Yalitza Aparicio as "Cleo" in Alfonso Cuarón film, "Roma"
In “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá indígena también”
Two guest reviews of the Alfonso Cuarón film, “Roma”
First Review, by Álvaro Ramirez
There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón's film “Y tu mamá También” where the protagonists, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa are traveling through the Mexican countryside, oblivious to the campesino world passing outside their car window. Suddenly, the narrating voice interrupts the endless flirtations between the characters, as Tenoch looks at the town where his indigenous nanny comes from. Her name is Leo, and he called her “mother” until the age of four. In his mesmerizing new film, “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá también” to pick up the story of these others, the indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema. (Warning: MANY spoilers for “Roma” ahead!) Cuarón sets his story in 1970-1971 in the neighborhood of Mexico City called La Roma, and paints in black and white the parallel, everyday lives of a middle-class family and their indigenous servants. What is refreshing is that the director presents the story from the point of view of one of the maids, Cleo. As we follow her daily routine behind the scenes of family life, Cuarón takes us into the bilingual spaces where these invisible people forge the urban sustenance enjoyed by their white employers. Through great acting, directing, and camera work, Cuarón intricately weaves the lives of domestic workers with that of the family they serve, showing the class differences between them. At the same time, we note that they have much in common, especially Cleo and Sofía, the lady of the house: both women's lives begin to unravel after the men they love abandon them. Sofía is left with a family of unruly children and little money, and Cleo with an unwanted pregnancy. At first, a social distance that causes friction between them separates mistress and servant, but their trials and tribulations as abandoned women soon begin to bring them together. The personal struggles of the two women are subtly and symbolically set against scenes of the political and social upheaval that Mexico is also going through. “Siempre estamos solas” (we women are always on our own), says Sofía to Cleo in a pivotal scene, which emphasizes that sense of disruption, vulnerability, and violence present for all women in Mexico regardless of class or ethnicity, as depicted in this film. Cleo's situation, however, is further compounded by her indigenous background and uprooted existence; far from her village in the countryside, she is at the mercy of men and of her mistress as well. Forced by the circumstances, Cleo must choose whether to return to her native town, also beset by political turmoil, or confront her new urban reality and try to convince the father of her unborn child to marry her, but soon finds his more sinister side, which leads to a horrible experience and leaves her traumatized. Sofía and the children convince Cleo to make a trip with them to the beach in Veracruz, where she will have to confront once more a hard decision which will either redeem her or end disastrously. “Roma” goes beyond “Y tu mamá También” and is also far ahead of all the falsified female representations in telenovelas. It is a beautiful film that gives us a view of the social texture of a country in which the indigenous female strands are embedded and recognized for the important role they play in everyday life of the city. They are represented fully with an inner and outer existence, at work and at play, and with a complex intimate life. However, the success of “Roma” ultimately rests on Cuarón’s skillful film narrative, in which he shows that, despite class, social, or ethnic differences, indigenous and white Mexican women suffer similar fates at the hands of men; and that the survival of the family is not only dependent on the resilience and strength of females, but on their understanding of the human bonds that unify them.
Álvaro Ramírez, a native of Michoacán of Purépecha ancestry, has taught Spanish Golden Age and 20th Century Latin American Literature in the Department of Modern Languages at Saint Mary’s College of California, since 1993. At present he is also director of the Ethnic Studies Program. A scholar on the writings of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, essayist on Mexican culture and film and Chicano studies, he recently published a collection of short stories titled, Los Norteados (Ediciones Alfeízar, 2016) a couple of them first published in Somos en escrito.
Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of "Roma" Photo by Carlos Somonte
Cuarón’s “Roma,” a world of astounding diversity of indigenous stories
Second review, by David Martínez
Insofar as “Roma” is inspired by someone, Libo Rodriguez, who meant a great deal to the director, Alfonso Cuarón—she was the maid who raised him during his childhood in Mexico City—it is not surprising that the story of “Cleodegaria Gutiérrez,” who is affectionately called “Cleo,” and is played by the incredible Yalitza Aparicio, feels more like an act of veneration than merely a movie. Cuarón obviously wanted to honor the life of this woman in a way that did justice to both her character and her struggle by remembering cinematically her humanity in a world that largely overlooked people like herself.
As a Nahua-speaking indigenous person, Cleo is a part of the underclass of “Indios,” the poor, the peasants, whose ancient civilization has been appropriated into the national image of Mexico—such as the eagle and snake emblem of the Mexican flag—yet, whose modern descendants are accorded little more than second class citizenship.
Cleo, who has migrated from her unnamed village, where her people’s land is being seized by the Mexican federal government, works for a doctor and his family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. The doctor’s family is not only wealthy but also “criollo,” meaning of European descent. In spite of the significant class differences, Cleo is regarded as a part of the family. Even compared to “Adela,” played by Nancy Garcia, who is the other maid in this household, Cleo has a more affectionate relationship with her employers, especially their four children. Having said that, there is no doubt that Cleo, and Adela, not to mention others in the family’s employ, are treated as servants. The mother, for example, “Sofia,” played by Marina de Tavira, does not hesitate to be direct, oftentimes terse, in her directions to her staff. More to the point, Cleo’s interaction with the doctor’s family affirms the normality of the class relations between the petit bourgeoise criollos and their indio servants.
As for the story that Cuarón tells about Cleo, ultimately it is a narrative of hardship and endurance, especially in the lives of women in Mexico. Occurring during the late 1960s—the 1968 Olympics is mentioned—Cleo’s personal ordeals, including a tragedy, are rendered against a backdrop of political upheaval in Mexican history.
