Aisling Walsh profiles La Kenefic: the Irish-Guatemalan Actress Starring in Golden Globe Nominated La Llorona.
I heard of ‘La Kenefic’ long before I ever met her. Actress turned guerrillera, turned Tai Chi instructor, turned film star, Margarita Kenefic has a reputation for creating epic drama on stage and screen. As she inches towards 70 her first foray into film, in Jayro Bustamante’s award-winning film La Llorona, has won her international recognition for her role as the inscrutable wife of a General found guilty of committing genocide during Guatemala’s brutal internal armed conflict (1960-1996).
It was not until I took my first Tai Chi class in 2016 that I finally met ‘La Kenefic’ face to face. Taller than the average Guatemalan, with a mane of silver hair reaching to her waist, Margarita has a commanding presence both on and off the stage. She took no notice of me at first, just another foreign do-gooder, and I was shy to approach, more than a little intimidated by the martial arts expert. A mutual friend introduced us and we discovered the Irish connection. Her father was a Cork man no less, who had found his way to Guatemala via the US.
Margarita does not know much about her grandparents, Katherine Hickey and Timothy Kenefic, except that Timothy was from Cork and migrated to the US towards the end of the 19th century with others from his family. Katherine came alone and from more humble circumstances. They met in Connecticut and married. Timothy worked as a police officer and Katherine worked at home looking after their five children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. Margarita’s father, Charles Graham Kenefic was born in 1908, he said of his mother that Katherine, ‘had brought a sadness with her from Ireland. She cried a lot and died young.’ Timothy, who apparently liked the drink, died shortly after his wife. Graham received little formal education but enlisted in the US Army and fought in World War II.
‘He was a dandy,’ says Margarita. ‘Like Bono, when he was still young and good looking!’ He visited Ireland sometime in the late 1940s to reconnected with his Irish cousins before returning to the US and working as a salesman.
Margarita’s mother Julia Tejada, fled Guatemala with her family in 1944 following the October Revolution which swept the democratically elected Juan José Arévalo to power. Like many middle class families, Margarita’s grandparents believed Arévalo and his social democratic reforms were a threat to their way of life. They moved into the same neighbourhood in Connecticut as Margarita’s father, where the two met. Graham was besotted with her mother, despite his family’s disapproval that she was a Latina. ‘My father was already 40 and my Mother was only 20 or 21,’ says Margarita. ‘She was like a young Rita Hayworth. She wasn’t Mexican but from somewhere ‘down there’ and they did not approve. They boycotted the wedding.’
Margarita was born in 1954 only a couple of months after the CIA backed coup that brought down the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz. The Tejada family thought it was safe to return to Guatemala and Graham was eventually persuaded to go. Graham found it hard to adjust to life in Guatemala, learn the language and adapt to the culture. He remained enamoured with his Irish heritage and Margarita grew up listening to tales of Cú Chullain, Meabh and the Táin Bo Cuailgne.
‘I got a present of Early Irish Myths and Legends and I read them all, I’m still fascinated by the mythology of Ireland. It reveals so much of what the Irish people are made of. I’m Guatemalan but I feel like this is also part of my story. I feel a sense of belonging to Irish culture, music and the poets. Something I haven’t always felt for Guatemala.’
Margarita’s first foray into acting began when she dropped out of University and fell in with an Argentinian theatre group and toured with them through Mexico for three years: ‘there was always an undercurrent of left wing politics in the theatre. The Argentinians were exiles. In Guatemala the armed insurgency had already begun. Reading, watching, doing theatre means putting the world on stage, depicting human acts on stage is like putting the world, our reality, under a microscope… I have never found a better way of understanding life.’
