A Critique on ‘Roma’ or how I Became Aware of My Mongrel

The image provided for the article is a screenshot from the film Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2018.

My privilege was never a secret to me.

I grew up looking and talking like your typical gringa in Mexico City and went to a private school, kindergarten through high school. I would go to church with my family and see people sitting on the steps outside, asking for any loose change, selling elotes, atrapa novios, pan dulce, looking at my “Whitexican” family stare right ahead and walk straight into the building and back out. “Don’t listen to them mija, they’ll just use the money irresponsibly,” a background voice would tell me as we walked away from young children who came up to us with cupped hands and hopeful eyes.

While we sat to eat at the dinner table, my relatives would scoff at the endless protests that kept the roads to their jobs congested and kept them in traffic for hours. I recall a relative of mine making a remark that those people had absolutely no right to demand better labor conditions, considering the amount of unemployed people out there. The rich were the source of jobs, of wealth. European investors were the only ones that mattered and protests only scared them off and lowered the value of the country, and what are we if not valuable enough to be exploited by the outside world?

For years I guess I stared ahead obliviously, either because of ignorance or a strong penchant for avoiding conflict at the dinner table. When that ceased to be the case, my conservative family never expected me to turn out to be as radically progressive as I am. I guess they are the way they are because living in this country, one becomes numb to their surroundings and forgets to notice the slums that stand next to the financial district of the capital city. The government is so corrupt that no one thinks to rely on them to fix problems for a second, only to fish them out of parking tickets and minor trouble with bribes.

The disillusionment is widespread and undermined and misunderstood by all the European and American foreigners that shoot simplistic solutions at me when I speak of it.

Us Mexicans have learned to hold on to the achievements of individuals far more than those of our government and country, and as we gain more international traction and influence we hold them up as emblems of pride. In essence- we value everything more when foreigners pay attention to it, and here is where our *malinchismo is perhaps most evident (see bottom of article for definition). Frida Kahlo has become a stamp to put on T-shirts and on notebooks since the 1980’s (not when she was active and alive as an artist, making significant changes in politics as well as in the world of art), calaveras and the famed Day of the Dead have become commercialized to no end by foreigners since they decided it was “charmingly ethnic” instead of “morbid.”

I of course am guilty of falling into these patterns and attitudes as well, also beamed proudly when The Academy recognized (now three) Mexican film directors in the past few years for their excellence, and found myself with a massive smile plastered on my face when women in traditional Mexican dresses came out onto the stage and danced about to the catchy “Remember Me” from Disney’s Coco on the TV screen during the 2018 Oscars. So, when the movie Roma directed by Alfonso Cuarón came out in late 2018, to say that I was excited is an understatement.

My excitement to watch Roma came from a place of hoping to see a film that was devoid of the Western gaze, or even more than that, the gaze of the privileged “Whitexican” society that I form a part of. It centers around a woman who works as a maid in 1970s Mexico for a middle class family in the Colonia Roma of Mexico City. The lead actress, Yalitza Aparicio, is of indigenous Oaxacan origin. Her skin is not white like the vast majority of famous Mexican actors. She does not come from a place of privilege, and was raised by a single mother. She does not speak English.

The second the film came out on Netflix, I sat in silence for over two hours as the slow paced movie in black and white played out before my eyes. Manifesting before me was a raw portrait of humanity, of subtle yet gut wrenching socio-political commentary, and, most importantly, of Aparicio’s character at the center and not the periphery of the story, revealing one of the most honest films I have ever seen. The movie placed a mirror in front of my country, and its reflection was breathtaking in all the right and wrong ways. It was everything that I hoped it would be and more.

When the film gained international recognition, I found friends and acquaintances from all over the world reaching out to me to speak of it, and beyond flattered and fascinated I responded with enthusiasm. My malinchista attitude flared up, and I felt myself feeling pride for the film and my country not for its inherent merits, but because of the fact that it was nominated for a myriad of Academy Awards. “You see?” I would state on social media, “Mexicans are talented too!”

