WARNING: Some spoilers ahead
The horror film genre is often reduced to gore and screams but it can also take a frightening look at very real pain and trauma. Huesera: The Bone Woman was directed and co-written by Mexico City-based Michelle Garza Cervera in her feature film debut and it stars Mexican actress Natalia Solián as Valeria, a woman who becomes pregnant with her and her husband’s first child and begins seeing supernatural entities, visions, and dreams. From a woman who falls to her death to a spirit who stalks her in the night and breaks her bones in bed, Valeria quickly becomes undone by the horrors she sees, turning her entire family against her except her single, childless aunt—who may also be the only person who can save he. Since its release, the film has won numerous awards including the best new narrative director Tribeca Festival award and has been critically acclaimed for its body horror and terrifying but fresh take on motherhood.
“That was the important thing in Huesera, not particularly the pregnancy, it was more about the sacrifices of identity that come along with motherhood and that implies both the body aspects of it–of pregnancy–but also the psychological aspects that most of the film focuses on, her losses and her feelings that go along with her body changes,” Garza Cervera tells HipLatina. “In a sense, it’s the entity in Huesera that challenges this package of domesticity that she has subscribed to but that she hasn’t gone through the process of analyzing if it’s really the path she wants to follow. We were not really focused on portraying the trauma of pregnancy itself, it was more a challenge to domesticity, this kind of domesticity, as the only way to happiness.”
“[Valeria] didn’t feel safe enough to really tell anybody what was really going on because she couldn’t tell if it was real or not, if it was in her head or if she was really seeing it. To me, it’s very symbolic that this experience is going to break her wide open,” Danellia Arechiga, a birth and body worker.and sexual wellness educator at LatinxParenting, tells HipLatina. “Every time somebody doubts her, bullies her, talks down to her, she sees a vision. But it’s not just her imagination, it’s a visual manifestation of her fear of having to face herself and just be with her truth.”
That truth that she might not be ready for motherhood, that she’s in way over her head, is a constant shadow on Valeria’s shoulders throughout the film. Unfortunately, it’s something that her family and husband, who are supposed to be her support system, are quick to point out. In the scene when Valeria first tells her parents, aunts, and siblings that she’s pregnant, the news is not met with celebration, even though it’s clear everyone has been expecting it. Instead, her mother and older sister laugh, remembering when she failed to take care of a neighbor’s child and can’t imagine her mothering her own. This foreshadows a later scene when Valeria is babysitting her niece and nephew and, when she senses a dark entity in the house, tries to get them to safety, only to sprain her nephew’s ankle, leave deep scratches on her niece’s arm, and traumatize them both. Her attempt to mother only leads to further harm, increasing her feeling of inadequacy and isolation from the people she cares about.
While the specific circumstances may be exaggerated, it’s an accurate reflection of the experiences of expectant mothers and even those who might just be thinking about getting pregnant. Especially in the Latinx community, women are simultaneously told to never have sex and get pregnant with the wider societal expectation that they will someday, but only on certain terms. Because of cultural taboos surrounding sex and pregnancy, starting a family is often an aspiration but it’s never openly talked about which can lead to generational cycles of trauma, secrecy, shame, and confusion.
“There’s a lot of fear ingrained into us about birth,” Arechiga explains. “We know there’s pain involved but sometimes our elders will use that pain to scare us into doing what they think is right. A lot of it has to do with trying to keep young women in line, trying to keep them from being sexual, trying to scare them into being celibate until marriage, following along with the Christian idea of what it means to be a good woman.”
Due in part to that dysfunctional upbringing Arechiga describes, Valeria spends the majority of the film wanting to find out who she really is outside her roles as a wife and expectant mother without it ever being revealed to the audience what she really wants. We see her not only trying to escape her hauntings, but also to take back her autonomy at a time when everything feels out of her control. She smokes in secret, returns to her carpentry work and makes a crib despite her doctor’s earlier advice, crochets, and engages in her identity as a fully sexual being by having sex with an old flame. Even though it’s clear she has no hesitation about cheating, seeing her having sex with another woman brings up important questions about her queer sexuality, what she gave up to live a traditional, heteronormative life. Her attempts at reclaiming her independence and identity amid her trauma show what it means to be a pregnant woman on a path to self-destruction. She’s not just putting her life in jeopardy but also that of her unborn child.
But even giving birth to her daughter doesn’t make things any easier. If anything, it only makes things worse for Valeria to the point that she begins to experience an exaggerated version of postpartum depression. She can’t look at her baby’s face in the days after giving birth, stays in bed all day, and even shuts her baby in the fridge to stop her from crying after being fully possessed by a spirit in her sleep. Desperate, she’s forced to seek outside intervention with the help of her aunt, the only family member who stays by her side throughout the movie. Twice, Valeria seeks out traditional healing from curanderas to get rid of the demon possessing her.
