply grateful to our main allies along the route: the Sundance Stars Collective Grant, Transparency International, the Spanish Cultural Center in Mexico, La Maroma Productions, Calouma Films and our distributor in Mexico, Piano. I would also like to extend a warm embrace to our partners on the road, Moisés Carrillo, Luis Fernando Pozos, Manuel Medina, Pablo Mondragón y Andrew Houchens.


499 is screening in select theaters through The Cinema Guild

Rodrigo Reyes is a Mexican-American filmmaker whose films usually depict the lives and experiences of Mexicans living in Mexico and the United States. Reyes’ latest film 499 premiered at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival.

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