Arts & Entertainment

Mexican actress, immigrant icon known as 'La India María' dies

In this Feb. 21, 2013 photo, Maria Elena Velasco, better known as
In this Feb. 21, 2013 photo, Maria Elena Velasco, better known as "La India Maria," performs her most famous role which exaggerated stereotypes about Mexico's indigenous people, in a debut presentation of a soap opera in Mexico City. The Mexican film institute announced through its Twitter account that Velasco, also a screenwriter and director, died Friday May 1, 2015, but did not specify the cause.
Francisco Rodriguez/AP

Mexican actress, screenwriter and director María Elena Velasco, best known for her character "La India María," has died at age 74.

The Mexican Institute of Cinematography announced through its Twitter account that Velasco died Friday.

Velasco's best-known character was a stereotype of the "indio," an exaggerated representation of the indigenous people of Mexico, sometimes pejoratively characterized as uneducated and unrefined — the Mexican version of a country bumpkin, complete with rural cadence mixed with hints of the Mexico City accent. Her India costume consisted of long, black pigtails, colorful blouses and multi-layered skirts that often aided her in whatever slapstick the situation demanded.

She gained notoriety in Mexico City before moving on to films.

Much like another comedic and cultural icon of Mexican cinema Cantinflas, however, La India María used that supposed naivete and street smarts to get more-than-one over on authority figures and rich people.

Raul Hinojosa, Professor at the Latin American Institute at UCLA, tells KPCC she used "the humor of a relatively socially outcast people" and had "incredible wisdom and biting commentary on society."

"In the great tradition of the Shakespearean comic that is able to cut through and make fun of the rich and the famous, and speak of the wisdom and the humanity of the common people — that's how she'll be remembered," says Hinojosa.

Her films often involve her traveling to the big city in search of better life — sometimes with her trusty donkey Filemón — becoming an everywoman for the Latin American immigrant.

In her 1988 film "Ni de Aquí Ni de Allá" ("From Neither Here Nor There"), she travels to Los Angeles with the promise of work, and, as in most of her movies, she ends up having to rely on her quick thinking to get out of a seemingly impossible situation — here, getting caught up in an international espionage investigation.

The ensuing hijinks nothwithstanding, "ni de aquí ni de allá" became a type of motto for many immigrants here in U.S.

"If you think about it, in many ways, you know the great migrations from Mexico to the United States [involved] people that La India María and Cantinflas spoke to," Raul Hinojosa tells KPCC.

As the archetypical migrant outcast, she became a hero to the Latin community, says Hinojosa.

"[She was] a hero that in many of the great traditions of the Latino comics, as well as the other comics... John Stewart comes to mind in the end, [provide] a biting social satire and commentary and, in many ways, are the most penetrating ways of analyzing and criticizing society."

"I think it is the passing of an era also in the way in which Mexico is not the leader that it was just 50 years ago in Latin American culture," says Hinojosa.

Univisión reported in February that Velasco, a native of Puebla near Mexico City, had undergone a surgery for stomach cancer. That has not yet been confirmed as the cause of her death.

Below is the trailer for her last film, "La Hija de Moctezuma" ("The Daughter of Moctezuma"), in which she apparently taps into her indigenous lineage to find an enchanted Aztec mirror. She went way back with this one.

This story has been updated.