In ‘Roma’ We Finally See the Role of the Maid as the Star That She’s Always Been

Growing up, I rarely, if ever, saw Latinas being portrayed authentically in Hollywood

Photo: Unsplash/@daniel_von_appen

Photo: Unsplash/@daniel_von_appen

Growing up, I rarely, if ever, saw Latinas being portrayed authentically in Hollywood. If I ever saw a Latina in a movie, or on TV, they were always background characters, like the waitress, the lunch lady, and of course, the maid. Latinas are always maids. Latinas are known to clean, and that’s it. While it’s an untrue and unfair stereotype, Latinas are nourishing this world — make no mistake about that. In Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie Roma, which he wrote and directed, the tale of the maid is finally being told in one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.

The award-winning director — known for such films as Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mamá También — got very personal in Roma by sharing with the world the heartbreaking and poignant story of Cleo, the maid — someone he knows very well. This woman isn’t the typical story of someone who cleans, cooks, and watches the children, but rather an autobiographical look at the woman who raised him.

“Cleo [is] based on my babysitter when I was young. We were a family together,” Cuaron told The Hollywood Reporter. “But when you grow with someone you love you don’t discuss their identity, so for this film I forced myself to see as this woman, a member of the lower classes, from the indigenous population…This gave me a point of view I had never had before.”

It is the point of view of the indigenous women that is so needed today.

At a screening of Roma during the 21st SCAD Savannah Film Festival audiences were treated to learn about Cleo, a young Mixtec servant, that works for a middle-class family. The black and white movie takes places in the Roma neighborhood in Mexico City in 1971, when there was heightened political unrest. Cuarón begins the film by showing the delicate intricacy of Cleo cleaning, mopping the floor, doing the dishes, preparing snacks, picking up dirty clothes off the floor, and on and on.

Her job begins before anyone wakes up and ends until everyone is tucked in bed. But Cleo isn’t just a maid. She’s a woman that is also searching for more, at least when she has time to spare. She’s involved with the family, and the kids, and the turbulent marriage of her bosses, whether she cares to be or not. She’s always around because she has to be, and its a job she takes very seriously. We also experience Cleo’s letdown through an abusive boyfriend, and an unexpected pregnancy. How can Cleo handle her own child on top of raising four other children? It’s an unspoken act that happens everyday.

The film is excellent at depicting classism and the socioeconomic disparities between middle and upper class, and the poor including Cleo’s indigenous community. Cleo, played brilliantly by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, speaks Spanish and Mixteco, an indigenous language of her people from Oaxaca. During a Q&A panel after the film’s screening, 24-year-old Aparicio talked about how she never thought about ever being an actress, or had ever heard of Cuarón, but went to a casting call out of mere curiosity.  Aparicio attended the casting call simply because her sister wanted to go but couldn’t because she was pregnant.

“I’m just going to go,” Aparicio said in Spanish. She said the likelihood of another casting happening in her town of Heroica Ciudad de Tlaxiaco de Oaxaca would probably never happen again, so she wanted to tell her sister what a casting was all about. She was 22 at the time and working as a teacher. Cuarón offered her the role and her life has not been the same since. She’s attended red carpet events all over the world, and it’s not even award season yet. The film has, however, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. She says the experience has been amazing.

“I thought I was just going to be in a movie, but this is huge,” she said.

In an interview with Gold Derby,” Cuarón spoke about what it was like when he first met Aparicio because the process of finding the lead role of Cleo took more than a year.

“When Yalitza walked into the room, it was a mix of relief and fear,” Cuarón said, according to Gold Derby. “Relief, because we found the right person. But fear – what if she said no? The movie wouldn’t work. Her family were afraid that the casting call was human trafficking. They said that ‘casting is not normal. The scary thing about that statement is that casting is not normal in Mexico but human trafficking is. That is the reality of Mexico.”

At the screening in Savannah, Aparicio also discussed a bit about the process of being a first-time actress and working alongside Cuarón.

“I just lived it,” Aparicio said of becoming Cleo. She also said she met the real-life Cleo and talked to her about her job and what it was like back then. But the interesting part is that the film seemed to be happening in real-time and with other non-actors.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Aparicio said of certain scenes because Cuarón wouldn’t inform her ahead of time. It was his way of getting the most authentic reactions to a few hard-hitting scenes.

Above all, Aparicio said she is mostly joyful that audiences, who have never known people like her, many of which take her and her work for granted, will finally experience it for the first time.

“It gives me such joy and pride for people to learn about Mexico and my culture,” she said.

I couldn’t agree more. Now, if only Hollywood could tell more stories like this.

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