Skip to main content

More than 40 people waited in line to participate in an in-depth conversation with the first Oscar-nominated Indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio, Mixtec and Triqui, at the expanded campus of the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Her talk was part of the day’s theme called “The People We Are: Celebrating First Nations Cultures.” Indigenous artists from all around the world shared their work with the public as part of the free 16-day festival celebrating the center’s newly expanded campus called the REACH. A private land acknowledgement ceremony opened the festival on Sept. 7 and yesterday. The festival ends on Sept. 22.

The REACH “represents the future of the arts, celebrating their essential role in American life and their unique ability to break down barriers, bringing people and communities together.”

And Aparicio’s presence in Hollywood and on screen definitely broke down barriers -- as did the thunderous applause (and a long lulu) after she and moderator Ofelia Medina were introduced to the audience. Most of the 144 seats in the lecture hall, where the talk took place, were filled. The second applause for the actress and acoustics of the lecture hall made it sound like more like 200 people present.

Three chairs sat at the front of the room: a chair for Medina, one for Aparicio, and a spot for Aparcio’s translator.

The young actress said she was talking to Medina, who has been acting for decades, before the talk about “how complicated it is to be an Indigenous woman in Mexico and how we lose identity little by little and our parents and our ancestors, they’re not doing it to harm us but instead to protect us.”

Case in point, Aparicio grew up speaking Spanish even though her father is Mixtec and mother is Triqui. Her parents encouraged her to learn Spanish because “they were kind of scared I would not be able to make it in the rest of the world if I did not learn the main country’s language.”

She used her own experience to tell her students, when she was training to be a preschool teacher, that they should learn their mother tongues. There has been a push in their communities to be bilingual or even trilingual because it presents more opportunities for them.

“Lately, I’ve been making a bigger effort of learning both Mixteco and Triqui but I’ve been confusing and mixing them up from time to time,” she said followed by laughter from the room.

Aparicio got into acting from her sister. Aparicio was focused on teaching three- to six-year-olds when her sister told her about a casting call for “Roma.” Her sister, Edith, invited her to attend the audition because she wanted to give her a glimpse into the acting world. Since her sister was pregnant at the time, Aparicio decided to audition on her sister’s behalf. (Even though she “was not interested whatsoever.”)

Aparicio landed the job.

“Right after the audition I told Alfonso [Cuarón] that since I had nothing else to do, I will just go ahead and be part of it,” she said and the room erupted in laughter at and applauded for her honesty.

Cuarón directed “Roma.” The Mexican film director won two Academy Awards for “Roma” in Best Cinematography and Best Director. The film also won in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The Netflix movie was nominated in 10 Oscar categories overall and won three.

The film industry was a completely “foreign world” to Aparicio.

“I sometimes thought it was a little bit of a waste,” she said. But she took the time and energy to learn more about it.

yalitza Aparicio at Kennedy Center

How is her sister now? She’s not sour about it if that’s what you’re thinking.

Aparicio said the experience (and her Oscar nomination) has actually strengthened their relationship. Her sister is a singer. They learn from each other more now.

People wondered if she would continue her acting career or go back to teaching: The new actress wants to “keep doing movies.”

She does see that she can continue to work with the 20-something kids she previously worked with. But she feels that this current role, being on a larger platform allows her to be a role model for those same kids and more.

“It only takes a grain of salt for me to create change in these kids who I’ve been so involved with,” she said. They told her that they want to be famous like her when they grow up.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Her platform also allows her to be more involved in activism and bring light to different issues happening in her community and in Mexico. A role that she wants to continue.

Artists sprinkled the resistant mindset in their performances, workshops, or talks throughout the day.

Dancer Amrita Hepi, Bundjulung and Ngapuhi, told the audience during the “Native Artists in the Performing Arts” panel that movement is a form of resistance to her.

The discussion point came up when she and two other artists, David Williams, Wakka Wakkaand, Ty Defoe, Oneida and Anishinaabe, took a Wells Fargo-related question from a fellow Native artist. The bank is the festival’s presenting sponsor. The artist was curious about how, as Indigenous artists, they can continue to be resistant in their art when they attend events such as the REACH Festival supported by big banks. Those same banks support pipelines, too. It almost seems like “resistance is being purchased,” he said.

Hepi said that she doesn’t want to put down other Native people due to their life circumstances.

“It’s one thing to talk about the white-washing ... I never wanna, this is the thing I never wanna put down another Native person for doing what they need to do to get by because decolonization can mean multiple things to multiple people,” she said. “We are allowed to self-determination; to define that for ourselves and to define that within our communities.”

Hepi did “An Occupation” installation performance with a 20-foot inflatable sculpture with an internal light source, which represented the power structure she hopes to override.

As for the festival and events hosted by such institutions, she said, “I’d rather be here than not be here. I would be able to share our practice than to not share it at all because I believe in resistance.”

Other sessions held throughout the day included “The New Contemporary in Native American Art” panel with Frank Buffalo Hyde, Steven Paul Judd, and Virgil Ortiz. Hyde facilitated a stencil art-making workshop while Ortiz did a live clay sculpture presentation. A few films screened on the side of the building late in the evening.

Defoe hoop danced twice and talked about his stories while performing. Rulan Tangen, artistic director and founder of Dancing Earth, an Indigenous contemporary dance company, hosted a movement workshop for festival attendees. Williams, whose people are from Australia in Queensland, played the didgeridoo, a wind instrument, and talked about how it is made, how making the sound works, and more.

Rose Powhatan, Pamunkey and Tauxenent, who is a member of the Kennedy Center Community Advisory board, told stories about the four Talking Totem Poles that were displayed on the lawn. They are engraved with pictographs from history about tribes in Virginia and East Woodlands. Powhatan talked at both of the land recognition ceremonies.

Raiz Campos, who is from Manaus in the Amazon, live painted a graffiti wall of a new Indigenous leader of one of the tribes in the Amazon alongside a young person as a way to bridge the elders and youth. The painting will be donated to the Kennedy Center.

Graffiti artist Raiz Campos from the Amazon in South America paints an Indigenous leader and young person side by side on Indigenous day at the REACH Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Graffiti artist Raiz Campos from the Amazon in South America paints an Indigenous leader and young person side by side on Indigenous day at the REACH Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Programmers packed the evening with performances by Hawaii musician Keali’i Reichel with hula.

Reichel used his last minutes on stage, or rather his encore, to follow a traditional protocol, instead of singing, to let protectors of Mauna Kea know he and everyone at the concert stand in solidarity with them. The protectors have been in their “holding space” on Mauna Kea for more than 50 days, Reichel said.

“We’re not against science. We’re against desecration,” he said. “And we have to be the ones to decide what is sacred to us.”

A couple of people in the crowd also joined the protocol.

Native women with their elaborate beaded earrings and other Natives wearing their activists t-shirts ended the night dancing to the last performances. A local intertribal drum group, Uptown Boyz, warmed up the attendees before A Tribe Called Red went on stage with powwow and hip-hop dancers. 

ICT Phone Logo

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email:

Top photo: Oscar-nominated Indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio and Mexican actress Ofelia Medina talk during an in-depth conversation on Indigenous day at the REACH Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)