When I was in college, one of the classes I took specifically focused on Asian American and Chicano history in the United States. Part of the course curriculum focused on how the American legal system and politics impacted these groups. When it came towards the end of the term, we had hit modern American history and I distinctly remembered our dissection of the 1978 court case, Madrigal v. Quilligan. The idea of forced sterilizations had not been new to me at the time (the sterilization of disabled people was something I grew up knowing), but this expanded the scope personally of how far the Eugenics movement would go. And, as we all learned last year, forced sterilization against migrants is not something from the distant past. It’s still happening. That’s why when I sat down to watch MADRES, I knew that this film was timely, relevant, and had to be a must-see for all of us.
Beto (Tenoch Huerta) and Diana (Ariana Guerra), a young Mexican-American couple expecting their first child, move to a small town in 1970s California where Beto has been offered a job managing a farm. Isolated from the community and plagued by confusing nightmares, Diana explores the rundown company ranch where they reside, finding a grisly talisman and a box containing the belongings of the previous residents. Her discoveries will lead her to a truth much stranger and more terrifying than she could have possibly imagined in MADRES.
For the release of MADRES, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky spoke with Writer Marcella Ochoa, where they discussed the brutal history of the Eugenics Movement in California, tackling a broader spectrum of Latinx representation in this film, and how her grandparents’ stories growing up fostered her love of horror and genre fare to this day.
As a general note, there are spoilers in this interview.
Because of how long-standing an issue the Eugenics Movement in connection to forced sterilization has been, especially for migrant women, what was the decision-making process in writing the screenplay set in the ’70s versus setting it now?
Marcella Ochoa: So, when I found out…because I’m Mexican American, and I wanted to write a horror story about my community, because we never get to see my community, especially in horror, like the hero, we don’t ever get to see that. My grandparents were migrant farmworkers. So, it’s just an important subject for me. I knew about eugenics in the 20s. I didn’t know it was happening in the 70s in California, and when I was reading some books and research, and also saw a documentary, I was like, well, this is a horror story of what was happening. When I wrote it, I would say, three and a half years ago, maybe four, I had no idea what was happening today. That [news] just came out last year. That was new to me. So I thought, oh since this was really still happening in the 70s, let’s be authentic to the story. It’s not a community we get to see, in a sense. I love The Conjuring. All those really beautiful ’70s films. We thought about it, asking do we set it there or should we update it to present day and we’ve talked a lot about it. And I thought, well, I kind of want to be authentic to what these women went through in this small migrant farming community in California in the 70s and be authentic to what was going on, and really isolate them versus being in present-day where people have access to things like the internet. The story sort of changes, and I wanted to keep it authentic to what I knew was happening.
And then, when we were in post-production, we saw that story about what’s going on with ICE to this day, and then I was completely shocked that it is so sad that the story is still relevant to this very day. It was a horrifying thing to find out while you’re in post on the story that you’re telling that you thought ended in the 70s. So, that was it. We just wanted to keep the authenticity, and also I love that time period that we never get to see. My community is heroes in a story in that time period, in that community and it just sort of lent itself to that kind of story of isolation in that time.
Another thing that is touched upon in MADRES, which I know you’ve referenced in your short, My Name is Maria de Jesus, is the whole Americanization component and how that’s impacted generations within the Mexican American community. When writing the script, was the Americanization the first idea that you wanted to tackle or did the topic surrounding sterilization come first?
Marcella Ochoa: The sterilization came first because, when I had come across that in my research, that was what I was horrified with, and then it worked backward from there. So, we knew I wanted to end it with a twist and this is how it was gonna always end. But now, let’s work backward, and so what I wanted for Diana, as our lead and like you were saying because of what I had done with my previous short, was let’s have someone who’s sort of an outsider in our own community because we also never get to see those kinds of stories either. I grew up like that. So, I understand that. So, I wanted to show we have different characters within the Latinx community. I want to show migrants as heroes because we never get to see them. I want to show someone who’s Mexican American who can’t speak Spanish and is coming into this world and feels insecure about not being able to speak Spanish and has her own insecurities to deal with. And I wanted to show another character like Tomas, where we do have those kinds of characters within the Latinx community as well. You know, who maybe think differently or differ with us on politics. Just we have all these within our community and I just think it’s never talked about. It’s never really shown. I think we’re always shown as one way. And so, it was important to me to end up with this horror story of what was happening to these migrant women, but also to have a lead that comes and brings us into the story, that is sort of an outsider within her own community.