After a brief period in New York and Spain, Margarita returned to Guatemala in 1975 and, following another attempt at university, found her way back to the theatre, under the mentorship of the Guatemalan dramaturge Hugo Carrillo. She dedicated herself to social and political theatre, performing throughout Guatemala with her two children, Natalia and Emilio, and her partner Luis in tow. As a youth organiser with the Christian Democrats throughout the 80s, Luis found himself out of favour with the leadership after they came to power in 1985 and began to receive death threats. The family was forced to flee to Nicaragua in 1989 where they worked as reporters for CERIGUA, the press agency for the Guatemalan left-wing guerrilla movement the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). When the Sandinista Party lost the 1992 elections they were forced to leave and went briefly to Cuba, before settling in Mexico, where they continued supporting the propaganda efforts of the FAR. Following in the footsteps of many Guatemalan exiles who found themselves scattered among Latin America’s few ‘friendly nations’ throughout the 36 year internal armed conflict.
The Guatemalan Peace Accords were finally signed in 1996 and Margarita’s mother persuaded the family to return from Mexico. She and Luis took up the theatre once more with their own group ‘La Vasija’ using popular education techniques they had learned over the years to work with communities and survivors of the war in an effort to process and create dialogue around the conflict.
After years of pushing herself to the limit in the theatre and her political activism, Margarita reached physical collapse: ‘I had problems with my thyroid, pelvic peritonitis and fibroids. I was done in. The theatre is wonderful but you give 100% and you get back maybe 10% of your energy, so I signed up for Tai Chi. The first day of classes was dreadful, I actually got sick. But I started doing the exercises they gave us and by the next week I was feeling a little better. I went to more and more classes and within three years I had my own group of students.’ Margarita has been practicing Tai Chi for 23 years attending and instructing in multiple classes every week. ‘With Tai Chi you give 100% and you get back, I don’t know, maybe 200%. It has given me the strength to keep going.’
In 2018 she was approached by awarding winning director Jayro Bustamante to star in his third film La Llorona. The is a contemporary reinterpretation of the Latin American folk legend La Llorona, a Mexican goddess who mourns the coming of the Spanish and the end of the way of life for her children: the original peoples of the Americas. She walks the earth weeping for her lost children (mis hijos) and if one hears her cry she will surely drown you. Bustamante centres the film on Alma, a victim of Guatemala’s war, who is hired as the new maid at the home Guatemalan General (loosely based on deceased General Ríos Montt) condemned for acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Margarita plays the general’s wife, Carmen, who has spent a lifetime turning a blind eye to the actions of her husband and defending the indefensible: ‘The past is in the past.’ She personifies the position of State denialism regarding the multiple acts of genocide committed against Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during a war which left 200,000 people dead. Trapped within the walls of their mansion by protestors demanding justice, the General’s family enters in crisis as closely guarded secrets begin to unravel and they are confronted with ugly truths they can no longer deny.
‘I’m very grateful and honoured to have worked on this film,’ says Margarita. ‘I gave everything to this project; convinced about its message of justice. How is it possible that these things happened and we just turned over a new page? That page can’t be turned until there is justice, until the truth is known. This film is a path towards justice for many people, it puts on the screen all we refuse to talk about, all we continue to deny.’
La Llorona premiered in August 2019 the Giornate degli Autori fringe event of the Venice Film, taking the Directors award. It received multiple awards across the 2019/2020 festival season, featuring at the Sundance, London, Stolkholm, Tokyo and Toronto festivals. It was the first ever Guatemalan film to be selected by the National Board of Review as best foreign language film, nominated for a Golden Globe in the same category and shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.
The brief tour of the festival circuit before the pandemic hit allowed Margarita to finally realise her dream of visiting Ireland in September 2019: ‘I have wished for this ever since I was a little girl and my father told me those stories. All my life I have loved my Irish roots, and in all honesty, I can say that I finally came home.’
La Llorona’s general release was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic but it is available to stream for Irish and UK audiences on Shudder. Ireland’s Latin American Solidarity Centre will be hosting a live screening and interview with Margarita and colleagues on June 30th 2021, as part of their 2021 Latin American Festival.