Young actress who endured abuse shines light on albinism, co-stars in her first film

My passion for movies steered me toward the school’s theater group. I discovered my ability to embody diverse characters, immerse myself in narratives more vibrant than my own, and momentarily escape reality. This group became my world, like a haven where I was immune to bullying and where my albinism ceased to be a concern.

  • 9 months ago
  • August 13, 2023
10 min read
Nieves endured abuse and bullying growing up with albinism, but overcame her struggles to become an actress on screen. Nieves endured abuse and bullying growing up with albinism, but overcame her struggles to become an actress on screen. | Photo courtesy of Nieves Villalba
Interview Subject
Nieves Villalba, 33, hails from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. She embarked on a difficult journey at a very young age, having been taken from her mother and left with her aunts. Due to albinism, she faced intense abuse and bullying. At 14 years old, she relocated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, alongside her mother. During her teenage years, she became independent by working as a nanny. Later, her pursuits led her to study massage therapy but in time, she went back to her theater roots. Her artistic inclinations led her to a role alongside Sofía Gala Castiglione in the acclaimed film Cadáver Exquisito.
Background Context
Oculocutaneous albinism, a genetic condition, hinders melanin production, affecting skin, hair, and eye color. This leads to vision issues due to melanin’s role in eye development. Sun sensitivity raises skin cancer risk, causing freckles, solar lentigines, and sunburn. Skin color changes variably and vision problems include nystagmus, strabismus, farsightedness, photophobia, astigmatism, and impaired depth perception. Discrimination and social isolation can harm those with albinism, leading to low self-esteem and stress. Increased awareness is crucial to foster understanding and support for people with albinism.

CIUDAD DEL ESTE, Paraguay — One afternoon, the phone rang in my home, and it changed everything. Film director Lucía Vasallo sought an albino actress for her film Cadáver Exquisito and offered me the opportunity. Memories of joyful theater classes at school rushed through my mind, and I leapt at the opportunity.

Rushing to the garage where my partner was, I shared the news. “I’ve got a movie gig,” I said excitedly. I felt extremely confident, and the audition did not disappoint.

On set, my natural grace amazed everyone. I moved like I belonged there, not like a newcomer. A spark ignited within me. Maybe I could enjoy a life in acting. This was a significant revelation. After all, I once teetered on the brink of despair, convinced life held no purpose beyond the endless suffering I endured.

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Mother separated from her daughter, I faced a childhood of uncertainty

When I was a baby, my mother escaped from my father’s abuse and fled to Argentina. When we arrived at the border between Paraguay and Argentina, the authorities questioned our relationship when they saw my albinism. They took me from my mother, leaving me behind in Paraguay. The laws at that time strictly forbid my father from raising me, so I shuffled between my aunts’ homes. I lacked roots and any sense of belonging.

I began to call one of my aunts mom, and convinced myself my cousins were my sisters. Yet, my albinism became an insurmountable barrier. They did not know how to interact with me and withheld their affection. In addition to the obvious symptoms of albinism, I grappled with visual impairment, photophobia, and sun-sensitive skin.

When I turned five years old, a strange woman showed up. She asked about me and her tone seemed urgent.  I could not understand who she was or the significance of that moment. I later learned she was my birth mother. The incident replayed when I turned eight, and this time, I insisted on uncovering the truth. The revelation proved disillusioning, unraveling a web of deceit that had enshrouded me.

As I grew, feelings of worthlessness took hold, leaving me to believe I was undeserving of life’s blessings. Then, one day, in the scorching heat of Ciudad del Este, the sun’s intensity bore down mercilessly. Its very presence posed a threat to me. The lack of sunscreen led to agonizing third-degree burns, resulting in blood-filled blisters.

Amidst this struggle, nobody knew how to care for me. They seemed indifferent to my condition. Under the pretext of protecting me, they prevented me from doing things. I lived a life locked up inside, watching through the window as others had fun and enjoyed their childhoods. Their reality seemed so far from mine.

Bullying at home takes a toll while school offers a refuge

Alone at home, I found solace in Brazilian movies, painting scenes of loving families. I began projecting myself into these narratives, dreaming of a different reality. My yearning to seek my mother’s whereabouts grew.

At the end of each year, my aunts debated who would take of me. None of them seemed eager to bear the responsibility. “You can’t stay. We no longer want you here,” they would say. Their words stung. Amidst this insecurity, my cousin’s abuse due to my my albinism took a toll.

Fueled by resentment, I rebelled and defied authority, often running away. Once, I boldly borrowed my cousin’s roller skates, soaring down a slope despite my visual impairment. I fearlessly surrendered to the freeing sensation of gliding on those skates. Abruptly, I tumbled to the ground, scraping and bruising my body. Strangely, the thrill overpowered the pain from the fall. It felt like an act of defiance against my adversities.

Returning home, I faced reprimand and punishment, yet my indifference remained unscathed. I had achieved the unthinkable, gaining access to a forbidden world and wholeheartedly enjoying it. In school, a helping hand emerged in the form of compassionate students. I saw them as my angels. They guided me through classes, becoming a source of affection. It countered the impact of my bleak home life. Amidst tears at home, their kindness fueled my determination to persevere.

