La Flaca (The Bony Lady) tells the story of Arely Vazquez, a transgender woman who leads a following devoted to the Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte, or Lady Death. Worship of Santa Muerte has been renounced by Catholic Church officials due to her following’s ties to drug trafficking. Yet she continues to have a growing presence throughout North America, including a chapel here in New Orleans. Santa Muerte is a saint who accepts all from her devotees, which is why many marginalized people, whose lifestyles are condemned by formal Catholicism, find solace in her visage. The narrative direction of Adriana Barbosa and Thiago Zanato takes into account the very personal and moving devotion Vazquez has to Santa Muerte. By breaking linear storytelling, we see how spiritual ties and oaths—things that are built throughout a lifetime—culminate into Vazquez not only telling her story, but also changing her destiny.
Where did you first hear about Arely Vazquez?
Thiago first heard about Santa Muerte during a trip to Mexico City to research Mexican traditions about death and was really struck by this image of a skeleton saint. When he came back home, in New York, he did some research online to see if there was something related to Santa Muerte in the city and found out about Arely, her story, and the altar she had in her bedroom, not too far from his home. So he got in touch with her and they met up for a coffee.
What was your initial impression about Arely and the chapel she’s built for Santa Muerte?
Arely was very open to talk in the beginning of the process but very careful at the same time, since many people approach her with all kinds of intentions. After an initial interview, Thiago was astonished with her life story and what she represented to her community in Queens, New York. We are talking about a transgender Mexican woman that not only had the courage to be the leader of a cult publicly condemned by the Catholic church, but [who] also fought against all odds to become the person she wanted to be. So, there were a lot of subjects that deserved to be covered. The Santa Muerte altar she had in her bedroom was truly unique. It was immense, especially considering it was in her bedroom and very rich in details and elements. You can’t keep track of everything that’s going on in there. But the most impressive aspect of all this is that she opens her personal altar to all the devotee community for weekly rosarios, where they do a mass and then share food and drinks. She also opens her altar whenever someone feels like doing an offering to Santa Muerte.
Can you talk more about the people who follow Santa Muerte, from your experience?
The people Thiago met in Queens were mostly Mexican and South American immigrants but there were also some Americans, Puerto Ricans, and a couple Europeans. It’s a curious thing that when you hear about the people who follow Santa Muerte it mostly leads to the commonplace: drug trafficking and crime. We portrayed something different from that. From our experience we noticed that most of the devotees are families with kids, mostly workers, and several transgender women (it’s a very popular cult to the Latino LGBT community). All of them were super open and were happy to be there, whether it was to thank or ask Santa Muerte for something, or just to join this huge Mexican celebration that Arely organizes every year at a big venue. So at the end, we see this big community celebrating their faith as something to be proud of, whoever they are and wherever they come from.
During the turning point in the film there is some Aztecan symbolism that comes into play. Can you touch on how it relates to Santa Muerte?
The Aztec dance we see in the film is part of a series of traditional presentations Arely hires pretty much every year for the Santa Muerte party. There is a traditional dance group, Rivera Maya, in New York that does those presentations all over the city; and it is really interesting when you think they have a big audience and they’re always booked in New York. The relation to Santa Muerte is because Mexicans have celebrated death since the pre-Hispanic times and most of the devotees believe that Santa Muerte originates from Mictlantecuhtli, the goddess of the underworld and death from the Aztec mythology. This is something really intriguing for us, because it’s a symbol of how Mexicans are still connected to their roots and history. Few people have such awareness of their origins, like Mexicans.
Did it take Arely a long time to open up to you and allow the film crew to be present?
Thiago visited Arely frequently for about six months, during the rosarios she had at her house once a month, but also to chat with her about her life, the intention of this research, and to get a deeper understanding of who she was. Thiago made it clear to her, from the beginning, that his intention was to make a film about her or some aspect of her life. Arely understood that Thiago’s intentions were genuine, so she had her door open all the time. By the time we showed up with the crew to film, everyone was already used to Thiago’s presence in the house, so that made it easier to go along with this amazing adventure of a full day celebration.
There’s a twist in the story’s development.
I don’t want to give it away, but I will say it breaks from a traditional narrative approach to documentary filmmaking.
What inspired this?
That twist is the result of a desire to blend fiction and reality but not just for the sake of it—that has been done a lot already. Fiction was necessary to portray some aspects of Arely’s life that simply couldn’t be accessed through traditional documentary processes. To be able to fully access reality, we need to go through the very symbolic fictions that regulate it. Every film is the filmmakers’ interpretation of reality; this is ours.
Is Arely still hosting annual celebrations in Queens?
Yes, every damn year, even with all odds against her. We truly see this as her form of resistance: through her faith, for her community, to remember her origins.
What new projects are you working on?
[We] are working now on a documentary in Brazil about a local deity called Esu, [who] is originally from Africa and was brought to Brazil by the African slaves centuries ago. The film revolves around the reasons why Esu is worshiped as a god in Africa but is seen as the devil in Brazil, with all the controversy and the forms of resistance of this culture, all mashed between the two countries.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
This film is 100% independent (meaning we financed it all) and a true collaboration between the USA, Brazil, and Mexico. We did each part of the process in one country. Thiago shot it in New York, I took over in Brazil to edit it, and we made the finishing touches in Mexico. The process was really unusual and took longer than we expected, but we are proud of it and very happy to see Arely’s story crossing borders and being told in so many distant countries such as Switzerland, Russia, China, Greece, Portugal, Germany, and hopefully many others to come!
The Bony Lady (La Flaca) will be screening as part of the Documentary Shorts lineup on Thursday, October 18 and Monday, October 22 at the New Orleans Advocate.