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Tenoch Huerta pauses for a photo in Ecatepec, the working-class Mexico City suburb where he grew up that has a reputation for being one of the country's most insecure. Photo: Alejandra Rajal for VICE World News. 

New ‘Black Panther’ Star Is Calling Out Mexico for Its Racism

The actor Tenoch Huerta is on a mission to tackle racism in Mexico. And he's not holding back.

MEXICO CITY — Tenoch Huerta’s version of legendary drug lord Rafael Caro-Quintero sits on the side of a pool in the first season of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, distraught as he watches his friend sniff cocaine with such disgusting urgency that his life seems to depend on it. Huerta’s intense portrayal of Caro-Quintero—whom the U.S. suspects orchestrated the infamous kidnapping and torture of a DEA agent—snatches the tray of dope and tosses it into the pool in a rage.


“I have to get the devil out of me,” he mutters, before wading into the water in his robe, and disappearing under the surface. 

But Huerta—who is about to break even badder as the antihero “Namor the Sub-Mariner” in Marvel’s much-anticipated Black Panther sequel—still has the devil inside. If Yalitza Aparicio, the Academy Award–nominated Indigenous star of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, was the brave and gracious interloper breaking into a mostly-white world, Huerta is the talented rebel, screaming into the void about the racism many Mexicans deny. 

In a country where more than 70 percent of people identify as brown-skinned, 41-year-old Huerta is among a handful who’ve reached the top tiers of Mexico’s entertainment world—in large part because of the very typecasting he disdains. 

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“They are always calling me to make the same character. It’s the bad guy," said actor Tenoch Huerta. Photo: Alejandra Rajal for VICE World News.

“They need thieves, they need kidnappers, they need whores. So they call the brown-skinned people to make them. And we fit under that stereotype,” Huerta said. “They are always calling me to make the same character. It’s the bad guy—always. But I always make a different version. Because for me, it’s a person. I create a new personality, a new character each time.” 

It’s not much better in Hollywood. Of the top 200 English-language film releases in 2021, just 7 percent featured a Latino actor in a lead role, even though Latinos make up more than 18 percent of the U.S. population, according to UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Report. The study found that all minority groups were underrepresented, with the exception of Black people in film leads.

Huerta is not as easy to digest as, say, fellow Mexican film star Diego Luna, his Narcos co-star who also tackles migration, corruption, and the pandemic over a dinner series streamed on Amazon Prime. Or Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s poured millions into environmental causes. He’s in-your-face and strident. 


He describes himself on his Twitter and Instagram profiles as “Prieto Resentido” (resentful dark-skinned man). He’s given a TED talk about racism, created a video series to expound on the topic, and makes fun of “Whitexicans,” a mixture of the words white and Mexican to pejoratively refer to Mexico’s wealthy and light-skinned elite. Over Christmas, he set Mexican Twitter alight when he wrote “the beautiful time of year has arrived when we dark-skinned people will be followed in all the shopping centers.”

Huerta’s stamina for online spats can feel endless. In March, several actors and musicians came out against a massive development project championed by Mexico’s president to build a 950-mile rail line through the rainforest to bring tourists to Mayan archeological sites. Huerta accused them of adopting a “white savior” attitude and promoting “white environmentalism.” Huerta, who’s also also against the development—he’s called it a “colonialist” project—says it should be the Mayan people themselves who decide whether it should go forward.

But in real life, Huerta is down-to-earth and funny, and his frequent laughter tones down even his harshest comments. I wasn’t expecting Huerta to pick me up at my apartment and then propose that the whole crew (a driver, his manager, press aide, photographer, and me) get coffee before we head out. Then we squeezed into a dusty SUV, road-trip style, and drove to his childhood home in Ecatepec, the labyrinthine Mexico City suburb of nearly 2 million that has a reputation for being one of the country's most contaminated and insecure. 


People in Ecatepec, State of Mexico, the neighborhood where Huerta grew up, ask the actor for a picture. Photo: Alejandra Rajal for VICE World News.

As we approach Huerta’s childhood home, he points out landmarks along the way. “They would keep the hostages there,” he says, nodding at a nondescript house. Zooming past another street, he says it had “four different gangs of kidnappers.” 

A few blocks later, we arrive at Huerta’s childhood home—the home he lived in until he was 25. With four small bedrooms and a small yard, it’s one of the bigger houses on the block, all of which are protected by gates. The neighborhood feels eerily quiet, especially as it’s in one of Mexico’s most densely populated municipalities.  

Inside, the house is littered with trinkets—Barbies, football helmets, old exercise equipment. But it sits empty because it's not safe for Huerta’s parents to live here, the actor tells me on a rare visit back. The neighborhood is too dangerous and Huerta is too famous. They’d be targeted for kidnapping and ransom if they stayed.

“I stopped feeling safe when I became an actor. Because people now see me as rich.”

