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What Roma Can Teach American Audiences About Mexican Social Life
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma stands to take home a handful of Academy Awards on Sunday night, with its eight nominations including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actress, and Best Picture. Without a doubt, the seemingly mundane black and white film about a Mexican maid made quite an impression on the Academy. But beyond its technical achievements, the film succeeds in perhaps an even more important way: by showing outsiders that class differences exist and are very salient in Mexican culture.
Through the eyes of live-in maid Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio), Cuarón brings intricate social—and even racial—relations straight to our screens. Immediately, we’re aware that Cleo looks very different from everyone in the middle-class family she works for. She’s shorter, darker, indigenous. As Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition explained to me in a statement, her physicality is a big reason for her social status: “The darker you are, the more indigenous you are, the more class-less you are.”
Cleo occupies a different space than her employers, spending her nights in a small shared room next to (but separate from) the nice sprawling home they live in (and in darkness for fear that her boss will be mad about the electric bill). She speaks Spanish, but also Mixtec, an indigenous language that makes most Spanish speakers stop and scrutinize its subtitles to understand—and that the children she takes care of annoyingly can’t decipher. Her boss, on the other hand, socializes with hacienda-owning English speakers who reside within an even higher social stratum than her.
Cleo is the first one to rise and only goes to bed when everybody else is already asleep and the house is tidy. When anything goes wrong, like one of the children eavesdropping on their mother, Cleo is at fault. When Cleo is rushed to the hospital and her boss is asked to provide basic information about her—name, age, family history—she doesn’t have the slightest clue. Were the situation reversed, however, Cleo would likely know everything, down to her boss’s blood type and what she had for breakfast that morning. Even Fermín, Cleo’s deadbeat boyfriend and the father of her child, looks down on her and refers to her as a “gata” (a particularly vulgar slur used for servants)—never mind that he doesn’t appear to be much wealthier than her.
Most people in Mexico have someone like Cleo in their lives.
Roma may seem like a specific example that can’t be indicative of a wider social order, but the truth is most people in Mexico have someone like Cleo in their lives. As Mauricio Tenorio, director of the Katz Center for Mexican Studies, wrote in his Vocabulario de Mexicanismos (roughly “Dictionary of Mexicanisms”), “ricos y no tanto, todos tienen sirvientas”—rich, and not that rich, everyone has a maid. This is likely confounding for American viewers, as hiring domestic staff is a sign of wealth. Even Nogales, whose parents were migrant farm workers, remembers having help around the house growing up because though they were poor “there’s always someone poorer than you.” In Roma, Cleo isn’t the only servant; there’s also Adela and a driver, and at the hacienda, where an even richer family lives, there’s a whole bar full of maids and field hands.
As you see from Cleo’s interactions with the family, the class difference between them doesn’t render her a complete outsider, quite the opposite, her adopted family clearly loves and cares for her, and she for them. They do, after all, take her on their beach vacation to help her get over the grief of her lost child, and she jumps into the water, despite not knowing how to swim, to save the two eldest children. But nonetheless, she is “the help,” and her importance to the family is often overlooked. Post beach-vacation for example, she’s praised for her heroism in saving the children—until someone requests a banana smoothie and it’s back to business as usual.
Outside of the home, Roma explores other social and political issues of which American audiences may not be aware. Tensions over land ownership are briefly brought up when the family visits their friend’s hacienda and another maid mentions poisoned dogs and killed children in passing. Government propaganda is plastered on street walls throughout the movie. We hear someone promising solutions to a water problem and infrastructure changes through a loudspeaker when Cleo goes to Fermín’s ranch. The climactic scene in the film centers on a student protest that turns violent when protesters are shot by young government-trained paramilitaries. Yes, Fermín’s martial arts training was to participate in this group, but Cuarón didn’t bother you with the details. The violence is banal, just background noise in the story of Cleo and the family she works for.
Cuarón could have easily made a movie about those other moments, but perhaps they wouldn’t have been as poignant as the complex and intimate relationship between employer and maid, or as effective in getting an outside audience to pay attention to the existence of social order in places beyond the U.S.
The tensions explored in those bigger political and social moments are historical and cyclical, but they have a finite beginnings and endings. Cleo’s story, and the societal norms that allow it to exist, is a story that has always been around for generations. I had Lupe, who made sure I took a bath every night despite my loud protestations. My grandmother had Adriana, who cleaned the house, and Placida, who looked after my grandfather in his old age. Nogales had Gloria, who disciplined his kids and made sure everything went according to plan every day. Even Cuarón had Libo, for whom he created this film. Now Americans have Cleo, who serves as an example of social intricacies outside of their culture, which they might not have otherwise not recognized.