“We also wanted to portray and to challenge this stigmatized concept of the spinster aunt. We think that idea is really installed at least in Mexican society, and we wanted to challenge that and show that even though there is a perception behind these women that implies their lives are miserable and sad,” Garza Cervera says. “There can also be really interesting lives, and amazing and fun paths to follow that challenge the classic role of women within families. We really wanted the aunt to hold that other world of magic and ancestral curandera friends because apart from being curanderas they are complex women.”
The first experience is a simple, peaceful ceremony with smoke and prayer. But it’s the second ritual performed by an entire group of curanderas on Valeria and her newborn daughter that, while much more horrifying and hard to watch, truly frees her from her fears. It’s moments like these, especially as a traditional healer herself, that ended up being Arechiga’s “favorite scenes in the movie.”
“It’s really cool to see our ancestral medicine being practiced in a way that is often misconceived and misconstrued and used to paint a negative picture of our culture, and to see that reclaimed on screen,” she says. “But more importantly, the curanderas who held her and loved her through it the entire time didn’t judge her. They could feel that she was dealing with something dark and they put their own safety and lives on the line to help her remove that and hold space for her.”
After all, as she mentions in real life, “Sometimes our moms are going through postpartum psychosis. What we do as a community is we hold them through that and we tell them, ‘It’s okay, you can feel all of these things and there’s nothing wrong with you.’ It’s about trusting ourselves to receive healing, to receive spiritual and energetic cleansing and healing from our own ancestral medicine.”
Above everything else, Huesera as a film presents the perfect opportunity for viewers to reflect on their own feelings about pregnancy and motherhood, and to have open conversations with their loved ones. As much as our cultural upbringings influence our approach to this stage of life, the media also plays a huge role in common attitudes and beliefs surrounding birth. How many of us watched videos of teens giving birth in high school to scare us into abstinence or just watched any film or TV series that depicted birthing as a stressful, scary, and painful experience with medical jargon that only confused us?
“We love drama and that’s why we see the water breaking somewhere in inconvenient or being rushed to the hospital or screaming and yelling. But I would like to see it portrayed as more of a sacred experience or a ceremony,” Arechiga explains. “I would like to see hospital births just depicted in more of a relaxed environment, not treated as such an emergency all the time. We never go to the hospital for a good reason, so to be pregnant in a vulnerable state and going to the hospital, it’s already traumatizing.”
She adds that she would like to see more home births represented which would go on to normalize the experience. The solution to “overmedicalization”, she believes, is to give birth with a skilled midwife as our ancestors did before obstetrics and gynecology. “Because birth is a sacred rite of passage. You’re literally bringing a human into the world. So if we can set the scene for that, make it ceremonial, and make the birthing person relax, we can eliminate a lot of that fear.”
While Huesera does show the horrors of pregnancy and may scare viewers at first, it becomes less about Valeria’s fear itself and more about how she can overcome it and, by extension, how we can too. If we don’t do it alone, if we have a stable and encouraging circle of one or many, if we feel supported and heard, our fears and self-doubt can only control us for so long. As the film proves, pregnancy and motherhood don’t have to be a curse, at least not forever or in the way we think, and it starts by changing the way these stories are told within our families and on-screen. Arechiga notes:
“I would like people to see that labor and birth don’t have to be scary. It can be beautiful, it can be sacred. We have everything we need inside of us to do it if we’re given the tools, the proper sex education, the support of elders and experienced birth workers who can ease your mind and remind you that you’re okay, you’re safe. That is what I would like to see.”
For Garza Cervera, the film was personal and also an opportunity to showcase a different side of the complexity of being a woman and the societal pressures of conforming to gender roles.
“This film was inspired by my abuela whose story I was denied. I was denied even her picture and her name. I couldn’t have access to her because she didn’t follow the domestic life that was expected from society. When I had access to her story and her picture and who she was, it was life changing so to me it was important to give light to a character like this because they exist, and their stories deserve our eyes and our ears because they are a part of our families, of our households. It’s important to give life and to stop silencing them.”
Huesera is also an homage to what motherhood can be and not what it has to be, namely a sacrifice of all that you are and have been once you become a mother.
I also think it’s hard to fulfill the concept of a sacred and perfect motherhood because it’s not human. Being a mother doesn’t change your identity and it’s okay to keep your identity even if you become a mom.
Huesera: The Bone Woman is now available to view in theaters, on-demand, and streaming.
Additional reporting by Virginia Isaad