Teresa Ruiz Talks Narcos: Mexico and Embracing Her Indigenous Zapotec Roots
The actress talks about her role in the new season of the Netflix show and reflects on her indigenous heritage.
On the new season of the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, Teresa Ruiz plays Isabella, inspired by real-life cartel figure Sandra Ávila Beltrán, known as the Queen of the Pacific. “Isabella’s core struggle is a struggle that we can identify with,” Ruiz tells People CHICA. “A lot of people I talk to feel conflicted because they see a woman who is involved in criminal activities, so they don’t know why they feel so sympathetic towards her. She causes a bit of confusion. Should I root for her or not?”
“Her struggle is not just about power, it’s about survival. For a lot of women, as long as we don’t have financial independence and we are not our own bosses, we are at the mercy of men, and that means having to go through physical abuse, emotional abuse, and people underestimating who we are. So because she is fighting to have safety as a female, a lot of people can relate to that and understand the core of that.”
Ruiz, 31, will also appear in the upcoming thriller The Marksman, starring Liam Neeson. “It’s a story about a mother and a child who are forced to leave Mexico,” she says. In the film, Neeson plays a retired Vietnam vet who helps a young boy escape a Mexican cartel. “Through meeting us he begins to understand the difficult stories of people crossing the border and why they do it,” Ruiz adds.
The actress, who also stars in the Netflix series La Casa de Las Flores, opened up about embracing her Zapotec roots. “My mother is indigenous Zapotec,” she says. “My grandparents never even spoke Spanish and my mom learned Spanish when she was older. My father is a regular Mexican, a mestizo. I grew up listening to my mother speak Zapotec in the house. It was incredibly normal to me. As a little girl I lived in Oaxaca, so to me everybody spoke Zapotec or had an indigenous language and ate the indigenous things that I ate, like hoja santa, or dressed the way I did.”
However, as Ruiz grew up, she began to understand that her mom faced discrimination because she was Zapotec. “I realized all the struggle my mother had encountered, and why she wanted me to learn English and leave for another country to study. Her first language was Zapotec and I didn’t know she had an indigenous accent in Spanish and I never noticed, but people treated her a little bit differently and I didn’t know why,” she says. “As a little girl maybe I thought my mom was too shy, I would blame it on my mom, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that it was hard for her not only because of the way she looked but the way she sounded, the way she spoke. That’s why she never wanted me to speak Zapotec. I speak some but it was against her will that I learned. One of my uncles taught me how to sing in Zapotec before I could sing in Spanish, so I still have a lot of music. It’s a part of my life as much as I’m Mexican or American.”
Ruiz, who enjoys surfing in her free time, says she knows the responsibility that comes with being a Mexican Zapotec actress on mainstream shows. “I think it’s incredibly important because as a young girl I didn’t have models or actresses to look up to,” she says. “The stars that I saw in Mexico when I was a little girl were in soap operas, and all these leading women were white Mexicans — they didn’t look like me. They were the Thalías, the Paulina Rubios, and it wasn’t until I saw Selena that I thought I could achieve that dream of being in the arts.”
Being tricultural is an advantage today as an actress in Hollywood, she says. “I was talking to a friend of mine, Demián Bichir, and he said, ‘Teresa, you are arriving in such an incredible moment. Ten years ago the opportunities that are possible for you were not available for people like me or Salma [Hayek] or that generation of actors. There were so few auditions we could even aspire to have. Now the richness of characters that is available for your generation is incredible,’ which I think is true. There are so many things we still have to do in terms of inclusion. Even if there is a Latin character in a show, the voices are still not as clear. That’s something we need to change by giving more power to writers, creators, and producers that are Latin American.”
Photo credit: Bret Lemke