From the moment we meet Aleteia (Monica Betancourt, no relation to yours truly) it’s clear that she’s been forced to move through the world in ways that force her to both blend in and stand out. The first time we see her, after all, she’s tagging a building late at night with her face covered by a bandana. And as Aleteia sets out to navigate her new high school in Compton, her oversized hoodie all but tells you she’d rather not draw attention to herself. Yet she’s not one to shy away from confrontation. When a documentary shown in class explains the whitewashed concept that gives Patricia Vidal Delgado’s film its name (“La leyenda negra” aka the black legend), she fires back. Rather than let her classmates swallow whole the idea that Spain’s conquistadors have been misunderstood historically, she argues that they were mostly looking for gold and that documentaries like the one she’s been forced to watch are funded by the United States. “Imperialists making other imperialists look good,” she scoffs.
The back and forth with her teacher, replete with the need to spell out how to pronounce “Aleteia” correctly, is as perfect an introduction to this Salvadoran teen as you can get. Her radical politics, grounded in the very material conditions of her existence, constantly push and pull her in different directions. As an undocumented teen with a “temporary protected status” (TPS), which, as she learns at the beginning of the film, may be coming to an end given recent policy changes, she knows that her situation in the U.S. is tenuous. But that very sense of uncertainty — the sense that her dreams of going to a state college and live the ever-promised American dream — fuels her covert activism in the cover of night. The more we learn about why she’s recently changed schools and who she’s been meeting up at night, the more we see why her desperation may be her undoing. Not for nothing does the film find her tagging “Respeta my existencia o espera resistencia”: respect my presence or expect resistance.
But to Vidal Delgado’s credit, the film’s politics are grounded in a very personal story. At its core, La Leyenda Negra is about Aleteia’s budding friendship with Rosarito (Kailei Lopez). Part of a Mean Girls-ish squad at school, Rosarito is intrigued by Aleteia and, much to chagrin of her petty school friends, she reaches out to the shy teenager, slowly getting her to come out of her shell.
The centerpiece of the film is a quinceañera which, in Matt Maio’s lensing, looks like no other quinces you’ve seen on screen. It brings together the many strands that La Leyenda Negra weaves in its high school-set plot. Aleteia and Rosarito’s intimacy, which may be more than meets the eye, risks upending the status quo that defines the lives of these Compton teens. Aleteia’s butch sense of style and her openly radical politics pit her against a community that enshrines gender conformity and traditional values in ways both tame (boy-girl dances at school, gender-split contests at the quinces party) and more insidious. The latter is best encapsulated by the school’s queen bee, Monica, who dreams of becoming an influencer and happily aligns herself with Latinos for Trump.
This fracturing of the quote unquote “Latino experience” is the greatest strength of Vidal Delgado’s film. If La Leyenda Negra‘s use of non-professional actors sometimes makes its dialogue feel more stilted than need be, it more than compensates with a truly empathetic and complicated portrait of Aleteia’s inner conflicts. By the time she decides to make a bold statement that captures the fiery impotent rage she feels when the system fails her (or, rather, the system is weaponized to actively exclude her) you’re not so much rooting for her as understanding the pressures many like her feel on any given day. One truly wishes she could just be a carefree kid able to enjoy going shopping with her friends and daydreaming about what it means to be seen by that girl at school. Alas, both Aleteia and Vidal Delgado know it’s never that simple for those in her situation.
With a gorgeous black and white cinematography that gives the proceedings an elegant timelessness the better to juxtapose with the gritty timeliness of the film’s plotting, La Leyenda Negra is a searing twist on the coming of age (and coming out) tale that feels like a new classic of U.S. Latino cinema.
La Leyenda Negra is now streaming on HBO Max.