I know what it’s like to grow up indigenous in a country and culture that does not embrace my features or skin-color. Coming of age in Michoacán and California, I was called names like ‘indita,’ ‘charilla’ and ‘oaxaquita’ – diminutive slurs meant to infantilize and demean indigenous people. As an anthropologist conducting fieldwork in Mexico, I have been escorted off hotel steps and denied bathroom access in restaurants I was patronizing due to my phenotype, skin-color and choice to wear indigenous clothing.
My experience is not atypical and my migrant experience and class privilege allows me to move in and out of mestizaje in a way that those who reside in indigenous communities cannot. Mexican anthropologists and historians have written about Mexico’s long contradictory relationship with indigenous people: the tendency to revere dead Indians as contributors to the magnificence of ‘the cosmic race’ while completely ignoring the humanity of today’s indigenous communities.
Considering indigenous people poor, dumb and ugly are a result of Mexico’s elevation of light-skinned mestizaje as the racial ideal and symptomatic of our homeland’s long love-affair with Europhilia. This is why, along with other indigenous Mexicans, I have been applauding Yalitza Aparicio’s visibility while remaining critical of how and whether her performance and visibility in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” empowers indigenous people.
When I learned of the film’s focus on an indigenous service worker, I expected to encounter the same narrative of indigeneity that production companies like Televisa have banked on since the 60s. As a girl-child consuming Mexican media in telenovelas in the 1980s, I thought of myself as ugly and came to hate my indigenous features. Indigenous women and Black women in telenovelas were uneducated, ignorant, poor service workers who would often be physically or verbally abused by the light-skinned mestiza/o leads. Roma gave us a more nuanced representation of indigeneity.
As an indigenous viewer, I experienced Roma as visually gripping. The breathtaking black and white cinematography, deliberate pacing of the mundane, and the focus on Yalitza’s face and body ruptured the viewers’ sense of temporality. Where could we place this striking Mixtec woman who demanded attention and power despite the narrative’s focus on her domestic tasks? With the camera deliberately following Cleo’s movements as she moved through her routine and the intentional pauses on Yalitza’s face, her forehead, her eyes, her mouth and nose, Cuarón succeeded in centering Cleo’s perspective in the film and in defying the Hollywood formula of objectifying or exotifying indigenous women.
Cleo’s routinized embodied labor guide the storyline. We not only “see” Cleo’s body take up space in every room of the house but we also see the conflicts that unfold for the mestiza/o family through Cleo’s perspective. Through Cleo’s eyes, we witness their vulnerabilities from the impending divorce and how much Sra. Sofia, in particular, relies on Cleo for the daily operation of the home. We also see Cleo’s compassion, particularly for the children, as they become more vulnerable and fragile in the situation. These filmic and narrative elements show that Cuarón stepped out of Hollywood and the Spanish-speaking media’s formula when portraying an indigenous maid. The film, however, is still full of upper middle-class mestizo nostalgia for a romanticized past tied to Cuarón’s childhood experiences with an indigenous service-worker. This is displayed in several denials of Cleo’s humanity that triggered my wounds as an indigenous viewer.
Despite the central portrayals of Cleo in the house, she is never fully humanized. We don’t learn much about her past, about her family, community or her ethnic group. In one instance, Adela asks Cleo if she knows that her mother has been evicted from her lands. This signals to a land struggle in Cleo’s Mixtec community. To this, Cleo responds that she is unable to help her Mom, which tells us of indigenous people’s powerlessness in land encroachment situations in Latin America well into the 1970s. This is the only specific mention, however, that signals who Cleo is as an autonomous indigenous person and how her family experiences indigeneity. The story-line, instead, moves by events that impact the mestizo family in Mexico City such as the student massacre in El Halconazo. While this choice fits the film’s setting in Mexico City, it leaves audiences wondering who Cleo and her people are as human beings. What are her own desires and dreams away from this family if she could have them?
