‘Roma’: A personal message to the Latin American Upper Class

As I sat in the living room of my flat, getting ready to watch Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’, I didn’t quite know what to expect. However, as soon as the first scene was shown, I was immediately transported back to my home country: Guatemala. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but the washing of the patio conveyed something oddly familiar. So familiar in fact, that it brought tears to my eyes and formed a lump in my throat. I was immediately captured by the movie and could not take my eyes off the screen even if I tried. I was surprised to see, however, that the people watching the movie with me weren’t quite as enthusiastically involved as I was. At first, I dismissed it as simply divergence in taste, but later I realised that it meant so much more than different tastes. It is this realisation which led me to the conclusion that the message behind ‘Roma’ might in reality have been misunderstood or missed by most.

‘Roma’, a movie situated in 1970s Mexico, is the story of a young maid called Cleo and her life in service of an upper-middle class family in a rather prominent neighbourhood in Mexico City at the time. She works for the household alongside a second maid called Adela and an errand boy, who embodies a driver, gardener and handyman, and is absent for most of the movie. The family employing these individuals consists of Antonio (the father), Sofia (the mother), Teresa (the grandmother) and four children. Furthermore, outside of the household exists Fermin, Cleo’s boyfriend. Just like the errand boy, Antonio and Fermin are very much absent for most of the movie as they both proceed to desert their respective partners. Antonio leaves Sofia under the pretext of going away for research when in reality he leaves her for another woman. Fermin, after engaging in sexual relations with Cleo, finds out that she is pregnant and proceeds to abandon her. The plot of the movie follows the story of both women and how these separate incidents influence their lives. Public reception of the movie was generally positive with ‘Roma’ receiving various award nominations and Alfonso Cuaron winning an Oscar for ‘Best Director’. However, after reading multiple reviews, the criticism tends to focus on the characters and the delivery of the movie’s message. The characters, particularly Cleo, has been said to be void of personality and development, being portrayed as nothing more than a silent, stoic and strong maid with ever-lasting tolerance and patience, which was received as a very neo-colonial interpretation of indigenous characters. The movie itself was in part meant as an homage to Cuaron’s nanny, Libo, which made the movie a highly personal memoir. While these points may be true, I believe there is more to them then many might think.

Before discussing Cleo’s character, it is important to note that throughout Latin America, there still prevail the underlying notions of racism introduced to the area during colonial times. While progress has been made, there still exists a strong divide between indigenous and non-indigenous individuals resulting in unequal class hierarchies which have made it easy for racist attitudes to be subtly integrated into a country’s customs. It is thus unsurprising that oppression and racism, however subtle they may appear, are things that indigenous maids must face daily and have faced for centuries.

Oppression becomes very much apparent in household environments due to intimate interactions between employers and employees. Simply being employer and employee already implies a supremacy of sort, but it strongly reinforced by the sense of racial superiority commonly exercised by Latin American employers.

This brings me to discussing Cleo’s character. Cleo’s character is correctly described as quiet, stoic, loyal and obedient but this is not because she simply does not have any dramatic features to her but because her character brings to light the behaviour that surges as a result of systematic oppression. 1 in 4 Latin American women are in the line of domestic work with many going to work in households at a very young age, especially in the past. Generally, when a maid comes into service, she is shown the ‘proper procedure’ by an older more experienced maid meaning that knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. The fact that past knowledge is passed down to new generations explains the behaviors in the presence of the employer as observed in Cleo. Thus, the instructions given to maids about how to conduct themselves are riddled with class discrimination and racism, with many accepting them without question as these notions are the norm in Latin American societies. This reality is what Alfonso Cuaron, may be trying to convey through the character of Cleo and this what Yalitza Aparicio (Cleo) expertly embodies.

But in addition to being an expose, the movie aims to present a target audience, members of upper and middle class Latin American families, with a mirror. The story, makes it easy for them to insert themselves into the narrative and in a sense, re- experience their interactions with their former or current maids. This highly specific function is meant to present the target audience with the tool for self-reflection and analysis of their actions with the end goals of ideally driving the target individuals to realize the flaws within the culture that they support, actively or passively, and create an incentive for a change in their attitudes towards domestic culture and eventually a change in domestic customs of Latin America in general. Ultimately, while the movie may be misunderstood by some, it serves a purpose much larger than simply reminiscing and entertaining. This movie was a personal message to the perpetrators of systematic oppression and racism. It served as a mean of self-reflection and every detail within the movie served the purpose of unveiling minute but vital details in understanding not only the nature of said oppression but how many might consciously or unconsciously be contributing to their prevalence. ‘Roma’ is part of a series of movies that have started to unveil this issue, which can be applied not only to Latin American households but households with domestic services around the world. Much advancement has been made in labour protection laws for women working in domestic work in recent years but much work remains to be done. ‘Roma’ however, was an important step towards furthering progressive thought and directly addressing and targeting the individuals involved that to this day support damaging ideals that should have been left behind centuries ago. This masterpiece is everything but devoid of character and message, if anything, it is one of the loudest movies I have seen in years.

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