Born in Toluca, in central Mexico, Barraza's first career aspirations were academic. She spent four years studying chemical science before following her love of performing to the theater department at the Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua. Barraza moved to Mexico City where she became involved in theater as a director and actor in over two dozen stage productions, segueing into television with a series of appearances on "Mujer, Casos de la Vida Real," an influential television series that used true stories submitted by women to address serious social issues like domestic violence and rape. Barraza went on to direct countless episodes of the series over the next eight years, continuing to blaze a path through the male-dominated television world as a respected director of popular telenovelas, including "Locura de Amor," "El Manantial" and "Complices al Rescate." The busy director continued acting with roles on television and in the youth-oriented commercial dramas "La Primera Noche" (1998) and "La Segunda Noche" (1999). Barraza's first collaboration with Alejandro González Iñárritu was a supporting role as the mother of a man who becomes involved in dog fighting to make money to start a new life in "Amores Perros" (2000). The first in Iñárritu's "death trilogy," the bold and intense film met with an almost unanimous praise, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film and drawing attention to the talented little-known actors, screenwriters and directors of Mexican independent cinema. Following the film's buzz, Barraza resumed her television directing work and also launched another career as an acting coach for a number of Mexican television shows. Several years later, Iñárritu cast her in "Babel" (2006) as a Mexican immigrant and nanny who crosses the border to attend her son's wedding, only to be abandoned in the scorching Sonoran desert with the two American children in her care, unable to reenter the United States. Iñárritu auditioned hundreds of bilingual actresses, looking for that elusive combination of determination and vulnerability that the character embodied, selecting Barraza because "Every movement of her body, her hands and her eyes was incarnate with tenderness and complexity of the spirit of a character that could easily have become stereotyped."Film critics across the board were wowed by Barraza's American (and English language) theatrical debut, and in a landmark year where three films by Mexican directors were up for a total of 16 Academy Award nominations, Barraza earned her own nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She was also honored with a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, and a nod from the Screen Actors Guild Awards. When awards season frenzy died down, Barraza was besieged by acting offers from both sides of the border, making guest appearances on American television hits "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) and "CSI: Miami" (CBS, 2002-12). She also offered a lively supporting performance in Mark Pellington's "Henry Poole is Here" (2008), playing a woman who interrupts her terminally ill neighbor's (Luke Wilson) desire to die a solitary death when she sees a religious miracle on the side of his garage, making his home a shrine.During a busy year, Barraza also had a supporting role in Sam Raimi's supernatural thriller "Drag Me to Hell" (2009) and in "Rage" (2009), a thriller mockumentary set in the fashion world in which Barraza played an undocumented seamstress. She returned to Mexico to star in Salvador Aguirre's "Tres piezas de amor en un fin de Semana" (2009), following up with a role in the ensemble cast of "Burning Palms" (2009), a satire of Los Angeles exploring the stereotypes of different neighborhoods through interconnecting storylines. Barraza's momentum carried on through the next year with roles in a Colombian-set remake of the 1970 British thriller "And Soon the Darkness" (2010), and "Horse" (2010), where Barraza played the domineering Salvadorian mother of a powerful drug baron.