Additionally, there are moments of deeply hurtful anti-indigenous misogynist violence that are left unaddressed both by the filmmaker and by Cleo’s character. When she is having problems with her husband, Sra. Sofia berates Cleo in a very infantilizing way, asking her, “How many times did I ask you to clean up the dog shit?!” The scene then cuts to Cleo cleaning up the dog shit. Here, Cleo is literally reduced to dog shit; she is berated by the mestiza matriarch and punished without being able to defend herself or receiving an apology.
A similar scene unfolds when Cleo visits Fermin, her meager mestizo boyfriend, to inform him about her pregnancy. Fermin responds by threatening to beat Cleo and her unborn baby to death. This is a particularly misogynist moment of anti-indigenous violence that is extremely triggering and left unattended to. While I understand Cuarón’s intentions to perhaps show the reality of mestizo racism and the violence of Mexican patriarchy, I would have liked for Cleo to have been given some space in the film to process and grieve. The movie goes on after this without showing Cleo’s emotional engagement with Fermin’s abandonment and threat. Throughout the film, Cleo is portrayed as stoic and strong and able to move on quickly after sustaining emotional abuse and racism.
Indigenous people have feelings and we show them and we have embodied responses to threats, ridicule and loss. It’s appropriate to show our vulnerabilities in film alongside our strength; it makes us human.
Cleo’s humanity is also denied by the mestizo family. The family is portrayed as innocent, good sponsors but they actually commit violence that reaches beyond the verbal abuse of their service workers. When she drives Cleo to the hospital to give birth, Sra. Teresa reveals that she does not know anything about Cleo beyond her name. She doesn’t know Cleo’s date of birth or birthplace and bursts out, “No, no, I don’t know anything!” It is apparent here that this family takes little interest in knowing who Cleo is beyond her servile role in their home.
Additionally, it is extremely difficult to watch Cleo deliver her stillborn baby completely alone. We do not hear or see Cleo grieve until the film’s closing during an emotional incident when she literally saves Sra. Sofia’s -the mestiza mother’s- children from drowning. She finally cries and utters how terrible and guilty she feels that she lost her own daughter. To this, Sra. Sofia responds, “We love you, Cleo. We love you very much.” Sra. Sofia’s sincere recognition of Cleo’s suffering provides comfort but does not allow the viewer to focus on Cleo’s emotions and healing from trauma.
Despite its limits, Roma has broken new ground in promoting indigenous beauty, visibility and representation. Cuarón was recently quoted as saying that Aparicio could play any role she wants, giving her credit for carrying Roma and the cast into the success the film has had. He was partly responding to the virulent racism that Mexican people and Mexican critics have launched at Aparacio in print, television and social media. People have said that there is nothing special about her beauty (that she looks like many other Mexican women) and that her visibility is a result of tokenizing an indigenous person in Mexico rather than something that should be attributed to her talent.
It is apparent that Yalitza Aparicio has had a powerful and beautiful presence before her stardom; a photo of her in her role as a pre-K teacher was released by Mexican media outlets last month. Donning a bright-colored long traditional dress alongside her young pupils, she commands attention and takes up the photo’s central space. It is apparent from her pre-Roma photos that this woman was born to stand out. For Mexicans to think otherwise is ridiculous and racist.
Yalitza Aparicio officially became the first indigenous woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar. Along with my Mexican indigenous female colleagues and friends, I have been savoring this moment of female indigenous visibility. Every image released of Aparicio on the red carpet or on the cover of a major magazine is a reminder that we are worthy and beautiful – both worth looking at and worthy of having our talents recognized. I am not completely cheeky on Roma but I will be rooting for Yalitza this Oscar season. I anxiously await to see her on the Oscars red-carpet and I hope she gets to play many different roles in the future.
Dr. Gabriela Spears-Rico is an interdisciplinary cultural anthropologist with roots in the Matlatzinca community of Charo, Michoacán. She is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies and Chicano Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org