Albino woman copes with reality through theater: I experienced happiness for the first time

My passion for movies steered me toward the school’s theater group. I discovered my ability to embody diverse characters, immerse myself in narratives more vibrant than my own, and momentarily escape reality. This group became my world, like a haven where I was immune to bullying and where my albinism ceased to be a concern. We rehearsed at my peers’ homes, sharing bouts of hearty laughter. In those moments, I experienced happiness for the very first time.

In time, Nieves embraced her life and her acting, and gained an important role in a feature film. | Photo courtesy of NievesVillalba

At home, they forbade me to participate in these rehearsals, but I snuck out anyway. On one particular evening we had a special performance, and I implored my father to accompany me. Initially, he agreed, but when the hour arrived, he retracted his promise. A searing pain gripped my chest, as though my heart fractured, and tears began to flow. Employing a mental technique which I occasionally resorted to, I sealed my eyelids shut and repeated, “This is not happening, this is not real.” After a measured interval, I counted to three, unveiling my eyes to a transformed reality. It was akin to expunging scenes from my life, a form of coping that enabled me to endure.

Over time, I felt the mistreatment piling up within me. The weight of oppression and the suffocating grip of anguish became unbearable. I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and I confronted my dad, insisting that my mother take me to Argentina. It was my final lifeline, and clinging to it was my last chance for salvation.  Three months went by with no sign of my mother. The disappointment cut deep, dampening that spark of hope.

Mother’s timely rescue: a journey to embrace albinism

However, a turning point eventually arrived. While sitting in the yard on a hammock, I heard my cousin, the one who used to subject me to beatings, calling out from inside the house. Her shouts grew louder and more insistent. I realized she intended to harm me, and I resolved not to let her hurt me again. Determination surged through me as I rose from the hammock and strode toward the house. I was prepared for whatever lay ahead, having nothing more to lose. I felt abandoned by everyone.

Eventually Nieves reconnected with her mother and went to live with her in Argentina. | Photo courtesy of Nieves Villalba

As I moved forward in that trance, screams and clapping sounds filled the air. Someone kept repeating, “Where is my daughter?” Finally, I saw my mom. She arrived just in time to rescue me. All I had was a cardboard box containing a few items of clothing and a pair of slippers. Grasping that box, I joined her forever. Despite the years of absence, she transformed into a pillar of strength in my life.

In Argentina, I met my three siblings, had a room for the first time, and got glasses. I recall the first time I wore them. The day I stepped into the optician’s office and put on those glasses marked a momentous shift. It was as though a veil had lifted, revealing a new world before me. However, the most profound gift was the affection I finally received. Initially, accepting their love felt challenging. My mom would embrace and caress me, but I perceived her care as intrusive. Although such displays of kindness were unfamiliar to me, gradually, we bridged the gap and grew closer.

Gaining independence proved challenging, but my newfound freedom offered comfort

Adapting to my mother’s rules presented difficulties. I had grown weary of yielding to someone else’s regulations, yearning for complete freedom. At 16 years old, I decided to begin working, and as soon as the opportunity arose, I secured an apartment of my own. I never truly felt like I belonged or possessed anything that was mine. There was an inherent need within me to declare, “This is my house, my haven, and my rules. This is a reflection of me.”

There were days when sustenance proved scarce, but I took solace in my belongings, finding happiness in simple possessions. At times, even affording the bus fare proved challenging. However, I would step into my home, settle onto the couch, and reflect upon my achievements. Inhaling deeply, I allowed a sense of contentment to fill my lungs.

This newfound freedom set the stage for the rest of my life to fall into place. Confidence surged within me; I embraced my albinism and realized that, with proper care, I could conquer anything. My expressions flowed freely, nurturing the growth of my self-esteem. This transformation allowed me to forge stronger connections with others. I entered a relationship and welcomed my son, fulfilling yet another cherished aspiration.

Casting call comes unexpectedly and my albinism became an advantage

One afternoon, as I breastfed my son at my mother-in-law’s house, I received a call from Lucía Vasallo, a film director. She informed me that she wanted me to audition for her movie Cadáver Exquisito. They sought an albino co-star to work alongside the main character. Without hesitation, I embraced the opportunity, instantly recalling the happiness my theater classes in school had brought me – a precious refuge in the darkness.

After hanging up the phone, I made my way to the garage where my partner was busy washing the car and shared the incredible news. I held an unwavering belief that the casting would be successful and it was. Once on set, my fluidity surprised everyone. I moved with a natural grace as if I had acted in previous films. I never came across as a rookie.

Nieves (left) pictured with her husband and her son. | Photo courtesy of Nieves Villalba

This deep sense of comfort made me realize I could dedicate my life to this art. However, as soon as the film wrapped up, I attended various casting calls and realized there was little room for an albino person in the industry. Characters with albinism were virtually absent from the realm of fiction. So, I decided to press pause on my pursuit for a time.

Today, I continue to go through a long and beautiful healing process. I am content with the outcomes in my life, and I am happy to be who I am. I have no regrets. Considering all I endured during my childhood, I wholeheartedly embrace every opportunity that comes my way. I take pleasure in my life as it unfolds, appreciating what I receive and refraining from fixating on negative possibilities.

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