I am not a film critic. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of how the prodigious director Alfonso Cuarón made such a visually outstanding film in his latest work, Roma, nor do I intend to comment on the incredible performance by Yalitza Aparicio or Marina de Tavira. But after seeing the film in Mexico on Wednesday evening, I felt a visceral need to share my thoughts on the heroine of the story and my own experience with domestic workers in Mexico and Latin America – the hidden heroines of many upper-middle class and upper class families in this part of the world.
The film is a reflection of Cuarón’s childhood memories of a family in crisis, Mexico in crisis and a brief glimpse into the life of his Mixtec-speaking nanny and family maid, who in the film is named “Cleo”. I have met many Cleos in my four years living in Mexico and my two decades living in and travelling throughout Latin America.
My stepmother is Colombian and at the age of 14, along with her and my father, I began to visit her country where her family employed domestic workers.
I must say I was always uneasy with the household employee and matron relationship, particularly as a privileged young white girl acutely aware and uncomfortable with the way I wielded such privilege so easily – both back home in Colorado, where I sometimes received preferred treatment over black and Latina girls in school, and especially in Colombia, where brown girls my age cleaned up after me in my stepmother’s sister’s house, in Bogota.
Thinking about how uncomfortable I had been as an adolescent in Colombia, when I was first introduced to this household worker/employer dynamic, I walked out of the film wondering what the Mexican audience thought about Cleo.
Cuarón so delicately humanised this integral figure of the upper class Mexican household, a figure that I have seen dehumanised by her employers on more than one occasion. And, looking around the room as the people began to leave the cinema, I wondered whether the focus on Cleo would move the members of the audience to consider their own Cleos at home? Whether the film would provoke empathy, or at least consideration, for the lives and needs of domestic workers here?
What you see in Roma is, among other themes, a depiction of the caste system in Mexico – a system that dates back to the beginnings of Spanish rule in the early 16th century. The Spanish were prolific in their dedication to the development of a caste system that designated the racial makeup and social status of the people they ruled over: criollo, mestizo, castizo, mulato, saltapatras, lobo, gibaro, albarazado, cambujo, zambiaga, calpamulato, tente en el aire, no te entiendo, tornatras – all designations made for the purpose of the racial and social classification of persons in the so-called “new world”.
The system of oppression implemented during colonial rule eventually led to the Caste Wars of the Yucatan Peninsula (1847-1901), when the native Mayan people rose up against the white and mixed-race hacienda owners after years of horrific enslavement and oppression by the country’s elite. While not to the same extent, the basis of this system continues to exist in Mexico and other parts of Latin America to this day, in the sense that indigenous and Afro-Latino people are visibly marginalised.
Since moving to Mexico four years ago and starting my family here, I’ve seen lots of children being raised by such nannies and I’ve met grown adults who were also raised by the family maid. I’ve witnessed how the domestic workers have little rest, aren’t allowed to grieve or fall ill, and if they do, they might be called “lazy”.
I’ve heard the “muchacha” (cleaning lady) jokes made in English so the maid won’t understand what’s being said about her while she’s in the same room. I’ve seen how people will do anything to avoid paying a decent salary, because “there’s always someone who will do it for less”. It’s tragic and upsetting, but as many of my friends have told me when I’ve commented on what I just saw, “that’s just how it is here”.
Now, in the same way I don’t pretend to know about the complexities of filmmaking, I also don’t pretend to know how all domestic workers are treated in Mexico.
Where I live in the Yucatan Peninsula, however, I would say that the dynamic is particularly bad for nannies and maids. In Roma, Cleo is treated decently (as she should be), minus a few moments where the other protagonist in the film played by Marina de Tavira takes out her frustration and sadness on her.
In December, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that domestic workers will have the constitutional right to social security (IMSS), the same overwhelmed medical institution depicted in the film.
But even in spite of the Supreme Court ruling, because of Mexico’s existing caste system and uneven power dynamic, I can confidently say that nothing is ever going to be OK for the Cleos of Mexico, because they are indigenous, poor, and they are women.
Wealthy families won’t pay social security for their workers, and the workers won’t demand it for fear of losing their jobs – so the cycle will continue.
Nevertheless, with this film Cuarón has not only made another masterpiece, but he has also raised awareness about the humanity of the women who run the households of Mexico with such dignified precision and kindness, in spite of the hardships they face.
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