"Mexico! Everything is something and its opposite at the same time!": Luis Alberti talks about his sinister starring role in "Carmin Tropical"

“Carmin Tropical” is a dark, romantic thriller with gender fluidity at its core, set in Mexico's machismo heart

Published March 24, 2017 10:57PM (EDT)

Luis Alberti  (The Open Reel)
Luis Alberti (The Open Reel)

Mexican actor Luis Alberti was incredibly seductive in Peter Greenaway’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” last year. Now, one of his earlier films, “Carmin Tropical,” is playing at the Tucson Cine Mexico festival, on Saturday, March 25.

The film, written and directed by Rigoberto Pérezcano, is a mystery about Mabel (José Pecina) a “muxe” (someone who is born a man but identifies as female yet, according to local tradition, is neither male or female) who returns to her Mexican hometown of Juchitán after a dear friend was murdered. During the course of her investigation, Mabel connects with Modesto (Alberti), a local taxi driver, and tentatively begins a relationship with him. Modesto may know something about Mabel’s friend’s death.

Alberti was nominated for best supporting actor in the Ariel Awards (the Mexican Academy of Film’s version of the Oscars) for his arresting performance in “Carmin Tropical.” The lithe actor is charming and sexy but also a bit mysterious, and Alberti makes both Mabel and audiences fall under his spell. The film raises issues about how muxes are treated in Mexico, as well as the issues of shame, regret and legacy. 

The actor chatted via Skype about “Carmin Tropical,” muxes and his career.

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The part of Modesto was your first co-starring role in a feature film. How did you come to be cast in this film?

The casting director called me, and I was supposed to be the character Mabel visits in jail, but the director saw my monologue and he thought, “This is my [Modesto]!” Modesto was about love and hate at the same time. That was the attractive thing about this role for me. This was a man who was a hater but also a lover.

Yes, he is both tender and sinister! What decisions did you make about the character?

Rigoberto didn’t think Modesto loved Mabel, but I did, and that led to a complex interpretation. I was thinking, What makes Modesto creepy [Laughs maniacally]. You can play with everything, even how creepy things could get. I can play with those thoughts and make them work for the story.

Modesto tells Mabel that he drives a cab because everyone he meets tells stories. Is this why you became an actor, to tell stories and live different lives?

It is not just about telling stories. That’s the way we do it, but it’s about getting closer to people and reality and portraying different kinds of humans. I like to say every role is a variation of “you” — or could be — so the story is the way you portray it, not the goal. It’s not about being another person, but putting myself in another person’s life. That makes you free or more emphatic to other people.

Did you have concerns about making films with queer subject matter in Mexico? After romancing a muxe in this film, you made an even gayer movie with “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.”

No, it has just happened. I’m an actor. It doesn’t matter if I am gay or not gay, or if my roles are; if I play a psycho or not. It’s about the diversity of humans in the world. This story is about a very deep part of Mexico, Juchitán. It’s a very machismo country, and at the same time it’s a very queer country, which is why “Carmin Tropical” was so important and beautiful. It’s very honest. Mexico is very like that. “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is very much like that, too. Mexico is a closeted country. There are guys in the closet getting married and [having gay sex]. It’s not new and strange.

What did you know about muxes before you made “Carmin Tropical”?

I had heard about muxes but I didn’t understand them. I thought muxe meant gay in [the local dialect] Zapotec. It doesn’t. The most important thing about the muxe — and the interesting thing about them — is that their society loves them, accepts them but also, tragically, they are murdered.

In the 1970s with the sexual revolution, a specific group of muxes started dressing like women. The film is about this false freedom — that the muxes are free — but they get raped and killed. There is a lot of violence around them. But at the same time, their families, society and the church love them. Juchitán is one of the places where the Catholic church embraces gay people.

In Oaxaca they have a "velas" party. It’s a parade with religious ceremonies, and there is a huge fun party and all the muxes dress like women and straight guys and their families all go. People come from all over the world.

“Carmin Tropical” tackles a sensitive topic of the murder of a muxe in Mexico. There continues to be considerable attention paid to violence against the trans community, such as recent headlines from Brazil about a shocking crime. Can you talk about how muxes deal with violence in Mexico?

All this violence towards trans and queer people in Mexico is not about homosexuality but about being feminine. In Mexico, now we have an important problem about all these murders against women — not just transsexuals and gays but women — so it is about [hatred of a] feminine identity. Queer violence is because of machismo and feminism. In Mexico you can’t be [macho] and you can’t be gay; so men don’t know how to behave. What are you? Men feel they are not needed because they are not macho or they don’t rule because women do. That creates violence against women and hatred toward gays.

What can you say about how muxes are treated in Mexican society?

In Juchitán people still think that women must be virgins when they get married, so [before this] guys don’t have sex with women because they can’t; it’s not allowed. But they have sex with muxes. Muxes are like a third gender. They don’t think of themselves as gay. There is violence towards them, and they suffer because of that, but it’s not OK.

Muxes are a kind of slaves for their families. They have to care for their parents so their brothers can get married and make their lives. Muxes have to work and pay for their siblings’ quinceañeras and weddings, and that’s why they love and accept them. In the sexual way, muxes are very close to violence, and they often are turned into prostitutes.

Can you talk about regret and shame, which are big themes in the film?

Those points are talking about Catholic guilt. It’s a very Catholic country and there are a lot of strictures, and one of the most important is all the guilt when you do something bad. You do something bad or wrong, and you are guilty for the rest of your fucking life. But as Jesus Christ died on the cross, you have this forgiveness because you are Catholic. Fucking Mexico! Everything is something and its opposite at the same time!

You have primarily worked in films made in Mexico. Is there enough work to sustain a career there, or are you keen to make films in America?

Working in America for Mexicans is difficult. It’s possible, but it’s difficult. You have the fucking biggest film industry, but artistically, I think, the best opportunities are not in America. I think we should look to other countries and other places like Chile and Argentina. I would like to work in America but in other places also. I need to make things here in Mexico and then look to other countries and opportunities.

How did your Ariel nomination help your career?

[Laughs.] I don’t know! When I got nominated, I was looking for a manager and I think that helped. But all this award stuff — the Oscar and the fucking Palm d’Or — it’s not about you but publicity. It feels really good, and you want to get it, and I’d like to have one of those — or two or three! But it’s not about me or my career. Because there is no “better” actor or movie; there is no “best.” It’s about making publicity for the projects, and in Mexico it is important to have publicity. We don’t have our movies distributed [widely] because of Hollywood [dominance]. We need to make people know that we are making cinema and have them go see the films.  

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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