But until he was 25, Huerta was just one of the boys, still living with his parents. Like millions of Mexicans, he couldn’t afford to live alone, and his world was limited. His first mainstream movie role, as the gardener in Déficit, the 2007 directing debut of Mexican movie star Gael Garcia Bernal, uncomfortably matched real life. 

“I remember the lunch break. I was seated. Most of [the actors] were white. And they were talking about LA, parties, London, their favorite restaurant, their favorite store, their favorite places, and they asked me, ‘And you?’ And I was like, I have never flown in my life. I have never been in an airplane.” Huerta, then in his mid-20s, didn’t have a visa to the U.S., and most of his friends had never flown before either.


“So for me, it was like, ‘This is awkward.’ And I asked for tortillas and nobody eats tortillas. It’s stupid, I know. But it’s a cultural thing. Because we have a strong relationship with tortillas and corn. The upper classes—they don’t.”

Many upper-class Mexicans would disagree; tortillas, along with avocados and tequila, are a staple in most homes in the country. 

“You grow up thinking the white guys in general are better than you,” Huerta continued. “It was the first shock.”

Actress Fernanda Castillo, who also appeared in Déficit, described Huerta as a “generous” actor—frequently checking in and helping out with scenes. “I didn’t know he experienced the movie like that. I can see why,” she said. “A lot of the people in the movie were non-actors, but they were rich kids. Most of them were rich kids playing the characters of rich kids.” 


Huerta eats tacos in his favorite spot in Ecatepec, Mexico state, where he grew up. Photo: Alejandra Rajal for VICE World News.

Huerta was 26 when he finally traveled on a plane—in 2007 to the Cannes film festival in southern France to screen Deficit. He was broke—he’d been paid around $4,000 for the film, he said, but he’d gone through most of that and was eager to party. “I don’t remember anything because I was drunk,” he said with a laugh. 

He spent the next few years making independent films, but it wasn’t until he returned to Cannes in 2011 to screen the acclaimed thriller Days of Grace, in which he plays an ambitious cop with a moral compass, that Huerta felt a sense of belonging. The movie was met with a long standing ovation. “I thought, ‘Holy shit! I think I’m a real actor.’ From that point on, I built my life around acting.”

He starred as a window-cleaner in Nomads with Lucy Liu, in Güeros as a disaffected college student, in Mozart in the Jungle as a morally questionable businessman, a Lucha Libre wrestler in the TV series Blue Demon, and a South American guerrilla hostage taker in Bel Canto opposite Julianne Moore. But it was in 2018 that he rocketed to international fame as drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero in Narcos: Mexico


Huerta said he had been rejected three years in a row for roles in Narcos: Colombia. But he felt a connection to Quintero—among other things, they look alike—so he called the show’s producer and said he would only sign on if they gave him that role. Two days later, Huerta got a call offering a different role. He said no—he couldn’t back down. “And inside I was like, “me and my fucking big mouth. Fuck, fuck, fuck.” A month later, and yet another call. They were giving him the role of Quintero. 

Huerta’s role in Narcos introduced him in a big way to the U.S. market, which he had tried to break into years earlier, with limited success. His English was poor at the time and “I wasn’t ready, emotionally or mentally,” he said. He speaks English near-fluently now, with the marked accent and grammatical mistakes of someone who learned as an adult. With Narcos under his belt, Huerta’s lawyer suggested he meet managers and agents in the U.S.

“I said, ‘yeah, I am ready now.’ Finally I am ready. It was lucky because at the same time I was ready, the world was ready for Latin actors,” he said. “Especially for actors like me. Because most of the Mexican actors who are in the U.S. are white, they are upper-class, they are fresas [Mexican slang for posh or bougie].”

In the U.S., Latinos across the spectrum are among the least represented in film and television. A milestone came in 2016 when Diego Luna was cast in the leading role in the Star Wars franchise Rogue One—and kept his accent. As the Washington Post explained, “It wasn’t just that a Mexican was on screen, or even that an actor was speaking in a Mexican accent. It was the unexpectedness of the role. There was no particular reason Cassian was Mexican, or why he shouldn’t be. He just was.”

Huerta’s upcoming role as Namor in Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever marks a huge jump in his career. The quick-tempered mutant spawn of a human sea captain and the princess of an undersea kingdom, Namor is quick to fight other heroes in his quest to protect his homeland. Huerta has been learning a Mayan language for the role and spent months filming in Atlanta. (Marvel hasn’t confirmed Huerta’s casting in the movie, which is expected to be released in November, and a press aide accompanied the actor to make sure he didn’t talk about it.) 


Whatever challenges Huerta has faced in his transition to Hollywood, little compares to the shock of working in Mexico’s upper-class entertainment world, the actor said. While Hollywood’s embrace of diversity may be painfully slow, in Mexico such discussions are just beginning, if happening at all. 

