There’s been a lot of buzz around the 2018 film Roma, and for good reason. Alfonso Cuarón’s homage to the housekeeper who tended to his own childhood home is a story rarely told. It speaks to the experience not only of someone who is often overlooked (a domestic worker), but keeps the focus mostly off the well-to-do family who employs her. Moreover, it stars an indigenous woman from Mexico, the awe-inspiring Yalitza Aparicio. Indigenous actresses are rarely found in films, much less in starring roles. Aparicio’s debut performance has even garnered her an Oscar nomination — a first for an Indigenous actress from the Americas (Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes was actually the first indigenous actress to ever be nominated for an Oscar).
I could go on and on about the complex beauty of this film. The way Cuarón maintains these gorgeous, attention-grabbing, long panning shots; the obvious contrasts between classes (with the character of Cleo nearly always winding up at the bottom of the system); the frequent silence interspersed with ambient sound — it all adds up to an excellent cinematic creation. As a Latina partly of Mexican descent myself, I’m always happy to hear about a film by a Latinx director about other Latinxs getting the attention it deserves. And while I feel Roma is an excellent example of just how important it is to highlight indigenous actors and indigenous stories, it really should only be the beginning.
According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, there are currently over 16 million indigenous persons in Mexico, accounting for roughly 15% of the population. That’s even more than our own Native and Indigenous population here in the U.S. (which ranged from 2.9 million and up to 5.2 million — or 1.7% of the population —for those of mixed background). To demonstrate just how significant Mexico’s indigenous community is in terms of size, the U.S. currently has a population of just 13% black or African American individuals, with a Hispanic population of 18%. Anyone could argue that our Black and Hispanic populations are significant, and while we still don’t boast the same number of directors, actors, or films that revolve around our experience, we still have way more than exist of the Indigenous experience. Simply put, it is appalling that Iindigenous stories and indigenous people continue to be ignored when they still make up such a large part of the population, in Mexico or elsewhere.
If it weren’t for Aparicio’s character Cleo, Roma would simply not exist. But the thing about this film is that it was created by Alfonso Cuarón, a self-professed white Mexican who grew up in privilege. His film is based on memories he has of growing up with a domestic worker which Cleo’s character is modeled after. And so, while the camera mainly points at Cleo and speaks to Cleo’s experience, we very seldom actually get to hear Cleo, and even more rare are any scenes in which Cleo speaks honestly and openly about who she is, her own struggles, her hopes, her dreams
Aparicio does a superb job in showing the world what Cleo is feeling internally (please read no further if you’re avoiding spoilers!): the girlish joy in her moments shared with another housekeeper (her only equal), the look of disappointment when her boyfriend never comes back to the movie theater, the shock and fear when he later points a gun directly at her, the intense heartbreak when she’s forced to say goodbye to her baby. She has speaking roles throughout the film, sure. But her words are often related to her tasks (cleaning the home, caring for the children), or related to her pain (telling and then later confronting Fermin about her pregnancy).
It’s only at the very end of the film, when she’s out of the water and confesses, “No queria que naciera / I didn’t want her to be born,” that we get even a glimmer of understanding about her feelings regarding her pregnancy. It’s nearly the only time we really get to know much about what’s going on behind her eyes.
Cleo as a character is wonderful, but if we’re going to make progress in this world, we need another Cleo, and another, and yet another. And in future films, we need those Cleos to have a more active role in their lives. Yes, many Indigenous people have experienced greater injustices than most other groups in the world. They (along with Black populations) have experienced slavery, have had their babies taken from them, have been raped and beaten and killed, used and abused by colonizers, by White folks throughout history. But must they always suffer in film as well? Representation is important, but the way we go about doing this is also important.
Perhaps in the future, we can cast an Indigenous person starring in sci-fi films, dramas, or even rom-coms. Let’s support indigenous communities so that young people watching films like Roma today can learn how to write and direct films, grant them scholarships, mentor them, and have them tell their own stories. Instead of having the privileged White boy write a movie about his maid, the maid herself can get a film crew together and she can actually tell her own story. Can you imagine how different Roma might be if the woman who inspired Cleo would have had the chance to write it all herself? Would she have been kept silent most of the time? Or would she have finally vented about the family that cared for her (but not fully like family)? Would she have been able to give her own account of what it’s like to lose a child, instead of hearing all the doctors and nurses over her own experience? Giving marginalized populations the chance to write, direct, and star in their own stories is powerful and long overdue.
Hollywood has a tendency to get really passionate about a film that changes the usual narrative (by featuring, say, an Indigenous woman at the forefront), but later regress or completely forget about the actors or their people and their stories (see: Slumdog Millionaire). My hope is that people realize that Indigenous actors and Indigenous characters can be just as talented, just as compelling, just as important as White characters and White actors, and recognize they are deserving of our attention, of our screens, even of our damn movie ticket money.
If you saw Roma, I’m glad that you did. If you support actresses like Yalitza Aparicio, wonderful. But more than anything, make sure that Hollywood knows you want more than just one film with an Indigenous character per decade, that you’re willing to sit and listen to their stories, that you want them to be more than side character or plot devices. Until we have more diverse representation, we will continue to struggle to find our stories. And honestly, I really want to see Yalitza and others like her again on my screen more than anything.