Tenoch Huerta Mejía and the Beauty of Representation in ‘Wakanda Forever’

It was during an idle summer when he was 17 that Tenoch Huerta Mejía attended his first acting workshop. His father had signed him up, and just as he had been playing football since the age of 5 for fun, he thought of performing as no more than another amusing pastime, not a potential vocation.

“Becoming an actor was as far-fetched as it was for me to become a professional American football player from Mexico,” Huerta said in Spanish by phone from a moving car in Mexico City. “You can’t dream with what you can’t see. I didn’t see people with my skin color onscreen.”

But now, the Mexican star, 41, from the city of Ecatepec just outside the Mexican capital, has leveraged that first taste of the dramatic arts into a blossoming career that landed him the role of Namor, the flying ruler of the fictional underwater kingdom of Talokan, in the superhero epic “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Representing his international breakthrough, the performance has been earning plaudits from critics. For The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney commended Huerta’s “glowering demeanor and burly physicality 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 television and film industry has looked “like it’s 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 disparaging parts.

Thankfully, even when he wasn’t included in the narrative, he took encouragement from his father’s unconditional trust. When he asked his dad why he had enrolled him in the acting class, the seemingly ambiguous response struck a chord.

“He told me, ‘I saw something in you,’” Huerta recalled. “For me the significance of that phrase was that my father was fully seeing me, that he had his eyes set on me always.”

Long before Marvel Studios put wings on his feet, Huerta had earned his stripes, working for more than 15 years on both sides of the border in acclaimed independent titles like “Sin Nombre,” “Güeros” and “Son of Monarchs.”

Still, Huerta admitted that he had often suffered from impostor syndrome as a result of the hostility that brown-skinned actors face in the Mexican entertainment industry. The fact that he didn’t receive a formal acting education from a major institution also didn’t help.

A watershed moment came when Huerta was cast as the lead in the searing 2011 thriller “Days of Grace,” directed by Everardo Gout. To prepare for the demanding role of a police officer losing himself to violence, Huerta enlisted in the Ecatepec police academy without fellow cadets knowing he was doing research.

Opposite Mabel Cadena in a scene from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”Credit…Eli Adé/Marvel Studios

Not only did the visceral performance earn Huerta his first Ariel Award for best actor (the Mexican film academy’s equivalent to the Oscar), but it convinced him of his own hard-fought talent.

“That movie changed my life because it was where I first saw myself as an actor and started building my life around the fact that I was an actor,” he said. “Before that I couldn’t see it.”

Return to Wakanda

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o, arrives in theaters on Nov. 11.

  • Review: In the film, “the director Ryan Coogler feeds his own and the public’s grief into the story, infusing the movie with somber notes of family loss and collective mourning,” our critic writes.
  • Women of Wakanda: After the death of Chadwick Boseman, who played King T’Challa in “Black Panther,” Wright, Nyong’o and their castmates leaned on each other to get through the sequel’s grief-stricken shoot.
  • Chadwick Boseman: Boseman, who died of colon cancer in 2020, had long admired “Black Panther” comics. He embraced T’Challa’s symbolic significance to Black audiences with pride and devotion.
  • A Defining Moment: When it came out in 2018, “Black Panther” offered a vivid take on an image Black Americans have long cherished: Africa as a dream of our greatness and self-realization.

Gout, who had first worked with Huerta on a video clip several years before, sees his friend’s rising profile as a personal victory.

“I’m so happy about everything that’s happening with Tenoch right now,” the director said by phone. “Finally other people are seeing what I saw in him around 15 years ago. His success validates all my decisions of fighting to have him in many of my projects.”

One such battle occurred when Gout was hired to direct “The Forever Purge,” the 2021 installment in the hit Universal Pictures franchise in which Huerta played a hero in disguise.

“I told the president of Universal that my actor was Tenoch and I refused to see anyone else until they proved to me there was someone better than him for the character,” Gout said, adding, “Fortunately, it worked out and they didn’t fire me.”

He said that what Huerta brings to every project, regardless of the size of the part, is inner beauty and generosity with other actors.

