Much has been said about the Mexican film “Roma,” written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón and nominated for 10 Oscars and awarded three. Since Cuarón’s initial award for best film at the Venice Film Festival in 2018, he has harvested many trophies, become a worldwide phenomenon and generated pride, criticism and controversy in Mexico. Not surprising, since in the last six years, three Mexican directors have won five Oscars for best director—two of them twice, including Cuarón.
His latest film’s plot concerns his own childhood in the early ‘70s in Mexico City. His father, a doctor, abandons Sofia, his wife, and their children. Meanwhile, Cleo, one of two indigenous Mixtec servants of the upper middle-class family, becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, who blames, rejects and abandons her. Her baby is born dead. The two abandoned women are joined by tragedy, strength and their roles in the family, but the place of each, dictated by social and racial constraints, remains.
The actress Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, the film’s central character. She is in charge of the house chores: cooking, cleaning, ironing and providing emotional stability to the family. She puts to bed and wakes the children, comforts and plays with them, and keeps them clean, cared for and fed. As with many servants, she appears to be part of the family, but her role is restricted to caring for the family’s needs.
“Roma” was produced and distributed by Netflix in a bid to challenge Hollywood and the academy that awards the Oscars. This digital platform—it can mostly be seen on Netflix—limited its screening in cinemas. The company spent millions of dollars to promote it on television and at film festivals worldwide.
In Mexico, the film sparked persistent controversy. It cast an improbable figure into stardom in a cinematic world in which acting is dominated mostly by whites with prominent names. Yalitza, a young indigenous woman from a Mixtec community in Oaxaca, had studied to be a preschool teacher and was about to take a job when her sister asked her to accompany her to a movie audition. Cuarón’s agents were looking for someone who would give realism to the principal character.
Yalitza’s sister was pregnant, and pushed Yalitza to audition in her place. With no acting experience, but with natural modesty and ease, she wound up as the Cuarón’s choice. A year after completing filming, Yalitza and Marina de Tavira, the professional but relatively unknown actress who played Sofía, traveled for several months to promote the film. The last step was the Oscars, and unimaginable fame.
Of all the drama surrounding the film, the most provocative was Yalitza’s ethnic and social origin. Television, radio and social media were suddenly filled with voices proclaiming that this woman—indigenous, poor, with no acting experience and with dark skin and non-European features—could not represent Mexico. The complaints rose in volume when several international magazines put Yalitza on their covers and famous fashion designers dressed her for their presentations. Those who considered these outbursts discriminatory and racist responded with equal fervor. Political correctness prevailed, however, and Yalitza, Marina and Cuarón didn’t enter into the fray, except to claim equal rights for all.
“Roma” brought to light contemporary social conditions that date to ancient history. In Mexico, racism and classicism persist, expressing themselves silently but intensely in almost all aspects of public and private life. They were fruit of Spanish colonization after the defeat of the Aztecs by Hernán Cortés five centuries ago, and have lasted through independence 200 years ago and continue to the present day.
Since the rich who control the country’s economy, including the film and television industries, are white or European-looking, it is unsurprising that Yalitza would say she never thought of being an actress because there are no people of color in that industry. People see the relationship between racial identity and one’s occupation as so natural that they just assume that non-whites cannot achieve professional status as doctors, lawyers, engineers, film actors or television anchors.
The racial question, despite its differences around the world, is everywhere linked to a history of invasion, colonization, exploitation and enslavement—almost always at the hands of Europeans. The descendants of these exploited peoples continue to suffer contempt, discrimination and poverty as a direct result, while the descendants of the privileged whites tacitly demand that the situation be accepted as normal, offering as proof the reality that reflects it.
Cuarón and Yalitza present a beautiful interpretation of this reality, showing us a poor indigenous woman working for a middle-class white Mexican family in a triumphant film that contrasts with the sumptuousness and glamour of the Oscars and questions discrimination and segregation here, in Mexico and across the world.
Victor Reyes is a teacher, translator and native of Puebla, Mexico who lives in Cotati. A Spanish version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.