Yalitza Aparicio has the wide-eyed wonder of a young woman who knows something incredible is happening to her. She’s surprised and amused all at once, and when she explains how she came to star in Roma, celebrated Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron‘s much-lauded black and white drama, it all makes sense.
“I wasn’t really sure of who he was. Of course, I looked him up and saw that he was sort of a big deal, he’d won the Oscar so I figured he was pretty important,” she says with a sly smile. The truth of the matter was that for her and her community in Oaxaca, the Oscar winner didn’t make much of a difference in their day-to-day lives, so he wasn’t someone they gave much thought to.
As a matter of fact, it took the poor casting director quite a long time to convince Aparicio’s family to let her go shoot the film after the director had settled on her. It wasn’t until it was suggested that Aparicio take her mother along for the initial trip that her family finally relaxed and agreed to let her appear in the film.
“My father is so embarrassed now. He refuses to see the casting director again because he gave her such a hard time. She showed us her passport, her bank accounts, so many official government documents…” Aparicio recalled.
It’s no surprise how reluctant her family was to let their daughter go with outsiders. Over the last decade, the rates of femicide and sex trafficking of women have skyrocketed alongside the violence related to the drug cartels and Oaxaca has been no exception. According to the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women, the state of Oaxaca has a pending request for a gender violence alert.
Aparicio still wasn’t 100% convinced that she had actually won a role in an Alfonso Cuaron film and shared a hilarious story about when she and her mom first met him. She had looked him up and seen that he looked short and kind of chubby in photos, so when a tall, thin man walked into the room, she turned to her mom and said, “Thank god you came with me because they for sure were trying to trick us.” Lucky for her, it was indeed the award-winning director and when they finally got to talk there was an instant connection. Aparicio points out how Cuaron went out of his way to thank her mother for accompanying her and for allowing her to work in the film and how grateful she was for the way he treated her.
It immediately made her feel more at ease. “When we first met, he asked me what I had been up to lately like we were old friends,” she says. “When we did our first screen test, he told me to let him know if I felt like anything was off, to let him know and if I ever felt like I wasn’t comfortable to let him know.”
Cuaron’s challenges in casting the film have been well documented and he felt a deep sense of responsibility in picking the right person to play the character of Cleo because it was based in a very real way on his nanny Libo, who he has repeatedly called his “second mother.” In fact, Aparicio met Libo before they started filming and said it helped her to understand the character of Cleo.
Aparicio admits that she didn’t really have any idea that the film was going to change her life. In fact, when she heard that it was going to be shot in black and white, she thought, “Oh well, no one is going to watch it then!” The first notion she got that something special had happened was when the producers told her that she was going to travel to Italy for the Venice Film Festival. After she got her a passport and went on that first trip she realized that the film was getting a very positive reception. Still, on the day the Oscar nominations were announced she was completely shocked. Though she has been grateful and shocked by all of the attention she’s received, she was more preoccupied with her costar Marina de Tavira getting a nod for Best Supporting Actress than she was with her own nomination.
She was actually walking away from the TV when she heard her name, and her first reaction was just to start sobbing.
Over the last few months she’s become an icon for the indigenous women and is acutely aware of the importance of representation:
“When I was growing up I never saw anyone who looked like me on TV or in movies and thought it was a waste of time to watch. Now kids who felt the same way I did can see someone on the big screen who looks like me and hopefully they feel like they can realize any of their goals. It’s a new model they can follow and it opens up options that they may not have even considered before. For me, that is such an achievement. “
As the first indigenous woman ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and only the second Mexican woman nominated (Salma Hayek received the first nomination for Frida in 2002) Aparicio realizes the new responsibility she now has. Not only has she buttoned up her social media presence and learned to choose her words carefully, but she also wants to encourage others to challenge themselves and do things they may have never thought were possible before.
“I hope more people go after their dreams and know that they can reach them no matter how you look or your socioeconomic status — not only actors but singers, dancers…” Aparicio concludes. “This is a much bigger challenge than just one person, but in the end, the results will be worth it.”