Roma de Alfonso Cuaron

Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director at Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony for Roma, helping to cement his black-and-white family drama as the film to beat going into the Oscars. Photo by Netflix

Lately it seems that everyone is talking about Mexican movie director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Some people love it, others find it overrated or even boring: bottom line, no one has remained indifferent to its existence. With Cuarón receiving his second Golden Globe last Sunday and the very real chance he has of forging his way ahead to another Oscar, this movie has positioned itself as a favourite topic of conversation among cinephiles and critics alike. For Mexicans, however, especially those of us born in the 70s, this movie offers a different, more profound focus.

Roma, more than anything, is an intimate portrait of Mexico’s lower, middle and upper-middle classes, and the women that hold Mexican society together. Since colonial times, Mexican upper-class women, with the help and support of indigenous female servants, have been the ones taking care of and nurturing new generations, often perpetuating gender role models that make it almost impossible to eradicate the rampant macho culture which permeates every social layer. Men are absent working (because their duty is to provide for their family), or they are absent altogether (usually because they abandon their girlfriend/ wife/ family never to be seen again, as is the case in the movie and as it happened to Cuarón himself, who was raised by his mother and Libo, his nanny/maid). Instead of labeling this behaviour as unacceptable, for centuries it has been considered “normal,” or “what men do, the bastards,” and life goes on as best it can.

For instance, my mother’s best friend as I was growing up was abandoned by her husband without any warning. She was forced to take on a full-time job to provide for herself and her daughter, who was also my close friend. Had it not been for Adelina, her nanny/maid, she wouldn’t have had anyone to come home to after school (in Mexico there are no after-school child-care centres so, when children are dismissed at 2pm, someone needs to pick them up or take them in). One of my childhood’s most memorable scandals was when a classmate’s mom found out she was actually her husband’s second wife, but since he had never divorced his real wife, her own marriage was illegal and she had no chance at fighting him in court for alimony or any sort of child-support. She dumped him and, because she was now on her own, my classmate had to change schools: there was no money anymore to cover the tuition.

But I know that as this girl’s mother worked full time, it was their maid who took care of the children. This was almost everyone’s story, and my own, too. When my parents divorced it was the driver and the maid who took care of my brother and me, making sure we went to school on time, took a shower in the evening, and went to bed on time. I had a nanny growing up, and she came along to all our family trips so my parents could work and rest without having to mind us too much. For a short period I had a very strict governess (she was no Mary-Poppins) governess, and then it was back to being left with the maid while parents worked.

The stereotype implies that Mexican men have the strength. In reality, however, Mexico exists and is held together thanks to its very strong and healthy matriarchy.

The stereotype implies that Mexican men have the strength. In reality, however, Mexico exists and is held together thanks to its very strong and healthy matriarchy. As the movie shows, when left alone to fend for themselves and their children, women gather strength from one another, and the relationship between patrona (lady boss) and muchacha (a word which means young woman, and is the common euphemism used for a maid), in many instances does also become more solid out of necessity. It is almost a symbiotic process: the patrona needs the maid in order to be able to go to work and care for her children, and the muchacha needs the job in order to provide for her family back home. Even though social hierarchies remain intact, an emotional bond is established because there is a shared intimacy that verges on complicity. What Mexico’s upper and middle-classes have in common with the lower class is the fact that all mothers have someone else take care of their children. Had Cleo’s baby lived, the child would likely have been sent back home to Cleo’s village to be raised by her grandmother or aunt, or by some lady poorer than Cleo, while she continued working for her patrona.

Roma de Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuaron gives instructions to Yalitza Aparicio, the main character of ‘Roma’. Picture: Netflix

To be honest, Roma does feature an idealized portrait of Mexican society. Many domestic employees are verbally and physically abused or mistreated, unjustifiably fired, not given health insurance or a pension (in that sense, they are among the most vulnerable workers). In short, not all families are as loving and caring as Cuarón’s. Mexico is ruled by a pigmentocracy, which means those with fair skin fare better than those with dark skin, and indigenous people have been (and continue to be) profoundly discriminated against.

In spite of this, emotional bonds can be—and often are—established between domestic helpers and the people whom they work for, and the loyalty and true affection that evolve after years of living under the same roof are unique. In this sense Roma tells nothing but the truth. In my personal case, my beloved Lupe, who has worked at my family home since before my parents divorced, went on to work for my dad for two decades and then took splendid care of my mother until she passed away two years ago. To this day, Lupe still lives at my mother’s house, even though no one else is there anymore. She has a family who would like for her to move back in with them (Lupe’s sons were raised by her mother, and it was her salary that allowed her to provide for them and make sure they received a good education), but she likes to take care of my brother (who is still single and pretty much like another child for her) on the weekends when he visits her. If that is not true love, I don’t know what is.

To be honest, Roma does feature an idealized portrait of Mexican society. Many domestic employees are verbally and physically abused or mistreated, unjustifiably fired, not given health insurance or a pension.

On another level, Roma is a fabulous accomplishment at a time that has been particularly adverse against Mexico and its citizens. The Trump era has us labeled as rapists, criminals, and good-for-nothing moochers. Having Cuarón win a second Golden Globe (and hopefully, soon, another Oscar as well) sends a strong message about true Mexican talent and abilities. Just as Cuarón has had to go to Hollywood to make the kind of movies he dreamed of but could not do in Mexico, Mexican (and Latin American) migrants, such as the ones Trump has gassed at the border, are going to the US trying to fulfill their dreams. Yalitza Aparicio’s beauty, talent, and success are a slap in the face of every racist at a time when it’s paramount to show how useless, how stupid racism is. As the US government implodes over the erection of a wall, Cuarón tears walls down and allows the entire world to glimpse Mexico’s heart and reality. In spite of having a deeply corrupt and often murderous government, in spite of the many irresponsible men who abandon their families, in spite of all dangers and problems, Mexican women, rich and poor, white and indigenous, rise to the challenges and propel their families—and, by extension—the country forward.

Mexicans are right to be proud of Cuarón and his achievements, but we also need to learn from him: he has acknowledged that it was thanks to the unconditional love he received from the women in his life that he became who he is. So I celebrate Cuarón’s Roma not only because it speaks of my childhood (the movie theatres we went to, the radio stations we all listened to, the food we ate, the clothes we wore, the sounds of our streets, and all the other little details that took my heart down memory lane), or because it is a visually stunning movie, but because it speaks of the women who made him—and me, and millions of others—the people we are now. I’m thankful to Cuarón for setting a wonderful example of gratitude. I’m thankful to him for showing the world what Mexicans are capable of doing, and also the tremendous love that has nurtured us as a nation. Mothers, grandmothers, nannies, maids, all the women who raise(d), comfort(ed), and protect(ed) us need to come out of the shadows and be given a very well-deserved, and long overdue, round of applause.