Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s antagonist Tenoch Huerta faces racism head on

MEXICO CITY – It was during an idle summer when he was 17 that Tenoch Huerta attended his first acting workshop. His father had signed him up, and just as he had been playing football since the age of five 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,” said Huerta 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 colour on screen.”

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, which is showing in cinemas.

Representing his international breakthrough, the performance has been earning plaudits from critics.

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 feature mostly white Mexican or Latin American stars, while brown-skinned performers are relegated to subservient, criminal or generally disparaging parts.

Thankfully, even when he was not 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,’” said Huerta. “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 such as Sin Nombre (2009), Gueros (2014) and Son Of Monarchs (2020).

Still, he 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 did not receive a formal acting education from a major institution did not help.

A watershed moment came when he 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.

Not only did the visceral performance earn Huerta his first Ariel Award for best actor (the Mexican film academy’s equivalent of the Oscar), but it also 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.”

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