The Woman Behind “La India María”

Catherine A. Jones
 | June 27, 2024

She’s as popular today as when she was 50 years ago. Some say she’s Mexico’s greatest female comedian. She’s Comedienne María Elena Velasco, best known by millions for playing her iconic character, La India María. Her fame and international stardom is all quite a feat for a girl who was born in rural Mexico, far from the entertainment industry she went on to dominate. 

“The most admired female comic character in Mexican cinema, was portrayed for more than 20 years by actress María Elena Velasco, also known as La India María,” the short documentary La Historia Detrás Del Mito | María Elena Velasco “La India María” explains. “Her character remains as iconic as ever and continues to be a symbol of Mexico and, of course, Mexican entertainment culture.”

The actress was forever recognized by the character she created at the start of her acting career. But who is the woman behind “La India María”?

The Woman Behind “La India María”

Velasco was born on December 17, 1940, in Puebla, Mexico. Her father worked as a railway mechanic, and her mother was a homemaker. The family moved to Mexico City where Velasco began her artistic journey. She danced at the Teatro Tívoli and later joined the showgirls at the Teatro Blanquita, sharing the stage with renowned comedians like José “El Ojón” Jasso and Óscar Ortiz de Pinedo.

The Birth of La India María

In 1962, Velasco caught the attention of producer Miguel Morayta while performing at the Teatro Blanquita. He cast her in her first film, “Los derechos de los hijos” (1963). Although her initial roles were serious, she soon infused comedy into her performances. It was during this time that she developed the character Elena María, a rural Mexican woman.

The Breakthrough

Puerto Rican Director Fernando Cortés recommended Velasco for a sketch portraying an indigenous woman named “María.” Dressed in traditional garb, complete with braided hair and colorful native attire, Velasco created La India María. The segment became a hit on the weekly program “Siempre en domingo,” hosted by Raúl Velasco (no relation to María Elena). 

Velasco’s first La India María film, “Tonta, tonta, pero no tanto” (1972), directed by Cortés, was a resounding success. Cortés went on to direct eight more La India María films until his death in 1979. They were considered low-budget comedies, but they made La India María a star.

Beyond the Screen

Her films broke box office records and are still popular to this day. La India María also had her own comic book, recorded albums, starred in a stage show, and even appeared in a sitcom. But all of this fame and recognition also raised questions.

In 2017, Harvard introduced a course, titled “La India María: Mexploitation and the Films of María Elena Velasco,” to analyze Velasco’s important work in front of and behind the cameras in the male-dominated world of Mexican cinema.

“Created and portrayed by María Elena Velasco, La India María has delighted audiences since the late 1960s with slapstick humor that slyly critiques discrimination and the powerful. At the same time, however, many critics have derided the iconic figure as a racist depiction of a negative stereotype and dismissed the India María films as exploitation cinema unworthy of serious attention,” Harvard University writes.

The End of La India María 

Velasco announced the end of La India María, over 25 and 19 films years of playing the character. 

Some said she retired the character because she was tired of playing her. In an interview, Velasco addressed this theory.

“The work doesn’t tire me out; it physically tires me out like everything does, but my work stimulates me a lot,” Velasco explained.

She went on to direct and star in the short-lived comedy show “Ay María qué puntería.” 

In 2014, she actually brought back her iconic character of La India María, after 15 years of retirement, for one last role in “La Hija de Montezuma.”

On May 1, 2015, María Elena Velasco died. But she lives on as one of Mexico’s greatest stars of the big screen.

Featured image: María Elena Velasco filming ¡El que no corre… vuela! (1982); photo by Gilberto Martínez Solares.

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