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‘Roma’ Is a Gorgeous Homage to Domestic Oppression
Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece may be Oscar worthy, but it fails to address the problems of Latin American households.
When I was a child in Lima, Peru, perhaps 3 or 4 years old, the family dog, a small orange roan cocker spaniel named Puchi, died. I remember coming back from the nursery holding the hand of Feli, my babysitter, to discover that the dog was nowhere to be found.
My mother was tasked with telling me about Puchi. The three of us sat down at the kitchen table. “Puchi’s mom came and picked him up. Now both of them are living in the country, with Puchi’s siblings,” she said. I was terribly sad—the little dog meant the world to me. But my mother’s story and logic were convincing: “Doesn’t Puchi deserve to live with his family?” I cried a lot, but I was consoled by images painted by my mother of Puchi running and playing next to his brothers and sisters. I once asked why we couldn’t visit Puchi and his family, but soon Puchi was forgotten.
Months later, Feli was also gone. I don’t remember the exact day she left, just a weak memory of saying goodbye and crying a lot. I do remember that whenever I asked why Feli had to leave, my mother said Feli’s mother and siblings, all still living in her small Andean town, needed her. Like Puchi, I remember I thought. Like Puchi, Feli had no last name or, at least, none that I ever knew. I recently asked my mother; she couldn’t remember either. But I do remember Feli told me I could go visit her whenever I wanted. My mother promised we would. That never happened.
Like many middle-class Latin Americans, I grew up in a house where a young girl from a town outside the capital took care of the kids and cooked and cleaned every day. Empleadas, or muchachas—the terms normally used to refer to them—regularly work incredibly long hours and don’t have written contracts, pension plans, or health insurance. Many start working as minors as live-in, or cama adentro, maids. Their salaries are absurdly low—78 percent of Peruvian housekeepers earn less than the minimum wage—and they are often victims of domestic violence and abuse. A 2007 survey by the Peruvian Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations revealed that 54 percent of empleadas said they had suffered psychological abuse and 11 percent had suffered physical abuse at the hands of their employers. Yet when Latin Americans are confronted about this slavelike situation, still common in 2019, most excuse themselves with some shallow or self-satisfying phrase like “but she’s part of the family” or “she wouldn’t have a job back in her town.”
These working conditions are fairly similar all across the region. I’ve witnessed the same issue come up again and again in Latin America: the unmet needs of an indentured class, perpetually confined to menial jobs, with few rights.
That’s why Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeous period movie about his childhood, is such a contentious cultural artifact for Latin American audiences. The film—in which the Mexican director pays homage to Libo (Cleo in the film), the nanny or muchacha who took care of him and his siblings when he was growing up—may win an Oscar this weekend, but the controversy should not be silenced by awards; victory should not be grounds for complacency, either.
The day after Cuarón’s movie premiered on Netflix, a Twitter user named @iluhesan posted a tweet in Spanish saying: “You’re not going to understand Roma if you were born outside Mexico City.” The tweet quickly spread, gathering thousands of retweets and likes and mutating as it grew. Mexican newspapers quoted it, reproducing some of the thousands of wry replies, some crude, some lightly funny. “You won’t understand Black Panther if you were born outside Wakanda,” one of the most popular reads. But, jokes aside, there is something different about watching Roma as a Mexican or a Latin American spectator. There’s something deeply unsettling in it, which makes it impossible for a viewer—for me, at least—to immerse oneself in the beautiful black-and-white images and the prodigious tracking shots that follow Cleo running on the streets. The story of Cuarón’s nanny remains trapped in the filmmaker’s halcyonic memory of his muchacha, a child’s gaze, as though the adult Cuarón has learned nothing of her context or gained nothing of his own understanding of how her vulnerability was the price paid for his security.
The Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo summed it up well in a public Facebook post: “The uneasiness, then, makes me ask why Roma is so focused on the tenderness and affection used to tell its very despairing story. It’s like the story itself is telling us: Life is tough but poetic. Why isn’t there a more critical position, in other words realist, of the employer family (i.e., the Cuaróns), whose kindness reduced itself to not firing the empleada when she got pregnant and buying a crib for the baby? … It’s probably because Cuarón (and me and many others) come from a socio-economic setting that feels comfortable with that patronizing behavior.”
Of course, as García Robayo also mentions in her post, this is not the first time Latin American cinema has turned its gaze on the subject of the housekeeper, nanny, or muchacha. There are several in this genre—the most recent and successful before Roma was 2009’s La Nana (“The Maid”), directed by the Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva—all of which look at the muchacha in a middle- or upper-middle-class household. In García Robayo’s words: “Housekeepers/nannies … have to confront terrible situations in front of us … with us actually not caring about them. These women are perennial extensions of the family, they’re silent, and in the stories they’re dumb but good or, at least, innocent.”
Roma, if one looks closely, does nothing to address that trope. It just dresses it in finer clothes, ones perhaps appropriate for the Oscars ceremony, where the film will almost certainly win several of the 10 categories in which it is nominated, including best picture, best director, best actress, best supporting actress, and best original screenplay.
I had to watch Roma three times to finally grasp how such a beautiful movie, which aesthetically reminds me of some of my favorite Ingmar Bergman’s films, whose characters are treated with so much love and care, where almost every single scene is perfectly choreographed, could be at the same time so tone-deaf and self-congratulatory. The key, I found, is in the black-and-white photography that elevates and separates the film from its socio-economic context. That distance allows us to forgive the director, and ourselves, for allowing this endless cycle of suppression to serve one class over another.
Roma, set in the early 1970s, is of course an exploration of Cuarón’s memories and, at the same time, the Mexican and Latin American past, which is underscored by its richly tonal cinematography. Cuarón painstakingly reproduced the period. The re-enactment of the Halconazo massacre, in which 120 students were killed in the heart of Mexico City in 1971, is easily one of the most well-executed sequences of violence ever filmed by a Latin American director. The obsessiveness with which Cuarón recreated his childhood house also has been exhaustively documented. So then, if this period movie was written almost entirely based on the director’s memories, why is this a problem? It is because we are not meant to critique—we have merely been invited to view. We’re asked to admire what we see on the screen, not to question it.
Take one of the most compelling scenes of the movie, made somehow beautiful, and not reprehensible, by the richness of the imagery. After the violent episode of the Halconazo, a pregnant Cleo’s water breaks, and she’s taken to the hospital. There, Teresa, the family’s grandmother, is asked for the patient’s—the muchacha’s—details.
“What’s her full name?” the nurse asks.
“Cleodegaria Gutiérrez,” answers Teresa, visibly shocked.
“Second last name?” (In Latin America, people use both their father’s and mother’s last names.)
“I don’t know.”
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you remember her birth date?”
“What’s your relationship with the patient?”
“I’m her employer.”
“One last question: Do you know if she is insured?”
The camera here jumps to Cleo and the doctors who are taking her to the birthing room. We neither see nor hear Teresa answering the nurse’s last question, but we know what the answer is.
The problem is, unlike Cuarón’s memories, the world he is describing, the world that Roma’s protagonist inhabits, is not a beautiful period piece painted in black and white. The world Cuarón is describing, where a young woman lives in her employer’s house and never sees her own family, where she has to work until very late even in the days after losing her own baby, where she doesn’t have a written contract, let alone health insurance, doesn’t belong to Mexico’s or Latin America’s past at all. It is the day-to-day reality of muchachas all across the region, and, in a deeply unsettling way, Cuarón’s elegant black-and-white cinematography does a great job of obscuring it.