“I had to erase my linguistic identity to fit in the new world that I now (live),” Huerta told me. “If they don’t perceive you as part of them, they don’t accept you.”

Itza Varela, who researches racism and Black-Afro-Mexican political processes at the College of Mexico in Mexico City, said Huerta has brought much-needed attention to the issue of racism, if sometimes lacking in depth. “It’s not analytical work. It’s what we in academia would call the work of diffusion about the different ways racism is felt in Mexico.” 


In 2013, one of Mexico’s flagship airlines, Aeromexico, put out a commercial casting call suggesting dark-skinned people shouldn’t audition. Nearly ten years later, the airline features a mix of people in its commercials, but many Mexicans are still coming to terms with the idea that racism is more than a passing problem.

If U.S. history has been shaped by slavery, Mexico has been shaped by the idea of the mestizaje—that Mexicans are one big race of mixed Spanish and Indigenous blood. This concept generally emphasizes racial blending and racial diversity as central to the country’s identity. But those good intentions feel insincere because it also has helped foster a blindness toward the existence of racism, said Alice Krozer, who researches socioeconomic inequality at the College of Mexico. 


“Classism and racism are so intertwined, it’s difficult to say which one is predominant,” Krozer said, pointing to a 2019 study by the College of Mexico that showed perceptions of race are deeply influenced by class. Wealthier people were more likely to believe they had lighter skin than what they really had—as determined by a colorimeter, a machine used to measure skin tone, the study found. Similarly, third-party observers generally perceived the people they were judging to be whiter if the observed were also perceived as higher-educated.  

Huerta’s awakening began as a college student at the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico, a public university. He majored in journalism because he didn’t know what else to do, but after injuring himself playing football, he began taking acting classes in earnest, encouraged by his father. 

He had a preternatural ability for memorizing passages and a natural understanding of how to position himself for the camera, said Huerta’s college acting coach and mentor Carlos ​​Torrestorija. “He is a very intelligent bastard, very generous. He has balls, and those balls are directly proportional to the level of his social resentment,” Torrestorija said. “He has a level of commitment that only people who are hungry have, but hungry for everything.”

The more success Huerta has enjoyed, the more emboldened he’s become.

A YouTube series he launched during the pandemic to address discrimination features him on a couch bantering with two friends. Flipping through a collage of television scenes, he narrates as he goes along: “whitexican, blanco, whitexican, whitexican, blanco.... white trash.” 


“He wants to provoke in order to open up the conversation,” said his friend and historian Federico Navarrete. “The things he is saying aren’t comfortable, and many people would prefer him to say them in a more pleasant way.”  

His provocations have generated headlines and prompted new conversations about racism, but it’s not entirely clear to what end. More than one person told me his rhetoric is counterproductive and intolerant.  “When I am at parties and say I represent Tenoch, I get very strong opinions. You can tell they are like, ‘Ohhhhh, yeahhh,’” said Danny Sherman, Huerta’s manager. “They don’t like what he says and they think he is full of shit.” 

Pablo Majluf, a conservative political commentator in Mexico, accused Huerta of adopting “all of the woke gringa history,” citing critical race theory—which argues that systemic racism is ingrained in U.S. society. “The driving force of Mexican history is not race. It has never been race,” Maljuf said. “He has the rhetoric of a demagogue. It’s dangerous and toxic and comes from resentment.”

But Huerta said there’s no winning. “If you’re not successful and speak out, people just say you’re resentful. Now they say, ‘he’s working all the time. Why is he complaining?’”


As we round out our tour of Huerta’s childhood neighborhood, we stop by the playground where he used to play. It’s now been turned into a government-run center for Mexican families, surrounded by a tall fence and security. As the photographer takes pictures of Huerta, I make small talk with the employees who mill around, wondering what we are doing there.

“Tenoch Huerta? Have you heard of him?” I ask.

They haven’t.

He was in Narcos, I say. Still a blank stare. “Oh, that guy!” one of the employees exclaims, followed by, “He’s fatter now.”

By this time, Huerta and the photographer have rejoined the group. Everyone laughs, Huerta included. He ends up taking photos with the employees.

“Actors think they are peacocks, but in fact they are fucking turkeys. They can’t fly. They aren’t useful. That’s an actor—a turkey with beautiful feathers. But the director, that’s a chihuahua. They think they are great. That they are stronger and bigger than they are,” Huerta says unprompted.

Huerta is committed to being more than a turkey.

But it’s not easy. The group he co-founded to raise awareness about racism has decided he should take a less high-profile role, because media attention is too focused on him. Still, he has not slowed down.

He’s on a mission. 

“I don’t want to win this game. I don’t want to be a champion of this game. I want to destroy the fucking game.”

And if he doesn’t, he’s gonna go down trying.