I snapped into a new reality when discussing the film in Mexico City with actual Mexicans. First came the “woke” youth, my contemporaries and close friends who fit into the more progressive variety. I was a different person when discussing the films with them rather than with foreigners. The talking points of our discussions did not center on how it was so amazing that Mexico was finally being recognized for having talent pouring out of its ears and that it was about time that xenophobic gringos woke up to that reality, but rather around the severity of the political situation in Mexico. We would pore over the implications of the narrative taking a postmodern and therefore revolutionary viewpoint. We were fascinated with the way the movie treated race, class, and gender in 20th century Mexico, in the way that the situation of oppression remained stagnated in the same way to date. We applauded Yalitza Aparicio for her boldness, for her acting, and for achieving social mobility based on talent alone (this is rare to nonexistent in my country).

An entirely new reality became apparent to me when the setting of these discussions was with the aforementioned older, more conservative relatives and their friends. One would think that they would be repelled by it, considering it presented a lot of the issues often pushed aside with your typical los pobres son pobres porque quieren serlo [the poor are poor because they wish to be so]. Like all high society elites, however, (and because the international community and established institutions had such a positive response to it) they watched the film labelled the latest trend and claimed to be charmed by it. Older women reeking of Chanel No. 5 would say that it was a gorgeous testimony of the loyalty and humility of the lower classes, that the maid in the film was a representation of the beauty of the relationship between master and servant, despite the fact that the protagonist is consistently dehumanized by the family she works with. Another woman fixed her pearls and added that the treatment of the protagonist was properly exemplary by the family she worked for. They let her keep her job when she was pregnant and unmarried, no? “I’d never do that,” she laughed, sending a chill down my spine.

Middle-aged men in expensive three-piece suits would complain that the movie was just “too slow-paced” but that they loved the nostalgic emotions evoked by the setting of the film. “I grew up in that Mexico, but it’s just not the same anymore, what a shame no?” I would hear as they all nodded in agreement and smiled politely at one another, and proceeded to complain about how unsafe it is to let their daughters out into the city at night.

Online, I would see articles posted about the acclaim Roma had received, with Yalitza Aparicio’s smiling face on the cover. Comments with disgustingly classist and racist messages (a mix of both hidden and apparent) would line up below her face. Slurs and rape threats filled social media forums, not for any other reason other than the fact that Aparicio was not your classic light-skinned Mexican telenovela actress. Horrified, I noted that many Mexicans lacked an understanding, appreciation, and even the slightest desire to learn from Roma. To many, Roma was a “good film” and a “work of art” because the foreigners had given it value. To many, it was symbolic “fuck you” to the gringos. Myself not being fully exempt from this, it took me a while to return to what had fascinated me about Roma, and to remove the Western and the “Whitexican” gaze that was so customary for me and many Mexicans to view the world through.

The problem with my country and for many of us who have grown up with a malinchismo complex around the world because of the remainders of colonialism that live centuries on, is an incapacity to understand ourselves for who we are based on values that aren’t rooted in oppression. The petty bourgeois of Mexico (and I am sure in many other countries) live to serve these views, to placate and be palatable to the Western world. In the process, we submit ourselves and those around us to the bottom of the barrell. We hold ourselves in prisons of shame and guilt for being from our country of origin. We reject ourselves and we reject our peers and nothing but damage has come out of this.

Octavio Paz spoke to a truth that is specific to Mexico, but is also in and of itself applicable to all of us who carry the weight of a world that values itself based on capitalist productivity and ancient European customs and culture. We unconsciously view ourselves as fountains of profit for the powerful, and the second we are not profitable we are worthless. The further we make ourselves and those around us commodities, we create a feeble source of steadiness that at the end of the day harms none other than ourselves. Until we find that our fragmented versions of reality are so because of the way we see ourselves in relation to the Western gaze, unity is unachievable.

Until then, hijos de la Malinche, hijos de la chingada we remain.

*This is a term described by the acclaimed Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz as the basis for the thought process of most Mexicans, similar to a mongrel complex it speaks to an appreciation and obsession with everything foreign, but not of anything belonging to one’s own origins and country. It is a negation of heritage, of one’s inner weakness, and what keeps the figure of the Mexican in an endless “labyrinth of solitude.”

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