There is also the double-edged sword of Americanization being how she ends up discovering the truth of everything, because of that language barrier and growing up like that. That whole scene where they have the women projected onto the walls as she finds out what has happened, it’s really impactful and heartbreaking.
Marcella Ochoa: Yeah. It was heartbreaking. When I was researching it, and writing some of the scenes, it was heartbreaking for me on so many levels, knowing this is my community. As a woman, knowing to this day, you know, I’m from Texas. And so, of course, what’s happening in Texas is heartbreaking to me. Men are still trying to control our bodies to this day. So, it was a lot of mixed emotions of having…you want to have this strong feminist story, and you want to tell how men have been trying to control our bodies for a very long time. And then, to this day, feel like, well, it’s still happening. It was emotional on many levels.
A certain sector of the online community may complain about it how the only white people reflected within this community are the ones being the instruments of violence against these workers, but the power structure of that community, and how we historically and continue to exploit that as well, I think needed to be shown.
Marcella Ochoa: Exactly. We’re just trying to explore institutional racism against the community. It’s all based on real events. That’s what was happening. I can’t change history. It was white doctors doing this to Mexican migrant women. And I get that. I’m sure people will complain. But I still think this is something that needs to be told and need to talk about and have these discussions and some people may not like it, but it happened. [laughs] I can’t change the fact that it happened.
You’ve also written other things within the horror and thriller genres. What is it about the horror and thriller genre for you that inspires you to write? Whether because it’s easier to discuss these topics like politics, play around with it a little more for the audience, etc.
Marcella Ochoa: I think it’s a combination. I grew up with legends from my grandparents from Mexico, so you already grew up in the world of La Llorona and all of these legends.
Especially in LA and the Southwest. Some of us who grew up here grew up with the stories of La Llorona.
Marcella Ochoa: Exactly. And I’m from Texas, and so it’s sort of in our blood of growing up in a fantasy/monster/ creature world at a very young age. At a very young age, my parents let me watch horror and I was obsessed. So, it was at a very young age of shaping me and my love for that. It’s two things. What you’re saying, I think the horror lens is a great way to tell social justice stories. I was blown away when I first saw Get Out, and I was like, Oh, I love this kind of elevated genre and you can tell more than just a scary story, and so, I loved that. But I also love creature features and just supernatural and ghosts and fantasy, and then also telling legends of my community, which I hope to tell more of because I love that and in the Latinx community, we love horror but we never get to see ourselves. And so, it’s such a great way to tell our stories, our legends, and then to see ourselves in front of and behind the camera because I didn’t have that growing up, and I just thought if I can do that for my community, or for people growing up after me and have these stories out there, that’ll be such a great inspiration to others because it was something I never had.
But I love sci-fi and thrillers and fantasy. Horror is where I really just started and I have a TV series that I sold to Amazon called Hummingbird that I’m writing the pilot on right now and it’s very interesting. It’s Mexican American but it’s very genre. Horror is in there. Just the curse, and then also a supernatural thriller I’m writing for Paramount players and universal so, I have these bigger ideas too. That it doesn’t always have to be about Americanization or division or something heavy. It can also be a fun ghost movie or house or these other things. So, I just think it’s a great way to also reach a broad audience, where a very broad horror audience can see our stories as well.
I’m hoping the more that we introduce diversity and different voices, the more that we can start moving away from the more pigeonholing that does tend to happen in the industry. The broadening of voices is something that Welcome to the Blumhouse really excels in as it sort of pushes beyond that.
Marcella Ochoa: They did such a great job for hiring in front of the camera and behind the camera, underrepresented filmmakers to tell these stories. I think they did such a brilliant job with all of their stories to be able to do that.
MADRES is now available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video as part of their Welcome to the Blumhouse film series. To learn more about the film, check out our review!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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