Walking Tall

Nonfiction film about a Mexican maid shows how life changes people.

One of the toughest women you'll ever encounter, Paulina Cruz Suárez isn't a cop or a firefighter or even a lady wrestler. For most of her life she's been a maid, preparing meals and caring for the children of rich families in Mexico City. But her story, told in a documentary that blends interviews with narrative flashbacks, will make a true believer of you. Sad, shocking, ambiguous and often skillfully surreal, the film Paulina, the collaborative work of director Vicky Funari, producer Jennifer Maytorena Taylor and Paulina herself, screens Friday to kick off El Centro Su Teatro's second annual showcase of independent films reflecting Latino and Chicano themes.

The film came together by a twist of fate -- Cruz Suárez was a servant in Funari's home when the filmmaker was growing up, though their relationship then was of a different quality. "When Paulina worked for us when I was a little kid, she was the most significant adult in my life besides my parents," recalls Funari, who says she knew little of Paulina's past then, other than that the maid came from a poor, rural village in Veracruz. "I was in a learning process then, the same as any other child, and I didn't know much about economic differences. And, anyway, you don't care about that stuff as a kid -- what you do care about is how an adult treats you, whether or not they respect you and listen to your ideas. Paulina treated me the way I thought adults should treat children."

Funari's family left Mexico when she was twelve, and she didn't see Cruz Suárez again for ten years. "As a child, I think I had a true perception of what she was like in terms of personality. But I also had a false perception, in terms of how my family and I could only see certain aspects of her because of who we were. When I saw her again, she suddenly opened up and told me the whole story without my asking. She let me see a different person." By then, Funari had "committed the fatal error of becoming a documentarian," and, as a filmmaker, she was mesmerized by what Cruz Suárez had to say. "By that time, I was old enough that I was interested in women's stories and the ways in which women's voices have been historically silent. She seemed like the perfect example of someone who's found a way to tell her story to someone besides herself."

Girl, activated: Mathyselene Heredia Castillo as Paulina at age eighteen.
Girl, activated: Mathyselene Heredia Castillo as Paulina at age eighteen.

It was a story rent with pain: Cruz Suárez was ostracized by her village as a child and traded by her parents to the town cacique, or boss, for land rights. The caciqueraped her and kept her as his mistress, subjecting the young girl to vicious beatings. When she finally made her escape to the city, Cruz Suárez climbed aboard a bus and told the driver she was headed wherever the bus was going. That tale became the framework of the documentary, ten years in the making. In it, Paulina ultimately returns to her village as an adult with a grown daughter of her own. There, her family members and other townspeople utter varying and often disingenuous versions of what happened. Like a veritable salt-of-the-earth version of Kurosawa's Rashomon, Paulinanever tells the whole truth, just veiled pieces of it, though Funari says that's okay -- even if one of the questions she's asked most frequently is, "What really happened?"

It's just another part of what makes the film so fascinating. "People want history to be singular, reachable, but it isn't -- especially women's history or that of people who have been kept invisible for some reason," Funari notes. "Nobody documents the history of a girl raised by the town politician, especially from her perspective. They document the life of the politician. In the film, the visuals are elliptical and ambiguous precisely because there's no real way to get out those truths."

Even Cruz Suárez's accounts shift from interview to interview, Funari points out. "In the last part, you're actually seeing and hearing interviews strung together from a number of different years. Some things she says describe the process of wanting to go back to her hometown so she could kill her former self, but that perception changes to an understanding of her going there to save her former self. She went through her own transformation."

Paulina observes the maligned maid's personal journey with a sensitive and dreamlike touch uplifted by its subject's own incredibly invulnerable spirit. Cruz Suárez shows herself to be a wise, funny, resilient adult who's worked hard to pass on her good qualities to her daughter. And, in a role of importance new to her, she's traveled extensively to speak at film screenings around the country. But, notes Funari, some things don't change: "The negative side of things is that this hasn't changed her economic situation at all -- I'm still a broke filmmaker and Paulina's still a maid. She's been doing hard labor for a long time." The difference, though, is in how high she holds her head.

 
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