“His performance as Namor is so great because he imbues the character with his own identity,” Gout added. “He always has the same smile and the same way of speaking, so he grounds the character on something palpable — real humanity.” (The two are collaborating again on the Netflix series “American Jesus.”)

On “Wakanda Forever,” the director Ryan Coogler witnessed both Huerta’s devotion to the process as he learned the multiple skills needed to play Namor — the actor didn’t know how to swim before he was cast — and the gravitas of his screen presence.

“He was working in two languages that are not his first, English and in Yucatec Maya, while performing with prosthetics 15 feet underwater,” Coogler said via voice note. “He is a true chameleon and one of the most impressive actors I’ve ever worked with.”

Offscreen, Huerta is an outspoken antiracism activist who uses his platform to demand reparations for brown-skinned Mexicans, whether they identify as Indigenous or not. He profoundly related to how proudly Namor embraced and protected his Mayan origins.

“I’m the child of Mesoamerican civilizations, even if my veins have blood from many parts of the world,” Huerta said. “In terms of my identity, culturally and emotionally, I am tied to, shaped by and in sync with my history, with my heritage”

The actor’s first name, Tenoch (pronounced teh-NOTCH), which he shares with a 14th-century Aztec leader, comes from the Náhuatl language and translates to “stone prickly pear.” The name, the actor believes, is evidence that his father saw their Mexican identity as inextricable from its Indigenous foundation. “Since you are Mexican, I’ll give you a Mexican name,” Huerta’s father told him.

The prevalent racism in Mexican society, Huerta said, is the living consequence of the cultural genocide that European colonizers perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Through intercultural mixing, they tried to sever the population’s ties to their Indigenous forebears.

Huerta has taken a lot of flak on social media for his antiracism comments, but he’s not deterred: “Do you think those comments have stopped me?”Credit…Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New York Times

“They taught us to be ashamed of our brown skin, to despise brown-skinned people, to mistreat Indigenous people, to feel ashamed of our ancestors, and I can no longer tolerate that,” an impassioned Huerta said. “There was nothing wrong with us. They didn’t 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. Released earlier this year, “Orgullo Prieto” (“Brown Pride”) uses personal anecdotes, both as a victim and a perpetrator of discriminatory behavior, to explain essential concepts of antiracism.

That “Wakanda Forever” features Indigenous, brown-skinned characters with supernatural abilities living in a mesmerizing realm allows anyone who connects with Huerta’s principles to finally feel respectfully represented. The film also challenges media companies and artists in Latin America and beyond to rethink their portrayals and inclusion of people of color in their projects.

“The success of this movie tears down the arguments of racist and white supremacists in Mexico, and everywhere, who claim 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 on 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. Their vitriol, he said, proves him right.

“The entire antiracist movement is a train that has been gaining momentum for 500 years. Those hateful tweets are like pellets from a BB gun trying to stop this train,” Huerta said. “I’m about to premiere one of the most anticipated movies of the season, do you think those comments have stopped me?”

The actress Yalitza Aparicio, a close friend of Huerta, agrees. She has similarly been on the receiving end of racist vitriol since drawing attention for her Oscar-nominated role in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.”

Huerta and other “Wakanda” performers from Mexico like Mabel Cadena and Josué Maychi “have the opportunity of giving inspiration to new generations so that they can realize that our differences in heritage, social classes or skin color are not limitations,” Aparicio said via voice note. “I hope other projects continue to include great people who represent all of what we are as Mexicans with dignity.”

Embodying a Mesoamerican godlike character in a Marvel movie has given Huerta one of his greatest satisfactions. When his 9-year-old daughter, who rarely watches his films, saw his likeness in the Funko Pop figure of Namor, she validated his entire career in single instant.

“She told me, ‘Dad, now you are an actor! There’s a Funko of you,’” Huerta recalled with a boisterous laugh.

“The hate stays in the haters, and we exercise our ability and right to be happy,” he said. As the Indigenous filmmaker Luna Marán says, he added, “‘Let happiness be our best revenge.’”

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