The Bootleg Files – Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country

BOOTLEG FILES 825: “Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country” (1977 Oscar-nominated documentary short).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the proverbial cracks.

Not likely.

For many years, the films nominated in the Academy Award categories for short subjects were the most mysterious titles in the annual Oscar ceremonies. Between the evaporation of the theatrical shorts market in the early 1960s and the relatively recent dawning of the streaming era, these films were unknown and inaccessible to the vast majority of movie lovers.

Some of these Oscar-nominated works have found their way to the Internet, in both authorized and unauthorized postings. A fine example of the latter is the 1977 “Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country,” which was nominated for the Best Documentary Short Award. While it did not win Hollywood’s grand prize, the nomination helped save it from the obscurity that befalls too many wonderful documentary shorts – and we should thank the Academy for this, because this is one of the most interesting works of this genre.

Agueda Salazar Martinez was a New Mexican artist who found fame in her sixties as the weaver of rugs and blankets. Her work won several awards and became part of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of International Folk Art. At the age of 76, Martinez was approached by director Esperanza Vásquez and producer Moctesuma Esparza to become the subject of a documentary.

The resulting film “Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country” is fascinating because it does not focus on Martinez’s achievements as a weaver. Indeed, the viewer does not get to see her weave until relatively late in the film. Instead, the film highlights her daily life on the ranch in Mendales, New Mexico, where she lived for most of her life. Martinez describes her world for the viewer in a narration that runs throughout the film.

Actually, there are two versions of “Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country.” Because Martinez’s preferred language was Spanish, actress Carmen Zapata provides a translated voiceover in the film released for English-speaking audiences; Martinez provides her own narration in the release seen by Spanish-speaking audiences.

“It was always a good life here in New Mexico,” says Martinez in the film’s opening. “I come from a people who are very old. I have Navajo grandparents on both sides.”

This opening is critical to Martinez’s story – she is not a woman who embraces modernity. Indeed, she is first seen sweeping away dust with a broom made from branches, gathering her water from a bucket brought up from a well and picking up a considerable amount of firewood to fuel her wood-burning stove – she later notes that she is the one who chops the wood. She also remarks that she makes her own clothing, and a few seconds where she models a fancy hat of her own creation offers evidence that a sense of playfulness lies beneath her serious focus.

A brief glimpse of old photographs is accompanied by Martinez recalling how she married at 18, adding that her husband “was crippled and could not work much.” Due to those circumstances, she learned to weave to support her family, adding that her grandparents were weavers.

In the course of the film, Martinez goes through her day in a casual but focused manner. She is shown harvesting the crops from her property’s farmland, gathering herbs for medicinal purposes and cooking on her wood-burning stove – she insists the food tastes better when prepared on that type of appliance. Some of her great-grandchildren happily join her in the gathering of fruits and chiles, but Martinez also laments over the hypnotic effect that television has on children while stating that she prefers “to talk and to be with people” rather than watching life telescoped through a screen.

Martinez also finds herself adrift from the younger members of her clan through her devotion to churchgoing. Wearing a white mantilla, she solemnly attends a service in a sparsely populated church while the narration complains about how younger people rarely spend their Sundays in this setting.

Martinez’s adherence to the past extends to her bathroom – there is no indoor plumbing in her home, and she needs to use an outhouse. Her aversion to indoor plumbing is because “if everything was inside, I wouldn’t go outside. I wouldn’t feel the vigor and the cleansing of winter.” She then wonders: “How couldn’t the life we had before be better than what we have nowadays? I still have the beliefs of my parents in everything.”

It is not until the last five minutes of this 16-minute film that Martinez is seen weaving. In her weaving, she allows for the contemporary world to seep into her realm – she admits using “some commercial tints” to color her designs. She explains that she doesn’t keep any of her work, but instead sells it in order to support herself. During the winter, she spends the entire day weaving, often going nonstop until midnight.

“I don’t get tired,” she declares. “Work doesn’t tire me. I’ll stop weaving when I can’t move anymore. Until then, you’ll find me dancing on the loom.”

“Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country” is a distinctive celebration of a remarkable woman. While few contemporary viewers would want to emulate her lifestyle – especially when it comes to running to an outhouse in winter – it is difficult not to appreciate her quiet strength and her dedication to an existence that blessed her on an emotional and professional level. The fact she views her weaving as way to make a living and not as a statement of artistic vision makes her one of the most unpretentious artists to achieve fame.

The version of the film available on YouTube appears to have come from a faded 16mm print from an educational release. It would be wonderful if a cleaner version was available for viewing – but until such a copy turns up, this is the best (and only) way to enjoy the Oscar-nominated film:

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with a new episode every Monday, and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.