Not many remember outside of Mexico the massacre that took place on October 2, 1968, when government troops surrounded a mass student protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco neighborhood, in which dozens were gunned down indiscriminately. The massacre is referenced to in frightening detail during a scene in which Cleo is shopping for a baby crib. She is pregnant, alone, and afraid.
Indeed, it is while the shooting occurs and some students run into the furniture store for safety that Cleo sees “Fermín,” played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, her former boyfriend, who simply glares at her, gun in hand, before disappearing back into the chaos of the streets below. As I watched this scene unfold, I thought about what I had read about this terrible event. More specifically, I thought about Elena Poniatowska’s monumental 1971 book La noche de Tlatelolco, which was translated into Massacre in Mexico by Helen R. Lane (1975).
More to the point, I thought about the hundreds of testimonies that Poniatowska recorded in the pages of her book. Yet, there was neither any mention of the rights of indigenous people, their land disputes with the Mexican federal government, or, for that matter, of women’s rights. The student movement was mostly a middle-class movement, people who would become like the family that Cleo worked for, and who were fed up with their authoritarian government, led by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. In light of which, I realized sadly that there was no one protesting on behalf of people like Cleo, be they indios or women. She had to persevere on her own.
At this point, it is important to observe that in spite of the layers of discrimination that Cleo encounters on a day-to-day basis, Cuarón is consistently respectful of her struggle. Despite her flaws, such as not returning home upon hearing that her mother’s land has been seized or choosing a boyish fool like Fermín for her lover, Cuarón is never judgmental or condescending toward Cleo or the community she represents.
If anything, “Roma” reveals that hardship in Mexican society is not limited to the poor, but goes all the way up the social ladder, including Sofia, whose story of misery parallels Cleo’s. On this level, the relationship between Cleo and Sofia, if Cuarón condemns anything explicitly in his film it is the way that Mexican society, especially its machismo culture, berates women.
Consequently, when “Roma” explores the coinciding lives of Cleo and Sofia, the film becomes a compliment to “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), in which another woman’s tragic life unfurls in subtle yet dramatic tones, complete with a life-changing journey to the ocean. With this in mind, I am reluctant to join the chorus of critics who have faulted “Roma” for not being more aware of Cleo’s indigenous culture, either in terms of the villages that Mexico’s indigenous peoples inhabit or the urban subculture they maintain allover North America (including the immigrant community that certain US politicians love to demonize).
I am also reticent about criticizing Cuarón for not being more ideological or didactic about the colonization, racism, and globalization that created Cleo’s world in the first place. On the contrary, Cleo’s story is all the more profound for the way it shows how historical and inter-generational trauma, not to mention political and economic exploitation, come to dominate the lives of their victims without any banners, slogans, or lectures attached. One often has to go through much before one accesses the perspective that enables one to understand what has really happened and why.
As I watched Cleo’s epic tale unfold with each black and white scene, I thought about the many women in my life—I grew up poor and with very few advantages—whose generous yet vibrant spirits shaped me into what I am today, and how my memories of them have been nurtured by age and experience. Cuarón and I are of the same generation, and like him many of my memories were captured in countless black and white photos, which influenced the way that I remember people and events.
At the same time, this is not to say that the people I remember from long ago are without life and vitality. Aesthetically, Roma’s cinematography evokes the photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide. As such, Cuarón’s black and white images illustrate the mythology, the oral tradition, the Creation Story of the world that Cleo inhabits. For me, that is what “Roma” accomplishes when it recreates the world-building power of word and image.
In this sense, Cleo is a culture hero, like the icons portrayed in retablos, which express an adulation for the lives of saints. However, Cleo—Is she Catholic? Probably. Who knows?—does not affirm the teachings of the Church, but rather of the generations of migrants who have endured the travails of an indigenous world that has survived the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Revolution, NAFTA, and now the threat of Donald Trump.
In the end, if I have any criticism of “Roma” it is that it was a bitter reminder of how infrequently stories like Cleo’s have been told, be it in film or novel. Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes’s El indio (1935) comes to mind, as does Carlos Fuentes’s La región más transparente (1958). In terms of film, only Gregory Nava’s “El norte” (1983) arises for immediate comparison.
My paltry list, however, does not mean that this is all that there is about this type of story, namely the indigenous class struggle. It only indicates how irregularly such stories appear in film and literature. On the other hand, there is a significant number of movies and novels about the Mexican, sometimes Central American, immigrant experience, not necessarily indigenous, such as Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982), Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Babel” (2006), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” (2009), and Jonás Cuaròn’s “Desierto” (2015).
With respect to literature, aside from the titles mentioned above, there is Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold (1991), and Ron Arias’s The Wetback and Other Stories (2016), to name but a few. In the case of the indigenous experience, more than a subgenre of film and literature, the lives and stories of the peoples and nations of the Western Hemisphere constitute an expansive chronicle of communities whose roots go millennia beyond the arrival of the European settlers during the late 15th century.
As such, there is a connection to land, language, and kinship that informs the modern effects of globalization and transborder migration. Cleo’s story, if anything, is a story of how even when the Mexica homeland appears to be buried underneath layers and layers of colonial history and society, the indigenous claim to this place interjects itself into the contemporary lives of the people around them, reminding them of who really owns the land and how their days in this place may be numbered after all.
While there are undoubtedly many ways of telling Cleo’s story, including from the point of view of an indigenous writer and director—which we will hopefully see sometime soon—Cuarón’s “Roma”and Aparicio’s “Cleo” nevertheless transformed me. More specifically, as an indigenous person myself, I genuinely felt inspired to learn more about this world and the astounding diversity of indigenous stories and experiences that it holds.
David Martínez (Akimel O’odham/Mexican) is an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus. He is the author of Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009); editor of The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972 (Cornell University Press, 2011) and author of the forthcoming Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr and the Birth of the Red Power Movement (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).